The Diary of David Heathcote (9)
5 Nov 2016 1 comment. tbs.pm/10104
The Best-Loved Weekend Overnight Presenter in NW Derbyshire
Chatting with Lee during Mastercare tea breaks over the next few weeks, I discovered that he too was a “radio hound”, with experience of broadcasting on Radio Forth in Edinburgh, and hospital radio in Nottinghamshire. I told him of High Peak Radio, and urged him to volunteer his services to the station.
It turned out that Lee was indeed a talented, extrovert broadcaster, very capable of delivering professional radio – bland if necessary, but he always wanted to push the limits. This perplexed station managers, and, although Lee subsequently worked for High Peak Radio off and on, the management never felt entirely comfortable with his work. Which was a shame.
Lee and I share a surreal sense of humour, even though I’m a lot older than he is. We exchange insulting emails and messages, but we enjoy a rapport and feed off one another’s barbs. We’re convinced there’s a successful radio format to be forged out of this friendship: we need to record some pilot programmes and tout them round the stations. Lee’s brother, Rob, can be even more surreal: he specialises in spoof phone calls to live radio phone-in programmes, to the dismay of the hapless presenter. Working with him as well would be hilarious, but too, too risky.
Overnight programming on High Peak Radio was never to be live, but from the start the station directors made an effort to personalise the slot between midnight and 6am by having a presenter record generic announcements that could be played randomly between songs. One presenter did Mondays to Fridays 0000 – 0600; another did the Saturdays and Sundays shift. The first Saturday/Sunday night presenter moved on to other things – and Paul offered me the Weekend Overnight slot! Everything would be pre-recorded, but yes, if I really wanted, I would be allowed one 3-minute feature every hour. The good people of the High Peak still awake at 2 or 3am were in for a treat!! The only condition was that, since the previous Overnight presenter had been John, and the promotional announcements earlier in the evening spoke of John, I had to become “John” Heathcote: self-esteem and local radio don’t always go hand in hand, I realised.
Everything I said on air had to be pre-recorded; everything had to be loaded into the ENCO DAD system with a code so the computer understood what needed to be played out when.
This was how the code worked. (If you are not a true nerd, you should jump to the next paragraph!) Every recording had a 5-digit number. The first digit signified the type of recording. Presenter links or features began with a 9; news interviews began with a different digit, adverts yet something else. The second digit was the day of the week: 1 = Monday, 2 = Tuesday, etc. So my weekend work began 96xxx or 97xxx. The next two digits signified the hour of the day. Thus 9600x was an announcement due to be broadcast between midnight and 1am on Saturday; 9706x was timed to go out between 6am and 7am on Sunday. The final digit was for the presenter to use as necessary. I planned to spend time in the studio recording tracks once a month, so 96001 was my opening announcement on the first Saturday, 96002 my second announcement; 96003 was my opening announcement on the second Saturday… Horrendously complicated, but logical.
Unfortunately, it was not up to me to put my tracks into the play-out system. That was the domain of the breakfast presenter, who also had to program every single advert into the station’s output. To put it mildly, my matrix of recording numbers was not his top priority, and I later discovered to my dismay that many weeks would go by when he would not bother to input my numbers at all – and the same announcements, and worse still the same features, would go out in the wee small hours to listeners in the High Peak area week after week.
I’ve always been a perfectionist, and it pained me to see my work being wasted, but the station was too small for anyone to throw a “hissy fit”, least of all the Weekend Overnight Presenter.
Worse still, I had no idea what music was being played in my programmes. That was decided by the computer, according to the station’s music policy. So I could not introduce the next piece of music, nor back-introduce the previous one. I found recording generic announcements very challenging. Fortunately, Chris Carnegy, who presented the 10pm “Love Song” slot, was a master of the art, and I tried to learn from him.
It did not take much insight into local radio broadcasting for me to realise that my listening audience was pitifully small. Therefore it came as a surprise some years later when the radio station staff including me made personal appearances at an event, and a couple recognising my voice said: “Oh, you made us cry one night!!” The week of that broadcast, we had lost our beloved family pet, a corgi called Teddy, and I recorded an emotional tribute to him and read a “Farewell, loyal friend”-type poem on-air. It moved this husband and wife to tears. The power of radio, eh?
I took ironic pleasure in my tiny audience, billing myself as “The Best-Loved Weekend Overnight Presenter in NW Derbyshire” (which was exactly true: I was no.1 in a field of 1!), and I even got myself a mug emblazoned with that declaration.
Lee continued to work on radio stations in the Mansfield area, we continued to abuse one another. So he was not surprised when I sent him a photo of a road sign announcing: “Welcome to Hucknall. Home of The Best-Loved Weekend Overnight Presenter in NW Derbyshire.” With a further sign underneath: “And we’re not talking Lee Burnett, obviously.” The joys of Photoshop.
Working at Mastercare was an unpleasant experience. Customers phoned in, beside themselves with fury, because they’d been sold a personal computer for nearly £1,000 that they could not get to work. (There was a technical issue with many PCs at this time: if you didn’t install a printer or scanner in a particular way, you messed up the computer.) The final straw for me was when one customer snarled over the phone: “I know where you are, and I’m coming to get you!!” He didn’t know, but I didn’t feel at all reassured by that.
As it happened, an American credit card company called Capital One was recruiting staff for its new UK call centre in Nottingham. After the glorious summers I’d spent in the USA as a student, I thought it would be fun to work for an American company, so I applied to work there.
I got the job, and had “an absolute blast”! Capital One were really good employers: they earned the unstinting loyalty of their staff – or “associates”, as we were called – by treating us very well. It was no wonder that they regularly featured in the Sunday Times’ Top Ten Places to Work list.
I worked for some wonderful bosses there, including one young woman whom I’d taught when I was a teacher! We had to do “ice-breaker” introductions from time to time in team meetings, invariably the “tell us something interesting about yourself” bit, and one of my favourites was to announce I’d regularly seen (aforesaid young woman) dressed in school uniform! It was obvious that the mental image I conjured up in the minds of several male associates “distracted” them – and they found it quite hard to concentrate on the next couple of items on the Agenda!!
I spent ten years with Capital One, some of the most enjoyable years of my working life. Then I heard that the company was downsizing and outsourcing a lot of staff roles to India. Redundancy was in the air: I was approaching 60 – should I go or should I stay? The redundancy package was tempting: having worked there for 10 years, I knew I’d get an extremely generous payout. Not only that, but the company would pay the cost of my retraining for my next job! I went for it.
As part of the redundancy programme, I had to attend meetings in preparation for my departure. At one meeting, we were each asked to outline what our next career might be. Several colleagues, younger than me, had worthy plans to get a Master of Business Administration degree. I’d only ever joined Capital One for the laughs, I never took myself seriously, so I responded: “I want to be a pole dancer”!
Now Capital One was a very “politically correct” workplace, so everyone in the room took my announcement seriously (well, at least they didn’t laugh out loud), and I got a measured “OK…” from the meeting leader. Could I really have got a few thousand pounds of training to be an exotic dancer?
I quickly changed my response to the genuine one: “I want to be a broadcast journalist”! That caused almost as much surprise as my first answer, but I’d spotted the opportunity of a lifetime. I’d checked out local courses: Nottingham Trent University had a highly respected Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism (CBJ), and offered an excellent one-year course in Newspaper, Radio or Television Journalism.
I applied for the Television Journalism course and was accepted. And yes, Capital One would pay my tuition fees. Added to which, my tax-free redundancy pay was enough to support my wife and me for the year.
As I was soon to discover, I was older than any of the lecturers, and more than twice the age of any of my fellow students. What could possibly go wrong??!