In the back flap of Danny Baker’s new autobiography, Going to Sea in a Sieve, the simple text beneath Baker’s photo says:
Danny Baker is a comedy writer, journalist and radio DJ. He currently presents six shows a week for the BBC and is a regular face on TV. He still lives in south-east London.
Sadly – at time of writing – he’s down to one show a week. As I’m sure everyone who’s reading this blog knows, Baker was told a week or so ago that his BBC London show was essentially being cancelled at Christmas, and he was not at all happy. His final show was in effect a two hour rant against the managers – weasels – who’d cancelled it. As much as anything, his real beef was that nobody told him to his face, and the BBC London gig was one he loved.
For years we’ve been told that he wasn’t on a full time contract, and was paid relatively little. Indeed during that final show he revealed that Amy Lamé and Baylen Leonard were paid £50 a show each while he took home £300 a show after deductions. That does probably mean that the show wasn’t cancelled for monetary savings, but for other less specific reasons.
And of course, the timing was just awful. Baker is one of those due to be inducted into the Radio Academy Hall of Fame on Tuesday this week. As inductees get to give a speech, it’s fair to say that Baker will be venting his spleen with some very carefully chosen prose.
I have no idea where he’ll end up next, but while Talksport and Radio 2 are both thought to be interested, I can’t really see anywhere that could take on that format apart from 6 Music. In an interview with Jonathan Ross on Saturday night it was suggested that he still has a future at the BBC – unlike certain other people. We’ll wait and see.
I’m an enormous Danny Baker fan, and I really hope that he pops up somewhere soon. I do, however, realise that I’ve worked for a station that has somehow managed to dispense of his services on at least two occasions. I should add that I’ve never actually met the man as I was only at the station for his second second term and subsequent departure, and his show ran pretty much exclusively at weekends. Thus Baker was not to be seen in the building during the week. (Oddly enough, deep within a filing cabinet I was clearing out the other day, I actually found a letter detailing a payoff that had to made to another station to enable Baker to join ours. Remember Baker was very good friends with Chris Evans, then owner of Virgin Radio where I was working, and so it perhaps wasn’t a surprise that Evans wanted Baker to join us).
Anyway, back to Baker’s book.
Baker has a gift with language. That’s not surprising because he started out being a writer, and effectively hasn’t stopped since. The earlier sections of his book paint a terrific picture of his part of South London. You’re also left in no doubt that he had a wonderful childhood.
The backbone of the book is his family, and in particular his father. A dominant figure not just within his family, but the surrounding area too. A dock worker for many years, and a union activist, he appeared to take no prisoners. But he had a turn of phrase to do so. It’s a testament to Baker’s memory that he can be captured so clearly, and life in the Baker family so clearly captured.
This book only takes us up to him landing a permanent gig on LWT’s South Bank Show – the programme that first brought him to my attention as a young teenager. In that respect, it doesn’t really cover Baker’s radio career. Yet because he’s framed to perhaps most of us through his radio performance, I think it’s fair to say that this does count as a “radio book.” It frames the radio personality he was later to become. And he does mention a single appearance on LBC, albeit one that would suggest that radio wasn’t for him.
When Baker regales us with a story, he manages to convey something of the PG Wodehouse about the way he spins the yarn. Anyone, like me, who’s heard Baker on the radio over the years, will instantly recognise the tone of voice in the words he’s written. I’ve not heard the audiobook of this title, but in my minds eye, his voice is unquestionably there with every word on the page.
Beyond his time at school, and the friends that he hung around with, we learn about his years working in record shops in and around the West End, where he was able to rub shoulders with some of the biggest stars of the day. Then we move forward to a brief period writing for a punk fanzine through to landing a dream job working for NME.
Yes – he drops a few names along the way. But he manages to do so with verve and without you hearing a clang. Aside from anything else, there’s a purpose to the stories. Something very funny happens, or goes very badly wrong (tape recorders failing to work; falling in love with the pop star rather than making notes of what she’s saying).
If, like me, you’ve listened to long periods of Baker’s life over the years, then many of these stories will be familiar. Some certainly aren’t, and he only delicately exposes us to his personal life. Towards the end of the book he explains that he thinks that people who “bare their souls” or “reveal any kind of intimate details” want “locking up.” In any case, that’s not what I want from a Danny Baker book.
So we don’t get it. We just get a great series of stories, and have a rollicking good time along the way. If you’re a bit a fan like me, then you’ve probably already bought this book. The good news is, it’s well worth reading.
Perhaps it’s a little unfair to compare Going to Sea in a Sieve with another book entirely, John Myers’ “Team, It’s Only Radio.”
Actually it’s very unfair. But both books feature radio personalities to one extent or another, and it so happens that I’ve just read the pair in close proximity to one another.
Baker, of course, has been a writer for many years, and his turn of phrase on the radio has a literary quality. On the other hand, I’ve never actually heard Myers on the radio – in one of his several guises. But I suspect that I’d be listening to something of a different kind of show.
I should also mention that I’ve never worked for or with John Myers, and indeed until relatively recently, had only really come across him in the excellent BBC documentary from 1999 – Trouble at the Top: Degsy Rides Again. The programme seems to be in available in a few parts on YouTube, and if you’ve never seen it, I’d thoroughly recommend it.
Myers takes us through his career from breaking into radio at BBC Cumbria, through his various gigs at a variety of stations in the North West and North East until he ended up forming the radio group that was to become GMG Radio (itself currently being sold to Global Radio).
There are some entertaining and interesting stories to be told. It’s perhaps a little unfortunate that in Jeremy Vine’s introduction at the beginning, he rather steals the thunder from several of them. If you’re not overly familiar with some of his past stunts, I’d suggest leaving the introduction until the end.
I’ll certainly not compound the issue by repeating them here. But some of them are genuinely quite funny, and you can believe that the imagination and enthusiasm with which they were carried out left rivals a little unhappy.
The book is indubitably a “radio book” because really we learn very little of Myers’ character beyond what he does in his radio existance. There’s a certain amount of moving around the north of England has he climbs the ladder between jobs, and yet of his personal circumstances we get little. He gathers a wife along the way, and has some kids. But mostly this book is dealing with the business of radio, first as on-air talent, and then later the management of radio, and the building of a radio group.
It does seem that Myers has never met a radio colleague that he doesn’t like. Maybe a few presenters get short shrift, and I was always told that if you have nothing nice to say about someone, then don’t say anything at all. Perhaps he’s being polite here. But there were a few too many times when he disagreed with someone professionally, only to later relate how they’ve remained good friends to this day.
On the other hand, from the little I know Myers, he does seem very personable, and seems like someone who while disagreeing with you at a professional level, may not hold a grudge against you at a personal level. In other words, this is entirely possible.
At one point Myers talks about “logo lolly.” In retrospect, this makes sense now, but I’d not come across the phrase previously. “Logo lolly” was (is?) a cash bonus paid to reporters who were able to get their stations’ logos on camera – especially on the local news. Myers’ book talks about offering £25 each time a logo was screened. Indeed, having talked to colleagues subsequently, I understand that this developed into a sliding scale, with bonuses increasing as if your logo made local, national or even international coverage.
I must admit that I’ve often thought that the shameless plugging of radio stations through garish microphone “muffs” can be somewhat tasteless. While I think it’s perfectly acceptable in entertainment or sports coverage (e.g. the red carpet at a film premiere), when you see the vivid primary colours at a news conference being held at a police station where sombre news about a missing child or similar is being shared, I find it frankly distasteful.
And the nonsense with microphones can get worse and worse. In some countries large attachments are placed onto the microphones to mean viewers can’t fail to see the stations’ logos when the microphone is thrust inches from the speaker’s mouth.
But for the ultimate in ludicrousness, check out this US local news TV segment from this week’s election coverage. Ignore the fact that the reporter got the identity of will.i.am wrong a couple of times, but look instead at his LCD-festooned microphone. Shameless.
Anyway, I’m drifting off topic. Returning to the book, I must admit that I do have a few reservations about it. There’s no easy way to say this, but it’s pretty poorly written. This is no ghost-written tome, and although an editor is credited, I think it probably needed someone with some more literary skills to go through the book and tidy it up. It’s certainly Myers’ voice that drives through the whole time, but in places the book feels a bit mangled and randomly sorted. I just think a helping hand could have structured it a bit better in places, tidied up a few overused idioms and generally made it read better.
In the end an autobiography is often not a great deal more than a series of anecdotes used to illustrate a life. Yet, there needs to be structure, and those anecdotes have to be placed in context, and this is where the book lets the reader down a little. While it’s fair to say that nobody from outside the radio industry is likely to read this book, there is a certain amount of assumed knowledge required of the reader to truly appreciate what was happening in UK radio. And time scales aren’t clearly conveyed as we jump forward years at a time with little said about the intervening period.
I think Myers would probably admit that he presents a pretty positive side to things that have happened during his career. He’s not afraid to big himself up. Towards the end of the book he does admit that not everything went right and he made mistakes along the way, but you don’t get too many of those mistakes highlighted for readers. We can fairly track exactly how much he was paid at each point too. When a big payday comes along, he’s not shy to tell us how fortunate he was. To be fair, Baker also has a passage detailing his views on money, and actually italisises the word millions so you’re clear how much he’s spent over time.
It must be said that when regional FM licences were being awarded in the late nineties and early noughties, Myers had a pretty exceptional track record for winning them. So it really was surprising to hear some of the vitriol he gives the regulators at various points when he doesn’t win one. In particular, the section dealing with the award to Kerrang! of the West Midlands licence seems a bit unfair. Myers had failed to win it with an application that would have enabled him to tie a number of his services up into a neat package. Yet here was an award that was doing something different. Yes, it’d have been great for the Guardian to get another licence to add to its set, cut down on some costs and build a business. But nobody has a pre-ordained right to spectrum, and that’s something a lot of groups broadcasting on analogue radio today should remember. It’s a scarce resource, and there are others who’d love to get on the radio too. A new entrant was allowed into the marketplace in this particular instance, and that’s as it should be.
But I suppose that what really strikes me from reading this book, about an industry that I thought I knew fairly well, is how rampantly sexist radio was in the past. (Others may argue that it still is, and until we even up the numbers of male to female voices a bit more, they probably have a point).
A few stories are told with a bit of a nudge and wink, followed by some contrition from the perspective of documenting them in 2012. But then we’ll get a qualifying phrase like, “Remember, this was 1994…”
Honestly, 1994 was pretty recent!
And it certainly wasn’t like 1974 in terms of what kind of sexism was somehow deemed acceptable in society. I think it just goes to show that in parts of the radio industry, it took them an awful long time to grow up.
My first start in radio was just two years later, and I can assure you that the largely female department I worked in, under a female senior executive would not have found some of the tales told here appropriate in a business at that time.
Overall “Team, It’s Only Radio” is a fun read, and certainly presents a picture of a medium that perhaps isn’t always as good as is cracked up. But I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone aside from the most diehard of radio enthusiast.
Two very different books then.