I was delighted to receive a very generous email from John Russell,
BRMB's first Programme Director offering the inside story of how BRMB
was conceived and brought to life on Birmingham's airwaves in February 1974:
suppose I know more about the early days both before and after the
first transmissions of BRMB Radio than most and have only just
discovered your web site which I read with great interest as BRMB Radio
was so much a part of my life....I wrote a large part of the original
application document when we were applying for the licence, certainly
all the Programme Part. When we won the licence this formed the
basis of the schedule which was so successful.
was very lucky to recruit such a brilliant and enthusiastic team.
lecture and teach in Hilversum, Holland at the Radio Nederland
Training Centre despite being now 70.
Commercial Radio in UK and my old company BRMB Radio is due
to a number of factors on which I have a view
Programme Director of BRMB Radio
Here is John's fascinating story:
EARLY HISTORY OF BIRMINGHAM BROADCASTING LIMITED - BRMB RADIO
Chattaway the Minister in the then Conservative Government announced
that it was the Government’s intention to open up the radio
spectrum to provide competition to the BBC several years after the same
thing had happened with television, a number of individuals and groups
expressed an interest.
Later a Bill was
passed in Parliament and the bill stated that the new commercially
funded radio stations would be known as Independent Local Radio –
ILR and the Independent Television Authority would be renamed the
Independent Broadcasting Authority and would be charged with setting up
the system and awarding licenses. London would be unique
with two licenses one station speech based which was awarded to LBC and
one entertainment which was awarded to Capital Radio. Other early
licenses would be awarded in Glasgow (won by Radio Clyde) Birmingham
and Manchester (won by Piccadilly Radio)
The announcement of a
station for Birmingham brought forth four groups and one of them was
the mastermind of the Managing Director of the Birmingham Post and Mail
group together with the local head of Associated Television (ATV.)
The Birmingham Post
and Mail put up the seed corn money needed to prepare and put in for an
application and promised further investment if the application was
It was ATV which
suggested the appointment of a Managing Director to prepare the
application and suggested David Pinnell, who had worked in the
Commercial Sales Department of ATV in London under Lew
Grade. David Pinnell had left ATV to take up a post as
Managing Director of Rhodesia Broadcasting
David Pinnell resigned
from that post with Rhodesia Broadcasting when UDI was declared by Ian
Smith. David who had fought with some distinction in the Second World
War was fiercely loyal to Great Britain and the Crown and felt that he
could not go against his country. He went to LM radio in Lorenzo
Marques and also had business interests in South Africa. His commercial
radio experience was almost entirely on the advertising side of the
business he had little or no experience of the Programme side. He
was brought back to Britain and Birmingham and ensconced in a secret
office with a secretary on the directors’ floor of the Birmingham
Post and Mail
David Pinnell shrewdly
recognised his strengths in the commercial field and his weakness in
programming. He was looking for someone to fill that gap and to write
that vital side of the application in other words the programme
content. He also needed someone who could explain and sell the
schedule to the Members of the IBA most of whom had little or no
experience of radio other than as listeners as they had been dealing
I was working for The
Forces Broadcasting Service in Cyprus in the post of Programme
Organiser. I had first joined FBS (now renamed BFBS) as a
National Service Soldier also in Cyprus where at the age of 19, I was
an announcer. This was the time at the height of the EOKA insurrection
against British Rule. Cyprus was a very dangerous place. I used
to have a pile of records on one side of me and a loaded 38 Revolver on
the other side. I managed to escape one assassination attempt and
one ambush unscathed.
Prior to being called
up into the army I had trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of
Dramatic Art and was intending on my return to Civvy Street to become
an actor. My stint with forces broadcasting changed all that as I
fell in love with radio.
On leaving the army I
joined the BBC as a Studio Manager and sound effects man I worked on a
number of light entertainment comedy shows as well as radio drama
including soap operas. The title was rather grand the pay was abysmal.
I decided to leave the
BBC and I rejoined FBS as a civilian announcer and was once again in
Cyprus in time to be involved in the broadcast coverage of Independence
Day in 1960.
I was rapidly promoted
and was the Boss of my first radio station in Malta whilst still in my
twenties. I subsequently was the Programme Organiser and for a
time the Station Controller in Germany the jewel in the BFBS crown and
was credited with changing the entire output of that station which had
been stuck in a time warp for years. I met the woman who
subsequently became my wife in Cologne the headquarters of Forces
Broadcasting in Germany, when she came to work for me as my PA.
I was posted back to
Cyprus again in 1971 as its Programme Organiser and was not allowed by
the then Station Controller to change things as I had in Germany so by
this time I felt it was time to move on after thirteen years with
My opportunity came
when I read an article in the Sunday Times about the coming of
Commercial Radio to Britain. I wrote to all the names in the
article who were expressing interest including Hughie Green of
“Opportunity Knocks” fame.
My letters to several
consortia involved in bidding for licenses surprisingly brought forth
rapid replies all of them wanting to see me. I was actually
offered the same job by three groups one in London headed up by Lord
Ted Willis (who wrote many TV series including the famous Dixon of Dock
Green) his group was unsuccessful losing out to Capital Radio.
Manchester headed up by Phillip Birch an ex Pirate radio head offered
me the same job and was successful with Piccadilly Radio and finally
David Pinnell in Birmingham.
Although David and
I had never met he had heard about my experience and I knew of
him through mutual contacts between Manx Radio and the then head of
BFBS in the Middle East one Leslie Knight who was a friend of Richard
Meyer head of Manx radio.
Whereas David Pinnell
had excellent commercial broadcasting experience from the advertising
side, I had considerable experience as both a Programme Organiser and
Station Manager of BFBS, as its youngest Station Manager in BFBS.
I knew a great deal about running small radio stations and managing
creative broadcasters. I also had BBC experience and a rather
better appreciation of engineering needs than David.
David was a character
who had a bad habit of forgetting people’s names even members of
his staff but he had a strong sense of social and community involvement
and we clicked from the first meeting.
As I had also been in
charge of BFBS Germany, the jewel in the BFBS Empire and had
masterminded all the changes to that organisation I suddenly realised,
to my surprise, that I had skills which all these applicant groups
wanted. I decided to take the job in Birmingham.
When I resigned to
join Birmingham Broadcasting the then head of BFBS world wide based in
London told me that “I was selling my soul to the devil of
commercialism” he tried to persuade me to stay as I was being
“groomed to take over his job”. He believed I was making a
It was huge personal
risk for both David Pinnell and I as we only had a six month contract,
if we failed in the application bid we were both out of work.
I brought most of my
experience from BFBS to Birmingham Broadcasting Ltd in the writing of
the initial programme plans for the application. I had been both
the Programme Organiser and Station Manager of small radio stations and
all of this experience was useful both in setting up the company and
later in selecting and training staff and managing a group of volatile
presenters. I was appointed to the Board of the Company and am now the
only surviving Executive Director of the original company. Many of the
non executive directors including the Chairman John Parkinson are also
Most of the staff at
the newspaper had no idea what was going on. We were only known
to the Board of the Post and Mail and the editors with whom we had
regular lunches. We were clandestine. Every piece of unwanted
paper was shredded and nothing was leaked to our rivals. Our
application document was only shown in its entirety to the main board
just before we went for our interview with the IBA in London. We were
paranoid about other groups the BBC or the press getting wind of
what we were up to.
The night before our
interview the directors had a dinner in the Hyde Park Hotel just
round the corner from the IBA at which we decided on tactics. The
next morning over breakfast we discovered to our amazement that the
rival short listed group was staying in the same hotel! As we
went into the IBA Headquarters, opposite Harrods we met the cleaner who
said “oh you’ll get it the first ones in always do”
We were awarded the
licence with caveats. The IBA did not like two directors from the
newspaper on the board as they thought this was too much newspaper
involvement. The MD of the Post and Mail had to step down, he was very
upset as he had set it all up and backed the bid with a lot of money
and paid David Pinnell and my wages but the finance director of the
news paper Geoffrey Bateman stayed on. We were also required to take in
one director from the losing group. Other Directors reflected the
shareholdings by GKN, IMI, ATV, the Birmingham Co-Operative Society and
Davenports Brewery all well known Birmingham Companies. Our
Chairman was the Chairman of the Co-op and also the principal of
Solihull Technical College – John Parkinson; he was very adept at
negotiations with the IBA and had strong Socialist and Methodist
views. He was an ideal choice.
After we won the
licence I went off on an extensive tour of the USA and Australian radio
stations. Several ideas which I learnt from that visit and from
being attached to the Macquarie Group Group in Australia were
incorporated in our programme schedule with which we went to air.
I think that David
Pinnell brought a little radio knowledge from Manx Radio but in the
main his extensive commercial experience came from ATV sales department
and Rhodesia Broadcasting where he was the Managing Director. He
had the commercial and business experience and knowledge which I
lacked. My experience had been with “Public Service”
radio and I had to acquire rapidly a commercial knowledge. David was
highly respected in the industry and was a great personal guide and
friend to me I valued him highly as my boss.
As part of our
application document we commissioned two major researches, which
I seem to recall were carried out by Gallup Pollsters.. This
research was into a stratified sample of the population of Birmingham,
what they listened to, what they wanted from Local radio and how they
felt about the arrival of commercial radio i.e. advertising. We also
found out why they did not like the local BBC radio station (BBC Radio
The second research
was conducted with focus groups and I ran this and this went into types
of music most liked etc. I had groups of people of different ages
and different back grounds and played music to them and asked them to
evaluate it. On the basis of these group I formulated our
In addition I
personally contacted almost every public service and voluntary
organisation in Birmingham and discussed with these organisations and
their staff how they could be involved and what they could contribute
to a new radio station – these interviews we also reflected in
the application document.
After winning the
licence I revisited the organisations again with a view to using their
talents, skills and knowledge. This involvement contributed to
the rapid support which the station enjoyed from the decision makers in
the community. These organisations were a valuable source of
“experts” who from time to time took part in programmes.
The Automobile Association supplied our Car Expert; Birmingham Parks
Department supplied our Gardening Expert etc etc.
I appointed Sue Barker
to reflect the needs of the community which she did with considerable
success through an ever growing number of contacts. She
introduced some of our campaigns such as one on lack of literacy in
adults. The campaign was highly successful at attracting those who
could not read or write to come forward for training. Sue Barker
was both forceful and highly committed.
From the outset I was
determined to reach out to the ethnic minorities and I introduced to
our schedules “Geet Mala” the first Asian programme to be
broadcast on Commercial radio. It attracted a wide audience
amongst the Asian community ill served by radio. We also made
money from Asian advertisers. I did not understand a word of it as it
was broadcast in Hindi. I used to send recordings to other Asian
communities outside our area to check up on what was being said!
Our black music
programme on a Saturday night anchored by the late Erskine Thompson
(known as Erskine T) was a huge success with the black audience as
Erskine was widely known and respected in Birmingham - he also had an
encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of music and a huge personal
As a company, we held
monthly Director’s Lunches to which we invited disparate groups,
politicians from opposing views, trade unionists and business men and
women to a private buffet lunch with no waiters present so they could
air their views openly. These lunches were a huge success and
were a continuing part of winning the hearts and minds of the decision
makers. They in turn supported us against criticism and also
backed our licence renewal when the time came. It was all part of
putting our roots down firmly into the Birmingham community.
outstanding factor in our rapid success was the major contribution from
the News Room. Due to the professionalism of the BRMB News team
we established very close links with the Police, Fire and
Ambulance services plus the local leaders of the council, trade
unionists and leaders of business. In those days British Leyland was
rarely out of the news it employed thousands and most of the employees
and their families were our listeners. Colin Palmer with his
distinctive voice was rarely away from the gates reporting on strikes
and disputes. MPs and Local Councillors beat a path to our door.
The NEC opened not long after we started broadcasting; we covered the
opening and were involved in covering the many events there such as the
The BRMB news room and
its style of broadcasting a mixture of local, national and
international news on the hour every hour was the brain child of one
Keith Hayes who had had extensive radio news experience in Canada
although he was British. We gave him a seat on the Board of
He brought with him a
former side kick from Canada as his deputy. He never fitted in to
the Birmingham or British way of life and famously used to read the
news turning all the money items into Dollars instead of Pounds.
He also became immortal before he returned to Canada in suggesting that
the Cub Reporter Sue Todd (my wife) “should go down to the law
courts and chat up a judge as they like a bit of skirt”.
She had great difficulty in persuading him that such a suggestion was
illegal in UK
Keith Hayes hand
picked and appointed a very talented News Team with one exception Rob
Goulding who was a friend of mine and a longer friend of my wife who
had known him since his days as a journalist with the Kent Messenger
One of the undoubted
stars of BRMB news was Mike Henfield; his daily comment sometimes
pithy, often humorous was a part of the Breakfast Programming which
pulled in the huge audience. Like the racing tip for the day and the
local weather, public service announcements etc this comment made the
station different and relevant to our audience.
The Birmingham Pub
Bombings put BRMB news into the forefront both locally and nationally
as much of the News Coverage was broadcast over other radio stations
both in the UK and abroad. During this period the station
broadcast 24 hours per day and led eventually to constant twenty four
Other major news
events such as the Leslie Whittle Murder, the disappearance of the MP
and former Minister John Stonehouse, all established the station as a
first place to tune for local, national and international news and our
audience figures soared and reflected this. Our advertising
revenue grew rapidly and our initial investment was recouped we moved
from the red into the black and started paying dividends to our
shareholders and bonuses to our staff.
More interestingly we
received constant tip offs from members of the public – on one
occasion we were tipped off about a councillor being admitted to
hospital very drunk – our contact was the receptionist at the
hospital. On one occasion a reporter arrived at the scene of a
murder after a tip off from a listener, and on finding the body on the
floor he beat a hasty retreat to wait for the arrival of the police.
“invited” to have lunch with the Deputy Chief Constable
after a BRMB reporter arrived at a Bank Raid before the first police
car. I was accused of allowing the company to monitor Police
Radio frequencies – also illegal. A substantial
contribution to the Birmingham, Police Benevolent fund brought no
further action and we kept monitoring the frequencies.
However despite his
contribution in setting up the News Room and its team, Keith Hayes was
sacked as News Editor and Director of the company after appearing on
the stage at a rally with members of the National Front. Brian
Sheppard was appointed News Editor, but was not given a seat on the
board of directors, neither were my successors when I left.
We built up a large
fan club – these listeners would arrive at all BRMB events in
force wearing our T shirts etc. I paid a group of students to have
their Austin minis re-sprayed at our expense white with BRMB logos on
the sides so it appeared that we as a company were everywhere. I paid
the students a tank of petrol a month and gave them free tee shirts.
Our outside events
were always attended with large crowds and we sponsored the City Of
Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. After some persuasion I persuaded
them to put on concerts for the elderly, for children and Christmas
concerts in the Birmingham Shopping Centre.
We sponsored the Lord
Mayor’s procession and through an old army contact I arranged
for, and the station paid for the procession to be led by the Band of
The Household Cavalry. I knew the Musical Director, who asked me
whether he wanted his band mounted or uncounted we settled on uncounted
except for the giant horse in front with the Kettle drums.
successful promotions included the Larks in the Park (Cannon Hill Park
Concerts), The Young Musician contest, The BRMB Bubble in the Shopping
Centre, the Illiteracy campaign and the contest to find a new Rock Band
- we were eventually beaten by Capitol radio.
At Christmas time the
BRMB Radio Toy Bus collected toys from listeners for subsequent
re-distribution to disadvantaged families. Personal appearances
by our presenters often involved in live transmissions from a variety
of locations meant that we were constantly on view.
Our Pancake Race down
New Street against contestants from ATV, the news papers and the BBC
with Tony Butler doing the commentary was a great crowd puller.
After another convivial lunch with the Assistant Chief Constable and a
further contribution to Police Funds I managed to persuade the Police
to shut the road for half an hour. It caused chaos but we made
the papers and all the TV news magazine programmes. Our team led by
Nicky Steele won.
It appeared to the
public that BRMB Radio was everywhere.
approached us for coverage, interviews and announcements –
we had to make choices due to time constraints and the need to link
together the whole output with the music of the day.
I had always believed
that Radio had to be seen as well as heard and I spent much of my time
in the USA and Australia talking to those responsible for promoting
successful radio stations visually. We became a household word in
Birmingham and the Midlands. We appeared to be involved in everything.
jingles, loathed by the majority of the presenters but sung by most of
the listeners I met, were composed on the kitchen table by Johnny
Patrick and his wife Brenda with some input from me. Johnny
Patrick was the Musical Director of ASTV and also the Chairman of the
Musicians Union an organisation I needed on my side. Johnny Patrick
arranged and led the recording session and I had no problems with the
I have been asked
whether our arrival on the Birmingham radio scene made the BBC
station change its programme policy. I do not recall whether or not
they changed their programming. It was not important to us
– my challenge was in the main to draw the audience away from BBC
National Radio. At the time BBC local radio only had a very small
audience. If I had only captured that local audience we would
have been sunk financially as it would not have been large enough to
attract the advertisers locally and nationally.
I did upset the BBC
though by leading all the BRMB cars into the front entrance of Pebble
Mill just as Pebble Mill At One was being transmitted on National
TV. The Programme was broad cast from the foyer of the BBC
made the mistake of locking the gates behind so the viewers kept seeing
our BRMB logo in the background for the entire programme. I was
summoned to the Chairman of the IBA in London for a telling off for
playing “childish pranks”. The Chairman of the BBC
had complained. After the ritual telling off Lord Aylestone
Chairman of the IBA winked and said he thought” it was a jolly
Although our coverage
area was much wider than Birmingham we tried to reach out to the whole
target area and beyond partly through the news coverage. I am not
sure that we always achieved this, but we were the only game in town
commercially and we had rapidly overtaken BBC Radio Birmingham both in
audience figures and loyalty. Our audience figures grew to the point
where we exceeded those of BBC National radio. We were brash,
commercial, Birmingham based and very popular.
I was determined to
produce an overall distinctive station sound? Indeed, there were
some very outspoken personalities on BRMB radio and there was a
specific aim to let them develop their own style of presentation within
I believe I hired
presenters with not only engaging personalities but above all with
brains so they did not sound like “I speak your weight
machines”. Many of them were deeply rooted, born and brought up
in Birmingham and those that did not have that background were
encouraged to become part of the community and the area.
Kevin Morrison, Les
Ross, Ed Doolan, David Jamieson, Nicky Steele, Robin Valk Brendan
Kearney to name only a few had knowledge of the area, wit and above all
the pulse of the Midlands. Tony Butler with his acerbic and
controversial style was a huge success.
previously, Mike Henfield with his daily comments were required
listening, the racing tipster the rest of the sports team were all
steeped in their subjects and relevance to Birmingham and the
I controlled the style
of all presentation and the overall sound but the presenters, sports
team and the news room were encouraged within those boundaries to
develop their own style which was a major factor in the success of the
station and the way it and they connected with the audience.
In my view the path of
over formatted sound often produced centrally for a group of radio
stations presented by anodyne presenters was and is a grave mistake and
has contributed to the decline of commercial radio today.
Of course in the light
of experience, I made changes it was part of the evolution of the
output although it is also true that we did go through a difficult
financial patch in our first year and redundancies had to be made. The
afternoon Phone In with Alan Leighton who billed himself as Britain
only Male Agony Column Aunt was dropped on cost grounds. However due to
remarks he made on air his programme was taken off the air at very
short notice prior to the end of his contractual period. My decision
was controversial as he had many loyal followers. They paraded
daily outside the studios with banners. We had a lot of coverage
about this departure in the local press who subsequently also
dropped him as a columnist.
The personal problem
phone in on a Sunday Night was anchored by a Priest I had got the idea
from my visit to Australia was dropped as I felt it had run its course.
The fortune teller I also dropped and she was very angry. Someone
remarked “if she had been that good she should have seen it
I used to have deal
with a vast mail bag to all presenters and letters to the programme
department - some of them critical, some praiseworthy and many about
Tony Butler and his style – the audience loved him or hated him
but they kept listening
We were deluged with
constant phone calls to the news room with tip offs. Our
reporters noted that when interviewing members of the public on the
phone all too often they had to ask the listener to turn off the radio
momentarily as it was tuned to BRMB and would result in “howl
After a year I knew we
were a success and had captured the hearts and minds of the Birmingham
public when I took a taxi to or from New Street Station; the cabbie was
always tuned in to BRMB.
Department took over the responsibility for features as I wanted a
different style and I wanted the News room to concentrate on news and
News Specials such as the Leslie Whittle Murder, The Birmingham Pub
Bombings etc. Inevitably there were overlaps and sometimes
disagreements between the News Editor Brian Sheppard and myself as the
Programme Director – but in the end I was responsible and I sat
on the Board. I had the last word on all matters concerning output
except for the News Content which was the responsibility of the News
If the programming
schedule failed we would have no advertisers and we would fail as a
company. My duty was to provide a successful platform to attract
the advertisers and the profits. I believe I achieved that with
the style, the schedule and above all the talented staff.
As the Programme
Director I was responsible to the Board for all matters concerning the
output, including the music policy. The music policy was as a
result of our pre application research. Martyn Sutton was employed to
carry out that policy something which he did with considerable
ability. The Evening Programming mainly rock was selected and
introduced by Robin Valk as was the Black Music by Erskine Thompson and
the Asian Music by Taj Hasnain. The concepts again were mine.
Although initially we
used to close down at midnight we eventually ran round the clock.
We had always said we would go 24 hours as I believed that radio should
be like water from a tap always available. Our only problem was
waiting for the revenue to catch up so we could afford the extra staff
necessary. The Birmingham Pub Bombings and our twenty four hour
coverage at that time was a major factor in bringing the decision to go
for round the clock transmission earlier than we had intended.
Twenty four hour coverage added to our popularity if not our revenue as
we reached all the night shift workers. Those working in
hospitals the police and fire and ambulance gave our overnight news
staff even more tip offs.
Les Ross was and is
one of the radio stars of Birmingham. I was aware of his talent
when I first arrived in the city.
Les Ross approached me
before the launch of the station, but whilst I recognised his
prodigious talent and knowledge of Birmingham he was too much
associated with BBC Radio Birmingham. I wanted to launch with a
complete different approach and presenter for the Breakfast Show. I
told him to go away and get some Commercial Radio experience outside
the Midlands and one day I would call him back. He went to Radio
Tees and I did call him back. I offered him a job over Sunday lunch at
my home. I never regretted that.
His later recall to
the BBC is another example of how Commercial Radio in general and BRMB
in particular have lost its way in recent years. Les Ross I rate as one
of the great talents of BRMB radio. Along with Ed Doolan and Tony
Butler they are all a major gain for BBC Midlands and a huge loss to
BRMB radio and part of the reason for the station’s decline.
I left the company in
1980 to join a group applying for the licence in Bristol. Had we won I
would have been the Managing Director, we did not win and I was out of
a job until it was suggested that I should take over as MD of
Radio Victory in Portsmouth. I succeeded in turning that ailing radio
station round but was frankly bored and started to be interested in
Cable TV and I parted company with Radio Victory.
Subsequently I formed
my own consultancy company and only wound that up when I left UK to
settle in Cyprus. I still lecture and teach in Holland to
broadcasters and journalists from Developing Countries, this has
enabled me to keep up to date with new technology whilst giving back
something to a profession which has given me so much throughout my life
During my time and for
some years afterwards BRMB Radio was as much a part of the community as
Aston Villa and the Bull Ring. The IBA could not possibly have
removed the licence when it came up for renewal. It was taken
over by the Capital radio Group later GCap and started to lose its
unique identity. Sadly the station is now in decline not just due
to increasing competition but due to losing that identity set by the
local involvement and in particular the news room. It is the same story
around the UK with other commercial radio stations..
Another major factor
in the decline of all commercial radio now is due to MP3s, I-Pods and
the Internet. In my view this decline will continue.
Today’s audience has so many other sources of news and music
entertainment including delivery to their Mobile Phones. There
were no MP3s. I Pods, mobile phones, PCs in the home, Satellite and
Cable TV when BRMB launched.
I controlled the sound
and dictated the schedule of BRMB Radio. Today’s listener is his
own Programme Director obtaining his music, entertainment news at will
from a myriad of sources. All media is hunting for audiences and
revenue and in many cases failing as the communication revolution rolls
I was enormously proud
to be in at the beginning not only of BRMB Radio but also a founder of
Commercial Radio in the UK. After a previous career mainly
abroad, I felt that I had come home to create something in my own
country which was new and challenged the established order. I
liked the fact that I was taking on my early employer the BBC.
At one stage the Head
of Radio BBC even tried to woo me back to the Corporation from BRMB to
run BBC Radio Nottingham. I recall that the interview seemed to be
dominated by the Chairman of their Advisory Committee who was also the
local head of the Women’s Institute – she did not take
kindly to my suggestion that one hour per day devoted to WI affairs was
somewhat excessive and opening and closing the programme with a
rendition of “Jerusalem” by their choir was a turn off.
Clearly the radio
climate today and all forms of communication have changed
radically. Audience needs have changed and the method of delivery
of news and entertainment has altered dramatically. In some ways
it is a pity that most of this change has been brought about not by the
Programme Directors, programme makers, the presenters and the
performers but by the technical advances and changes in means of
delivery and reception of media. The changes are technology led.
Local Commercial Radio
today is hardly local any more; it is dominated by large companies led
by accountants with syndication driving down and dumming down of local
output and in my view driving away audiences. Until recently I
was a shareholder of GCap Radio which took over BRMB Radio and which
itself has now been taken over. GCap Radio’s annual reports
made depressing reading. They had lost audiences, revenue and their way.
I started my career
some fifty years ago when I came into broadcasting as a radio announcer
in Army Uniform followed by a spell with the BBC as a sound effects
man. As I enjoy my seventieth year, I feel I am no longer part of
broadcasting but part of the greater challenge of communications in all
its new and emerging forms.
I am very proud to
have been in at the start of BRMB Radio, to have contributed to its
success and to have found, engaged and encouraged so many talented,
committed and intelligent presenters. From my village in Cyprus I look
back on those days with huge amount of affection and a little pride and
thankfully with still a reasonable memory of those unique times.
The future of radio
and television broadcasting, new media, the internet, broadband and all
the other forms of communication is a fascinating challenge but
alas it is for others much younger to take up. I am part of
yesterday’s challenges and decision making whilst being merely a
recipient of todays.
* * *
One of the things I learned during my career was that all the presenters
wanted my job and thought that they could do the job far better than I
could! Maybe they could have done, but they did not hold down the role.
I think they thought it was about more money, a company car, long
lunches, secretaries etc etc most of which was true. The down
side was the responsibility round the clock seven days a week, you
could never get away from the station and its output except by going
abroad. You took all the complaints from the other departments, from
listeners, the Board of Directors, the IBA. You were a father
confessor, a benevolent dictator, a confident, a marriage guidance
counsellor, an arbiter of taste, a trainer, an innovator and a brake
all rolled into one. It was rather like constantly walking on egg
It was both a delight as a job and a killer with the hours and
responsibility. All the presentation staff looked to me for
praise and hated criticism and came to me with their personal
problems. It was a lonely role as the Programme Director has
virtually no one to turn to for his guidance. I was lucky to have
a Managing Director who trusted me and a wife who understood and
Above photographs: John Russell.
BRMB Radio, Birmingham.
(Courtesy Keith Brown)
1938 to 2009
I was extremely
saddened to learn that we lost John Russell on 6th October 2009.
Brian Sheppard sent me this note:
Hi, I have heard from an old BRMB colleague that John has died at his
home in Cyprus. Read his account of BRMB's early days - a time
when I was News Editor after the departure of Keith Hayes.
News Editor BRMB 1974 - 1990
Our thoughts are with John's family.
Post and Mail newspaper:
pioneer dies in Cyprus aged 71
by Graham Young, Birmingham Post
BRMB’s first programme director who helped shape the careers of Les
Ross, Tony Butler, Robin Valk, Brian Savin and the late Nicky Steele,
has died, it was announced yesterday.
John Russell, a pioneer of radio phone-ins in the UK, died of cancer in
Cyprus, aged 71.
Other DJs signed by Mr Russell included Ed Doolan, who was brought over
from Germany for BRMB’s first day on air – February 19, 1974.
Like Les Ross, Doolan went on to be made an MBE and to become one of
the first 40 broadcasters to be inducted into the Radio Academy’s Hall
Currently hosting the BBC WM lunchtime show, Ed Doolan said: “I owe
everything to John Russell – he took a chance on me and, believe me, it
was a chance.
“He was a very tough manager. You only realise later that he was also
Mike Owen, who became programme controller after being given his first
job by Mr Russell, added: “It was John’s inspiration that created the
first agony phone-ins on UK radio.
“Innovation was the order of those early years and so many of us have a
lot to thank John for.”
Mr Russell helped BRMB to win the licence in 1973, when the Birmingham
Post & Mail was a major shareholder.
He retired to Cyprus with his wife, Sue Todd, who kept her maiden name
and will be remembered in Birmingham for her PR and marketing work with
Graham Rote and Associates.
Declaring in a 1979 interview with the Birmingham Post that she
objected to being called Mrs Russell, Sue said of her RADA-trained
husband: “He is really a frustrated actor. When he reads a ghost story
late at night for BRMB, I must confess he’s good enough to make me feel
jumpy when the floorboards creak.”
After leaving RADA for National Service, Mr Russell fell in love with
radio as a 19-year-old announcer with British Forces Broadcasting in
He was on the roof of Government House for the island’s independence in
After leaving BRMB in 1980, Mr Russell became managing director of
Radio Victory in Portsmouth and was the first head of programming for
the National Broadcasting School. More recently he had been working in
Holland with the Radio Netherland Training Centre.
Mr Russell is survived by Sue and their son, Benjamin, as well as
children Cherry-Anne and Damon by his first marriage.
His funeral will be held tomorrow in Ayios Therapon, Cyprus.
On the website www.mds975.co.uk there’s an email from Mr Russell called
The Inside Story of BRMB, posted by the site’s radio enthusiast, Mike
Writing late last year, Mr Russell reflected: “I was enormously proud
to be in at the beginning not only of BRMB, but also a founder of
commercial radio in the UK.”
But he added: “Local commercial radio today is hardly local any more.
It is dominated by large companies led by accountants with syndication
driving down and dumbing down local output.
“In my view, the path of over-formatted sound, often produced centrally
for a group of radio stations was and is a grave mistake.”
Tribute to John V. Russell - BFBS & BRMB
I was very saddened to hear that pioneer broadcaster and friend John
Russell had passed away suddenly at his home in Cyprus on 6th October
2009. I met him several times when he came to Hilversum to run courses
for the Radio Netherlands Training Centre.
A few years back I visited his home on the island to meet him and his
wife Sue. We started chatting about his great radio career and I
decided this was material that we should share with others - so out
came the camera. What I have posted here (in two parts) are sections of
the interview recorded that afternoon, where John shared a lot of
wisdom about what works and doesn't work in radio. Through the training
work he did in later years, many students owe their careers to John.
His wit, wisdom and authenticity was a great gift and I hope this video
will inspire others as much as it inspired me. John was truly one of
the Masters of the Media.
BRMB's original director dies
John Russell, BRMB’s first programme director and a pioneer of radio
phone-ins in the UK has died aged 71. Russell helped kickstart the
careers of broadcasters like Ed Doolan and Nicky Steele. Talking to the
Birmingham Mail, Doolan said: ““I owe everything to John
Russell – he took a chance on me and, believe me, it was a chance.”
Russell helped BRMB to win their first licence in 1973. After leaving
BRMB in 1980, Mr Russell became managing director of
Radio Victory in Portsmouth and was the first head of programming for
the National Broadcasting School.
Writing late last year, Mr Russell reflected: “I was enormously proud
to be in at the beginning not only of BRMB, but also a founder of
commercial radio in the UK.”