Tuesday, December 8, 2009
A PERSONAL MEMORY OF BRMB’S JOHN RUSSELL
by Adrian Juste
I was saddened to hear of John’s death last week. Back in 1974 it was he who gave me my first big break in commercial radio
A slight, sometimes theatrical man with large gestures, blessed with a ready smile that revealed a set of perfect white teeth, and a trademark trimmed black beard, he cut an almost piratical figure along the corridors of the old ATV studios in Aston.
As one of ILR’s founding fathers, and programme director of the new Birmingham station, John breathed life into this peculiar radio hybrid, having opened the ambiguous instruction manual you got in the IBA box along with your licence: ‘Er, we want a.. um - sort of BBC local sound with added pizzazz, self-op and ad breaks.
Ooo, and you can play a bit of that noisy pop music too - but not much.’ And if you can make a few quid .. all well and good.’
In those days of course it was ‘Independent Radio’ - not commercial radio - that would have been just too, too vulgar!
Despite this daunting edict from Brompton Road, John used his forces radio background to breathe life into the cheap ‘n’ cheerful mix of features, talks & phone-ins that we had to do to flesh out our meagre 9 hours a day needle-time.
And by crikey, did he make it work - After a few months on air I seem to recall we had a market share of 56%! - here in 2009 you could put a decimal point between the 5 and 6 and most stations would be delighted. We beat the BBC hollow, both local and national.
Wherever you went in Birmingham in those early days, BRMB was on. I smile as I recall Les Ross walking down his road during the hot summer of ’76, and thinking: ‘Why’s Adrian got all that echo on his mic?’ He soon realised that I hadn’t - it was just that every house had their windows open and I was rattling all the way up the street!
We did Outside Broadcasts in abundance - ‘You have to be out there, meeting the audience’ was Russell’s philosophy.
And we were; our OB truck had more miles on it than Paula Radcliffe’s trainers.
If it was in Brum, so was BRMB: Pancake races, theatre premieres, sporting events, even ghost hunts, the cheery red & white logo was always prominent. I recall one afternoon when Jason King (alias Peter Wyngarde) was appearing with us the police were forced to close the Bull Ring as the overcrowding was getting dangerous.
All good stuff for a fledgling station!
After a very enjoyable year doing the afternoon show, John promoted me to breakfast, and I still have fond memories of watching the sun rise over Saltley gasworks as I woke up Birmingham. No idle boast that - we really had a huge audience.
But there was no way I could cope with the 3.30 alarm call that accompanied the breakfast show, and I had to quit, screaming ‘Get Les Ross!’ ... so the poor programme director didn’t really have anywhere left to put me.
It’s no secret that John and I didn’t get along too well during that time, and after three very enjoyable years with some really wonderful Brummies, I was ‘let go’. To be fair to him I don’t suppose I was one of the easiest turns to get along with either!
I’m very glad that he and I patched up any remaining differences we may have had at a Radio Academy seminar in the mid-80s. We parted that day on extremely good terms, our paths never to cross again.
I was doing rather well at Radio 1 by then, and think John was secretly proud that he’d discovered a little Station Assistant from BBC Radio Leicester - and let me loose on BRMB to cultivate my radio eccentricities. Well, broadcasting six hours a day, as you often had to, soon knocked you into shape!
As Robin Valk commented last week; in BRMB’s early years us jocks were a bunch of young, rather insecure types with egos that needed more than a little massage, but the fact that, armed with those decidedly dodgy components, John forged a cohesive and successful team who bonded well, is to the man’s eternal credit.
“I believe I hired presenters with not only engaging personalities, but above all with brains so they did not sound like ‘I speak your weight machines’. Many of them were deeply rooted, born and brought up in Birmingham and those that did not have that background were encouraged to become part of the community and the area’.
That’s true. When I started at the station I was commuting from Leicester, and John told me; ‘It’s important that you move to Birmingham to get the feel of the city and its people’. And he was right. It did make a difference. Oh dear, that must all sound rather twee to the voice-track & plug-liner brigade of today!
Here’s one of John Russell’s final thoughts on UK radio when speaking last year: ‘In my view the path of over-formatted sound, often produced centrally for a group of radio stations presented by anodyne presenters, was and is a grave mistake and has contributed to the decline of commercial radio today.”
When I left BRMB, as a joke, a couple of the jocks bequeathed me a large publicity photo-board of John as a ‘keepsake’.
What they don’t know is that, after all these years and three different houses, I still have it - in the roof of my garage.
You know, I’m going to dust it off and have a quiet reminisce about a man who, despite our occasional personal spats, had faith in me as a presenter ... where many hadn’t.
Friday, November 20, 2009
In Memoriam John Russell
One of RNTC’s best known and best loved trainers, John Russell, died on Tuesday October 6th 2009. John had known that he was seriously ill since the summer. His death of heart failure was nevertheless a huge and unexpected shock. John had been a regular contributor – both as a guest lecturer and as a course leader – to RNTC’s international courses in Hilversum over many years; most recently the International Course Broadcast Management in May and June of this year. Tony Wilkinson remembers John and what he meant to RNTC…
John cut a dashing figure at RNTC with his trademark bow tie and well-trimmed beard. He had a natural authority combined with an almost boundless enthusiasm and creative energy which ensured that the atmosphere at RNTC would start to buzz a little more whenever he breezed in for yet another course. From his days as an actor he retained the gift of performance – a skill that he used to consummate effect in his work as a trainer for RNTC.
Former radio participants of RNTC’s international courses will remember him in perhaps his most familiar role as ‘Sir John’, the visiting architect and adviser to Prince Charles, arriving to be photographed with his wife/secretary/publisher/mistress in front of the Radio Netherlands building while the radio participants of his ‘Say What You See’ workshop would attempt to set the scene and report the whole event ‘live’ into their portable recorders. As the chauffeur I was a privileged but bit part player in something that went beyond mere training – bringing an extra level of fun, excitement and inspiration to RNTC’s celebrated ‘learning by doing’ and hotwiring the experience into the professional toolkits and memory banks of generations of RNTC alumni.
This piece is taken from the RNTC website at www.rntc.nl
Photo Lilian Odera
But John was much more than a performer. To the work at RNTC he brought a wide-ranging and in-depth knowledge of radio and the radio industry born of extensive experience behind the microphone as well as in station management. Although he’d worked for public service broadcasters most of his experience came from commercial radio and his understanding in particular of commercial imperatives led him to impress on participants not only how hard it was to engage and retain an audience but how much harder to get it back once you’d lost it. It was a wake-up call to many an RNTC participant - journalists, programme-makers and managers - working in a culture of ‘the audience is forever’. But then John was always ready to burst bubbles of complacency and not only those of course participants; as course coordinator I was often made to sit up and think again about the things we were doing by John’s gently challenging observations, and even more often to think about what we should be doing. Long before RNTC started running its international courses for broadcast managers John had suggested that they might be a good idea; he was therefore a natural choice for course leader when we did eventually offer them and it is perhaps fitting that the course he had envisaged and helped to give shape to should be the last he contributed to.
Many will remember John as a great trainer. He was certainly one of the best that I have been privileged to work with. Inspirational and exceptionally creative, he had a remarkable capacity to engage people fully in an activity and impart a sense of professional value and worth to what they were doing. As a participant there was only one option: rise to the challenge.
John loved being here and immersing himself in yet another course with people from all over the world. Over the years he remained in contact with many former course participants. Occasionally on his travels with his wife, Sue, he found an opportunity to meet up with them again. People were important to him.
A course at RNTC was never just a job to John. He was always keen to know what we were doing and what plans we had, thinking of RNTC ‘s future, a few steps ahead, scanning the horizon/looking restlessly forward, prodding us to say what we thought of this or that development in the world of media.
There have been and will be few like him. He will be sorely missed.
Some of you have already reacted to the news of John's death. If you too would like to remember John Russell there is a space for tributes on our Facebook site: RNTC Alumni on Facebook
This post has been taken directly from the RNTC site at RNTC.NL
Monday, October 19, 2009
VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH JOHN
by Jonathan marks
I have been looking at a way to make a tribute to John’s genius in radio. When I came to Cyprus in 2004 I brought a camera and John shared some thoughts about his career, his passion for radio and his hopes for the media and Cyprus.
I’ve spent a couple of days putting the best bits of our chat into a video tribute and the results are now sitting under the links below
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Unfortunately this blog didn’t quite get off the ground in the way that Dad had hoped. I think he quite fancied the idea of broadcasting to the world again, but it was a new medium that he didn’t have the time to get to grips with.
Many people have asked to see the updates that Sue sent out during dad’s illness, so I’ve included them below.
One thing that has been great, has been hearing from dad’s friends some of the stories that we hadn’t heard before, and some which we had but from an entirely different angle.
If you have any memories you’d like to share, please do add in the comments below or send to me at benrussell ‘at’ gmail .com
I thought we’d had the final update, but a number of people have asked for details of the way John was laid to rest and I know it’s particularly helpful for people overseas.
The burial was everything John would have wanted. Firstly the village granted his long felt desire to be buried in his beloved village – this being something of an honour as he is not Greek Orthodox.
Secondly he was surrounded by his family, the villagers and his friends from near and far.
The family party included Damon and his wife Cherry-Anne, grand daughter Katie, Natasha and partner Alan, Ben and wife Lucy, Hans his oldest friend from Holland, our best friends from UK, Lynne and Peter Falconer and dearest friend Karina from over the hill in Prastio.
He had been given a splendid plot in the cemetery. We walked there from the house, a slow column all dressed in black and many in dark glasses, all very surreal and reminiscent of a scene from a mafia move. Hans linked arms at the front of the column with me on one side, Natasha on the other giving us a strange sense of calm and strength.
When we arrived at the cemetery they had already carried the coffin to the grave side. In typical Cyprus fashion, they realised the grave was not quite wide enough at one end and after much measuring, they started digging it out to make the coffin fit. He'd have liked that bit of nonsense.
We had a glass panel on the coffin so people could see him, and he had a posh shirt on and a tweetie pie bow tie. He looked as if he was just sleeping, so peacefully. A happy memory.
Of the event, our friends Tina and Michael have written to say “how he would surely have been impressed with the way Damon spoke on behalf of the family. He would most certainly have enjoyed the story of the swallow as told by Hans. He would have been moved by the words spoken by Bambos the village head and we think he would have been amused that the priest was able to have his say”, the latter being a reference to the fact that John was a non-believer.
There were people there from the walking group, the chairman and other friends from the birds group, friends from the book club in Limassol. Plus other friends and a lot of people from the village. There must have been over 150 people.
A lot came back to the house afterwards and told stories about John. Colin Rugg made a very good point, tell your friends now that you love them . He said he wished he had told John that.
Our chosen charity is the “Friends for Life”, Limassol Hospice Care Appeal, who collected 648 Euros at the cemetery.
I feel so supported by the village and especially Nina from the village shop who made all the arrangements and Bambos who guided me on the traditional ways of the village at this time. I think that the outpouring of love has been a support to the family too.
We have also all been overwhelmed by the email response from overseas, particularly from Birmingham, where John was a founder Director of BRMB Radio. There was a story of his death in the Birmingham Post and Mail (www.birminghampost.net/news/west-midlands-news/2009/10/09/brmb-pioneer-dies-in-cyprus-aged-71-65233-24888258/,) followed by a moving article from Robin Valk, his first rock jock on the station back in the 1970’s, also attached. And there are plans for a memorial there before the end of the year. All very extraordinary, when you consider we were there for a relatively short period (1974-1981) and have been away for 28 years.
So let me let you have the last say. In your letters you have described him as: a gentleman, of good humour and wit, with a fund of stories, a lovely man, an example to us all, a special person, a great godfather, one of the world’s great people, a gentle soul, a reassuring person, an inspiration, my guiding light, the best dad in the world, your Sean Connery look-alike who bought us orchids at our Christmas lunch, coached so many of us through challenging times and laughed with us through even more good ones, made fantastic gin and tonics - and was your soul mate, a popular man, good natured with an air of ‘bon homie’, a very formidable, jovial, friendly and interesting man with many tales to tell, a wonderful person, a very likeable man who made me laugh a lot, a great friend and great work colleague, a stimulating companion, an influence on my life and principles, a man passionate about his passions, he was a good, respectful, reliable and kind man to work with, we are all so lucky that John touched our lives, I feel so much gratitude towards him and owe him a lot to my success, a born actor who made a pretty dramatic final bow, a loss for us all, we are going to miss ‘our’ John.
FINAL UPDATE – Tuesday 6 October 2009
To all of you who have made this short journey with us, I am sorry to tell you that we have come to the end.
John went for chemo therapy at the oncology centre yesterday. There was more good news as his markers had come down further, and the chemo was working. He was in good heart and very much looking forward to something to eat after his long day. We went to the restaurant at Ikea where he chose prawns as a starter, then salmon and potato as his main course.
He looked at the swivel chairs with Eugene, our friend from Nicosia, which he wanted to buy for his train room and also met up with Nancy and Martin, friends from UK.
This morning he asked for eggs and bacon for his breakfast. He was so positive and in such a good mood, that afterwards he wanted to visit Nina’s shop for some milk and we duly walked the few steps down the road, the Englishman in his straw hat and walking stick and his braces to keep his trousers up. He had lost a lot of weight.
He sat in the shop drinking a juice Nina had offered him when suddenly he said – you have to get me home, something’s happened. You’ll have to get the car.
I did so, and he stood up to get to the car, took a couple of steps and then collapsed. We lowered him to the floor but it was evident something colossal had happened and he quickly lost colour and died.
To many a foreign face this may seem so tragic to die in a public place. But as he lay there, looking so peaceful and just as if he were asleep, it seemed even then as if he was giving his very last performance. Villagers of course gathered round, our neighbours and friends came and hugged me and gave me comfort as we waited for the ambulance. Karina came too. But we knew that he had passed away and his death was a sharing amongst people who loved and cared for him, not a solitary affair.
In some way when I came back home this evening, I was glad that I did not have to enter a house where he had died, did not have to look at a room which would have had all these memories.
It was so sudden and is such a shock. It was probably heart failure, which the Oncology Doctor said can sometimes happen amongst cancer patients. His body could not cope with any more.
The priest in the village has agreed that he can be buried in the village cemetery, which John had always wanted but normally is not possible if you are not Greek Orthodox. So this is an honour. John was not a believer, so we will gather at the graveside to pay our last farewells, children, friends and villagers. Thank you for being with us on this journey and for all your support.
UPDATE 8 – October 6
The good news is that the chemo drugs are working. At our last visit to the oncology centre, the doctor told us that the markers are coming down on the tumour. (My brother explained that tumours create high quantities of proteins that they release into the circulation and these are called disease markers. Because John’s markers have gone down it means that there are fewer cancer cells releasing them into the blood). So we were delighted to hear this news, the first indication we had had that anything was happening.
They have also delayed the scan until the end of the series of 8 treatments, namely the end of November. So this too is good news.
The bad news is that we have experienced the worst two weeks yet of side effects, with John barely leaving the house (being in need of a certain modern convenience at close quarters). He has slept most of the time, had very few visitors, no taste of either food or drink, felt wobbly on his legs and been extremely weak and tired.
He favours being outside, and enjoys laying on the swing seat with blankets if necessary when we have the odd afternoon shower, watching the bees buzzing in the pink trumpet flowers of the creeper covering the pergola.
As he lays there he dreams out new layouts for his model railway, and is already involving some clever friends with carpentry skills to help build his grand designs. Parcels are arriving from UK with railway components and even base board is being sawn into smaller sections to transfer from a Hampshire wood yard to our mountain retreat. I gather this will be a countryside section with farmyard scenes and fields.
Our next visit to the Oncology Centre is tomorrow – our fifth of the eight sessions - again Karina is coming with us and judging by the last visit will be driving home with not one but two sleeping friends beside her. I do not know what we would do without our friends.