Former Radio Caroline and Phantom presenter Steve Conway takes time out to answer a few questions about life, radio, the universe and everything!
Tell us a bit about you and the station you work at…
I’ve been in and out of radio (mostly in) for almost 30 years, my longest associations being with Radio Caroline when it was still at sea as a high powered station in the 80s, and 11 years with Phantom, through both its pirate and legal incarnations. I left there in 2011 not long after the move to Marconi House when it became much more locked down and corporate, and these days I broadcast with 8radio.com, where I can allow my creativity and musical knowledge free reign. In recent years I have become a writer too, and in a way I have radio to thank for that. I always felt the lifestyle and adventures out at sea with Radio Caroline was so wild and unusual that it had to be put into print, and in 2009 my first book “Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline” was published by Liberties Press here in Dublin. I though that would be the only thing I would ever write, but I enjoyed it so much that I kept going, with a number of short stories publish, and three more books to come, including a sequel to Shiprocked, covering my years with Phantom, due out at the end of this year.
How would you describe your first radio gig?
My first radio gig, in a way, was like my current one – and almost every one I’ve wanted to get involved in.
A small group of individuals, passionate about music, and freedom, willing to fight for access to the airwaves, and putting together a product they really believed in. This was South East Sound, a part time pirate station playing rock music in South London in the mid-80s, at a time when there were only two licenced commercial stations serving a city of 10 million people – one of which was an all-news station. We really believed in opening up the airwaves and playing music that couldn’t be heard, and we were up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to carry our heavy broadcasting equipment deep into the woods on a hillside south of Croydon. I had a one hour slot from 5-6pm on Sundays, and I did it with a passion that has never left me. And the thing is, during the last 30 years, the technology may have changed, the scale may have changed, but all the stuff I’ve done – Caroline, Phantom, and now 8Radio.com has been around that same basic vision – passionate people, fully engaged in making great radio, pushing in from the margins to get the music and the voices heard.
How would you describe the radio landscape?
The landscape is improving, decade by decade. In the 80s it was a fight just to be allowed to have stations that played mainstream music back to back – that battle has been won, and now we are well into the era of different sounds and niche markets being given their space too. And the rise of the smartphone is making internet radio viable in a way its never been before, and the floodgates are opening to let more and more people bring their vision to the market. And now, although the big stations still try to dominate, they are facing competition, not just from a couple of radio station on ships outside the territorial limit, not just from a few landbased pirates, temporary licence holders or smaller legal operators, but from tens of thousands of streams and specialist outlets. And I say bring it on. The more radio the better, the good will always find a market, it’s only the bland that need fear the revolution.
What makes 8Radio.com unique? How would you compare it to other stations you’ve worked at?
I think in setting up 8Radio.com, Simon Maher has done a great job of taking the best elements of traditional radio and marrying it with the flexibility and passion of the more grass-roots internet/pirate model. He’s pulled together a team of mostly young, talented and energetic presenters who are still idealistic enough to believe in what they are doing, and put them into a situation where they have a top notch studio, a good management structure to guide them, and a few older hands to work alongside too. He’s using the freedom and reach and low-cost base that is offered by being an internet broadcaster, but rather than just being a nonstop stream, or the occasional pre-record, he’s running it as a proper live radio station, where the team come in to the studio and present live, the way radio should be. A lot of internet content is either automated streams, or else a relay of something already available terrestrially, so I think 8Radio.com is quite different in that respect. And with smartphones these days letting you listen in more or less FM quality anywhere – the station is no less available than in the days when people carried similarly sized pocket transistor radio around with them.
Are you wearing more “hats” than you have in the past?
I’d say I am wearing different hats. I’m much more of a “broadcaster” than a “DJ” these days – I’m much more involved in designing and deciding on and crafting my content than I used to be, rather than just playing hits to a format.
If you want to talk about hat through, my days on Radio Caroline probably represented the ultimate in hat wearing. I joined as a newsreader, and got roped in to being a weekend presenter after a few weeks. Then I became Head of News. Eventually, I was filling in for the Programme Director when he was on shoreleave and when he left I became PD myself for a couple of years. But the longer you stayed on that ship, the more stuff you learned to do, and as people left, and new people came out, you eventually found yourself doing everything – reading news, designing playlists, presenting a show, pumping fuel for the generators, making adverts, and occasionally, if your colleagues were really unlucky, standing in as on-board cook. And then after a year our transmission mast collapsed in a storm and we were all outside in freezing cold weather helping to build a new one – everyone from the engineer who’d been with us 18 years to the new cook who’d only joined the week before – hauling mast sections, welding, climbing, you name it. And it was so cold that winter that one of our listeners knitted headwear for us, so in radio terms, my “hat” in 1988 was a balaclava!
What are you doing social media-wise?
Social media is an essential tool to connect with your audience, and I use it both as a presenter and a writer. I have my Twitter @steveconway which primarily is used to signpost shows, readings and public events I’m involved in, Facebook which I use similarly, and then my blog steveconway.wordpress.com which is much more content based – I use it to analyse and reflect on what I’m doing, or things happening to me, rather than just signpost stuff. I’ll put up playlists from shows, but often I’ll discuss or analyse why tracks were chosen, or what made me swap stuff mid-set. And some of my short stories start off as blog posts too.
What artist would we be surprised to find on your iPod?
That’s a tough one to answer – my taste in music is very wide, but I don’t think that anyone who has listened to me would be surprised by the depth of my collection. On the radio you’ll hear me playing 1940s blues alongside indie rock from the 90s and the latest album releases – and making them work together.
I guess what would surprise people about my iPhone listening is just how much speech radio I consume – if you see me walking down the road I’ll have the headphones in, and I’m just as likely to be listening to a podcast from the BBC World Service or Radio 4 as I am to music or music radio. I have a vast appetite for information, and I never begrudge time stuck in traffic – I’m listening, learning and enjoying every moment.
What’s one thing that would surprise many people to learn about you?
That I’m actually an introvert – and deeply so. People often say to me “You can’t possibly be an introvert if you’re a DJ” but that just so wrong. Introversion isn’t about shyness or fear of publicspeaking, and introverts can – and are – often very active in high profile fields such as entertainment. Being an introvert just means that I’m comfortable with my own company, and don’t have to be with a crowd all the time to feel good – the introvert recharges their batteries in solitude, whereas the extrovert gets their energy from being around people. Put me in a radio station, or at a public reading, or any kind of social situation and I’ll thrive and enjoy myself as much as the next guy, I’ll just need some quiet time later to recharge.
Actually, radio can be a haven for the introvert – that lovely, softly lit studio, all to yourself, the listeners who can hear, but not see you. Though the webcam has rather spoiled that last bit!
Who is your favorite radio personality not on your staff and why do you like them?
Bob Lawrence. Brilliant presenter and ace voice artist from the UK, worked at tons of local commercial stations up and down England, and I was lucky enough to bump into him on Radio Caroline in the later, satellite years. He’s quite the most consummate professional I have ever heard – he can take an audience and twist them around his little finger by sheer force of his voice alone. He believes there is no better place you can be than behind a live mic in a radio studio, and his energy is just infectious. If I won the lottery and bought my own radio station tomorrow he’d be the key person on my lineup, along with Fiona Scally (currently Head of Production on Nova, and one of Ireland’s hidden gems of female talent).
What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
Passion – believe in what you are doing, and you’ll have wings.
What advice you would give people new to the business?
Read my next book! No, seriously . . . I’ve been in radio for almost 30 years, and I’ve never been one of the superstars to whom it came naturally. Everything I’ve learned has been the hard way, everything I’ve done well has been built on the bones of things I’ve done less well in the past. And I was thinking about that, and I’ve sort of made it the theme of my second book “Outside In – Everything I Know About Radio I learned By Screwing It Up”
It’s about all the fluffs and poor choices and mistakes I made along the way, and the stuff I learned about them which made me do it better in future. My 11 years on Phantom, for example, were supremely enjoyable for me in part because I learned so much from doing things the hard way on Caroline a decade earlier, and all the things I did there which didn’t work out made me a wiser person when it came to Phantom, and smoothed my path there. And of course I had a whole set of new mistakes to make on Phantom, and they were fun to learn from too. So the book is kind of a tounge in cheek guide to people breaking into radio, “avoid doing all the things I did and you can be way better in 4 years than I am in 30” kind of thing. But with a lot of anecdotes and stories, and whole growing pains of Phantom and the arrival of Communicorp to “save” the station thrown in.
What’s the biggest gaffe you’ve made on air?
Oh no. This was a long time ago, I promise.
I was on this local station in Surrey, and one of the things we had to do on the breakfast show was read out a list of vacencies from the local Job Centre. And they had to be read in huge batches, about 8-10 minutes long, and it was very boring, and sometimes hard to stop your mind wandering.
And at the end of a long read, I came to the final vacancy, and I spoonerised it. And I swear it wasn’t intentional, it was just the rythem of the read, and my mind wandering a bit . . and instead of saying that there were openings for trainees to work in a warehouse in Horley, I read it out as a whorehouse in Warley
. . . and to add icing to the cake, the notice concluded with the exhortation that: “applicants must be fit”