Tag Archives: Channel 5

Union JACK radio station wants to hear from unusual and innovative comedians

“If people say It’s safe, that’s not really what we want to hear. We want clever ideas which will appeal to a wider audience. We want to hear ‘unusual’ and ‘innovative’. Some people may say: It’s crazy. It will never work, but that’s fine. We like to hear that. ‘Safe’ is what everyone else is doing. We are not interested in that.”

That’s what Donnach O’Driscoll told me when I chatted to him. Strangely, I believed him. He is the CEO of Union JACK Radio. They are now one of the sponsors of the Leicester Comedy Festival and Leicester Comedy Festival boss Geoff Rowe is now part-time Director of Comedy at Union JACK.

But, like I said, I chatted to Donnach O’Driscoll…


Donnach and I supped tea at Soho Theatre

JOHN: You started as…?

DONNACH: My very first job was straight out of university – Trinity College, Dublin. Three years working for Bank of America in Washington DC. I went through their management training programme.

Then I worked three years for Gaston Thorn. He was leaving office as President of the European Commission, leaving Brussels and he wanted a Chef de Cabinet…

JOHN: A chef?

DONNACH: Not a chef. The French call it a Chef de Cabinet… It’s like a personal private secretary in Whitehall.

I wrote speeches, travelled with him, met everyone he met. Before he was President of the European Commission, he had been President of the United Nations General Assembly.

When I was with him, he was Executive President of the largest media company in Europe – RTL so after that, through him, I then worked for RTL for seven years as Head of Radio Development and then as Vice President for UK Activities.

JOHN: What did that involve?

DONNACH: Getting RTL into Channel 5 as 29% of the original investors. I said: “If we want to be a truly pan-European media group, we need to have a presence in the UK.” So I was on the board of Channel 5 when we were originally awarded the licence. RTL ended up buying out the other shareholders before recently selling it to Viacom.

I was also in the process of building a radio group for RTL in the British Isles – We had Atlantic 252 in Ireland. We bought Talk Radio. We were original investors – 15% – in XFM.

But then we were bought by German media group Bertelsmann who were only interested in television. Radio went out the window. So I left and went to Capital Radio for one year and then, with friends, we set up Absolute Radio International.

In 2003, we partnered with UTV in Northern Ireland and bought the Juice radio station in Liverpool. Then, in 2005, UTV decided to buy Talk Radio group and bought the three of us out of Juice. 

In 2006, we bought an FM station in Oxford and won a second Oxford FM licence in 2007. We leased a successful US radio station format JACK from its North American owners and Anglicised it. We aimed our first Oxfordshire station JACKfm at 25-45 year-old males. The second FM station we branded as JACK 2 Hits for a younger, mainly female audience.

There are 50+ JACKs in North America, targeting a 25-45 year old male audience. It has no presenters; it is very irreverent; it has attitude, lots of humour and is, in a way, unpolished. Everything that the rest of commercial radio is not.

Around this time, Virgin Radio was up for sale. We had national ambitions. Through RTL, I knew Times of India – the largest media company in India, who had never invested in anything outside of India. But they backed us and we got it in 2008. 

I became the CEO of Virgin Radio and we re-named the station Absolute Radio. People thought we were mad to change the name. We launched it into the teeth of a Recession. Our three core pillars were music, sport and comedy.

When we bought Virgin Radio, it had about 1.8 million listeners. As Absolute Radio, we built that to close to 4 million.

As featured in the ad industry’s Campaign magazine after the Virgin Radio takeover

We made a point of live music and doing live music in unique locations, like the first rock music concert in the House of Commons. Elbow did a concert in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. We closed Regent Street in London and Madness did a concert. On the comedy side, we wanted two comedy anchors – Frank Skinner on Saturday morning and Dave Gorman on Sunday morning. We brought in Ronnie Wood (of the Rolling Stones) as a presenter.

In 2016, we launched a third station in Oxfordshire on DAB only – JACK3 & Chill – a ‘chill’ station for over-50s. The same humour, the same irreverence, but calmer. Still a very wide playlist, unlike most commercial radio.

We wanted to take the JACK brand national; there was no FM spectrum available so we went DAB to launch Union JACK, which celebrates/plays the best of British music and comedy. Music and comedy are both equally important. All of the music is chosen by the audience. Our app allows people to vote songs up and down a playlist and add songs onto the playlist. To date, we have had over 22 million votes.

JOHN: So you are a franchise of the American JACK Radio…

DONNACH: No. Before we launched our two national stations, we, as it were, bought the freehold for Europe in perpetuity. It was like what we did at Virgin. We felt we needed to hold the freehold for the brand. We can launch JACK stations anywhere in Europe.

Jack Radio – aimed by women for women (and some men)

We launched our second national UK radio station – JACK Radio – a year ago: music aimed at a female audience. And we’ve started to introduce editorial content into it. We have a women’s sports show. Not just ‘women’s sports’… Things like a female perspective on the Premier League. There’s now a relationship show. We’re working on a wellness show. And we will introduce comedy. It won’t be as important as on Union JACK Radio; it will just be one additional element. A bit like the glossy magazine which appeals primarily to a female audience but in no way deters a male audience and actually, at the moment, there are more male listeners than female to JACK Radio.

JOHN: So how do you make Union JACK stand out among all the other radio brands?

DONNACH: Commercial radio, generically, is tight playlists, researched heavily, very slick. They will do a short bit of talk, then play Rihanna for the third time in an hour. JACK is the antithesis of that. JACK is spontaneous. As soon as something happens, we have our station voice recording funny, irreverent lines about what Boris Johnson has just done or whatever.

We look to play two new unsigned music acts every hour. We have a character on the station called Lucy Leeds – she’s from Leeds – and she goes round interviewing new bands and effectively familiarising our audience with those new bands.

We’re not a big corporate. We don’t have the resources of Global or Bauer or News International. So, within our limited financial resources, we have to stand for something. It’s very difficult to find audience niches. You have to try to be creative. Our ethos is to try and support new talent in music and in comedy.

JOHN: The pace on Union JACK is very fast. 

DONNACH: What we do NOT want is traditional DJs and traditional presenters doing 4-hour blocks. Turn on Heart or Magic or Kiss and that’s traditional radio. It’s two songs, 5 or 6 minutes of ads. From our perspective, we are trying to do it differently.

JOHN: Between your music, short scattered ads and the scattered station voice stuff, you also drop in short extracts from classic BBC comedy shows.

DONNACH: In order to familiarise the audience with the output and the brand, I thought it would help to have some classic comedy clips in there. But new comedy is what we want to do. Original comedy. We want to meet comedians with ideas.

JOHN: What’s your pitch to comedians?

Part of the increasing original comedy output on Union Jack

DONNACH: We are small. We are self-funded. We don’t have big corporate backing, but we want to develop relationships with comedians… If you can’t get exposure because the limited space on BBC Radio 4 is effectively locked-up with shows you can’t get near and you don’t have the resources to do a national tour… then we have a national platform and we are looking for content. Please come and talk to us. Even if it’s the nuttiest idea.

JOHN: And they presumably have to record in your studio in Oxford.

DONNACH: No. There’s plenty of studios around.

JOHN: So you might rent them a sound studio in Soho or…

DONNACH: Wherever. Wherever. If they’re in Newcastle, Doncaster, wherever, we’ll find a studio which we would pay for. We have a platform. We will make it work including finding the studio, recording it, getting it onto a podcast, whatever. We will do the mechanics of it. 

I hope that, as we develop, the ‘talent’ may see us as even more of a friend than their agent. They may have an agent who is keen to develop their careers but who gets a commission. We don’t take a commission. We are not in it other than to find great content. 

We want content and we want people who feel they haven’t had an outlet for their content. We don’t have preconceived ideas. 

If you go to the BBC, it can take up to two years to get something on air. We can get something to air very, very quickly. If we like the idea and we can make the finances work, we can get it to air on Union JACK Radio within a couple of weeks.

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Human pups, video nasties, stuffed rats, Dead Elvis and sex – with Tony Hickson

I bumped into Tony Hickson at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden and he asked me if I wanted to hear about Dogboy – his ‘dogumentary’ film – not a documentary, a DOGumentary – about human pups. So, a few days later, we met at the Soho Theatre Bar. The up-market glamour of my life never ends.

“Human pups?” I asked.

“You must know what they are, John.”

“There is,” I said, falteringly, “some sub-culture where people dress up in furry animal costumes and have sex.”

“No,” said Tony. “Those are Furries. The human puppy thing is mostly latex and a bit of bondage stuff and dog leads and that sort of thing. One of the people in the dogumentary used to be a Furry.”

Tony Hickson directed the new DOGumentary

“Why did he change?” I asked.

“He was drawn to the dog thing, dressing up with the mask and all that.”

“Do they dress up as specific dogs?” I asked. “Are there human chihuahuas and human King Charles spaniels?”

“Now you are just,” said Tony, “being silly.”

“No,” I said. “When you say ‘dress up as a dog’ do you actually mean fur and ears and …”

“More a PVC suit with a dog’s head,” said Tony. “PVC or leather. Not fur.”

“Rather un-dog-like, then,” I suggested. “More BDSM.”

“I did ask them,” said Tony, “whether it was sexual or not. They said it wasn’t. They said it was about being in the headspace of master and servant and roleplaying.”

“How did you stumble on this sub-culture?” I asked.

“I was driving along the seafront at Whitley Bay in Tyne and Wear and one of them was walking along and he was on a lead. So I stopped and asked: Can I make a documentary about you?”

“Was he on all fours?” I asked.

“No, just walking normally.”

“That’s not being a dog at all!” I complained.

“But,” explained Tony, “if you were on your knees, it would take you ages to walk along the seafront.”

Dogboy with his ‘handler’ shopping in Newcastle city centre

“How long is the Dogboy dogumantary?” I asked.

“22 minutes. I made it for Made Television in Newcastle and their slots are 22 minutes.”

“They screened it?”

“No. They didn’t like the subject matter though there’s no sex in it and it’s not dirty in any way.”

“Have they transmitted other stuff of yours?”

“Yes. A documentary about gurning. I won the South East England Gurning Championships.”

“In the DOGumentary,” I asked, “were the people OK with being identified?”

“One of them never takes his mask off, but his handler doesn’t wear a mask.”

“That’s the official name, is it?” I asked. “Handler?”

“Yeah.”

“What do they do? Just walk along seafronts?”

“They go to meet-ups with other pups.”

“Do they smell each other’s bottoms?”

“I never asked that.”

“Do they urinate on lamp posts?”

“I never asked that. You are going a bit Channel Five here, John.”

Dogboy plays with his bone and ball in Tony Hickson’s film

“I still can’t get my head round what they do. Do they just walk along seafronts and go to meet-ups where they bark at each other?”

“No,” Tony replied. “They play with their rubber bones and their balls.”

“Have you tried any of this yourself?” I asked.

“No. Personally, I can’t really see the point.”

“Do women get involved?”

Yes, but it’s mostly just men.”

“So not much bitching?”

“No.”

“Do they go dogging?”

“I never asked that.”

“So you have made documentaries on gurning and this human puppy thing. What else?”

“I normally make short cartoons. I did make a horror film called Nasty Splurty Brains in 1992 but didn’t start submitting it to festivals until about 2002. It was banned in Scarborough.”

“Banned in Scarborough?” I asked. “Surely not. Why?”

“In 2004 or 2005, there was going to be a film festival in Scarborough called Whitby Shorts and the Council were humming and hahing: Oh! You’ll need a licence and the films will need to be licensed! which was bullshit. So I thought: How can I turn this to my advantage? The BBFC have got a list of video nasties and there’s a copy on Wikipedia, so I added Nasty Splurty Brains at the bottom of the list. Then I wrote to the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association saying: It’s on the list of video nasties! and they got onto Scarborough Borough Council and it was banned because it was on the BBFC list.”

“That’s an interesting piece of alternative marketing,” I said.

Where’s Mary? – legally, Tony’s short film obviously can’t say.

“I also made a 10-minute puppet film called Where’s Mary?” said Tony.

“Who is Mary?”

Mary Bell.”

“Oh Jesus!” I said. “Let’s keep off that!”

“It did not get banned,” Tony continued, “but I got a lot of heat. A few death threats.”

“What was the basis of the film?” I asked.

“A child killing other children. A puppet film. Originally, it was going to be more esoteric and experimental, but then I shifted it to puppets. I sold it to the Horror Channel. They went bankrupt.”

“Your other films?” I asked.

I Suck Your Guts – full of movie moments we will never share

“I started making a feature film called I Suck Your Guts around 2012. It was about time-travelling Nazi zombies. But it never got finished, because I fell out with the writer.

“I studied TV and video production at college in Newcastle and worked in corporate video in the late 1980s.

“I stopped making films when I came to London in 1991 because I just ended up working in shoe shops and record shops. I got back into film-making in about 2005 because I started to enjoy it again. Shall I tell you about Dead Elvis?”

“Oh, go on, then.”

“I first started performing as Dead Elvis when I left the circus.”

Circus boy Tony on trapeze at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

“The circus?” I asked.

“Before I was an actor, I was in the circus. I trained as a trapeze artist and ended up doing knife-throwing and fire-eating for Zippo’s Circus and at a circus called The Foolhardy Folk up in Norfolk.

“I did about five years in the circus but then I got bored. The novelty wears off. Then I came up with a cabaret idea called Dead Elvis around 1998, based on a 1980s drag performer called Dead Marilyn. He did Marilyn Monroe… after she was dead.”

“Did you have much success as Dead Elvis?” I asked.

“I was in a programme on Channel Five.

Dead Elvis supported the 1998 Scottish football team

“And I was in the 1998 Scottish World Cup video as Elvis – not Dead Elvis, just normal Elvis.”

“Why did they have Elvis in the Scottish World Cup video?”

“Because it was filmed at Prestwick Airport, which is the only place in the UK that Elvis ever visited.”

“And Dead Elvis?” I prompted.

“When I did live events, people hated it. I used to sing Suspicious Minds and there’s a part where the lyrics say Dry the tears from your eyes and I had this plastic Madonna on stage which squirted water out of its eyes. And I would sit on a toilet and pull the chain and there was a pyrotechnic which exploded and blew glitter everywhere. But the audience just didn’t get it and I would get booed off stage and I thought: I’m wasting me time here.”

“Would you revive the Dead Elvis to perform it again today?”

“No. There’s lots of people doing it now. Even when I was doing it, there was the Lesbian Elvis, there was the little one – Elfis –  and there was Elephant Man Elvis. Then there was El-vez (the Mexican Elvis) and there was Harry Singh – he was the Sikh Elvis, back in the 1980s with Don’t Step on My Popadoms.”

Tony as Dead Elvis in Jesmond Graveyard on New Year’s Day 1997, shortly before getting thrown out for climbing on graves

“You seem to have had a few careers,” I observed.

“Round about 2008 or 2009 I was a paparazzo photographer in London. I did get Kate Moss once, when she came out of a taxi. I had thought it was going to be Jarvis Cocker but it was Kate Moss and Pete Doherty was with her and she had his guitar in her hand so it looked quite cool.

“As she walked by, I was pressing the button on my camera and the flash didn’t go off and she said: Yer flash is really shit and, for some reason I apologised to her – Oh, sorry.

“On my way home, I threw my flash over Waterloo Bridge into the water. Pete Doherty was always pissed, he always looked like a bag of shit so pictures of him were guaranteed to sell.”

“But I get the impression,” I said, “that you really want to make movies now.”

“In 2015,” Tony told me, “I did a Masters degree in screenwriting at the London College of Communication.”

“And you have made films since then?” I asked.

Ratty etc – such stuff as dreams are made on

“There was Captain Ratty: Intergalactic Space Crusader. I made it in 2015. It was screened at about five film festivals including one in China and at the Anča International Animation Festival in Slovakia.

“It uses rats. Proper rats. The rats are dead. One of my hobbies is taxidermy, so I just bought a rat, two mice and a gerbil from the local pet shop and stuffed them. They were dead before I stuffed them.”

“Do pet shops,” I asked, “sell dead rodents?”

“Yeah. For snake food. Captain Ratty: Intergalactic Space Crusader is good. It’s quality. People hated it though… Obviously.”

“Did the stuffed rat move?” I asked.

“Yes. I moved it with me hand. Like a puppet. There was a film festival in Brighton where they brought in kids from the local autistic school.”

“Please tell me you didn’t stuff them,” I said.

“No. But one of the kids saw Captain Ratty on the screen and he freaked out. He had to be taken from the hall. He didn’t like it. But it is a good film. Highly recommended.”

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