Me And My Partner: Jez Nelson and Sonita Alleyne
Jez Nelson, 35, met Sonita Alleyne, 32, at Jazz FM in 1989 when it launched. In 1991, they each put pounds 500 in the bank and set up Somethin' Else which ran Edinburgh's first Festival FM station. It is now one of our biggest independent radio production companies
Wednesday 22 September 1999
Sonita came to work on production and research. We were really passionate about the music. All of us were excited to be there. We had the time of our lives. I had a show from 10pm to 2am; I'd interview all my favourite artists. We were playing Public Enemy next to John Coltrane. Sonita was a bit mad, but a major spark in the station. She'd say: "Let's do this and make it happen", not "this is impossible".
A lot of commercial radio stations are run top-down by people who don't really like the music. In a jazz station, you've got to care about it. There was this big purge and the job went from being Utopia to an absolute nightmare. They were going to make me play Kenny G records. It was time to go.
That was a catalyst. We thought: "We'll do our own thing." The day after we got the sack, we and another colleague, who's now a DJ at Kiss, put pounds 500 each into a bank in Marble Arch, where Jazz FM had its account. Then we got a little office in Camden, above a kebab shop, and said: "What are we going to do?" Paul Bennun joined shortly after, and is now our third director.
We wanted a London licence. We thought our ideas were better and we had a lot to prove. There was no way we could survive by making programmes for independent stations, but Sonita had been involved in promoting concerts, so we put on club nights to get cash in.
Then we set up radio for the Edinburgh Festival, 24 hours a day. We rented three bedrooms in a hotel. We had people presenting who included Jo Brand, Mark Lamarr, Mark Thomas - and everything from obscure folk music to mainstream opera. One of Sonita's skills is to look at a massive project, go away, and come up with a strategy that makes it work. The experience was extraordinary.
I love putting teams together. We feed into each other's programmes. It seems obvious, but it doesn't happen in a lot of companies. I get pleasure out of that synergy. I'm also competitive; I love winning business. Winning a Sony Award last year meant a lot to us.
At first, we were winning commissions, but not having time to develop new things. We had two dips and crisis moments. The second time that happened, we realised we could break out only if we were well-resourced. Sonita's more determined than I am. I don't give up, but there have been times when my head was right down. She would say: "Find the money", and "of course we're going to get through". There's this idea that the bigger you get, the more you start introducing hierarchy and structure. We sat down with our staff and talked about it. It's been a chaotic, organic company, but we're concerned not to become distant; we can't afford to. We have to make sure people continue to love working here.
My career as a presenter at BBC's Tomorrow's World and Radio 3's Jazz on 3 has given us a profile, and we use it to get in to see people. We're getting good feedback from television companies. The digital market is looking for people like us, and we have a lot of madcap big ideas.
Sonita's become an absolute master of finance and we wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the way she's dealt with it. She's very shrewd. But her creative side was locked in a cupboard. Now, it's coming out. She had an idea for a programme, Get Your Act Together, and wrote it up in half an hour; it became a BBC1 hit.
Sonita's not frightened to pick up the phone; she'll get you into a meeting to see anyone you want. Her ambition is enormous; it's driven by her vision. I think she values my ideas and the fact that I'm good at pitching to people and selling, and she probably feels she's knocked me into shape a bit. We work so bloody hard, we end up hanging out a lot too. We have a good laugh.
SONITA ALLEYNE: I'd always wanted to run my own business, and go into the media. I did a degree in philosophy at Cambridge, but it doesn't set you up for life. I had an independence born of a belief in my ideas - if you're going to be an entrepreneur, you have to have that. If you run around like a wuss, going: "What am I doing?" you won't get very far. You can wait for someone to spot you, or you can do it.
My first job was in financial sales and I did a lot of cold calling, which leaves you with the ability to talk to anyone. But it didn't take long to work out that the creative side was what I needed to concentrate on. I was wandering round that office, saying: "My brain is dead" but no one understood.
I'd liked jazz since I was about 11 - I'd been a singer at university - so I started as a journalist, with a small publication, Jazzwise. Then the job as information officer at Jazz FM came up and it seemed like the perfect place; listen all day long and be paid. Jez was passionate about music, and we were the "youth camp", the people who were into jazz. That experience made us think we could do it better ourselves. We had lots of good ideas, but they weren't getting through to the people at the top. It was like: "You're young, so we can't listen to you."
We fell into running this company by accident. We were all enthusiastic, smart and very together. Jez has a tidy desk. He's great at generating left-field ideas which are ahead of their time, across a wide range of platforms. He probably recognised I was intelligent, and maybe I could see a bigger picture. We were both goal-oriented.
There were a lot of hard patches, but there was an unshakeable belief we were setting up something that would eventually be successful. My favourite saying is my grandmother's: "Worry is like a rocking chair. It keeps you busy and gets you nowhere." Festival FM was great training. I was 24, in charge of 200 people, and every hour somebody was saying: "What do we do now?"
Jez is hard-working, but we manage to have a laugh. In business, it's rare to find someone like that. I've always been good at recognising when I can't do something, and when I shouldn't. From an early age, I learnt to delegate, trusting people. Sometimes things can be very exciting, but I know it's not where my time is best spent - and I know someone else needs to get that skill.
Two things have contributed to our success. One is a complete understanding of the creative industry we're in and the idea that technology is driving us towards a real convergence of media. We're the first to do digital radio stuff, and the first to approach interactive broadcast technical people and say: "Give us some exact information on the deliverables to the audience." The second is our attention to what we're doing as a creative company. Here, everyone sees their ideas are valued. Why does someone, at 20, decide to work for a creative company? They want to get a buzz out of it.
Jez and I see each other constantly. There's a strong understanding of where we are going, and of the points where we diverge. We work out where we will end up anyway. Sometimes we'll say the same sentence at the same time.
We're now a nice size and we have a lot of long-term projects. We've the time and the cash flow to develop. We still have that entrepreneurial buzz. To be one of the largest and most diverse companies in our own field, radio, is fantastic, but to have that reputation throughout different fields - that's a challenge.
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