Tag Archives: Talk Radio

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Radio

Fugitive rapist film director Roman Polanski delivers a pointless turkey

Last night, I was invited to a preview screening of Roman Polanski‘s new film. It was never likely to end happily. It was a bit like a Jew being invited to a screening of the Nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will, except that Triumph of the Will was an artistic success.

Let us get ‘the Polanski factor’ out of the way first. As any regular reader of this blog will know, I think the rich fugitive rapist should be rotting in some stinking prison cell in California.

Personally, I would not finance a movie directed by some criminal who drugged, raped and buggered a 13 year-old girl and then fled the country to escape justice – and I know something about financing films involving criminals. But Polanski’s showbiz friends seem to think an ‘artist’ of his ‘stature’ (an ironic description, given that he is vertically-challenged) should be forgiven for what they see as a past minor crime. They and I perhaps have different opinions on that – and on our choice of meaning for that crucial word ‘minor’.

I never much rated his early Knife in the Water nor Cul De Sac. But Repulsion was very effectively paranoid, Dance of The Vampires was brilliant and his Playboy-financed version of Macbeth – the first film he directed after his wife Sharon Tate was butchered by the Charles Manson ‘family’ – is one of the two best movie Shakespeares I have ever seen (the other being Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet).

Pirates (1986) and What? (1973), though, were virtually unwatchable.

Whether or not he has made great art in the past is somewhat irrelevant; artistic merit is no mitigation against serious criminal charges.

We also have to bear in mind that all views of movies are personal views. So, for example, when I saw Polanski’s allegedly comic new movie last night, it sounded to me as if the publicists had inserted ‘laughers’ in the third row to lead the hoped-for audience merriment: it is always difficult to ‘dub’ laughter naturalistically and the guffaws appeared to be slightly misplaced.

I may have been wrong, though.

Later, coming out of the screening, I talked to a comedian I know and his friend. They had both genuinely enjoyed the movie and had laughed in many places. So I was perhaps wrong in finding the thing a totally laugh-free zone – although, in my defence, they did compare the movie to Cat On a Hot In Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, neither of which I see as laugh-a-minute raucous comedies.

So… let us get to the movie itself: Carnage, which has some passing aspiration to depth with references to atrocities in Darfur and the Congo and to the God of Carnage. At the start, it includes the line “If this kid gets away with hitting people, why would he stop?” – a line included apparently without any intentional irony, despite Polanski’s past – and, towards the end, it includes a line about how, morally, you are supposed to control your compulsions “but sometimes you can’t”.

If only the script actually addressed these points. But it does not.

This is the sort of film that actors admire.

It has four excellent actors – Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz – getting their teeth into what looks less like a movie script and more like an Actors Studio limbering-up performance piece. It is a sub-Edward Albee claustrophobic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? style extravaganza of psychology and showy performance. Jodie Foster, with the showiest, juiciest role, displays genuinely brilliant Oscar-worthy acting of a type that Academy voters love.

But the thing I saw last night is not a movie. It might be a good stage play (which is what it originated as) or even a radio play or it certainly could be a cheap TV play, but there is no reason on God’s earth for it to be made as a big screen movie.

With the exception of a brief opening MacGuffin and a brief final coda set outside, the entire 79-minute film takes place in real time inside a New York apartment (though it was shot in Paris because Polanski is a fugitive from justice in the US).

I describe the opening scene as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin because, really, it does not matter what the protagonists are arguing about. The plot is that four people – two couples – argue throughout with each other in varying configurations. What they argue about is almost irrelevant. The plot is the psychological arc of their arguing though, it has to be said, it is aimless and, ultimately, reaches no climactic end resolution.

I suspect Polanski (who co-adapted the stage script and is therefore partly to blame) may have been attracted by the chance to show he can keep an audience’s attention in a single location as Alfred Hitchcock successfully did in Rear Window and Dial M For Murder or Oliver Stone did in Talk Radio.

It is visually competent, but no more – though Polanski shows-off to film students and cineastes by placing one wall mirror in the apartment’s living room and three in the bathroom – mirrors are difficult for directors to shoot round. But what is the point of this film other than, when it comes down to it, a self-indulgent acting exercise?

The movie does not have the psychological depth it aspires to and, though well-acted, it is a shallow shouting match between four people. It never seems to be going anywhere and, in fact, never reaches anywhere. The film just ends without warning or meaning.

I never laughed once and, as far as I could see, the only humour in the film came when Kate Winslet unexpectedly vomited on a coffee table. There was a knee-jerk laugh. But, if you have to rely on an unexpected vomit for your laughs, you are in big trouble.

Give me a knob gag any day.

From my humourless viewpoint, the marketing strategy on this film appears to be wildly misconceived. A comedy movie it is not. It is like selling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a comedy. Why bother? If anything, it is a filmed actors’ showcase within a stage context.

At the end of his excellent, though over-rated, movie Chinatown, someone got shot. With this new movie, it should have been Roman Polanski himself.

I was going to compare the movie (filmed a year ago) to the Emperor’s New Clothes but, really, I think I will settle on describing it as a movie which should have been released at Christmas. That is the traditional time to sell turkeys.

Leave a comment

Filed under Crime, Movies

The night Malcolm Hardee visited Eric Bogosian, naked, at the Edinburgh Fringe

This is the near-legendary true tale of one of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee’s most celebrated stunts. Recently, I was told by Malcolm’s long-term partner Pip that she was in the audience at Eric Bogosian’s show that night. So that may add some extra context. Malcolm did like to show off a bit. This is the story in his own words, taken from his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.

_________

We went back to Edinburgh the next year – back to The Hole in The Ground – and this time Circuit had three tents. They loved a tent. They had a big one in the middle, with a small one on one side and a medium one on the other. Like Daddy Tent, Mummy Tent and Little Baby Tent. You could pay to see one show and hear all three as the shows were running simultaneously.

We were in the Daddy Tent. Emma Thompson was in the little one with ‘The Emma Thompson Band’. And, in the medium one, was this American creature called Eric Bogosian. He later starred in Oliver Stone’s movie Talk Radio. I never got on with him. He was a prima donna. He upset everyone. He upset Emma Thompson. She was in tears and I boldly told him to leave her alone.

All the arguments and artistic friction came about because of the clash of noise.

What we tried to arrange was to perform all our noisy bits at the same time and all our quiet bits at the same time, so the audiences wouldn’t get too distracted. But Eric was having none of it. One part of his show had Heavy Metal music – very loud – in our quiet bit. His show was called Funhouse – An Anarchistic Romp Through The American Way of Life. So, I thought, well at least he’s a bit of an anarchist. He’ll like a laugh, won’t he?

Our show that year started with me entering on a tractor. I tried to leap over ten toy cars but, of course, the tractor went off the ramp and squashed the cars. Good opening. We had persuaded the manager of a local garden centre to lend us the tractor for free and we advertised his business. He was a typical dour Scot and was in the audience with his family the night I decided to visit Eric Bogosian.

We had had about six days of Eric’s Heavy Metal music coming through into our show, so I decided to go and see Eric in his tent. During a performance.

It came to the part of our show where Eric was making a hell of a row with his heavy metal tape. I screamed at our audience to make myself heard above the noise:

“Look, we’ll go and see Eric. All of us. He’ll like it. He’s a bit of a laugh. He’s an anarchist.”

I jumped on the tractor, naked. The stages were flat. So I drove out of our tent on the tractor and straight in to his tent and onto his stage. Our audience followed behind the tractor.

“Hello, Eric!” I said.

He was swaying backwards and forwards, ‘air-guitaring’ with a broom handle in his hands and he was going “Brrrrrmmmmmm!” to this AC/DC track that was coming out of the loudspeakers. Very witty, I presume.

When he saw me in the nude on the tractor followed by all our audience, he stopped performing and flopped in a chair that was at the back of the stage. We all filed past, then came out of his tent and back into our own and thought no more about it.

After about two minutes, I heard the sound of a tractor being smashed up with a sledge-hammer. Then I heard, round the back, all the dressing-rooms being smashed up. Then he came running in. By this time, Martin Soan was naked and I had clothes on. Eric saw Martin and thought it was me. So he hit Martin and knocked him over and then ran out screaming. Martin got up and carried on, because we’ve had worse than that.

_____________

(The excerpt from I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake is copyright John Fleming and the Estate of Malcolm Hardee)

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, PR, Theatre