Radio Book Review: Team, it’s only radio!
Radio Today and eRADIO brings you the first ever review of the new radio book by John Myers – as published in eRADIO 10th October 2012.
In the film Radio Days, Woody Allen is portrayed as a young boy whose mother catches him listening to the wireless. She is furious. ‘STOP LISTENING TO THE RADIO!’ she shouts at him. ‘It’s going to ruin you.’ The lad responds, ‘But Ma, you listen to the radio all the time.’ ‘That’s different,’ she tells him. ‘My life is ruined already.’
We often think that radio has always been there — has always been the same. But that movie scene reminds us how, less than a century ago, commercial radio was new enough to scare your mother. Since then it has been through every kind of boom and bust. Survival was never guaranteed. While the BBC is fortified by a licence fee, commercial radio has had to fight like a tiger just to get its next meal.
At this point I would like to introduce you to the biggest tiger in the jungle. I met John Myers nearly a decade ago. At the time I did not know his first rule in business was: ‘Never employ anyone with a weak handshake’ but I think my grasp must have been just strong enough because we became friends. All I knew was that he had once been a breakfast presenter; now he ran stuff at the Guardian. Above and beyond all of that, this was a lovely guy who wanted to talk endlessly about radio. John was modest enough not to push his CV at me.
I was sufficiently incurious not to look it up. I now realise I should have done. Reading this book has been a revelation and a joy. You will think I am exaggerating if I say that John Myers is probably the most important figure in British commercial radio since Marconi, but who else comes close? He starts as a DJ in clubs. Then he gets on air, fuelled by sheer desperation, initially presenting a country music show for £25 a time; his hatred of the genre is not diluted when he is hilariously named Country Music Presenter of the Year.
Other shows follow, each slot bigger than the last, each new adventure wilder and wackier, a haze of deranged competitions, barking mad callers and crazy promotional stunts. Then, with a head for business, John begins buying radio stations.
The central character in this book is so much larger than most of the people around him that at times it is like watching Motorhead take the stage at the village fête. The tale is not all sweetness and light. When a film crew making the documentary Trouble At The Top walked into Nottingham’s Century 106 alongside John, the receptionist gulped at the camera, ‘Every time Mr Myers comes here, someone gets fired.’
He was later shown in a meeting with the presenter of the station’s religious programme. ‘Your audience figures are so low,’ he told her, ‘even God’s not listening.’
When I reached the paragraph where John calmly mentions that his combined purchases for the Guardian Media Group totalled over a hundred million pounds, I nearly dropped my Kindle in the bath.
Certainly, there is sage advice here for any radio person on the mike or on the make. But actually, this is primarily not a book about big business. It is about the intimate pleasure of working on the wireless. It’s a love letter to that uncomplicated box by your toaster, an uproarious but also deeply touching account of what I fear may well have been radio’s golden age. I adored reading John’s personal tally of disasters and triumphs: when his competitors at Metro Radio festooned the Tyne Bridge with a huge poster to catch the attention of TV viewers watching the Great North Run, he wrapped a double decker bus with the name and colours of his own radio station, Century, and successfully bribed the driver to break down ‘for a minimum of four hours’ in front of the poster.
What makes the whole story special? In broadcasting, precious few can host a show and run the show. The number who become both hugely successful presenters and then make millions as radio entrepreneurs — well, even Marconi didn’t do that. The firewall between the broadcaster and the management is the reason all presenters feel misunderstood. ‘They could never do this job,’ is the regular complaint you hear about the bosses. ‘They don’t know what it’s like.’ But John did do the job. And he tells us exactly what it’s like.
He is honest about the things that possibly should not have happened. The ‘live show from the Champs Elysées’ that actually came from Preston. The listener who complained and was sent a letter saying: ‘Fuck off. You are officially barred from tuning into this radio station in the future and if you continue to write or listen, a stronger letter will follow.’ The time he padlocked the gates at BBC Radio Cumbria, leaving a notice on them saying: FOR SALE due to lack of listeners or entertainment. Any reasonable offer considered. John’s contempt for regulators is subversively glorious. When Ofcom upbraid him about not playing proper jazz on Jazz FM, they ask him for his definition of the genre. ‘Anything with a trumpet’, he tells them. ‘What, anything with a trumpet?’ the regulator replies. ‘Are you joking?’ ‘You started it,’ he replies.
I mustn’t spoil the stories. They are all here for you to discover. This is a man who has struck deals worth millions and yet never forgets the value of the people around him. Suffice to say, I felt terribly nostalgic reading this book, and then glad. Nostalgic because I’m not sure anyone else will have an adventure like this again. Glad because John did, and he has written it all
TEAM – It’s just radio! Is published by Kenton Books on Monday 29th October. It is available to pre-order now from here.
It will also be available on Kindle and via Amazon. All profits from the book are being donated to three charities. British Lung Foundation, The Radio Academy benevolent fund and Radio Tyneside.