Bob Lawrence

 Interview by Roland Beaney.

Where and when were you born? - I was born in Woolwich in South East London roughly a year before my first birthday.

Where do you live now? -In North London, which for a South London boy is not ideal. People from outside of London don’t know that there is a north/south divide within the city. As soon as I emerge on the south side of the Blackwall Tunnel, I genuinely do get a feeling of relief.

What is your favourite part of the Country? - Kent. No question. Because Woolwich is more or less on the Kent border (and if I’m not mistaken used to be part of Kent) I always looked at it as “my county”. Having said that, Shropshire comes a close second.

How did you get into radio? - I can’t remember exactly how old I was but one evening I wasn’t very well and my mum suggested I went to bed early, my brother lent me his radio and as he left the room he said “I’ve tuned it into a station which broadcasts from a ship ……..” My young imagination went into overdrive, I had visions of all the groups being ferried out to this luxury liner to sing a song and then get ferried back …….. That was the very first time that radio got into my brain, I loved it and it wasn’t long before I begged y mum to buy me a cassette recorder. I recorded songs from the radio, then recorded me speaking, then another song until I built up my own little “show”. When I was 13 my other brother (not the one with the radio) spotted an advert in the local paper asking for volunteers at the local hospital radio station. It was there that I met Cliff Osbourne and it wasn’t long before we were running South Thames Radio on fm, broadcasting to the whole of Winn’s Common and possibly even one or two of the nearby houses! From there we both joined the big London pirate London Music Radio and it was there that I became friends with a guy who went out to the Mi Amigo a few times to do some work on the generators. He passed on my tape, which got rejected but it introduced me to the lady who was running things on land and after another couple of tries I eventually got taken on.

When did you first join Caroline? - My first programme was August 14th 1978 but I’d been hanging around passing over tapes for a month or so before.

What are your earliest memories of Caroline? - As a listener it would be those “heady” days of 1974, off the Dutch coast. Hearing those fantastic voices; Andy Archer, Johnny Jason, Tony Allan …. All of them sounding like they were having the best time ever. I had of course heard of Caroline because of my fascination with radio, but I thought they had closed in the 60’s. It was by pure chance that I bought Record Mirror and found they had a big section on radio, and through that I found out that the station was still on. Fantastic days, great images in my mind of these people floating around playing great records that nobody else played.

What changes have you seen with the organisation since you joined?- I was lucky enough to sample the very end of the ”good times” whilst we were at sea. Although some of the older hands, even then, were telling me that it wasn’t quite the same. When I first joined the ship didn’t have a Captain, but we had a skipper and a proper crew man, although it didn’t last. Once that famous winter of ’78 hit, we stayed off the air for six months and life was very VERY hard. I have a diary from those days and reading it now makes me wonder how the hell we survived. I stayed with the station through those dark days and spent much that time aboard. The organisation, just like the ship, was hanging on … just. To be fair, once we got back on the air in ’79 it started to show signs of positive change but then came the sinking. I wasn’t involved during the Ross Revenge days so I can’t comment on those years. Nowadays, it is completely different because we operate in a completely different way. I have to say that in many ways it was easier when we were at sea, although we can at least just plug into a 13 amp constant mains supply.

How much music freedom do you have on Caroline? - I am very lucky, I have absolute freedom on my programme. As the programme name would suggest, it all comes from my album collection. Having said that I have total freedom, you should bear in mind that I have been learning my craft for 36 years now and earning a living from broadcasting for 31 of those years, so whilst I have complete freedom to choose, I am always mindful that I am choosing for a radio programme.

What other radio stations have you been involved with? - I am very proud of my time with a community set up which Cliff and I put together in 1980 called Greenwich Sound. I spent a lot of time at BRMB in Birmingham, I left and came back so many times I can’t remember! Beacon was great fun. The list is something like BRMB, Beacon, Buzz fm (a Black Music station, I did mid mornings there), Signal, XTRA, Fosseway and of course I was Programme Manager at WABC in Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury, Millennium (which was interesting!!) and KMfm. I think that’s it ………

What's your favourite station other than Caroline? - Probably Talk Sport or Five Live. I very rarely listen to any music stations because they just drive me up the wall, occasionally I will force myself to listen for professional reasons. There’s a really good smooth jazz station in America which I listen to on my internet radios and a great oldies station in Australia. When I’m not actually in a studio I am working in my office and I MUST have music so I always put something on. Recently I have discovered hours and hours of Radio Noordzee, the Dutch service from the early 1970’s. I’d never listened to that station, even back then. What a fantastic station, it knocked spots off Veronica.

Who is the most famous person that you have met? – When I was working in commercial radio I met loads of famous people and I spent a long time in the Midlands which is a very creative place, there were always actors at the theatres or at Central TV, Pebble Mill (as it was then) and plenty of music venues so there were always famous people around. For some of the time I was the “Rock Jock” so the big rock acts would call in for a chat and a coffee. I remember one day interviewing the late Stuart Adamson of Big Country, before the interview I settled him down and went off to get him a hot chocolate from the vending machine. As I passed his drink to him the bottom of the cup fell out and the steaming hot chocolate landed in his ……… shall we say “lap”, not a great start to an interview but he was good as gold! The two which stick in my mind are Keith Richards and Mary Hopkin. The amazing thing about the Keith interview was that I got paid to travel first class to London, go to his hotel room and chat to him for half an hour!! What a great bloke too. Mary Hopkin was my first “love” so when I was the programme boss at WABC in the midlands and one of the DJ’s had her coming in for an interview, I couldn’t help but mention it to him. Later that day I was sitting in my office when there was a knock at the door and in walked Jim saying “this is him ………” I looked up to see Mary Hopkin smiling at me as she said “I understand I was your first love?” As the young people would say “Oh My God!!” – well, they probably wouldn’t say it they’d just text “OMG!”

Who do you particularly remember in your offshore days?- Oh, so many characters, to answer this question properly would take up all of the remaining magazine space ….. people who made the whole experience so special, all of them so very different to each other, people like Marc Jacobs from the Dutch side and Ad Roberts were always good for a laugh, the mad cook Kees Borrell, Tom Anderson was good to be onboard with, Tony Allan of course …….. life was never bland when he was aboard! I remember them all and have great memories of everybody I worked with. I suppose the guys who spent time out there during our 6 months off the air have a special place in my heart, those were very tough days with no food, water or electricity for large periods. I have a diary from that time which everybody onboard contributed to and there are some very sad comments in there, you know for a long time we had no contact with land and a couple of diary entries are about our very real fears that the organisation on land had collapsed. The situation was very bleak and in such situations it brings you closer together. I remember the three people Gerard van Dam put on just before Christmas 1978, they were under the impression that they would be broadcasting their radio station by Christmas, of course it never happened and it ended up with one of them (who had become my girlfriend) getting quite ill. She needed 24 hour monitoring and Chicago (who was in charge) decided that if a tender didn’t arrive the next day then he would call a lifeboat, by pure chance a tender DID arrive and the three of us went off. Marie-Louise came and stayed at my mum’s house and the next day we heard the news that the ship had been abandoned. That was the famous occasion when we went out to see what could be done with the ship, when we got there she was unlit and listing heavily, obviously with a lot of water in there. As we got closer Chicago just leapt over and stayed aboard, single-handedly saving the ship.

Who influenced you the most? - Tony Allan. The perfect broadcaster, equally at home playing The Osmonds or Emerson Lake & Palmer. Able to really communicate with his listeners. The amazing thing is how young he was when he was doing all this stuff. When he started at Radio Scotland he was 16 or 17 and yet when you listen to the recordings he sounds like a proper grown up. For any anorak reading this, get out recordings of Tony on air on the 1st of September 1974 just as the Dutch Marine Offences Act came in …. He was 24 years old!! How many 24 year olds today would have a) that voice and b) that skill to communicate so effectively. He taught me a lot, both by listening to him and from working with him.

What is the best and worst thing about radio today? - The best thing is my internet radios. With them I can listen to practically everything from all over the world. The worst thing is that as far as music radio is concerned, most of it either sounds the same or it sounds worse.

What's the most embarrassing or funny thing that's happened to you? - I imagine you are speaking about radio related incidents? When I was at WABC one winter, possibly 1991 or thereabouts, it snowed heavily and very soon it became clear that the weather was going to affect normal life in the West Midlands and Shropshire. I lived just around the corner from the radio station so I went in to take over from the guy who was on air and he went off to battle through the weather and get home to his family. As the night went on the weather got worse and public transport stopped, cars couldn’t get anywhere and we slowly started taking more and more calls on the air trying to give as much information as we could. One elderly woman phoned up asking about a particular problem she had as a direct result of the heavy snow, I said on the air, “No problem, just call the council’s special number it’s …..” whatever the number was and she said “No I can’t write it down ……”. “Course you can, just jam the phone between your shoulder and your ear, hold the pen with one hand and the paper with the other and write it down ….” I said. “No Bob, I can’t do it” “Don’t be silly, everyone can write a number down……” “Well I can’t”. I was aware that she sounded very paniced and so I was trying to be a bit jokey/matey by now, with more than a hint of sarcasm I said “And what makes you so special?” “I ain’t got any arms.”

What do you do for your day job and relaxation? - I’m a voice over artist most of the time which means, in simple terms, that people pay me to speak words into some sort of recording machine and those words then end up as a commercial, or a training DVD, conference presentation or some other promotional tool. I still have my own production company too. For relaxation? Err, that’s a hard one ………..

What's your favourite food? - In the UK it’s my own chilli or my chicken stew but there are a couple of Steak Houses in Amsterdam which serve the best steak in the world. I spend a lot of time in France and for a country with a reputation for fantastic food I am ALWAYS disappointed and I’ve NEVER had a decent steak in France and we’re only a little better in this country. But I would have to say that I would walk to Amsterdam for a steak. I miss frinkendel too from Holland, when I was living there I loved those little machines where you put a couple of cents in, open the drawer and there’s a frinkendel!! Every time I go to Holland I MUST have one …… or two ………

What do you dislike doing the most? - Being a grown up.

Who would you like to get stuck with on a desert Island?- The bloke who cooks the steak in one of those Steak Houses in Amsterdam …. Mind you, where would we get the meat from?  

What's the most important thing that you learnt about radio?- It only works if the people making the programmes realise that it is a companion to the listener. I had a Programme Controller many years ago who taught me two very important things: 1) Never have sex with a listener and 2) Always leave the listener wanting more. Although if you do disobey rule 1 you should make sure rule 2 doesn’t apply.

What was the first record you bought?- T. Rex, Telegram Sam and yes I still have it. The strange thing is that I can’t remember my first album ……. My first CD was Layla though.

What are your favourite bands and who is your hero? - This is such a hard question. My collection is pretty big and, obviously, I love it all. I go through phases which are linked to my mood but I suppose the people I keep coming back to are Brian Wilson/Beach Boys, Steely Dan and Dusty Springfield. I have always had huge respect for Dave Edmunds, what a talent but as the much missed Roger Scott once said, you should never meet your heroes because one day they’ll let you down.

What are your 5 most iconic tunes? -  I hate that word! I’m not really sure what an iconic tune is but I would guess that something like The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again is iconic and if it is, then that’s my number one. The other four, in no order? Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”, Pink Floyd any of “Dark Side Of The Moon”, Beach Boys “California Saga” (all of it) and Bruce Springsteen “Born To Run”.

When did you last go on board the Ross Revenge? - August 2009 for our Now That’s What I Call Radio Caroline broadcast.

How do you see the future of Caroline and its ship?- It’s strange to think of a time without Caroline, those years without the station seem so long ago now. It’s a constant struggle when you don’t rely on tax payers money or advertising and so far, touch wood, the Highgate Hippy has done a fantastic job in juggling the pennies and keeping the creditors happy. I will do everything I can to help him and all we can do is hope we get through it. The Ross is even more complicated because of its sheer size, there are very places which will have her and those that will should have easy access for listeners and good security, like the station itself, Ross is lucky to have a dedicated team to look after her.

What plans have you for the future? - To grab a cheese sandwich, after that ………. Who knows?

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