Hello Neil, how are you?
I’m pretty good. Feeling energetic and motivated.
You’re a radio DJ, a man with a doctorate, promoter, artist manager, composer, vlogger and so much more besides. How did it all begin for you?
You make me sound so interesting! Lol! I can actually pinpoint the exact moment the journey began in terms of my love of popular music and radio. I was 9. It was the second Sunday of December 1972. I was a young classically trained musician whose tutors had warned me off this terrible pop music thing! I was at my friend David’s house (who funnily enough emailed me today!) and he insisted on listening to the Top 20 show. So at first I was disinterested and then the Jackson 5’s Looking Through the Windows came on and, in about 30 seconds, my entire life changed forever. By the end of the show, I was the world’s biggest pop music enthusiast. The next day I went into school and formed my first band (which soon became just David and I!). We played our first ‘gig’ at school entertainment time six weeks later! I also formed a band with my close friend and neighbour Paul who Fresh On The Net readers might know as PaulFCook plus another neighbour Mike Roberts (whose daughter Josie was a recent fave guesting with Pimlican!) and my brother who, sadly, we lost to cancer in 2019. Paul, Mike and I played together well into adulthood and still plan to collaborate on material almost half a century later! I also immediately started nicking my dad’s radio so I could spend time discovering new radio stations and shows. So my parents had little choice but to get me my own radio! And thus it all began!! Trivia Fact: Paul also went to the same school as FOTN’s Big Jim!
Congratulations on the publication of your book, how did it come about?
Thank you. It’s actually me publishing it through my multi-purpose music outlet Demerara Records, but it’s my third book and I can definitely confirm that it was the surprise success of the other two that gave me the confidence to write a more ambitious and thoroughly researched book. I have been something of a pop and radio historian for a long time and, when I looked into this, I was amazed that no-one appeared to have published a book that charted the history and development of pop music radio in the UK, demonstrating how it has arrived at its current state and explaining how things work; also with some wider socio-political and cultural context. It helps, by the way, that the wonderful Sue Oreszczyn (the same Sue who always votes at the Listening Post) is my editor. Sue’s a proper academic who has written books and lectured for the Open University for years. She’s meticulous in her work so she holds me to high standards of literacy and research. I have also been lucky to have help from none other than our own Tom Robinson, whose knowledge and experience as a radio broadcaster (BBC Radio 1, 2 and 6) and as a successful artist, is enormous. Tom spent an hour on the phone patiently answering my questions and he recorded the conversation so that I wouldn’t have to take notes and sent it to me as an MP3. Such is his generosity. I had fantastic input from others too who are all thanked in the Introduction. A certain Del Owusu also provided a fantastic review which is quoted on the rear cover.
You deep delve into the history of radio in your book, what was the most surprising thing you found out?
There were quite a few but I think the most surprising was that I really hadn’t appreciated the extent of the restrictive practices forced on broadcasters by Needletime. This was an agreement struck by the Musicians’ Union and PPL severely restricting the number of hours per week that radio stations were allowed to play records. It seems extraordinary in retrospect that both organisations could show such poor judgement about the value of airplay to their members. They actually believed airplay would discourage people from buying the records when you would think it was obvious that the opposite would be true! In one report I uncovered, a BBC employee pointed out the irony that PPL and the MU were insisting on these restrictions while their member labels and artists were paying pluggers to get them as much airplay as possible! Talk about not joining the dots!
You are also a moderator for Fresh On The Net, what are the top five acts that you’ve discovered this year?
That’s a tough one. Not all the artists I discover come via Fresh On The Net. Some come from other sources – pluggers, PR companies, labels or the artists themselves getting in touch seeking airplay. My favourites include artists I did first come across via Fresh On The Net like Cloth (who are doing really well now), Machina X, The Happy Somethings, Nic Evennett, Amey St Cyr, Man Eat Grass, Legpuppy, Project Blackbird, The JoJo Man Band, Pimlican, Chiedu Oraka, Georgia & The Vintage Youth and loads more although I discovered them a bit earlier than 2020. Juliet & Nanette have been a great 2020 discovery but not via Fresh On The Net. Kongo Dia Ntotila are another favourite. I discovered them, along with lots of other people, when I heard a broadcast of them playing live on the BBC Introducing Stage at Latitude in 2018 but we have ended up becoming really good friends and it has been cool seeing them have success at Fresh On The Net this year and get on more national radio shows. I reviewed one of their gigs for Fresh On The Net in 2019. I haven’t done a very good job of answering your actual question here, sorry! 2020 discoveries via Fresh On The Net would certainly include the likes of Afro Cluster, Miss Kitty, Hannya White, Lunar Bird and Survibers but honestly, there are so many more I could name.
COVID 19 has impacted the creative industry as a whole in 2020. What’s kept you motivated?
I’m fortunate to be an Arts Council and Lottery supported promoter and broadcaster. When the first lockdown happened in March, it was brutal. I had to cancel two festivals (including Fresh On The Net Live 2020), several out of town events and several of my regular London events and refund all the ticket buyers. It was awful but I also needed to justify the support I was getting by refocusing on ways I could still provide exposure to new and emerging artists. So I increased my radio hours and launched the online TV channel with a magazine-style show which is now called Upstream where I mix live [usually lockdown] footage, promo videos and interviews. We (myself and Luke Moore of another cool band, Operation Lightfoot) are about to make Edition 16 now! The radio shows have been the main motivation though and I did manage to put a great gig on at the Amersham Arms in New Cross in October, two days before we were forced into Tier 2. Hopefully I did enough to justify the support because I have just received another year’s funding which is so exciting and certainly makes me feel all the more motivated to expand operations and try out new ambitious ideas. I have to say though that the constant moving of the goalposts has been devastating for the grassroots venues I promote in. It hurts me to see what hardworking, decent venue managers I know (like Andy Palmer at the Amersham Arms and Dido Hallett at AMP Studios) have been put through by the government’s dithering approach.
You host a radio show online, what are the challenges and triumphs that you’ve found doing this?
I was very lucky that Ming and Jon of Project Blackbird, who manage Exile FM, had been trying to get me to host a show on the station for ages and I have a long-running feature on their show the Monday Night Ride Out. I was also lucky that another Exile FM presenter Uwe (aka Balou Bear) is a bit of a tech wizard and he coached me through setting up Mixxx on my Mac Book and using it to broadcast my show. The Trust The Doc Radio show has been so much more successful than I could ever have imagined and has a wonderful audience that gathers on Twitter every Saturday to banter one another, comment on my regular features, vote in the poll etc. But the biggest challenge is an ongoing one which is the relentlessly growing volume of tracks being submitted, especially by pluggers and PR companies. I have now increased my radio hours for a second time in 10 months in an effort to accommodate as many artists as possible. So I have 3 shows totalling 5 hours (or 7 with the late night repeat of the New Music Playlist) although only 1 show is live and interactive. The others are basically podcasts.
If you could have four dream guests on your show, who would they be?
I don’t know whether this is an all-time question (and could include people no longer with us) but I am going to answer it on the basis of people who are still around and could, if the show had a considerably higher profile, be potential guests! Based on the impact they have had on me primarily as a musician but also as a fan I would probably say Stevie Wonder, Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan), Liz Fraser (of Cocteau Twins) and Noddy Holder (of Slade). They are all people I could have such an amazing time quizzing about music, life, outlook and their wider interests. Noddy was my first ever childhood hero so he gets the fourth seat at the table!
What are you looking forward to doing next?
I need to get the book out, in paperback, through Amazon (Kindle Publishing) before Christmas so I have set a target date of 15th December. PaulFCook has provided a fantastic cover design but he is unwell this week so we will have to wait until he is up to signing off the finished version. Sue and I have agreed the final final edit! Then I need to make decisions about live events currently planned for January and I need to make some sensible plans about how I intend using the marketing budget I have to really good effect. I’m also looking forward to broadcasting my two-part Best of 2020 radio shows on Exile FM and spending a quiet Christmas with my wife and 20 year old son eating too much and watching whatever we have managed to record!