Feature: Behind the scenes at Heart MK
A month ago, the latest state-of-the-art radio broadcast centre went live. Tonight, senior figures from Global are due in Milton Keynes to officially unveil the brand new facilities at Heart Four Counties.
Ahead of the launch, Radio Today’s Stuart Clarkson has an exclusive first-look and a chat with the men behind the masterplan to move four radio stations into one.
In just over a month from now, Chiltern Radio celebrates the 30th anniversary of its launch. For 29 years and 10 months of its time on air, it’s main base was an old victorian school building on Chiltern Road in Dunstable. The station – now part of the UK’s biggest commercial radio brand – has perhaps one of the best birthday presents it could have wished for: brand spanking new facilities and the latest gadgets and gizmos to boot.
But it’s not just the old Chiltern Dunstable on the move. While programming had moved into Dunstable last year from sites in Bedford, Northampton and Milton Keynes with the creation of Heart Four Counties, sales operations continued to be run locally. Now the whole Four Counties team are located together in a new home – at Milton Keynes Central Business Exchange (CBX).
Ian Stuart, the station’s Managing Director told me planning for the move started almost straight away after Ofcom changed the rules on allowing stations to co-locate. “The moment that Global and the Heart network recognised that there could be an opportunity to possibly co-locate sites, the Milton Keynes, Dunstable, Bedford and Northampton transmitters were all looked at. The four have always been very closely attached so it always made sense.”
Indeed back in the Hot FM days, the four shared a programme in the middle of the day as well as overnight and evening shows, the latter of which was famously once presented by a certain Chris Moyles. Over the years, many famous names – either on the way up or the way down – have passed through the doors of Chiltern Road.
“Working out of an old school house in Dunstable is quite nostalgic for those who ever did shows but it’s not in an accessible location,” Programme Controller Mark Sadler tells me. “Dunstable isn’t an easy place to get in and out of when you’re commuting to work every morning – and the studios in the back of the building were like working in a bunker so there was no daylight.” The new place is not only light and airy. It’s handy for the M1, 5 minutes’ walk from the railway station and within an hour’s drive of pretty much everywhere in the patch – useful if you’re out gathering news or selling advertising.
The new broadcast centre will be one of 15 originally planned out by Global Radio as part of their £7m investment announced in June 2010 when they unveiled plans to group local Heart stations into mainly ‘regional’ stations with local-opts.
Heart Four Counties’ new home is worlds apart from Chiltern Road. “In the new broadcast facility we have fantastic daylight, we’re on the fourth floor and we can see for miles – it’s an exciting and inspiring place to be,” says Mark.
The kit isn’t bad either. Mark again: “Everything about this new broadcast centre from its location to how the studios are set up are all designed to make sure we get the absolute best out of the teams that are working with us here.” There are two main on-air studios, a production studio and a news booth. That might be fewer than the old place but the quality and atmosphere is very 2011. MD Ian Stuart tells me staff blurted out most of the usual expletives upon seeing the new offices and studios for the first time. “It’s a bloody awesome building,” he says. “ The team are really pleased to have been invested in as people. It’s also surpassed everybody’s expectations because of the level of finish we’ve put on the building.”
It’s been some operation to not only move one radio station, but effectively move four. Ian says they’ve faced a few struggles along the way. “One of the biggest hurdles I guess was keeping team morale up with a team of people that were centralised in everything other than geography. We’ve had to rent rooms in hotels and football clubs just to get a team of 50-odd people together.”
Teams have been involved in how broadcast equipment is configured, with the idea that on-air staff aren’t ‘held back’ by how things are in the building – as previously had been the case at former sites. “The best bit is that the presenters comment that it makes sense to them,” says Mark Sadler. “Hydraulic desks certainly aren’t anything new but they’re new for us. Our presenters now have the space to raise the game and to push the performances even harder… and they can’t blame it on the kit anymore!!”
Global’s ‘split link’ system is accessible from both on-air studios too, allowing the station to provide bespoke local programming to each of the four areas where and when they need to. Recently, a power cut in Bedford caused chaos at 4pm one day so drivetime presenter Matt Jarvis did a bespoke local show for Bedford that afternoon – while at the same time doing his usual show across the other three patches. “That I think is the best bit of technology that we have because it keeps us properly local,” says Mark. “We can flag up specific local issues whenever we need to and it also allows us to promote local events and activities. This station is as local as it ever was under the four separate and I’m really keen that we retain that strong local identity in those four areas. I’m on top of the broadcasters to make sure we’re using that split link technology to the maximum to make sure that the listeners have all the local information that they need, whatever that is.”
And the tech doesn’t only apply to those who’re working on the air. “We’ve already kitted out the commercial teams throughout with state-of-the-art kit for their field work in terms of presenting to clients and we’re about to undergo a major technology refresh in the office areas,” Ian reveals. “The investment from Global into the whole site – both commercially and programme-wise – is absolutely to get the very best out of everybody who works here. So far the signs are very positive – it’s a great environment and everyone comes to work with a smile on their face.”
A month in, Programme Controller Mark has already noticed the new studios making a difference to the on-air sound too. For the first time, breakfast duo Stuart Miles and Natalie B have direct eye contact instead of being sat at the side of each other. “Our banter flows more freely and we have even more of a laugh,” says Natalie. Not only is it like working in a spaceship, the natural light makes a huge difference to our moods. Working with top-notch equipment that’s clean and shiny is also a perk for me – the clean freak who was using anti-bacterial wash in previous studios!”
Her co-pilot at the controls Stuart Miles adds: “It looks and feels like a spaceship, but I have yet to ask Lt. Uhura for the latest travel bulletin! You can’t help but get a little excited by the new technology which includes a desk that can alter its height and faders that move of their own accord when you place them in record mode! Captain Miles and the crew of Heart Breakfast Four Counties hope you have a pleasant journey!”
Mark is full of praise for the engineers, without whom the move couldn’t have happened. “It’s also one of those very rare situations in radio where actually our broadcast engineers and technical people sit in amongst the commercial and programming teams,” he says. “We’re all on the same floor and everyone’s interacting with each other so I think that’s going to make a real difference to the way we work.”
Tonight Ashley Tabor and Richard Park will be in town – along with former X Factor winner Alexandra Burke – to cut the ribbon on the new studios and then perform some songs at a nearby venue (we’re hoping that’s just Alexandra…). We’ve heard a rumour Toby Anstis might even be playing some club classics at the after-party.
Mark sums up the overall plan behind the new broadcast centres quite nicely when I ask whether where your studios are and what they look like actually makes much difference. “It’s about Global making this really big investment in state of the art facilities and putting resource into the future of the industry. It’s about pushing us forward both as a broadcast centre and radio as an industry overall in a digital age. It’s about how can we maximize the revenues and the audience potential given that the sky’s the limit based on the facilities that we have.”
Move complete and official unveiling imminent, Managing Director Ian Stuart’s next task on the list is to set up a table football league for the gadget that takes pride of place in the new kitchen area. We’re told “battle will commence shortly!”
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