31 August 2010

Death of a Princess

When Diana, Princess of Wales died in a Parisian hospital in the early hours of this very day 13 years ago, I was on the radio.

This meant that I, along with every other live weekend overnight presenter in the country (and there were many in 1997, as opposed to the little more than a dozen currently on commercial radio today) had to go through the obituary procedure, which had never previously been necessary in the modern broadcasting era.

For presenters, the theory was that you read the ring binder full of instructions from IRN about what to do in case word of a Royal death started to emerge. In other words, you were expected to know it off by heart. In reality, presenters forgot all about it and got on with their own thing until or unless such a day occurred.

We were expecting it, however. Just not with Diana. In 1997 both our monarch and her consort were in their 70s and monarch's ma was pushing the ton. All three, along with the four royal siblings and the direct heirs to the throne, were on the A-list of Royal obituaries and would receive the works in terms of respectful tribute and focussed media mourning when their day of judgement arrived. Despite being de-royalled by her divorce, Diana was also on there, still, as she had given birth to one future monarch via her nuptials to another.

So I drove to the studios at about midnight, ready for my 2am start. As I parked up, the 1am IRN bulletin announced that Diana had been in a car accident in Paris. This was breaking news and therefore there was little indication of whether it was a minor prang or a serious crash, though the late show presenter looked very grateful to be leaving the studio and heading home when 2am came round and I stepped in.

The 2am news again was vague, but the studio televisions began to tell us a lot more and, with a rolling news service not seen before on both the BBC and ITV (as was) we knew this could be quite a big moment. However, the rules dictated that commercial radio stations should continue broadcasting their planned, regular material until directly instructed otherwise. So, both myself and the chap on the AM sister station across the corridor continued. I was playing records by Will Smith, Michelle Gayle and Ultra Naté, talking up the breakfast show's Monday return, playing Rudders Plays Pop with the audience (just don't ask) and making lame observations about stuff in the papers.

By 3am we were convinced, without any proof at all, that she was dead because the hospital in Paris was telling the media absolutely nothing on the record. Both of us - and we were the only people in the building aside from the security chap who was too busy snoring in reception to notice - re-acquainted ourselves with the obituary procedure and located the copy of the national anthem that had been placed in each studio.

How it works is that IRN sound the obituary alarm in every newsroom in the country once they have their confirmation of a blue-blooded demise. In the event of an empty newsroom - like they all are at 4.45am on a Sunday - the alarm also activates as a flashing light in the studio to alert the presenters without alerting the listeners (though some studio alarms do make a sound if the microphone is not live at the time). Upon the activation, presenters are required to drop all programming features, production and adverts and play back to back "appropriate" music until the next scheduled IRN bulletin.

I mentioned 4.45am as that was when the alarm finally sounded. I can remember as clear as day that my last link had been something suitably unamusing about a cocaine-taking rock star, and the record I was playing was, erm, Every Day Is A Winding Road by Sheryl Crow. Not exactly ideal but we were in "normal" mode, and presenters' fingers have been metaphorically chopped off by their bosses for daring to change the music around without good reason. I didn't regard what was still officially only a rumour about Diana's farewell as good enough reason, so I played the less than tastefully titled song as it appeared on my music log.

IRN's leap into action meant we followed the rule book until 5am and then faded them up to begin a sombre, extended, repetitive bulletin. I can't remember how long it lasted but it was long enough for both jocks to make the required phone calls to management. One of the two Sunday breakfast presenters was just arriving at the studios when the alarm sounded and so instead of brewing up for us all and doing his prep for his show, he got on with the task of rescheduling the music for the two stations.

IRN's initial elongated bulletin ended and it was back to individual studios to continue the process. This should have involved the playing of the National Anthem, but we could only find a copy of it on Sonifex cartridge (with the words 'NATIONAL ANTHEM' affixed to the front with red Dymotape), and the machines that played these wonderful things (I love carts to this day) had long been decommissioned and replaced with the computer playout system. After toying with the idea of playing the Queen version from A Night At The Opera - it was the only recorded version of the anthem that I knew, and it was accessible on vinyl in the record library (and our turntables were still wired up to the desk, albeit rarely used) - we decided against playing it at all and just started the "serious music tape" that had sat on its shelf for months and years waiting, like a fire extinguisher, to be needed.

There was only one such tape in the building. It was, delightfully, a Revox reel tape. This suggested its vintage (although in the late 1990s many presenters still did splice editing of their stuff; I have several boxes of reel tapes in my garage containing all sorts of crap) and after it was placed on to the spools and wound into position, a deep breath was taken and it was fired off as soon as IRN completed their final wrap.

The tape contained suitably mournful, uninterrupted, melancholy tunes for use on air in between 15 minute IRN updates. That there was only one didn't matter on a technical basis, as it just meant that one of us could fade up the other's studio from where the tape was played. This would have been fine, except the tape in question had not been updated since one of the two stations had undergone a complete rebrand and therefore there were jingles of a radio station that no longer existed going out on two differently named stations. Confusing for the listeners and also for those of us responsible for airing it, as serious music tapes had to be brandless. Why those jingles were on it I will never know, but as soon as we heard one after the first two songs (the first song was All I Have To Do Is Dream, that I do recall) we faded it out in a hurry and started handpicking slushy Whitney Houston-esque ballads from the CD racks until our shifts ended at 6am, by which time the rescheduling of the day's music had been completed and new logs printed off.

And that was it, really. The two jocks due for breakfast shifts from 6am had to do their four-hour stints playing back to back wrist-slitters with only occasional pauses for forlorn repeat announcements from IRN. I drove home and went to bed, totally shattered. The adrenaline that hits you as you take on such a sizeable and unexpected burden is immense, making the comedown afterwards all the more jading.

I was less than a year into my professional radio career and had just assumed responsibility for the radio station's reaction to an event unprecedented in UK commercial radio's lifetime. I think, given the problems with the anthem and the serious music tape, not to mention the most unsociable time of day for trying to rouse important people and inform them (and take advice), the two of us on air did a good job. This made the station boss's comment to the staff at a meeting a few days later that it was "unfortunate that our most inexperienced presenter was on the air at the time" seem most unfair, crass and arrogant - until August 31st 1997, no presenter of even John Peel's years of service had ever done a Royal obit! The last Royal death of equal or greater significance, assuming exiled former monarchs with Nazi sympathies didn't count, was that of King George VI in 1952.

It took me ages to get over that comment. I wanted a "well done" and never got one. And believe me, you can rehearse it all you like (and this station evidently didn't or it would have known about the unplayable anthem and the jingle-drizzled tape) but when Royalty dies and you're the person in charge of reacting, there really is no pressure like it.

These days, technology makes the job easier. In 1997, studio computer systems only contained the adverts and the jingles, and presenters still played their songs from CD players. Now the computers have everything, and also are sophisticated enough to be accessed and altered from the engineer or programme director's front room, meaning a couple of clicks of a button are all that's needed in the event of a Royal breathing their last to change the automated, presenterless output into one more respectful.

In truth, that it was a) Diana, and b) an accident, made this Royal obituary even harder to react to, as a sudden death in such circumstances prompts speculation and forces the hand of those responsible for confirming the details. Buckingham Palace and the hospital in Paris had to do so before dawn broke, having had to deal with the frantic requirements of the media for four hours previously. As we discovered when the Queen Mother died four and a half years later, a much more natural, "controllable" and, let's be honest, anticipated passing could be made public at a time convenient to all. There had been rumour all of that Saturday of her death but we weren't told for definite until 5pm and were instructed to carry on with the programming until IRN at 6pm, who would make the announcement. The only thing to alter was the promotion of the post-6pm shows as clearly these were now not going to occur.

I was on air for this too. I was at Millwall FC, presenting the coverage of Stockport County's game there and providing co-commentary. Easter Saturday of 2002, it was. The game had just ended and I was conducting the post-match phone-in when the chap pushing the buttons back at base gave me the news during a commercial break and told me that from 6pm we would go, until further notice, to IRN.

6pm was the football show's scheduled finishing time anyway, which didn't help things for me. I don't think I have made a bigger faux pas in my career than the moment leading up to 6pm when, with the producer counting the seconds down to the top of the hour into my headphones, I ended my spiel in the way I always ended it, with the words "Party Mix next". Five seconds later came the sorrowful voice of the IRN announcer informing the nation of the Queen Mother's expiry and I could have easily died with her right there.