Evans remembers Piccadilly

Piccadilly Radio in the 1980s is where Timmy Mallett met Chris Evans, and along with Andy Bird – Chris' predecessor as Timmy's phone answering assistant – and original programme controller Colin Walters, they reunite on the Radio Festival stage in Salford Quays.

The session was called Nobody Does It Better – Creativity in 80s Manchester – and looked at why so many of radio's big talents came from Manchester's Piccadilly Radio in the 80s. Andy, who's now a big boss at Disney, said: "Everyone at the station – from the receptionist to the engineer – were encouraged to be involved."

The session was called Nobody Does It Better – Creativity in 80s Manchester – and looked at why so many of radio's big talents came from Manchester's Piccadilly Radio in the 80s. Andy, who's now a big boss at Disney, said: "Everyone at the station – from the receptionist to the engineer – were encouraged to be involved."

In charge of programmes back then was Colin Walters, who joined from BBC Radio Nottingham – which, he says, was like "radio for the crematorium".

"I thought I'd make Piccadilly like Radio 1 playing pop records, but local," says Colin. "The amount of talent knocking around was very limited, so a lot of the people I employed were ex-Pirate DJs and former BBC local radio people, but they weren't very good. Gradually as the years went by, we pulled in a range of much more talented and much more relevant to the local area people… who hadn't been in radio before."

Timmy was at BBC Radio Oxford, about to be offered a staff job when the call came from Manchester. "Colin said come and do a couple of weeks on overnights and see how you get on." He got locked out of the studio when going to get the papers and a whole album played out – so Timmy thought it was the end of his radio career." He then did a Saturday afternoon football show, 'live' from the chippy, giving away fish and chip suppers. Then a teenage pop show: "We played Adam Ant's new record about 12 times in two hours.. just thought that's a good song, let's play it again and again."

Chris Evans followed Timmy and Andy back from a gig in Warrington – and blagged an interview with Timmy. He gave himself a DJ name, Pete James ("because it sounded good"), and said he was from Warrington Hospital Radio (even though he'd never worked there). As it turned out, Andy Bird was leaving to go back to university so Timmy needed someone to answer the phones and do the logging.. Chris wrote a letter the next day and got the job.

Timmy's show was very creative, but also quite often pushed the boundaries – and Timmy was known for his short temper. Colin says: "I was nothing to do with it… I let this guy get on with it because he had the ideas. It was very tough in terms of discipline. You don't need to ride roughshot on guys like that who can get on and do the show for themselves."

Chris says: "Timmy was so tough. I've never worked for someone since or before who was so tough on his staff. But he was also really tough on himself. If one of us had failed to deliver there were another 6 layers to the link so it would have survived."

What looked like a totally anarchic three hours of radio, every piece was prepped – cleverly researched and practised. Timmy says: "Prep is vital. Material doesn't come miraculously, you have to work at it. You're constantly jotting down ideas and if you're stuck for something you find a gag you've not used for a while. You're constantly thinking of ways to use something in the news to stir the imagination – radio's all about imagination isn't it."

Did Colin try to temper what was happening on air with making a commercial radio station a success? "I was never trying to make money, I came from the BBC so it was a different world. I listened to some commercials and thought they were complete shit, but the creative guys were telling the client they were so great. I realised you had to lie. While the audiences are getting bigger and bigger that's fine we can sell that to the advertisers, so it never impacted on me."

Timmy adds: "It was easy to sell Piccdailly – it was part of the city, right in the middle of the city with those massive photos of the DJs. You couldn't miss the station – but where are all the radio stations now? You need a good location to shout to people where you are – like BBC Radio Stoke or the Radio City tower in Liverpool. Capital used to be great in Euston – but now Capital's stuck behind a Starbucks and if you're looking for Magic you've no chance, it's just down some street somewhere."

On the subject of Chris' career at Piccadilly, he laments he didn't actually get much airtime of his own. "Other than Night Beat," he says. "Everyone started out on Night Beat. It was 2-6am five mornings a week and you could only play 6 needletime records in the whole four hour show. Other DJs used to split them and play one and a half records an hour, but I just played them all at 2am – so at least my first half hour sounded like a proper radio show… in the hope that the bosses were listening – but they obviously weren't"

Chris recalls his first trip inside the Piccdailly building to collect a prize he'd one on a kids show competition. "I went to collect my spacehopper," he says. "And I was sat in recetion and Roger Day came in and I went 'F**k it's Roger Day!' He was like God to me."

So what did the panel think of radio now versus radio back then. Timmy says: "There are a lot of personalities in radio still – I like Johnny Vaughan, Jamie Theakston but all the creativity's on at breakfast – where's the stuff later in the day? It's all 'the top 8 at 8' with one link and 8 records in a row while the DJs sat on the internet looking at porn…." Chris steps in: "Nothing wrong with that. It's better than reading The Times."

"If we were doing a show now," says Timmy. "We'd be tweeting between every song, we'd be on facebook, our homemade jingles would be on YouTube by the time they aired. We'd be doing the Chilean miners on X Factor and the Comprehensive Spelling Review to sort out all the wrongly-spelled words…." And so he goes on, Timmy's goes back into creative mode and starts spewing ideas out of his head onto the stage!

It's sure to be one of the most-listened to sessions when the recordings are available for download from the Radio Academy website – give it a listen, you won't be disappointed.

See our interview with Chris Evans just before the session on [link=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVOFBqz2_K4]YouTube[/link].

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