It’s 25 years since I first drove down the M5 to Exeter for a day that would change my life. I was interviewed for my first job in journalism at Gemini Radio – and it’s a time that brings back many fond memories.
Ringing the changes
The previous year, in 1995, Gemini had started broadcasting to Exeter, East Devon and Torbay. It had won the franchise from Devon Air, a highly successful station then owned by the GWR Group. As the incumbent, Devon Air was in a dominant, strong position – its name known by listeners and advertisers alike. But the Somerset based Orchard Media Group won the day, with a promise to not only provide separate services for Exeter and Torbay (as Devon Air had), but to also split its AM and FM frequencies into two completely different stations, albeit with the same shared name. “Double Devon Radio” – as Devon Air was once known – was replaced with “your twin radio stations”, hence the Gemini name.
Gemini had inherited Devon Air’s studios in Torquay – which were famed for having one of the best views from a studio anywhere in the UK, overlooking the harbour – in the picture above, it’s the top left window. As lovely as it way, Harbour Point was a satellite office. The main studios were at the Exeter Business Park, a lifeless series of brick and glass buildings at the bottom of the M5. Yet inside was anything but lifeless.
The newsroom was light and airy, and far large parts of the year – in Devon’s warm climate – the windows were kept open, overlooking an attempt at a landscaped garden and a small pond, usually frequented by those who smoked. For the time – 1996 – we had the very latest technology; digital sound editing which was able to capture all of the audio, although I think we still had to manually press the “record” button to get the national clips from Independent Radio News.
The studios were also modern and well designed. Unlike some of the clunkier commercial radio set ups at that time, we had slick Alice Air 2000 mixing desks, computers to playout at least some of the music (lots was still on CDs) and the challenge of providing distinctly separate news services with a team of just five people.
One newsroom, two stations
On FM, it was fairly simple stuff – three minute news bulletins throughout the day. But for AM, we had a nightly half hour news programme, Gemini Reports, and that meant gathering lots of content. The jingles alone weren’t enough – the franchise application had given a strong commitment to speech content, including a daily farming slot.
All of which meant getting out and about – essentially one reporter would be responsible for the overnight news and we also had a second reporter based in Torquay. A typical shift starting at 12 noon would involve subletting the boss’s car (we didn’t have a budget for news vehicles) and driving many miles into the Devon countryside, mostly to interview lovely people about controversial planning applications, with the occasional bit of politics thrown in. The travel was delightful, but probably not the most efficient was of gathering a 20 second clip for the FM news bulletins.
Torquay news shifts were slightly different. Technically a 9-5 day would usually start at 10am or later depending on the traffic from Exeter (the Torquay reporter did live locally but the rest of us would fill in for holidays). A couple of hours sitting on the balcony, making a few phone calls, then picking up the Torquay Herald newspaper to nick one of their stories for the next day. Oh, and if the story involved. a beach or going out on a boat, so much the better. The Torquay studio was not blessed with digital technology, so all editing had to be done on reel to reel tapes – which meant you interview (on cassette) firstly had to be transferred onto tape, and editing had to be done before 4pm when the single studio was used for the local drivetime show. I still can’t quite remember how any of this ever worked. I think the scripts were then faxed over to the Exeter newsroom.
A fiercely independent group
The station itself was largely a friendly place to work. Orchard Media was owned by the broadcaster David Rodgers, already well known across the region for his work on Television South West and its predecessor Westward. As well as Gemini the company ran Orchard FM in Somerset, Lantern FM in North Devon and Wessex FM. And in stark contrast to what was happening elsewhere, each station was run as a standalone business – with entirely separate output. Only commercial production was done centrally.
Looking back, it seems odd that we didn’t at least share our newsgathering resources. A south west news show, with local opts, would have sounded massive on air – and could have easily rivalled anything the BBC could do, with its single radio station struggling to geographically cover the huge expanse of Devon.
Being a truly local station, it also meant that we were ahead of the BBC by some margin in 1996, when a group of protestors set up a camp at Fairmile, to oppose the expansion of the A30 road. Before the days of GPS or mobile phones that could actually get a signal, I asked a farmer where the group was. He gestured towards a distant field. I spoke to about five scruffy people, only one of whom would be identified. I returned to the newsroom, joking with my editor that we couldn’t possibly go on air reading out the name “Swampy”. Within weeks, he was the most famous person in the country.
One of microphones in this picture is mine. It was some time before Daniel Hooper eventually emerged from a network of complex tunnels the group had dug right below the construction site. It was a brilliantly deliberate tactic, because keeping protestors underground meant it was unsafe to bring heavy diggers anywhere near the place. I distinctly remember spending a cold night out in the mud, having been tipped off by the bailiffs, that the group was giving up. I was also one of the few people allowed access beyond the cordon, as the police insisted on seeing our press cards. Not everyone had one – but I was a member of the NUJ.
One of the downsides of this was there was no technology to send any audio back. I’d read books about journalists hooking up audio wires to telephone boxes using “crocodile clips” but the nearest kiosk was a couple of miles away, and in any case, I wanted to stay on the story. I’d heard that some of the protestors – who hadn’t been arrested – might be gathering in the village Ottery St Mary. En route I spotted a young couple in scruffy coats and offered them a lift. It was the right choice, as they led me straight to a pub holding a lock-in for Swampy’s mate, Muppet Dave. Another exclusive was in the bag.
The big house
Sometime towards the end of 1996, David Rodgers had decided that the group needed a more prestigious headquarters, where business clients could be welcomed and where the sale team could maximise its potential. There was also to be a new ambitious commercial production set up, all located in a country house between Exeter and Torquay. It was down the narrowest of roads, well off the beaten track – though still just a short distance from the A380. It looked stunning – and on the launch night we were all treated to drinks and canapes – only to discover that the location was too remote for BT to fit in the crucial ISDN lines which would send and receive the audio for the commercials. I didn’t stay with the company for long enough to find out what became of that particular project.
Things can only get better
1997 brought about more massive changes, with the Labour Party winning a landslide in the General Election. It wasn’t quite as dramatic in parts of Devon, with so many safe Conservative seats. I was dispatched to East Devon, where the Tories could have fielded a donkey and it would have won. But a boring night for me – awaiting a result that inexplicably didn’t come until 7am – was contrasting with a revolution elsewhere. In Exeter Labour had seen off a right wing Conservative by installing Ben Bradshaw, a former BBC radio journalist who was openly gay. In itself, this was controversial, since the local Labour party had wanted to back the existing city council leader. But it was a sign of the mood sweeping the country after eighteen years of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Back at Gemini HQ there was a true sense of excitement over what had happened the previous night, coupled with the inevitable exhaustion that comes with doing an election shift. All I wanted to do was sleep, but annoyingly I had to write the weekend news and try to find stuff that wasn’t politics. I also had to find the obligatory farming story for Monday morning
Franchise commitments like farming news are almost always promised for no other reason than to satisfy the regulator, whose offices in London are distant from anything local to you, and whose experts pore over reams of applications outlining truly ambitious plans to cover a particular subject like never before. The reality was somewhat more mundane. Although Devon had an abundance of rural life, the vast majority of our farming stories came from the offices of the National Famers Union – conveniently situated just across the dual carriageway from our offices.
It was production line nonsense, even to the extent of getting the regional PR man to play out their recorded farming news for BBC Radio Devon and then recite the same stories to be but in a slightly different order. When that became too onerous, I decided to simply ask the various cattle markets across the county to fax over the weekly list of prices for pigs, cows and bulls which we simply read out to fulfil our daily three minute quota.
Nobody ever complained.
By Easter 1997 I had bought a flat in Exeter city centre – a brilliantly located ground floor property at the back of a Victorian house, just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral. But more change was on the way. The former boss of Radio Trent in Nottingham, Ron Coles, had won a franchise for a regional station covering the whole of the East Midlands. The News Editor, poached from the BBC, just happened to be best friends with one of our freelances at Gemini. The stars were aligned, literally, and I couldn’t turn down an offer to return to my home town.
It was sad to leave – this had been my first adventure into radio and I was instantly gripped by it. Annoyingly I also knew nothing about property and promptly sold the flat that these days would probably bring in thousands of pounds a month as a holiday let.
In a true reflection of consolidation in the UK radio industry, Gemini was sold back to the GWR Group and became Heart in 2008. The dual services for Exeter and Torquay continued for a time, before Heart Devon was launched in 2010.