Jazz FM launched on a blue note – 25 years ago this week.

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March 1, 2015 by dontbringlulubook


Jazz FM original sax player - programme sched. 1900

Author’s own pic

Jazz was the passion of Jazz FM’s first station director Ron Onions. But it was a passion that had turned sour just a year after the launch on March 4, 1990. There was tension between Onions and its co-founder, the pianist David Lee. Onions was dismissed from his post in 1991 by one of the independent directors John Bradford who described the atmosphere as pure poison. In a letter to Onions, Bradford said: “I can find little to be proud of in what has actually transpired”.

The station started off with high aspirations and was based in a smart area of London near to Little Arabia in Edgware. Sponsorship was courted from the likes of drinks brand Martini, and initial audience research analysed a number of ABC1 listeners.

It was hoped the launch would be a glitzy affair and feature jazz star Ella Fitzgerald. But on the big day the American singer was taken to the wrong studio, highlighting the poor organisation that affected the venture from day one. Van Morrison, turned up, but stood propped up against a wall on his own. An Ella Fitzgerald concert lost money for Jazz FM, setting an ominous tone.

Ella F at Jazz FM launchPic from Google.

Onions was given a contract for three years with a clause that offered a refund of all business entertaining and travel expenditure.

At Jazz FM, programming was beset with problems. Minutes of the board meetings from the first 18 months show an ongoing preoccupation with the time it was taken to load the Selector radio music computer. Staff seemed divided over the age of the audience.

Then there was the saga of the station’s signature jingles. A management meeting disliked one possibility because it sounded too ’50’s.

Lee was due to write the jingles but there was still a question about the jingle package in early February. An idea that had been initially discarded was still under discussion.

Sales staff had hoped for a tape of output to take out to potential advertisers – this took a week to produce and when the management heard it one month before launch, it was described as a ‘regression in policy’.

By 1991 there was concern about cash-flow. Jasper Grinling, Chairman of Jazz FM received legal advice in May  that the station’s directors should be alert to trading wrongfully. Various options were put in front of the directors and the recommended option was to sell to a trade buyer.

By July 1991 Onions had left. Fortunately, he had lined up a return to news and had organised the recording of a demo tape of a new news radio station at Molinaire Studios in London, using Carolyn Brown (now Radio 4 continuity announcer) and John Armstrong ex-IRN.

David Lee’s contacts in the world of media were so good he got wind of this event and memo’d David Heimann, Board Director at Jazz FM. Lee wrote that this constituted Onions’ involvement with a rival consortium.

Lee believed Onions’ appeared in this demo tape but it was his daughter, Sarah.Onions’ took legal advice on his dismissal even though the station was to be sold.

25 years later Jazz FM is back on the air as a digital radio station. One of his original radio presenters Helen Mayhew went on to develop a successful career, and co-presenter Jez Nelson joined the BBC.

Ron Onions’ died in 2012. Helen Mayhew attended his funeral and the music played was all that jazz: Satchmo’s St Louis Blues, ‘Sassy’ Sarah Vaughan singing Midnight Sun and Sidney Bechet’s The Onions.

Author’s own picJazz FM memoribilia


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