The Diary of David Heathcote (14) 

10 December 2016

MORE: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [Part 12] [Part 13] [Part 14] [Part 15]

The invasion of the “busty Russian women”!

David Hopkins owns a chain of builders’ merchants in the Derbyshire area: he’s the epitome of a self-made man, who’s made a success of his operation through sheer hard work and ruthless business dealings.

hpradio-remixradiosPaul and Steve Jenner established that the man was a potential investor in High Peak and Ashbourne Radios, but it would be on his terms. David called a spade a spade, and did not hesitate to add Anglo-Saxon epithets. Gone would be the other local investors, gone also would be Chris Carnegy and Roger Price, the two directors from the radio industry who’d brought with them so much expertise. The board would consist solely of David as Chairman, and Steve and Paul as minority shareholders.

It was hard to tell how Chris and Roger took the news: the choice was stark – either they stayed and the business went under, or they left and the stations survived without them. One day, they just weren’t there. It was the end of an era.

Meanwhile, things had been happening to the High Peak Radio website that were distinctly odd. I was the content editor, and code started appearing on pages where I certainly hadn’t added it. I came to the conclusion we were being hacked, perhaps by some inscrutable Chinese web-bot, though just why I couldn’t fathom. We certainly weren’t a valuable asset to any hacker. The messages that started to appear contained no threat, or demand for money. I was mystified.

Actually, it wasn’t the first time the High Peak Radio website had been hacked. Some years previously, I’d found an advert for photos of large-busted, Russian women on our front page. I was aghast, I deleted the advert, changed the access password, and reported the incident to Paul. There was no repeat of this hack. Clearly the hacker had – by a combination of good luck and hard work – cracked the password and then inserted this advert, I think as a “footprint” to prove he had done it. The experience taught me to make the password much more difficult to guess – and references to “busty Russian women” became a standing joke between Paul and me for months after, to the bewilderment of anyone else present!

ashbourneradiologoHowever, back to the present, the “Chinese web-bot” threat proved much more serious. Taking advice from David Hopkins’ in-house IT expert, known to all as ITDave (so many Daves and Davids!), I needed to contact the company on whose servers the website was located. Which company was that? Roger Price held the answer. And Roger had left the radio station, probably not in the best of moods. He was nowhere to be found, or at least never answered my emails or voicemail messages. Ever. Worse still, after research by ITDave tracked down the server company, quite reasonably they refused to talk to anyone except Roger, or someone else with the master password. I’d previously made the point to Paul and Steve that, if I finished up under a bus, someone else needed to know my low-level entry password. So I’d put a copy in a sealed envelope and handed it to them. If only Roger had been persuaded to do the same!

It got even “worser”! ITDave found the reason why the website started picking up odd code was that our Joomla! software had never been updated! We were FIFTEEN major security updates and fixes in arrears. It would have been nice if someone had told me. No wonder we were easy game. Oh, and we couldn’t update the software once we found we needed to, because… we didn’t have the master password!!

There was nothing for it: we would have to scrap the entire website and build it again from scratch, using different software and a different server. ITDave recommended Wix: it was an real eye-opener! Compared with Joomla!, using Wix was a piece of cake. ITDave set up the front page, and then I was able to take over and replicate the rest of the website. Starting each page with a fresh screen meant I could improve layout, colours and fonts as I went, yet keep a house style and consistency where needed. From the outset, I’d made it clear I was no design expert, but given a design plan to work to, I was good – and getting rapidly better!

David Hopkins brought financial stability back to the radio stations: we got back to work. The “Drive Time” shows on both High Peak Radio and Ashbourne Radio by this time were computer playouts, rather than live presenter led. A presenter for each station had recorded dozens of generic links, which made the shows sound live, but they were simply played out on rotation.

Now, a drive time show without live traffic reports was not really fulfilling its objectives, and I was asked if I would drive over from Hucknall to Ashbourne and act as Ashbourne Radio’s afternoon traffic reporter, for half an air-shift payment. (I’d always wanted to go on-air, beating my chest with my fists and pretending I was in a traffic helicopter, but no one would believe that was in the station budget! Try it!) Essentially, twice an hour I trawled the BBC Traffic webpages, broke into the pre-programmed show and reported on any roadworks or holdups I found in the Derbyshire Dales area. Invariably it was the same old traffic hot spots day after day: the A38/M1 junction and the Derby Ring Road. I did try to sound surprised when I “found” these hold-ups, but it was quite monotonous.

There was more to the job than just reporting on traffic. I also had to pick up the topical entertainment, sport and finance features sent down the line each weekday from Independent Radio News. Then I assigned them to pre-determined numbers in the playout computer so they were broadcast at scheduled points in the show. The financial report with stock exchange closing prices was a nightmare: markets closed at 5.30pm, so the IRN reporter could not record the report before then, but I only had until 5.45pm to get the audio file into the system. If I didn’t, the good people of Ashbourne and Wirksworth heard the previous weekday’s report. Sometimes the report was delayed at IRN’s end; every second counted as we approached the deadline and my pulse would be racing. (Occasionally I missed the deadline: nobody ever complained!)

One thing led to another, and Steve Jenner – who looked after Ashbourne Radio more than Paul did – offered me work for a couple of days a week in Ashbourne, gathering news stories and interviews about the Derbyshire Dales. Hitherto, the news journalist working in Chapel-en-le-Frith covered Ashbourne and Wirksworth from a distance, and a reporter working locally even part-time would significantly improve the service for Ashbourne Radio listeners. I accepted the job offer enthusiastically, and started thinking hard about what added value I could bring to the Derbyshire Dales news service.

Politically, the transmission area was in the constituency of a single MP, at the time Patrick McLoughlin, the Tory Secretary of State for Transport. Locally, Derbyshire Dales District Council was mainly Conservative, with a few LibDem councillors on the edges but an intriguing enclave of Labour counsellors in Wirksworth. Wirksworth was a fascinating town, bohemian and radical, a complete contrast to the rest of the Dales. I could see a weekly feature developing: once a month, I’d get to talk to the MP (if I was lucky), once or twice a month a local Tory councillor, then one week a Labour councillor and (possibly) one week a LibDem, though the LibDems pointed out their wards were on the edge of our area, and they doubted the relevance of being on Ashbourne Radio. Very fair of them.

Arrangements were progressing well, when out of the blue I got a phone call from Steve. The Leader of the Council, had put it to him that no council member except he should be interviewed; he refused to allow any councillor from another party to be heard. Democracy, eh? I was completely taken aback, and more so when Steve appeared to support this diktat. Reading between the lines, it was clear that Derbyshire Dales District Council put a lot of business Ashbourne Radio’s way – public service announcements, etc. The station could not afford to upset the Leader of the Council.

I had to make the decision there and then. “Freedom of the Press” and all that. Of course my reporting would have been balanced: I was under a professional obligation to do so, and it was a matter of pride for me. But I was not being given the chance to prove it. I immediately withdrew my acceptance of the job; whatever Steve and his brother were prepared to sacrifice in the way of integrity, I was not going to be a puppet, dancing to the tune of a pompous, grandiose politician. Steve tried to cajole me – surely this wasn’t a resigning matter, David? Yes, it was. End of discussion.

History then began to repeat itself. In the same way as we had experienced problems with the website software, so the ENCO DAD playout system started to act up. Essentially, it was the same piece of software that Roger Price had installed years ago before High Peak Radio first went on air. I never heard that the software had been upgraded: I don’t even know if the software had been registered. And Roger Price was no longer around for anyone to ask.

As with the website, the solution seemed to be to select new software and rebuild the station computer library from scratch. Not an easy task when there were literally thousands and thousands of sound files – tunes, jingles, interviews, news reports – on the old system that needed to go on the new system. Steve felt there was no alternative but for him to copy and paste each individual file. Which he did for days on end. Steve was no computer expert; he may have obtained expert advice, I don’t know. But for one of the directors of the radio station to spend days manually transferring files seemed to me an extremely expensive and inefficient solution. It was clear, though, that Steve was in no mood to discuss the matter, so wisdom dictated that he should just be allowed to get on with it.

I continued to do holiday relief cover at High Peak Radio. The travel reporter role I’d done at Ashbourne got piled onto the already overloaded schedule of the High Peak journalist too, plus there was a “lost pet” feature. Essentially, if Paul could sell a sponsorship slot, a feature would run! I’d suggested a “Who’s Died” feature, with sponsorship from local funeral directors. Paul said no to that – yet I knew it was an extremely popular feature on Irish radio stations. Maybe Irish Catholics take more interest in the dead. Actually, “Pets Lost and Found” was one of High Peak Radio’s more successful features: listeners would phone in with details of a dog, say, that they had found running loose, an appeal would be broadcast, and quite often the distraught owner would then phone in and be reunited with their pet. Very occasionally, an animal would be found dead; we never announced that fact over the air, of course, but the journalist sometimes had to break the news to the owner who telephoned in. Working for local radio was a labour of love.

But I was getting the feeling that my personal love affair with radio was reaching a crisis point.

MORE: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [Part 12] [Part 13] [Part 14] [Part 15]

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