I am just one of countless broadcasters (especially in the sporting field) who is asked one question more than any other – namely “How did you get into radio?” or sometimes, as it was asked by a chap who met me at Gems TV once “How the hell did YOU get into radio?” Seriously, it has been asked in that way without the slightest concern over my reaction to the tone of it. Charming.
It’s a question that increasingly comes in from enthusiastic university under-graduates doing media studies courses or the like, and the ambition from such individuals is clear – the problem is that so many stories of a long broadcasting career are achieved in wildly different ways. Some begin in hospital radio, some find their way into local radio by working as a general dogsbody for no pay (and it’s amazing how long the queue is to be so exploited!) whilst many of my talkSPORT colleagues of course are ex-sportsmen who have been invited into broadcasting having retired from their chosen sport.
Truth is that if you ask 50 broadcast journalists what their ‘in’ was, you’ll get 50 different answers – whenever I’m asked, I try and tell as abridged a story as possible – mainly to prevent boredom on their part as it’s a tad complicated!! So maybe this little corner of cyberspace is the best place to tell the tale in full…
It was early 1997, and I was working at Musical Exchanges guitar shop like I had since 1992 – whilst I loved my work there (and in some weird way would happily go back if ever broadcasting didn’t want me anymore!) I did go into that year in something of a state of flux.
Outside of work, my relationship with my then girlfriend was slowly disintegrating, and my band Sons Of God were renaming themselves Swear, re-writing our set and still getting nowhere with record companies, management or agencies who we’d been courting for 3 years previous. We deserved far better, but seemed destined never to get it. I needed a change, I felt – a step upward.
Oddly before any link to the airwaves appeared, I was headhunted by Laney Amplifiers one day – their company in Cradley Heath (in the Black Country for the uninitiated) wanted someone to take on the responsibility of distributing Ibanez guitars in the UK, a contract they had just won, and I was top of their list evidently, as their sales rep Roger kept bugging me to apply every time he came in to the shop. I loved Ibanez guitars – owned a couple myself at that time – and so it was very tempting to cross that retail/trade divide.
Whilst mulling that and other events in my life over, I spent time going to watch my best mate Keith Laurent (from Dangerous Games days) who was playing guitar in a covers band. Whilst at the bar during breaks, we’d laugh and joke about football and I would always keep him entertained by breaking into a Trevor Francis impression or an Alan Hansen voice, or (perhaps our favourite topic) Graham Taylor quotes from the “Do I Not Like That!” documentary. I’d always been doing impressions of teachers since school, but had found a niche in doing football managers it seemed.
Many’s the time that Keith would say “You’re wasted, son – you should be on the telly” or words to that effect, and his work colleagues who came to the same gigs and egged me on to do more routines said things along similar lines. But I would always bat such ideas away and just order another Britvic 55 (I always drove-boring bastard)
So when Keith told me one night as I left work for a gig with Ian The Goat sings Black Sabbath that he’d written to Tom Ross (Head of Sport at BRMB Radio) telling him of my talents and how great I would sound on his shows doing sketches etc, I just laughed nervously, thanked him for being so nice, wondered for a brief moment whether Tom would actually read such a letter and then went back to adjusting my cymbal stands and, frankly, put blind ambition out of my head. I had a gig to play after all.
The following week, I was back at work tidying up the guitar counter when a voice came over the phone tannoy in the guitar department “Call for Ian, Line 4. Call for Ian Danter, Line 4 – it’s Tom Ross”
‘Oh fuck off’ I immediately thought to myself, ‘This’ll be Keith taking the piss as usual’ and pressed Line 4 to play along. Keith had recently wound up a slightly rotund friend of his thanks to an air stewardess that Keith knew. It was arranged that when this chap took his seat on board a service to Schipol, the stewardess would ask him to move to a different area of the aircraft so as not to imbalance the flight where he was due to his size. She actually moved him about the plane 3 times to be extra cruel before finally spilling the beans to Keith’s exasperated & highly embarrassed mate. So this phone call coming through to me had to be from him. Or so I thought.
“Hi Tom Ross here” came a confident, unmistakeable voice on the other end of the line. Keith was utter crap at impressions – this was never him. This WAS the doyen of Midlands sports radio alright.
We spoke for a few minutes and Tom mentioned Keith’s letter and how it had piqued his interest and made him think I could be of use to him. Would I, he asked, be willing to write a 3-minute script using my best voices taking the ‘mick’ out of the latest football stories that he could play on his Saturday afternoon pre-match build up show?
Naturally I said yes, although Tom was at pains to point out that he couldn’t pay me for such work as budgets were tight and he just wanted to see how well I’d do. Sounded fair enough, I thought, and as I rang off a few minutes later I did feel that something important was in the offing. But not quite certain as to actually what.
Around that same time (this would be February ’97), I was officially offered the job at Laney as “Ibanez-Man”, which I duly accepted-this was where I guess I felt my career path led – the radio stuff would be just a bit of fun, wouldn’t it?
I had my directive from Tom as to what he wanted – a 2 minute sketch or roundabouts, with as many impressions as I could cram in, keeping it topical and local too if possible…I quickly discovered as I began writing that doing a quick Trevor Francis voice at the bar for 20 seconds was all well and good…constructing 2 minutes of comedy in a sketch was far, far different. My good friend Gray recently sent me a CD of that first sketch the day it was broadcast on BRMB’s sister station Xtra AM (he’d recorded it straight off the radio, bless him) and to me at least, it is utterly painful listening! The gags aren’t the best, the voices aren’t the best – the production’s fine…but then, I didn’t do that bit!!
I’d gone to BRMB’s old building on Aston Road North to do the recording on the Friday evening before broadcast. Producer Guy had just finished looking after Tom’s phone-in programme, but his day wasn’t set to end for a few hours yet, and not just because of me. Sports production, and particularly pre-production of a Saturday afternoon commentary show is laborious stuff – looking for and editing audio from previous games between 2 specific teams, collating interviews from local managers and players and splicing them into some sort of sensible order with music backgrounds to edit in…
I can imagine that Guy viewed my arrival with a hastily scribbled script and ideas for sound effects etc as an added distraction that he didn’t need, but if that’s how he felt, it certainly didn’t show – he was kind and patient with a bloke who was wobbling like Mr Jelly at the prospect of putting his handiwork down on tape.
It’s funny, really – I’d spent many years in recording studios up to that point as a drummer/musician without a hint of nerves, but being in a radio studio recording my own handwritten sketch seemed wildly different – and those nerves came across in the finished product, at least to me anyway.
However, it went out on air the next day on Xtra AM sometime after 2pm, and the number of phone calls I got from well-wishers before and especially after (no text messages – technology wasn’t quite so instant at the time!) showed that it was up to the required standard. Keith was my biggest fan and harshest critic, so it was his opinion that I sought most – he was absolutely made up for me and only picked up on my Des Lynam being too high-pitched than usual, which was more than fair comment. Des shouldn’t really sound like Joe Pasquale after all. It had been if not a triumph, then certainly a successful experiment for all concerned.
And that was how I viewed it at the time – so it was with a great deal of surprise that Guy called me a week or two later to ask me on Tom’s behalf to write another sketch, as the listeners’ response to the first had been ‘overwhelmingly positive’. Still no money in it, but that wasn’t the issue – the light didn’t exactly ‘PING!’ in my head about a career in radio around that time – that was more of a slowburner; I was about to leave Exchanges for Laney, after all, and try this new ‘proper job’ for size.
As the spring of 1997 came and went, I settled into life in Cradley Heath at Laney, whilst doing a sketch every fortnight or so for Tom. I quickly fell out of love with the train journey I used to have to take across Birmingham every morning; leave Acocks Green at 0725, change at B’ham Snow Hill for service to Stourbridge Junction arriving Cradley Heath 0845 and then a 10 min walk to Laney Electronics. Usually through the pissing rain. And rockers don’t carry umbrellas.
It was soul-destroying and I can’t really explain why. The staff at Laney were brilliant to me and I quickly got into the swing of being a guitar distributor to the trade as opposed to a retail salesman, but I was ostensibly working alone – taking orders from dealers, sorting out deliveries of guitars, effects pedals and spares that came through from Japan at a seemingly geometric rate, and also acting as a sort of quality-control buffer, ensuring that every single guitar we sent out was of merchantable quality – this meant unpacking every box with great care so as not to rip packaging (keeping that ‘new’ look for when it arrived at the store) checking neck alignment, tuning, finish etc etc…laborious stuff, and I just had to get on with it o solo mio.
The small transistor radio in my warehouse became my best friend around that time – and talkRADIO in particular was my station of choice. Scott Chisolm, Anna Raeburn & Tommy Boyd kept my sanity in check during working hours with current affairs, relationship problems and spurious arguments. They spoke to me more than anyone in the office did, really. But despite my slight regrets about leaving the Exchanges bonhomie and camaraderie behind me, my focus was all on working hard in my new position – and as the football season finished, the calls from BRMB stopped and I spent the summer gradually forgetting that I had had a brief spell in the limelight and my subconscious seemingly wasn’t doing anything about it and couldn’t see the bigger picture.
I was single by now, both in relationship and original band stakes. Swear had bitten the dust, which was a great shame to me. Perhaps this was why up to the point where we disbanded that other career paths had remained irrelevant to me. I’d convinced myself of a path to rock stardom from the age of 13 – now I was nearly 30 and not that far up the rock n roll ladder. I was always going to continue playing music…but it wasn’t going to be my LIFE as I had envisaged.
In fact, a few months prior to joining Laney I had become the new drummer with Bon Jovi tribute New Jersey, featuring John & Dave my old Shotgun Wedding bandmates. That was great fun, and a great way to spend weekends away on occasion (and meet women), but the one great benefit of leaving the retail trade was that I also got Saturdays off to go and watch Blues at home with Keith without needing to take holiday entitlement. So things were looking up in some respects if not in others.
I wasn’t expecting the call I got from BRMB that August in a number of ways. Firstly it was an avenue of work that I had almost forgotten about – honestly! Secondly, the call was from a new producer, David, as Guy had been moved into a different role at the station away from sport. The 3rd and perhaps most telling difference about the call was that I was going to be paid for my work from this point onwards. THAT was when the realisation of what could be became apparent to me, particularly as my dissatisfaction with work at Laney was slowly but steadily enveloping me.
I found myself getting better with every sketch that I wrote at comic timing, structure, quality of delivery-all that. And the sketches were now being asked for every week rather than every 2-3 weeks. Getting paid made me put in even more effort if that were possible and one skit where I pretended to be Tom Ross himself taking calls from distressed managers rather than fans was a particular highlight – maybe not for Tom, though! ;o)
Christmas 1997 was a quiet affair – due to the way the Laney company worked, I had almost 2 weeks off work, which you never got in retail, and I relished the company of close family during that time, whilst secretly wishing I didn’t have to endure that depressing train journey any more come 2008.
And then one day, everything changed. Forever. I had travelled in the works van into Birmingham City Centre one January morning to collect some guitars we’d sent to a luthier in the Jewellery Quarter for some running repairs. My new (brick shaped) mobile rang as I left the luthiers, and it was Tom, who I hadn’t spoken to for a little while.
“Dants, when are you about, pal?” he asked.
“Actually I’m in town right now as it goes, Tom.”
“Well, can you quickly pop in on your way back - I need to see you”
“Sure – give me 10 minutes, ok?”
I set off to Aston Road North without the faintest idea why Tom wanted to see me in person. My pessimistic mind reasoned that he couldn’t pay me for sketch work any more and just wanted to tell me face to face.
Up I went to the 2nd floor and Tom was there to greet me as I walked into the office. “Come this way, Dants” he beckoned, “I’d like you to meet somebody” and we walked across the office floor to a door bearing the legend ‘Programme Controller’ What the heck was going on??
Tom rapped the door and a Scottish voice replied “Come in!” We both entered to meet a very young, sharply dressed man (early thirties I guessed, about the same as me) who stood up as Tom said “Paul this is Ian Danter”.
“Ahhh, Mr Danter - a real pleasure to meet you. Please take a seat” and as I sat, Tom backed out of the room, winked at me and shut the door leaving me alone with, er, Paul.
“I’m Paul Jackson, the Programme Director” he began “and I’ve been waiting to meet you for some time. I have to say how bloody impressed I’ve been by your work for Tom on the Saturday show – I nearly crashed the car listening to last week’s with Trevor Francis on it. Brilliant stuff”
My brain still hadn’t cottoned on to what might be coming next. What a thicko.
“Now then” Paul continued “Here’s the thing – obviously you know Tammy’s been doing the Flying Eye for the last coupe of years?” I nodded – Tammy Gooding had been reporting on Birmingham’s roads into Les Ross’ Breakfast Show for a good while now, and had developed a great on-air chemistry with Les, the best breakfast presenter Birmingham radio has ever had.
“We’re bringing Tammy out of the plane next month to become part of the show with Les in the studio every morning” Paul went on. “Fantastic news! Good for her” I replied with genuine warmth. Tammy seemed friendly and very natural on air.
“Ah, well this is where you come in!” laughed Paul “I really think you’d be a natural as her replacement and able to develop your personality and your voices as part of the show. I can just hear Des Lynam giving details on a traffic light failure at the Scott Arms junction, you know?”
Suddenly, I had that moment of clarity, joy and sheer unbridled terror all in one. I was being offered a job on the radio to be a travel reporter from 1500ft above Birmingham’s roads in a small plane of some sort. This presumably wasn’t a time to mention my abject fear of heights - so I didn’t.
“What we’d like you to do is go up with Tammy every day next week for her final week up there, learn the ropes and by the end of the week we can try you out doing bulletins on Xtra AM an possibly BRMB to see if you’re sounding ready for it. If so, then you’re on your own the week after that…”
My head was spinning like a basketball on the finger of a Harlem Globetrotter. I WAS being offered a job. In radio. And as he went on to discuss pay, it quickly became apparent that it was better money than I was on at Laney. And by a quirk of fate, the next week I had actually taken time off work-not really to DO anything or go away anywhere – just a week away from the grind and the increasing monotony.
“So, you up for it?” smirked Paul, no doubt looking across at a stunned face struggling to comprehend what had just been offered. At that moment, something in my mind told me to say ‘yes’, perhaps with a fear that if this gentleman was prepared to offer me a job that quickly, he would probably offer it to someone else just as quickly a few minutes after I’d left the building had I said ‘no’.
And so, the answer came in the affirmative, hands were shaken, more pleasantries exchanged and I was soon driving back towards the Black Country in the most utterly wonderfully befuddled state.
I’d done a radio presenting course at 6th form college and had even been part of a Radio 4 for schools programme in my 2nd year presenting alongside Terry Christian when the BBC came to our college, but the impression I got in the aftermath of that from those companies to whom I sent letters was that I needed a degree to get anywhere in radio. And university simply did not interest me one jot. As I’ve said before, only becoming a rock star did, and you can blame Ace, Gene, Paul & Peter for that! So that germ of an idea was swiftly extinguished – but just over a decade later, here I was being offered an opportunity that was genuinely too good to turn down. My Mum & Dad agreed, as I called them upon my return to the office and my own little private warehouse space where no-one could eavesdrop.
“Go for it” Dad said. “I know how unhappy you are there”.
That was all the incentive I needed – hearing positive vibes from the old man. If my mind was made up before I’d arrived back at Laney, then that just rubber-stamped it.
The night before my maiden flight (!), I played a gig with New Jersey at the Exposure Rock Café in B’ham City Centre and had many a well-wishing message from bandmates and friends who attended. I was nervous as hell, mainly because of the subterfuge – I hadn’t told Laney anything intentionally, in case I’d fluffed my on-air chance in my week off work and they’d be none the wiser upon my return. But I didn’t drop any sticks in my anxious state and enjoyed the show in front of a packed crowd. It was probably the best preparation as opposed to sitting at home and crapping myself.
Tammy was at the old cargo entrance to Birmingham Airport the next morning to greet me and guide me through my first day in a Seneca twin-engined craft – she was visibly excited at the news that this was her last week, but that wasn’t based on any dislike for the Flying Eye job. “You’ll love it” she said calmly “Some summer days when you’re up there without a cloud in the sky are just amazing – but you have to take the windy days too – like today!”
That week of training was hell in one way – seeing how Tammy set up the wireless broadcast equipment was easy peasy – however, not being used to flying at such heights and speed and the constant turning and banking in the wind made me sick as a dog on Days 1 and 2. Just as well that I wasn’t due on air those days and merely there to observe how Tammy did all aspects of her job. “Don’t worry” Tammy reassured me as we landed after Day 2. “I was exactly the same – you’ll get used to it believe me”
As I went home feeling decidedly groggy and needing several hours back on terra firma to regain my poise, I did ponder whether this was the right move for me. Thankfully I batted any concerns away as quickly as they surfaced, and by the end of the week I’d filed my first bulletins for both BRMB & Xtra AM without hesitiation, deviation or saying fuck or bugger, Paul had pronounced himself happy to give me the position full time, and the sick bags had not been needed further.
And that was that - I drove into the office at Laney that Friday afternoon, asked to see Lyndon the boss and gave him the news that I was leaving with immediate effect. He was shocked and not especially happy at what he saw as a knee-jerk reaction, but realised that my mind was not for turning and wished me well. I left without the heavy heart that accompanied my last day at Exchanges a year before and it wasn’t until this last August that I bumped into my Laney colleagues when I visited the Home Of Metal Exhibition in Brum at the same time as their works outing there. No hard feelings, thankfully!!
So there you have it – from that moment on it was broadcasting and not, erm, stratocasting for me. So now you know how it began at least – and that was just the beginning of course. There’s another 15 blogs in what happened between then & now!!!