Scandal FM 

18 February 2019

In 1994 I had a bout of ill-health and needed a diversion while I was recovering. Two locals had the idea of setting up a temporary radio station in our town, under a Restricted Service Licence, and I volunteered to report and read the local news on air.

The station was popular, and the two repeated the same RSL formula again and again, with me on board, both in the same town and elsewhere in the region, gaining credibility with the Radio Authority all the time – before applying for a permanent licence.

After one unsuccessful attempt, the two were awarded a full-time commercial licence for an underserved area of the region. I had helped the two with every station, and with every licence application – I had a word processor and printer back in the day when they were still unusual. Clearly, they felt they owed me.

So I was delighted to be offered a weekly broadcast slot on the new station. Hardly prime time, but I knew my limitations.

I saw this as an opportunity to train as a broadcast journalist. One of my lifetime ambitions. I seized the chance, and nine months later emerged as a fully-qualified newshound.

I offered my services to the radio station and worked many 10-hour shifts as a holiday relief journalist, staffing the news desk single-handedly, taking the calls, and recording the news bulletins, not only for this station, but also for a sister station which had subsequently been licensed nearby.

To fulfil its licence requirements, the sister station needed live traffic reports and news feature updates, and I was offered a regular half shift 2-3 days a week, breaking into the computer-generated drive time show (no live presenter) with traffic information. The parent station was over an hour’s drive away from my home over quite bleak terrain; the studio for the smaller station was an easier 45 minutes’ drive from home. Career-wise, things for me were moving in the right direction.

The next step forward was when the older of the two – “Dave” – approached me and asked if I would be interested in becoming the part-time news journalist for the smaller station, working from that studio 2-3 days a week, filing reports for news bulletins and – most crucially – providing feature-length interviews with local figures, to go out mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

I jumped at this offer. I was in my 60s; I knew I couldn’t work 10-hour shifts (plus 2 hours’ travelling) forever. To be “mini journalist” was perfect.

I set to work, planning my features. Clearly, politics was an important part of my brief. I would interview the local member of parliament either down the line from Westminster, via Skype or over the phone. Approaching a planned general election, I would contact the other parties and seek the views – the local views – of their candidates. Other broadcast media could focus on the national agenda, but I was uniquely placed to ask each politician what they would do for the listeners to my station.

And then there were local politics. I was “fortunate” that our transmission area was served by one local council, run by a majority party with minority representation from at least two other parties. That kept things tidy. Interestingly, though, there was a “hot spot” within the area – a town with a radically different political atmosphere to the rest of our patch, and a thriving arts scene. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

I contacted the council’s press officer, explaining that I would like to interview party representatives on a regular, proportionate basis. Looking at the council set up, I suggested I interviewed the leader of the council (or a delegated representative) two or three times a month, then a representative of one of the minority parties on each of the remaining two weeks. It recognised the political reality: one party had the area in its grip, but the other parties were entitled to their say – surely. The press officer was noncommittal, but not discouraging.

Then I set about contacting politicians from the minority parties. To their credit, some on the extreme periphery of our broadcast area said – with no disrespect – they didn’t feel it was worth their time to be interviewed, certainly not on a regular basis. Fair enough.

One day I received a phone call from “Dave”, who managed the smaller radio station. He had had a phone call from the council leader: there was no way the leader would allow anyone from the council to be interviewed except him. End of. Dave asked me if I would comply with that request (sounded more like an ultimatum to me), explaining that the council bought a very large amount of airtime on the station for its public service announcements. The station, he added, could not afford to lose that business.

I reflected for no more than a few seconds and then told him I could not do the job under those restrictions. I thought I could be relied upon to provide a balanced and fair coverage, recognising implicitly that there was a majority party in the council, but allowing other voices to be heard. A similar pattern worked perfectly well on the parent station. I therefore informed him that I was withdrawing my acceptance of the job.

A couple of days later, he phoned me again. “Andy”, he said, “surely it’s not that big a deal. Won’t you reconsider?”

Working as a journalist in my region in England, I’d reckoned that getting shot or kidnapped was a very remote risk. Having to protect my sources was a slightly greater risk (but how exciting). I never thought, though, that I would be got at by the local political “mafia” and silenced before I even started my job.

Nevertheless, I stuck to my decision: I’m nobody’s puppet, and I needed to be able to look myself in the mirror each morning. It was a sorry end to my work at that station.

Postscript: For other reasons, I decided soon after that I could no longer work for the parent station. The younger of the two – “Peter” – failed to support me on a crucial news issue. I left. Bizarrely, a few days after, I got a phone call from him: “Andy, I hope there’s no ill-feeling. If we meet in the street, I hope we could still talk.” After 20 years of loyal association with Dave and Peter, I am very proud to confirm that I did not resort to Anglo-Saxon in my response. Always the professional, that’s me.

All names in this article, including that of the author, have been changed.

You Say

1 response to this article

Bill Everatt 19 February 2019 at 3:05 pm

Your experience is of course, sadly not unusual… Bad employment treatment, and ‘Blackballing’ in the profession is still rife! – Amazing and profoundly hypocritical for an industry which was very publicly founded on the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of creativity!

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