Monday, 12 February 2018

Radio Songs #26: Commercial Breakdown

Much concern has been voiced in the comments section that I'm now a quarter of a century (in terms of posts) into my radio career, and yet I still haven't been paid. So here it comes, my first paying job... I'll warn you though, it's probably pretty dull.

The truth is, the money in commercial radio comes from the commercials. Those bloody things that make most people want to turn off the radio or tune to another station. Ten to twelve minutes an hour of the things - if you're lucky, some stations pack in even more. I do think that in the UK we've been rather spoiled, many of us having been brought up on ad-free BBC radio stations. I'm sure that probably strengthens our antipathy for commercials - whereas in other countries, they're probably far more accepted. Still annoying as hell, but a necessary evil. (The ultimate irony of my Bill Hicks-style hatred of adverts is that I ended up writing the bloody things, which was in its own ways both the best and the worst job I ever had. But we'll get to that in due time.)

Anyway, most commercial radio stations in the UK focus on one big city and its surrounding areas. So the Manchester stations advertise businesses in Manchester and the Leeds stations advertise businesses in Leeds and the Dundee stations advertise business in Dundee. But it wasn't that easy for the station I worked at, which broadcast to one minor city (a city with a chip on its shoulder as it was seen as a second class cousin to a much bigger city a few miles down the road) and two pretty major towns. The problem was, a lot of people in the minor city went and did their shopping in the bigger city next door (which we didn't broadcast to)... and a lot of the people in the two major towns were quite happy doing their shopping locally... but wouldn't be seen dead in the minor city our station broadcast from. Various efforts had been made throughout the station's existence to convince listeners - and businesses - in the two towns that the station wasn't just focussed on the minor city, and my first paying job revolved around one such effort.

The station also had two transmitters and two frequencies. A smaller transmitter which broadcast to the minor city and a huge transmitter that broadcast (on a different frequency) to everywhere else. And this was where some Smart Alec in the sales department had a brainwave: what if they split the output to those transmitters during ad breaks!? So one set of ads would be broadcast to the city and another set of ads would be broadcast everywhere else.

At the time, adverts were played out on air (as were all jingles, sound effects, and even some songs) via the medium of cartridge... a close relative of the old 8 track cartridges that were big for about 6 minutes in the 70s. Some people even had them in their cars! Just like the one pictured above...

(The crappy, half-peeling label was a must.)

There was one stack of these wonderous machines to the left of the on air desk... and another stack to the right. Every ad break, the DJ would select four or five carts from the cart-wall that took up one whole side of the studio and play them out in the order specified on a many-folded sheet torn from a dot matrix printer and bulldog clipped to slab of chipboard. The ad log. But with split ads - basically, twice the number of adverts to find and put in order and make sure they were put in the right piles on the right side of the desk (left for transmitter A; right for transmitter B), concern was voiced that such an arduous and mentally-taxing task would prove too much for the average jock who also had to talk, play records and tie their own shoelaces... so that's where I came in.

For six to eight hours a day then (depending on how many ads the sales team sold that week), I would sit in the corner of the studio and help the presenter get their commercial breaks in order. Not half as much fun as cataloguing records, but I did get paid! £5.10 an hour! Oh, happy day! I had money at last!

I went straight out and bought a CD player... and, well, you can guess where the majority of my wages went after that...

26: The Sunshine Underground - Commercial Breakdown


  1. Crikey, what a complicated system! Any frequency related cock-ups to fess up to?

    1. That kind of thing happened all the time, particularly both breaks playing out over the top of each other. We weren't popular with the sales department, but as you say, it was a ridiculous, overly complicated system.

  2. Hallelujah - A pay cheque has finally arrived. £5.10/hr sounds not to bad either in terms of wages as the minimum wage right now is only £5.60 for an 18-20 year old. It's all relative.

    That system sounds complicated but as you know I do miss that world of having actual physical log sheets to create and cartridges to be lined up ready to play. From experience, if for some reason the technology of today fails, we are left high and dry unable to do anything. It all sounds complicated but in some ways simpler times, where we were still in control and not the computer systems.

    1. Actually, I'm starting to wonder whether I was actually paid £5.10 an hour at that stage... I know I was later on, but possibly it was a lower figure at the start. No way of checking, so we'll give my former employers the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Genuinely fascinating!!

    1. I can never tell if you're being serious...


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