Last year when I was the oldest fresher in town at Adam Smith College, beginning the long journey to an HND in Radio, I visited the goNORTH festival in Inverness. I was accompanied on the long drive from Fife by friend and second year radio student Andrea. Andrea had been an inspiration to me ever since I met her. Her boundless energy and drive was infectious and we clicked immediately. Originally we had intended to attend the only radio seminar that was on – Dabster’s Richard Melvin leading a panel of Jeff Zycinski, Head of Radio for BBC Scotland, Capital FM’s Stuart Barrie and Liz McIntyre from Moray Firth Media Trust on a discussion about the issues affecting local and community broadcasting – and return to Fife. However, we found ourselves intrigued by some of the other non-radio sessions like EGMAC’s Masterclass on “How to Get Your Short Film Made”, Musicians’ Union: Fair Play (featuring Rab Noakes as a panelist) and the excellent Trends in Non-Fiction Seminar which saw literary agent Jenny Brown conduct a masterclass in developing and pitching non-fiction. Rab Noakes was also in attendance at this but as a “punter”. Andrea and had I enjoyed the first day so much that we decided to do it all again the next day, despite the long drive. We were well and truly bitten by the goNORTH bug.
This year I was fortunate enough to get a place on the goNORTH Radio Production course. I had applied last year, even though it was aimed at Highlands and Islands people. I was determined to do it as it seemed such an amazing opportunity. As it turned out, I wasn’t wrong. The fortnight-long course would culminate in a three-day radio station, broadcasting live from a marquee in the gardens of BBC Scotland during the goNORTH festival. Coming to the end of a two-year HND I figured what I had already learned would help me and the course would offer invaluable experience. But it didn’t really ready me for what was to come.
Radio programme makers will tell you of stories needing a hook or an ‘arc of jeopardy’. My own story certainly had that. It was the proverbial rollercoaster on which I encountered all manner of emotions. There were tears and tantrums, as well as laughs and learning and for some of us a lot of personal development and an amazing sense of achievement. The course wasn’t just a step up from what I had been taught at college, it was a never-ending escalator. It took me well out of my comfort zone but, in a masochistic way, it’s just what I wanted or maybe needed.
During the first week, in our Ironworks office, we were taught interviewing and recording techniques, how to create interesting packages from initial idea to finished product and all within a tight timeframe and how to put shows together. I knew some of it already but this brought on its own pressures. I was constantly reminded that big things were expected of me. As someone nearing the end of an HND, with years of experience in hospital and community radio, I was probably the most experienced of the students. Some of my fellow would-be producers had never done anything like this before. In many ways they had the advantage of having no preconceived ideas and were a blank canvas on to which the trainers could paint.
The course was led by Richard Melvin, a well-kent face in radio, his trusty Dabster sidekick Al Lorraine and the most amazing man-manager I’ve ever seen in the form of Scott Shaw, a whirling dervish of energy, positivity and ideas. They were ably assisted by an experienced radio tag team of Julia Sutherland (week one) and Darren Adam (week two). All of them, in different ways, provided the hints, tips and, where necessary, verbal kick up the arses necessary.
About 40 years ago I had lived in Inverness. I was maybe 6 or 7. My dad was in the Army and, as you’d imagine we moved about a lot. I have fresh memories of places I lived in like Singapore and Bonnyrigg but remember nothing of Germany (where my brother as born) or Edinburgh. One of the most vivid childhood recollections I have is of Inverness and my route home from primary school to my old house. I had tried on a number of occasions to work out exactly where that had been but without success. Even the advent of Google Maps was of no help. That was until I mentioned it to one of my new classmates, Innis. As soon as I described the area and my route home he knew exactly where it was and as I saw the area on the laptop the memories gushed back. It turns out that while Innis is studying in Edinburgh his parents live not far from where I used to stay. He knew the area well. I believe in fate and meeting Innis was most serendipitous. Not long after this discussion we were to be split into pairs. We had to come up with an idea each, which would be pitched to a panel, consisting of some of our trainers and Amanda Millen, head of everything goNORTH. They would pick the best one and we, as a team, would have to go and make it. But we only had three or four hours in which to turn it around into a finished piece, or “pack” as I now knew they were called. I had mentioned my idea to Richard and he was happy for me to team up with Innis. Luckily my pitch was chosen over Innis’ although I liked his idea too.
You can hear the final piece, Going Back To My Roots, below. It’s not perfect and there were a couple of things we would change but we couldn’t afford to be precious about it as we had a deadline. I thought Innis and I worked well as a team and I was thankful he could help me revisit a particularly happy time from my past.
In the days leading up to the radio station going live we had to book acts, make packs, come up with show ideas/features, as well as writing up scripts, running orders and call sheets. In our teams we would all produce and present the shows and also work alongside radio professionals like Vic Galloway and, in the case of my team, Jim Gellatly.
We were put into different teams again for the radio shows and, if I’m being honest (and I want to be), my team-mate Maria and I simply didn’t get on. We weren’t just singing from different hymn books; we were in different churches. I won’t go into details because that wouldn’t be fair on her but it just didn’t work. That’s going to happen in all walks of life, not just radio, but you remain professional and do the job in hand and that’s what I tried to do. I learned later that almost every team had their differences but none were as marked or, in one instance, as public as ours. Moving on…
The shows would run from 10 am until 3pm with each team having an hour each and would run for three days – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Our team had 12 until 1 every lunchtime, which I felt was a good slot. The five production teams had a keenly contested but playful bunfight over the 80+ bands who would be playing – “who’s got Jo Mango?” – as we tried to populate our respective shows with interesting content.
The first show (Tuesday) saw me behind the desk on the faders and buttons with Maria presenting. Gary Thain from KOBI came off his sick-bed to perform a couple of songs and Ewen Watson, frontman of officially my new favourite band Be Like Pablo, did likewise.
I had tried to plan ahead and have my running order and most of the script sorted for the Wednesday and Thursday shows. Indeed I thought my own Wednesday show had been finalised by Monday night. Wrong! Richard wanted a live singer or a band and I didn’t have one! He said it created a better atmosphere in the marquee with a live act and he was right. Cue an evening of feverish phone calling to bands, managers and promoters during what was supposed to be a relaxing drinks reception. But, by 1am, I had a singer! I had tried to get Black International but they could only do a Thursday. Eventually, thanks to a tip-off from Jamie at Netsounds I got Bulgarian-born singer-songwriter Ilona.
I had a ball presenting my show. A late night of re-arranging scripts and running orders to accommodate Ilona meant I hadn’t had much sleep but I was driven on by pure adrenaline. Little did I realise I would be the first of a number of sleep-free nights over the next few days! My show finally featured two live interviews, including Ilona, and a pack all about The Slosh, including a countdown of the Top 5 Slosh records and a live Slosh in the marquee, led by Stephen with Richard doing his own unique interpretation of it. The hour, as Scott had predicted, just flew by. Here’s the other interview with Kate Wilson from publishing company Nosy Crow:
I had managed to secure the services of Jim Gellatly to guest-present our last show. He also kindly agreed to voice a couple of Top 5 gigs to see in goNORTH for me, one for each night. If you don’t ask… Vic Galloway had performed a similar role for Mark and Freyja the previous day and it had become a feature of the radio station to have guest presenters, with Ally Macrae another regular. Every day there was a great atmosphere in the marquee with many of the guests joining in the fun, including our own goNORTH Giggles and Name a New Band competitions.
While last year I saw no bands (except Billy Boyd – yes, *that* Billy Boyd – and his band Beecake in the Mercure Hotel bar) and attended loads of seminars, this year was the reverse. The only session I went to was Rab Noakes talking to Gary Clark (ex-Danny Wilson) about their respective careers in songwriting but that was out of professional necessity as Rab was to be a guest on Thursday’s show. I felt it was a good opportunity for further research and nail down some topics for discussion. Jim was there too and we retired to a local hostelry afterwards for a ‘meeting’ to discuss the running order I had proposed. He seemed happy with it and I took on board the wee tips and pointers he gave me. He was also happy for me to write the links and questions and he would go over them on the morning of the show. Leaving the pub we caught the last moments of Black International playing live in the street outside a skater shop! The atmosphere within the city was certainly building into an Edinburgh Fringe kind of vibe.
Wednesday night was the first of two nights of gigs, and all free. It had been a stressful day in the marquee with the main desk not working and a technical workaround being put in place. Improvise, adapt, overcome was the motto of the day. We all needed a drink after that day! I had a plan, which was reasonably straightforward. I saw the route Jim had planned to take through the night’s entertainment and it resembled some kind of crazy mind map! Even though we all had radio shows the next day most of the Radio goNORTH team were out on the town to take in the bands and the wonderfully fevered atmosphere.
My first stop was The Room to see Miniature Dinosaurs. They were to be guests, along with Rab Noakes, on our show the next day. I had to confess I hadn’t seen them before and had only caught a few videos on YouTube while researching bands to book. I immediately liked their sound, with Barry’s distinctive vocal style and I wasn’t disappointed by their set. With so many bands playing so many venues over a relatively short area, the venues would fill up very quickly, usually at the last minute, as fans crisscrossed over town to catch the next act on their musical bucket list. Then it was off to Black Friars to catch the infectious fuzzy, powerpop stylings of Be Like Pablo, who I had fallen in love with. Having done their work for the night Miniature Dinosaurs were there too and enjoyed an energetic half hour of harmonies and handclaps from the best thing to come out of Forres since the A96. The night ended with more indie pop in the shape of The OK Social Club whose single “The Shape of Things to Come” was getting a lot of play at Radio goNORTH, but not before I went through a rite of passage that most men should have already done by now. Yes, that’s right, I had my first meat kebab! In the company of 3/4 of Miniature Dinosaurs I lost my donner cherry as we discussed the finer points of kebab management. (If you’re thinking I’d obviously had a few beers by this point you’d be spot on!)
By 1.45 am I called it a night only to then bump into Rab Noakes at the Greig Street footbridge. He was taking in some night air by the River Ness and why not. It certainly was a great place for some quiet thinking time. Indeed I’d done it myself the previous week in an attempt to get some brief respite from the ‘madness’ of the course.
Sadly the late night would have to be accompanied, within hours, by a very early morning. I hadn’t just burned the candle at both ends, I’d blown it up! I had a wee bit of editing to do on a pack and the finishing touches to Jim’s script and running order but nothing I couldn’t handle, even on a handful of sleep and a raging hangover.
The show with Jim went well, with both Rab and the Miniature Dinosaurs (above) on good form, despite the previous night’s hedonism. The only downside was Jim managing to break one of the white garden chairs we had in the marquee. Sadly no-one was on hand to film it and send it to You’ve Been Framed.
With all the shows ‘in the can’ and now broadcasting to the world via Radio goNORTH.com we could let our hair down and cut loose. Most of us gave the Mystery Tour a miss but I soon regretted it when I found out, from the girls themselves, that the wonderful Cairn String Quartet were special guests, playing covers of Chvrches, Franz Ferdinand and Frightened Rabbit amongst others. I’d first met them at the Darvel Music Festival and it was gobsmacked when they walked into The Auctioneers. Early in the evening I had the kind of organisational headache I couldn’t shift. There were three acts on at the same time. I had already committed myself to seeing KOBI at Hootananny, so had to give Jo Mango and Duncan Overmeer, Friend of Radio goNORTH, a miss. I’d popped in to the Market Bar to wish Duncan well only to realise it was the size of small fridge freezer!
I watched KOBI in the company of Jim Gellatly and Stu Thain, manager and cousin of KOBI frontman Gary. They did a wonderfully brassy version of “How Soon is Now”, which was a joy to hear and see. Stu had done the radio course last year and was back as a volunteer. He, along with Duncan Overmeer, seemed to be everywhere in Inverness and regularly popped into our marquee. Indeed, when we asked Jim to pick his favourite New Band Name from the list supplied by guests to our show he plumped for The Duncan Overkill Fan Club. You can see the other Band Names below.
It’s fair to say that the next band we saw – and most of the Radio goNORTH team were there to witness it – were the surprise package of the event. Belgian indie poppers Protection Patrol Pinkerton – we simply called them PPP or “The Belgians” – had performed a couple of acoustic tracks in our marquee, having travelled over 12 hours from Ghent to get there. They sang their own song “This Time”, augmented by a locally-purchased xylophone as well as an amazing cover of Herman’s Hermits “I’m in Something Good” (although I pointed out to them later in an alcohol-fuelled 60s fanboy haze that someone had done it before the Hermits) but we hadn’t expected the live performance we witnessed that night. Their brilliant electric set, included many tracks from their album and a decent cover of The Stone Roses’ “She Bangs The Drums”, had everyone on their feet. Singer Jelle also engaged in some traditional Scottish “taps aff” mosh pit dancing. By the end of the week they’d be vying with Be Like Pablo for the title of my New Favourite Band. We also voted that Protection Patrol Pinkerton’s “Future = Our Home” was our Song of the Course.
Most of the course stayed for Hector Bizerk but I headed back to The Autioneers to catch a bit of The Enemies and Homework. That’ s when I bumped into a four-piece I hadn’t seen for a while. The Cairn String Quartet had been special guests at the Mystery Tour earlier in the evening, which ended up at the airport. After a lengthy catch up we all headed off not to the Aftershow Party at the Ironworks. We’d spent the past 10 days upstairs in an office there and it was great to see the main body of the venue whilst watching more bands and mingling with many of the bands we’d seen in our marquee or in the local venues. Our favourite Belgians were there too showing no signs of flagging despite their exhausting trip to Scotland and the imminent return journey.
Of course, no Aftershow is complete without an After-Aftershow as many of us staggered off to the Encore Hotel for a night cap, or three! Eventually I left with the Cairn String Quartet and the Belgians at 5am. Thankfully we’d be given licence to turn up for the post-course de-brief around 10.30. As I was wont to say at regular intervals, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”. At this rate though I was practically halfway there.
While the working side of the course has been intensive and full-on, we’d also been able to have a social life. The networking side of the fortnight is very important and, after a stressful day, essential. It also provided the opportunity to gain some invaluable contacts in music and other areas of the festival.
The two weeks with the Radio goNORTH team is the kind of money-can’t-buy experience that all would-be presenters and producers should get involved in. Whilst it’s primarily aimed at Highlands and Islands people (because that’s where the funding come from) there are occasionally places available and I’d urge anyone with an interest in radio to apply.
I met loads of great people in Inverness. I want to thank all of the course trainers (Richard, Al, Scott, Darren, Julia and Darren) for their inspiration, the staff at Ironworks for all their assistance, everyone we pestered for interviews or vox pops and, most of all, all the gang who took the journey on the crazy Radio goNORTH bus, which was something akin to the film “Speed”. Big hugs to my BFF (you know who you are) who kept me sane.
There were lots of great moments but from a radio point of view it was working with Jim Gellatly who gave me some invaluable advice. Musically, there were lots of highs from so many different styles of music: Be Like Pablo, Protection Patrol Pinkerton, KOBI, Miniature Dinosaurs, Jo Mango, Ilona, The OK Social Club, Willie Campbell, Shambles Miller and Duncan Overmeer. Would I goNORTH again? Hell, yeah. Even just as a punter. You should too.