Sunday, October 4, 2015

27 years on, are we the ONLY proper UK 'Oldies' station?

OR (alternate title !) 

"WHY does BBC Radio 2 cost 50 million a year but Solid Gold GEM AM only £4500?"

Twenty seven years ago on the 4th October 1988 the original GEM-AM launched, covering Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire on 3 crackly (but thumping) medium wave transmitters. Indeed, the 945khz was so strong it reached a great deal further, even Liverpool and north London! That was one reason that the station soon achieved a somewhat legendary status in 'radio circles' and in our area a listener response today's 'oldies' stations can now only dream of - 23% and 24% in Notts and Derby. The success was also because it was the first 24 hour 'gold' service in the UK, and was staffed with 'real' dj's who had been inspired by 'pirate radio' and the legendary 'UBN' radio.

I was in a privileged position in that I'd been Head of Programmes and Music for Trent FM for 9 years by 1988 and MD Ron Coles and Programme Controller Chris Hughes were both ex-BBC so decided to 'leave me to it'. I ended up with a VERY 'fun' job many others would have loved. Picking the team was easy - John Peters got the breakfast show as he'd been THE voice of Radio Trent since 1975 having done breakfast more than anyone else for the station.  Other Trent stalwarts Tony Lyman, Andy Marriott and Brian Tansley moved from FM to glorious AM, we had 'Radio 2 style' team members Colin Bower and Viv Evans at night, plus the distinctive tones of Anne Marie Minhall, Tim Rogers was our 'country man', and later Paul Robey, Graham Wright, Craig Strong, and others too numerous to mention.

For the first time I found myself running a station I did not broadcast on, and sat in my office with my Amstrad 'personal computer' (I had bought for myself!) I was somewhat envious of those using what was called 'Master Control' with its view into Trent's famous Studio 'A'. A competitive teamwork developed studio-to-studio - the legendary John Peters on AM with (the eventually legendary) Gary Burton on FM.

Ironically GEM, a station full of Oldies, was launched at the same time as Denon CD players appeared, usurping scratchy 45s so the quality was great and the music was rotated by the (then) new Selector system, which produced daily printed logs. So rather than rehearsing for a show on the new station I had caught the (vastly over-priced) train to London to be taught Selector by the indomitable Angela bond, who had been Kenny Everitt's producer at BBC Radio 1.   I recall it took 8 HOURS to download the 'information' files on to our system - not sound files, just INFO - gosh computers were tiny back then!

Me with Dallas singers in '88. Jackie Dickson (left) was
PAMS and JAM lead singer for much of the 60s and 70s 
One key thing happened in 1988. After years of the Musician's Union blocking the use of American jingles, negotiations by Alfasound's Steve England and others meant I was able to 'jet' to Dallas where I was 'happy' to watch classic 60s PAMS jingles from 'Jet Set' and 'Happiness is' sung by a team of 100% professional jingle singers, 4 of whom had sung on the original jingles. Both the pirate 'Big L' and Radio's 1 and 2 had used PAMS and I'd used edited versions of their jingles on University radio in the 60s so I was in 'radio heaven' - the fact I did not have a show on the station was made up for by the 'Dallas experience'.

We launched on 4 October 1988 with an Olympic stunt of a runner making the journey between our 3 areas and arriving in Nottingham as firework sound effects were played. David Lloyd (already the boss of Leicester Sound by 1988) screamed himself hoarse introducing the first show with John Peters. Luckily, it was not long before someone needed their show covering and I headed down to the re-furbished studio and had GREAT fun being a deejay, knowing that afterwards I could retreat to the security of my staff 'job' in my third floor office with its coffee machine, plants, walls full of pictures of 'old' Trent and second-hand seating from the original station reception! (I had no idea at that stage that within 10 years the 'suits', money men, and consultants of commercial radio would start to get rid of the contracted talent that gave each station a unique sound and made the 'magic' happen...)

And so the 'golden years' of GEM-AM began. Our music library grew to over 4000 songs (yes 4000 'Gold'!), and Paul Robey became 'Robin to my Batman' spending hours coding and polishing the library so we had music flow and variety. New voices appeared on GEM including the wonderful Irish brogue of Krissi Carpenter, Paul Burbank, Steve Voce and others who will forgive me for not turning this into a long list!?

Every year until 1993 we had yet more jingles and I was delighted that we were able to now buy JAM Creative Productions jingles. As I wrote the lyrics I was fortunate to be the one who flew to Dallas every year to supervise, though in truth I mainly sat in awe in the booth as the amazing team and singers made lightning strike with every cut! 

There was a string of great events in the years 1988 to 1993: full OB's from local towns and the East coast, GEM-AM dances in the area, sticker-drives supervised by the amazing Penny from promotions. We even persuaded Jon Wolfert the head of our jingle company to 'jet-in' for an interview and to do an hours show playing oldies and the jingles he wrote and produced! 

Krissi Carpenter quickly became one of the team the audience related to and I recruited Jenni Costello for Trent FM so we pioneered what is today called 'gender balance' by the BBC. But operating the complex panel and split commercial CARTS was 100% manual work and I'd be interested to see the likes of today's female radio 'stars' (who get in to radio from television work) attempt it! Of course in later years the digital DAMS (well named!) advert playout system appeared and made it easier to 'split' adverts.  

By 1991 we had 'lost' the weakest of our 3 areas, Leicester, as it only had 19% (!!) 'reach' - it became an Asian music station.

The Golden years of GEM-AM started to fade when the station (and Trent) were bought by Capital Radio in 1993 (no changes to be made for a year/
zero jingle budget) only for us to find at the (nail-biting) end of the year that we had been sold to the 'Wiltshire/Bristol folk' of GWR. Anyone interested will know that was the start of a decline that has never ended. Some members of  the team attempted to 'keep the magic' going, but I exited before the Australian consultants moved-in and I started a new life as a writer on Art Deco ceramics. But GEM's loyal listeners noticed the inevitable changes, all in the name of 'profit margins' not quality of output - something I'd never have wanted to oversee, and the local newspapers picked up on the story. 

Some of the team on both AM and FM left for other stations and GEM had several name changes, was merged into 'Classic Gold' then 'Gold'. By the turn of the century it was down to 7% reach, which was poor compared to the original GEM-AM 23/24% reach. Now, with automation, it has just one show with a dj each day  and the rest is continuous music, so it struggles to get above 2%.....

But there was to a 'golden' light at the end of the (time) tunnel, as some unrelated events in 2012 brought together people who wanted to re-create the original GEM-AM, and with modern technology 'honed' by 2 of our team (thanks Marrow and Sid) we realised we COULD run a station reliably on a very small budget!  I played an easier part as I just had to learn how to use it all + re-licence the original jingles plus order more classic re-sings for our 'Radio Like It Used To Be' strapline. By this time even 
David Lloyd (who did the GEM launch OB) managed Orion's "GEM106" (amongst others) and they kindly played a part in 'massaging' the station into 'life'.

The impetus the station had, from its roots in the original GEM made it a reality, and we are now able to celebrate our third anniversary just a month after the 27th anniversary of the launch of the original station. 

Fortunately a LOT of people who just LOVE radio (and 'Love the Oldies') give their services for free, and Jon at JAM is still doing what he's always done brilliantly, making our station jingles. 

JAM Creative Productions supremeo Jon Wolfert in the GEM studio in 1992

So with 8000 songs (FOUR THOUSAND more than the original station) and 18 deejays, we are here to stay.   The only thing missing..... is the ADVERTS (thank goodness)  as we are commercial-free thank to our team and kind donors.

And our team? Well, we have from the original GEM, Andy Marriott, Paul Burbank, Jenni Costello, Tim Rogers, Graham Wright, but sadly we lost the late Brian Tansley who was with us in 2012. Then there are other talented broadcasters from the ILR/BBC years: Andy Siddell, Jeff Owen, Allen Fleckney, Geoff Dorset, Ron Brown, Brian Savin, who worked on a long list of stations including BBC Radio 2, Country Sound Gold, Radio Aire, BBC Radio Nottingham, Radio Merseyside, Pirate FM, Saga Radio, BRMB, BBC World Service, Beacon Radio... and yet more more talented new deejays who are learning their craft with us for the first time.

So as we approach our third anniversary, what of the future? Well with the British Radio system being in disarray, and so-called 'local'  stations taking 90% of their output from London, I do believe Internet Radio is KEY to radio's future.

We will never get those audiences of the 1980s and early 90s again, but our pleasure is in being part of a station that provides a service for over 50s of music from 1958 to 1982 that NO other UK station caters for. 

But I'm not writing just to celebrate the original GEM. I have to ask, "why is it that 27 years later we are the ONLY proper UK 'oldies' station"? Despite its annual cost of FIFTY MILLION pounds BBC Radio 2 only caters for under 45s in daytime output and for much of the day play less than 8 songs an hour. As for commercial radio just TWO large groups control 75% of what what is offered to the UK! Even though there are now several stations in every area of the county they have extremely limited playlists of music. The only one attempting to be an 'oldies' station only covers the country in patches and has just ONE dj on weekdays! 

Surely the UK listeners deserve more variety and choice in their radio, and it should not be left to a service with no real budget to cater for over 50s? We do that as we contribute our time and passion..... 

HOW did the government and the radio regulator Ofcom allow this appalling situation to come come about?

Tony Blackburn proves that the GREAT radio dj's never hang-up their headphones (though many radio 'suits' retire and ignore radio as soon as they have their millions) With 18 dj's on our 'golden team', Solid Gold GEM AM offers a free alternative to monopolistic UK radio. We cost our listeners nothing, and if a few of the newer radio dj's hear our output maybe we'll pass on some humanity and radio 'art' to them. For the sake of UK radio, I sincerely hope so. 

For now let me thank you on behalf of the TEAM at Solid Gold Gem AM. All they ask is that you tell your friends about us. We'll have a celebratory week from 5 November as we enter our fourth year!


  1. You have found a big format hole.. bbc radio 2 folks are highly paid talent..I worked for the guy was Casey kasems boss just one guy earning 3 figures. You have to pay for talent

  2. You cannot compare the costs of running your tiny internet radio station to BBC Radio 2. That's like comparing the cost of a bicycle to a Jaguar XE car. BBC Radio 2 are far superior to your radio station in my opinion. Until you get similar size audiences you cannot make a comparison.