On the anniversary of Amazing Radio‘s birth, founder Paul Campbell reflects on the story so far…
Three years ago today I sat on a train, and began to shake. It wasn’t due to dodgy points or the wrong kind of leaves; I was listening to the three-hour loop we’d made for the launch of Amazing Radio. We’d spent two days putting it together, combining some of the best uploads to amazingtunes.com with ‘station imaging’ literally recorded in the street. Heading back home to Newcastle, I slapped the headphones on and listened with greater detachment than you get in an edit suite. Hearing track after track as listeners would from midnight that night, I suddenly realised quite how incredible the music sounds when played back to back. Lanterns on the Lake followed by Beccy Owen. High Rise Diaries then Little Comets. The Ribbon Device then April Start. The Mosaics then Spokes. Rob Marr then Jay Hilalen. Belle Humble then Pressure Drop. Track after track, all (then) from unsigned artists never previously played on the radio anywhere, all stunning, all varied, genres clashing, everything mixed up. Then the announcements, in Geordie, Welsh, Brummie and Scottish accents, passers-by kindly pausing in the middle of Newcastle on a dull May afternoon to read a script we wrote for them: ‘This is Amazing Radio. New music and new voices with you in control’. One local guy read the script then said “What’s aall that aboot lyek?”
We wanted an edge, the sense that this was different, accessible to the people in more ways than one. On that train, hearing it in detachment for the first time, it felt raw, fresh and revolutionary. Shivers ran up my spine.
They’ve been doing that ever since. With each passing year, we’ve got more professional, but I hope have kept the revolutionary drive at the heart of that original mixtape. Everything was a lash-up then, made up on the spot. We got on the air when an engineer in Croydon (I picture him in a white coat with pens sticking out of his top pocket) transferred our loop to a flashcard, put it in an MP3 player, and pressed play. We were broadcasting to the nation from a thing the size of a thumbnail. We had five days’ notice to get on the air. We had no studios, no marketing or PR budget, no business plan except the belief that bands want to be on the radio, the hope that people want to listen to them, and the utter determination to make it work, whatever the cost, whatever the pain.
We did get some press though, because we replaced The Birdsong Channel which Digital One was infamously radiating to keep the transmitters warm after the failure of One Word (‘infamously’ because the audience allegedly increased). Terry Pratchett kindly complained that the lovely birdsong had been replaced by horrible, noisy young people’s music. Some press picked it up. I could have kissed him.
Our facilities were somewhat limited then. Announcements were recorded in ‘The IncrediBooth’, an attempt at sound-proofing in our echoey garret in Grey Street, Newcastle, literally made out of cardboard boxes and desk dividers with a rather manky net curtain for the ‘studio door’. I brought in my prized microphone, the Neumann U87 I’d owned since doing voiceovers in London. I doubt such a posh mike has ever been in shittier surroundings. Ops Manager Kevin Read, the world’s nicest man and now the world’s happiest Dad, took this photograph of the IncrediBooth, figuring we would want it one day (dead right, Kev). A couple of years later, we moved over the river to Amazing Towers, a broadcast centre built by the Guardian Media Group for a local station. Now we have five studios, digital desks, air conditioning, a generator, proper everything. I can’t quite believe we’ve managed to find such a swanky home. But the energy remains the same.
Increased, actually. Under the direction first of Trevor Dann, the former Head of Music at Radio One whom we were privileged to attract to our crazy idea, then the inspirational leadership and boundless enthusiasm of Programme Director Matt Jamison, Amazing Radio has gone from a sparky lash-up to a proper radio station. Matt has patiently added expert presenters, some doing their first job after Uni, others with years of experience and a global reputation for their expertise in music. It’s stunning to think we now have people in common with Radio 1, 6Music, XMU, WOXY, The Guardian and The Cocteau Twins, to single out just a few of our on-air talents. The production team in Gateshead and London is small, passionate, young and incredibly hard working, growing in expertise every day, stunned by the sudden realisation a few weeks ago that what they do is loved just as much by countless thousands of listeners. Next, we expanded beyond our northern home.
We now have a studio in London and we do live outside broadcasts. The first, from Festibelly last summer, was broadcast from a muddy field, where we set up a recording studio in a tent and broadcast live to the nation via a laptop and a mobile phone. The most recent, from The Great Escape, produced acoustic sessions, videos and hours of live broadcasting on software written by our genius CTO Ian Baker, who was once CTO of BBC Online and has the largest brain and biggest heart of anyone I know.
Indie labels joined the revolution a couple of years ago, massively enriching our output. We have recorded and filmed The Amazing Sessions for two years, an initiative of music industry veteran John Williams, another luminary who brought rich expertise and experience to amazing and also launched The Amazing Chart, now published every week by Music Week. Our first gig, featuring Let’s Buy Happiness, Vinyl Jacket, and Slow Motion Shoes, was recorded and shot on ten cameras in high definition. It looked and sounded better than the £100,000 OBs I used to produce for Channel 4, but the cameras were borrowed, the operators were volunteers, and the entire shoot cost £27. We now curate gigs every month in London.
That’s emblematic of the revolutionary wave amazing is surfing. Digital technology changes everything for creative people. They can make better content at lower cost in more places than ever before in history. Our role at amazing is to help them find an audience.
That too has been growing, slowly at first, then in double digits month on month for two years now. That compounds up pretty fast. It’s gone global too – we now have as many online listeners in the USA and Australia as we do in the UK, which is why we launched instant live time-shifting to every US timezone a few months ago. The appetite for new music isn’t just a British thing. Last night I was on Skype to Boston (Massachusetts, not Lincolnshire), one of the towns shortly to become amazing. The day before, one of the leading media/tech journalists in the world told me he listens from San Francisco and has ‘completely fallen in love with amazing‘. More shivers.
And now, approaching the third anniversary of our birth, we are broadcasting online to listeners all over the world, on mobile apps (incredibly, built for free by a listener who does that for a living and wanted to help) …. but we’re not on the radio in the UK. Not at the moment, anyway. Tomorrow is Amazing Radio‘s third birthday. That very day, with impeccable irony, we will apply to Digital One to get back on the air. We await the result, and the public reaction, with interest.
That issue is for another day. Today, let’s just listen to more amazing tunes, remember the bands we heard ‘here first’, and be hugely grateful for three years of shivers.