Liverpool calling: Two new radio stations are giving a new confidence to Scousers
Ian Burrell gets a bird's eye view of how the multi award-winning Radio City and its newly launched sister station City Talk operate
Monday 21 April 2008
It must be the weirdest location for a radio station in Britain, almost 400 feet up in the air, and housed in what looks like a giant concrete sceptre that protrudes from the Liverpool skyline.
Radio City, once again, is nominated for Station of the Year in the Sony Radio Awards so it can't be a bad place to work. But the windows of its offices go ceiling to floor and you orbit the studios by means of a narrow, carpeted corridor which offers stomach-flipping, Peter Crouch views of such Scouse landmarks as the Liver Building, St George's Hall and Lime Street station.
For some, this Major Tom to Ground Control environment has proved all a bit too much. When the station decamped to what had formerly been a high-rise restaurant, several staff resigned on the spot. One vertiginous presenter could only walk round the outer corridor with his back to the glass. And when it gets windy, the whole thing sways.
"Eighteen months ago when we had the big gales, we were going round and round," says Richard Maddock, MD of the network and its new sister station City Talk. "We came very close to abandoning ship."
Visiting guests, Maddock admits, have been known to "go pale" and ask for water. "But when you've worked here for a few years, you get your sea legs."
On-air, presenter Roy Basnett is quizzing City Talk listeners on the subject: "Whatever happened to comedy?" He has Wirral funnyman Jim Bowen on the line and the German-baiting Stan Boardman has been on earlier, attempting to resolve the conundrum.
Maddock seems to have had little difficulty working out a winning radio formula. Radio City, recently bought from Emap by Bauer Radio, has already won the Sony station of the year prize in its category three times in the last six years. This year, the network's outspoken presenter Pete Price is also nominated for an award, along with a journalistic piece probing the distribution of tickets for last year's Champions League final in Istanbul.
City Talk was set up in January and is the only speech-based commercial station in England that doesn't broadcast from London. Maddock went to America, home to 2,000 talk stations, to get the model for the network and came back looking for what he calls "lightning rod" presenters, people who would not sit on the fence in a debate. "Liverpool is a city that doesn't do shades of grey," he says. With a powerful opposition in the shape of BBC Radio Merseyside, where balance is essential and the audience is slightly older, the new station needs to take some risks.
He built his roster of presenters without worrying about their radio experience – many were recruited from newspapers and television. "Iconic Liverpudlians", such as Letter to Brezhnev actress Margi Clarke (who does a late night sex talk show) and Brookside's Simon O'Brien, alongside journalists including Brian Reade of the Daily Mirror and Larry Neild, formerly of the Liverpool Daily Post. Maddock admits that listeners will hate some presenters but says that they will stay tuned to the ones they like for the entire show. Price's show has been promoted around the city with the deliberately provocative quote "Racism is alive and well in Liverpool". O'Brien's publicity posters use a (censored) obscene tirade which once got him the sack from Radio Merseyside. It's an attempt to suggest that City Talk is edgier than its BBC rival.
Dean Sullivan, another former Brookside actor (he played Jimmy Corkhill) and host of a weekday afternoon show on City Talk, is in the station canteen. He dedicates one-third of his three-hour slot each day to arts coverage, from La Traviata to Echo and the Bunnymen. He claims there is so much creative work going on in the city that 60 minutes a day is barely enough to do it justice. "I demonstrate that the arts are interesting, that they can have an impact on people's lives, make them more informed and better educated."
It is of course Capital of Culture year in Liverpool and Radio City is an official sponsor (though its coverage of Ringo Starr's opening concert was criticised as substandard in some quarters). Paul Newman, the former BBC sports correspondent turned comms chief for the Football Association, is communications director for the Liverpool Culture Company and says 500 journalists have visited the city from all over the world in the last three months. The Wall Street Journal recently described the city, which once inspired the bleak Eighties drama Boys from the Blackstuff, as "the new Barcelona".
Nowhere in Britain has such a painful relationship with the news media. Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun put the knife in over Hillsborough, then later apologised. Boris Johnson was obliged to grovel after the Spectator used the murder of Ken Bigley as an opportunity to highlight perceived flaws in the city's collective psyche. But one of the pieces that hurt most was Jonathan Margolis's infamous "Self Pity City" feature in The Sunday Times in the wake of the murder of Jamie Bulger.
Margolis was recently moved to write a piece for the Daily Mirror, headlined "I love Liverpool". The Mirror's owners, Trinity Mirror, which also own the Liverpool Daily Post and Evening Echo titles, have been investing in local new media, spending £3.2m on web design and development company Rippleeffect Studio, which is run by Ben Hatton, son of Derek, the one-time Militant leader of Liverpool City Council.
Though the television mogul Phil Redmond sold Mersey TV to the indie giant All3Media in 2005, the company lives on as Lime Pictures and has grown Hollyoaks into the only British soap with an expanding audience.
As a reflection of Liverpool's media confidence in 2008, Newman cites Cision media statistics identifying 2,700 print articles about the city since the start of the year, with 94 per cent of them positive or neutral. This of course could mean Scousers will become more muted, happy that their reputation is no longer being maligned and all is right in the world.
But Terry Smith, who founded Radio City in 1974, won the licence for City Talk and remains chairman of the business, thinks not. "If local radio is going to work anywhere," he says, "it's going to work in Liverpool."
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