Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The story of how it came to be... PART 1

PART 1 -

In the beginning 

 I was never one for listening in class. I was never one for completing homework on time, or indeed completing homework at all. I went to a high school called Stuart Bathurst in a town called Wednesbury in the suburbs of Walsall. I met many of my current friends there and we all have our own opinions of that place. Some people got what they wanted, some didn't. From what I can remember, I failed most if not all of my exams at high school purely through a lack of interest in most of my subjects. I always had an idea of what I wanted. I had no aspirations to go to university, heck, I wasn't anywhere near qualified for 'higher education'; but we'll get to that later. I remember receiving my high school exam results and not being that surprised when glancing over the list of 'FAIL' signs. This was supposed to be a huge part of my life, a big deal! However, at the time I found myself not conceded in the slightest and all due to an obvious obsession with another huge part of my life........ Football.

My high school crest

 I'd had a bad knee injury playing, but if i'm totally honest and those who know me and saw me play will share my own opinion that I simply was nowhere near good enough to ever make it as a professional. Coming to terms with the fact that I knew I was never going to play was a confusing time for a 15/16 year old lad who was on the verge of leaving high school. I scraped into 6th form (for those in the USA, its 2 years of college education before you head off to university) by the skin of my teeth after my dad had a conversation with a would be class tutor. At a young age i'd always known I wanted to be involved in football, but it was finding out how and where that was causing me a problem. I thought about coaching for a long time and even worked part time in my local park on a Saturday morning for 2 years or so and even got my level 1 coaching license. It seemed a real possibility at 1 stage that i'd venture into that side of football and I loved it. In actual fact I do really miss coaching and maybe 1 day i'll get an opportunity to do it again. I really enjoyed coaching the older level lads who were 11-13 and teaching them techniques, body shape, posture, first touch, how to move off the ball and some things that are at times overlooked because at that age that learning process is key.

 I remember having my 1st journalistic experience when I was 15. I shadowed a national newspaper writer called Neil Moxley (who still writes for the Daily Mail today). That certainly sparked an interest in the industry but I wasn't sure how to approach it. I hadn't put that much thought process into commentating or broadcasting at the time. I knew it was something i'd always wanted to do, but the question was "where on earth do I start?". I was enjoying coaching on a Saturday morning, occasionally 2 close friends and I would also help out on a Tuesday night for extra sessions as well. Then of course it was an extra 10 quid for the week which always helped. It was 2006, I was 16, enjoying my school life for the 1st time in years, coaching well and learning, plus at times earning a little money in the week. Then 1 evening I had a conversation with my Mum and Dad who had a good friend that worked at the local radio station in Birmingham called 'BRMB'. Dad thought it'd be a good idea for me to go in to their studio's for a day to see what its all about and he was able to swing this through his mate Andy Davis, at the time the graphics designer at BRMB.

BRMB's studio's on Broad St,
downtown Birmingham
I was obviously excited. I'd listened to BRMB's coverage of football for as long as I could remember and to be in the studio during a match day was nothing short of a heart stopping moment. I remember Mum and Dad dropping me off at the studio on a Saturday, a few hours before they were on the air to meet the producer. I remember being nervous but at the same time so eager to learn and ask questions. I'd never been in this situation before and knowing that if I perhaps said the right thing or showed enough knowledge i'd be in. Well, at least thats what I thought. I was obviously naive enough to think if I impressed they'd give me a full time, full paid job and benefits, but little did I know of the long path that would await me for that opportunity to arise. Mum and Dad left and I found myself nervously backed in the corner of the main production room where the producer, Cosey (Ian Powell) would continuesly give information to the commentator about scores, when to get to commercial break, when to cue a pre recorded interview and so on..... I was enthralled and thus sparked a passion that I only ever previously recognized as curiosity rather then will. We'll skip forward a few hours to the moment that made me smile the most all day. I'd sat back for hours watching the pre production of it all and was really enjoying my day. Cosey had been telling the commentator score lines around the country all day and also giving him the goal scorers. Then a goal was scored at Portsmouth and Cosey looked up at the Sky Sports News feed to see who'd scored and said in a confused fashion "who the **** is that". To my delight I knew exactly who it was and was able to confidently tell him that Benjani Mwaruwari, a Zimbabwe international, who'd signed from Auxerre in France was who'd scored. His response was "**** me, alright, cheers lad". I sat back comfortably in my chair with a confident and proud smile. After the football show was done and we went off the air Cosey pulled me to 1 side and said to me "If you want, I haven't got a problem with you coming in here every week" to which I responded "YES, absolutely". I left for the day and headed home on the bus. I was in! I had an opportunity to learn and experience the industry and more importantly there and then within my very 1st sniff at radio, i'd developed a passion/obsession that still thrives today. I wasn't getting paid, but it was a way in and i'd hoped it was the start of what I wanted to be new opportunity in my life.


Lets fast forward a year or so. I'd been continuing my school work whilst coaching on a Saturday morning to then head over to BRMB in the afternoon to work. I still wasn't getting paid, but I didn't expect to be. Mum and Dad were wonderful in supporting me financially. I'd do odd jobs around the house for a bit of money here and there whilst they were at work; but it was still tough not earning. I went through a stage of coaching in the morning and earning enough money to pay for my taxi into downtown Birmingham and work at the radio station for the day. I'd learnt so much in the time I was in studio. I'd made friends and was also starting to cover shifts for the week day games and occasionally for the Friday night phone in. My role was basically editing goal clips and interviews for the producer to play during the show at certain points and to also answer the phone for the football phone in and put people on hold before they'd go on air and speak to the main commentator to cast their feelings on the days action. Also, I obviously became the best tea and coffee maker of all time. I was then asked to be apart of an OB (Outside Broadcast) for the station. We had a room full of an audience who were there for an Q&A session with the host and certain guests (current managers, players, ex managers and players). I'd walk around the room with the wireless mic for the fans to ask questions. Even better was, I started to get paid for it. It wasn't much, but it was something. After a short time a certain individual wasn't happy with me getting paid and the small amount that was coming in stopped. I did my bit around the studio and even thought of taking a full time job their when a lad called David 'Salty' Salt pulled me to 1 side and said there was a low paid but full time production job available. I was desperate for a way in, but Salty advised me not to take it. I carried on coming in 3/4 times a week for free to continue learning and this continued for 2 1/2 years with very limited opportunities. I knew, I always knew that commentary was exactly what I wanted to do and I thought i'd be good at it. I just had to be patient and work my way up.

 Like most current broadcasters, I would mute the match on TV and commentate into a recorder of some sort, edit things down on my computer and try and come up with something. I remember being told I wasn't needed 1 weekend and looking up the local football fixtures to see who was playing at home. Unfortunately for me, the only home game that weekend was Birmingham City (Villa's rivals). I plucked up the courage to head down to St. Andrews stadium with my little walkman/recorder and bought a ticket. "That'll be 45 quid please", said the lady behind the ticket window... I remember thinking to myself, "45 quid! They're in the Championship, no wonder their attendances are crap". Either way I paid and got myself in and worked my way to the back of the stands, sat in the corner to try and get the best view possible and started commentating. I remember a few people giving me a few strange looks, but I had to get over it, I was trying another way to get a demo together. I remember giving a reel of some sort to the sports editor at BRMB just so he knew thats what I wanted to do. Adam was his name. I sat back and waited for an opportunity that never came. Realistically, I never expected it to come, I was 17 and BRMB had a very big listening audience for football. I saw people in the production room go past me from assistant producer to commentator a few times and I got the feeling that it wasn't going to happen. I remember helping the main commentator pack his car up on a Friday night and asked him some advice about how to get into commentary or even if he had a chance to take a look at my demo. For the 1st time but by no means the last I was told "look kid, you're good at what you do, helping us out in studio, but you'll never be a commentator".....

BRMB logo in 2007

My heart sank. It was a particular low moment because I knew I had to find something else. During my time at BRMB i'd been sending e-mails out all over the country seeing if people needed any help anywhere covering football or any sports for that matter. I managed to get a day shadowing here and there on the odd occasion, but nothing came up. I was still only 17 but it felt like every time I e-mailed different radio stations i'd never get a reply or when I would it'd be either "sorry we don't have anything but keep doing what you're doing" or "you don't have enough experience". I tried absolutely everything and nothing was working. It was funny, the only thing I would find any sort of remorse in was the same thing that was killing me..... Football.

I remember asking the press officer of my local League 1 side Walsall, if I could come and sit in the press box for a Tuesday night game. The plan was to bring my laptop and a mic that my dad had given me and record myself commentating and perhaps meet a few people and make a few contacts here and there. It just so happens that I did indeed meet someone, an old experienced commentator named Geoff who after I asked for some advice he gave me the contact details of several people for the radio station he was working for, Beacon Radio. It was a smaller but well known station that covered football throughout the black country (an area outside of Birmingham where the main teams are West Brom and Wolves). I remember ringing the main commentator who put me on the phone to the main producer/presenter, a lad called Stu Haycock who said to me "ye, come on in, we'll see what we can do for you". A change of scene was perhaps what I needed and maybe that was about to happen...

Continuing in commercial radio

I remember telling the producer at BRMB after the previous season had ended that I wouldn't be coming back and wanted a new challenge. I was just turning 18, was in the final year of my college studies and had quite a tough time finding regular paid opportunities at BRMB (or anywhere else for that matter). I went a few months coaching on a Saturday morning and spending the afternoon's e-mailing and watching football. Then, out of nowhere I found myself heading to the city of Wolverhampton. At the time I didn't drive and it used to take me 2/3 hours riding 4 buses to get to the Beacon Radio studio's. But at the time it was something I needed to do to keep myself in the loop. I remember heading into the offices and speaking with 1 or 2 of the commentators and producers in the quaint little building that Beacon Radio called home. They were impressed with my resume, they liked the fact that I could edit and help pre produce content but they knew I wanted to commentate, an area I had no experience in what so ever.
The old Beacon Radio building on Tettenhall Road

That day, I learnt that Beacon Radio had a sister station called 'Shropshire's Beacon Radio' where an opportunity appeared to exist. The main footballing coverage was reports on League 2 (4th tier) side Shrewsbury Town and Blue Square North (6th tier) side AFC Telford Utd. The sports team from that side of Beacon Radio and its group consisted of Stu Haycock who would host and produce the sports coverage but he also had a weekly music show on the station. Elsewhere there was several other assistant producers Ben and Steve who were also heavily involved in the Wolves and WBA game production. Then there was an individual who to this day is still the craziest, strangest yet interesting man alive. Never mind the man from the dos equis commercial, George Andrews was indeed and still is the most interesting man i've come across thus far in my career. That day, Stu said to me "do you want to go to a game today?". I agreed and off I went to experience my very 1st Blue Square North game at AFC Telford Utd's delightful 'New Bucks Head'. The Blue Square North is a league full of part time players who've perhaps fallen out of youth academies or players that weren't quite good enough for the leagues above and were looking for a way back into the Football League. I sat next to George as he provided updates on the match to Stu's music show and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

New Bucks Head
Home of AFC Telford Utd

After heading back to the studio Stu told me that there would be an opportunity due to a lack of bodies and money to get myself on the air. I was to shadow George for several weeks before they put me on the air but leaving the studio after my 1st day I came away delighted. George was an old timer, he'd been in the industry for decades and taught me so much in the spell we had working together. Once again, I wasn't getting paid, but this was too good of an opportunity to say no. I remember phoning my Dad on the bus ride home to express my delight. After 2 1/2 footballing seasons it looked like i'd finally have an opportunity to get myself on the air.

I remember at this stage of my life. A lot of people were heading off to University and I was struggling to make any sort of money but I had an opportunity in front of me at Shropshire's Beacon Radio. Once again my school grades weren't great as i'd been focusing on working at the studio and seeking new opportunities. My coaching had to stop at this point, as I could no longer commit to Saturday morning due to all the traveling to the stadiums i'd be doing. I'd also been playing in a band for a about a year with some good friends. That obviously had to stop as well.

I woke up the morning of my 1st day on the air full of excitement and enthusiasm. I was heading up north to cover AFC Telford Utd's away game at Gainsborough Trinity, who surprisingly had a few ex football league players I recognized. I'd done my research during the week and I was ready to give reports every 10 minutes or so whilst George was commentating on the Shrewsbury Town game. I had remembered practicing so much, thinking of different lines to open up with and had listened to so many different commentators the past few years. I was on the brink of going live for the 1st time. Stu was in my ear saying "your next mate, we'll be with you in 5 minutes". That 5 minutes flew by as I tried to concentrate on what was going on in front of me rather then what I was going to say. "Cal, here we go", Stu said, "Live in 5,4,3,2... mic live"......

This was the scene of my first on air report, away at Gainsborough Trinity

No matter how many classes you take, no matter how much you think you're prepared or you've practiced. Nothing will ever prepare you for that moment the producer says "mic live" in your ear for the 1st time. I remember nervously reading out the team news from my phone (of course the radio equipment didn't work on my 1st day on the job) and getting through it. I listen back to it now and its absolutely awful. But at the time I had a huge sense of relief that i'd done it, i'd appeared on live radio.

During my time with Shropshire's Beacon Radio the e-mailing around the country never stopped and I rather fortunately landed myself an opportunity to commentate on a few QPR games for their website and stadium feed. It was once again unpaid but I had a chance to mix with some really well connected people. I remember a moment when QPR scored and a Sky Sports reporter well known in the UK called Chris Kamara decided to dance around me; which was odd but funny at the same time. I remember getting the train down to London which Mum and Dad paid for (not for the first or last time) For a couple of months I was quite busy covering both QPR and AFC Telford Utd. I also had the chance to cover Shrewsbury Town (arguably the bigger market team) on a few occasions and once again meet quite a few people whilst continuing to show up at the studio 2/3 times a week to help out.

I do sit back and chuckle to myself once in a while when I think of my 1st ever football league experience. I traveled down to Bournemouth (for those in the USA, its right on the tip of the UK down south) and it was a bit of a journey....

 I had one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong. My trains were late, my equipment wouldn't work, I didn't have a great day on the air and I remember in a scramble to try another idea to get the Comrex (broadcasting device) working, I slipped in the press box and split my chin open minutes before we were due on air. Eventually I did it via my phone. My shirt, blood stained, my pride hurt and it would only get worse. Of course that day I forgot my phone charger, missed my last train home and the furthest I could get up the UK was Oxford (about an hour south of Birmingham)! I couldn't call anybody because my phone died, I had little money but did have enough to make 1 phone call from a pay phone to someone I knew in Oxford to see if I could stay the night. I remember talking to her and she seemed to have no answer despite her best efforts. It was Saturday night, everyone was out and had probably had far too much to drink to be able to drive. I seriously contemplated finding cover of some sort and sleeping in an ally or on someones door step to get away from the rain. I remember standing helplessly outside the train station in the rain and looking rather suspect. I continued to get wetter and colder as the rain dripped down my face. Things just weren't going right for me. It was a serious low moment in my life but it also seemed par for the course due to the rotten luck i'd felt I had. Was someone giving me a sign? I was delighted to see my girlfriend at the time and her parents pull up at Oxford train station to pick me up. Someone must have given them notice. I'll never forget that day for as long as I live.

For the 1st time in my life I actually began to doubt myself and the choices i'd made. Was this something that I wanted to do? Was this something I could carry on doing......? Was it all worth it? It all seemed fairly pointless that evening in Oxford.....

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