Interview: Trevor Dann

Trevor Dann, the BAFTA award winning producer of Live Aid speaks to Alistair Schofield about his distinguished career in radio and television.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you first came to be involved in broadcasting.

”I was possibly somewhat odd as a child as instead of wanting to be a pilot or a train driver, I wanted a job working on the radio. I remember when I was 11, a teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I left school and I said I wanted to be the Political Correspondent for the BBC.”

“Possibly as a result of being an only child, I spent most of my formative years listening to the radio. During the 60’s I loved the pirate radio stations. They seemed to be doing something so significant, bobbing up and down on ships in the North Sea broadcasting cool music that was regarded as too subversive for the BBC.”

“I loved the energy of these radio stations and of pop music in general. So when I went to Cambridge to study history I spent most of my time playing guitar in a band and running discos.”

Did you go straight into the media after University?

“Yes. I had been told by the careers advisory people at Cambridge University that I wouldn’t get a job in the BBC because I had too much of a regional accent. So during the Easter vacation of my final year, I thought I would find out if this was true and so wandered into the local radio station in my and asked the receptionist if there were any jobs going. By pure coincidence, Tom Beesley, the Station Manager, was walking past and overheard our conversation. He invited me into his office, interviewed me and offered me a job as a journalist there and then. I pointed out that I needed to go back to Cambridge to take my finals but would welcome the job after that.

“I began as what was called a ‘General Reporter’. This is basically the bottom rung of the journalism ladder and I spent my time interviewing any notable people visiting the city and reporting curiosities such as ‘Man finds unexploded bomb in allotment’ type stories."

Given your love of pirate radio, didn’t you find the BBC a bit conservative?

“Not really as I was enjoying what I was doing and making progress in my career. My big break came when I persuaded Radio Nottingham to let me produce a programme aimed at teenagers and young people featuring local bands and bands visiting the City. The show was broadcast every weekday evening and was a big hit. It won awards and got regular interviews with many of the big bands. In fact it was there that I first met Bob Geldof. Bob was a big supporter of the show and often called in to do an interview whenever he was in the Midlands.”

“Then in 1979 I applied for and got a job as a producer for Radio 1”.

So the Cambridge University careers advisor was wrong?

“Yes, but what I didn’t realise at the time was that my appointment was the first time Radio 1 had ever appointed someone from one of the regional stations.”

How did you make the move from radio into television?

“At Radio 1 I had been producing programmes like the Noel Edmonds Sunday morning show. I guess my interest in history then kicked in as I persuaded them to let me make the ’25 Years of Rock’ series. It was a huge success and I was asked to produce a version for television called ‘The Rock and Roll Years’.

“However, having moved to BBC TV I had what my wife calls a ‘Trevor Dann Moment’ and decided that I didn’t want to do it after all. At the time there was a vacancy for a producer for the Old Grey Whistle Test so I applied for it and ended up there.”

Did you become involved in Live Aid as a result of your friendship with Bob Geldof?

“No, it was because the Old Grey Whistle Test team was chosen to be the production team for Live Aid. I therefore ended up in the hugely privileged position of being the Producer.

What is your fondest memory from Live Aid?”

“Probably the opening sequence. We had planned to have the Prince and Princess of Wales open the event but, with literally a minute to go I was told that they would be late and so I had to come up with an alternative opening there and then. I scribbled on a piece of paper the first thing that came into my head, handed it to Richard Skinner who was presenting the show and he immediately read out ‘It’s 12 noon in London, 7 am in Philadelphia and around the world its time for Live Aid.’

We were sitting in the Jimmy Hill commentary box at Wembly and as it was broadcast on the massive PA system around the stadium the box shook with the sound of his voice. As he finished reading it out Status Quo immediately went into ‘Rocking All Over The World’ and Richard and I just cried.

“It was a hugely emotional occasion as it seemed that we were doing something so hugely significant. It brought back all those feelings from the 60’s that music really could change the world.”

And do you think it did change the world in any lasting sense?

“Yes I do, but some of the changes as a result of Live Aid were more subtle than others.”

“I haven’t seen any figures to substantiate it but do believe that it led to step-change in the level of charitable giving in the UK. Live Aid wasn’t the first such TV appeal as Children In Need and been running annually before it, but it was the first time that anything had been done on that scale – it was literally viewed by millions of people across the world!”

“I also think that Live Aid changed the relationship between the broadcaster and the viewers in that it was the first ‘interactive’ programme to take place on that scale. By ‘interactive’ I mean that it asked the viewer to do something, in this case ring in to make a donation of go the bank. In this sense it was the forerunner to pressing the red button today. Before this, broadcasting and viewing were discrete events - broadcasters broadcast and viewers viewed.”

As Live Aid was a 24 hour programme, did you work in shifts?

“Absolutely not. It was completely exhausting but we were all there for the duration. We all kept going because absolutely everyone involved with the show had a single-minded belief that what we were doing was so important.”

“To a large extent this was down to Bob Geldof. He is an amazing person in that when he’s decided to do something he is totally focused on achieving that goal. Anyone who has ever spent any time at all with Bob will tell you that it is impossible not to be swept along by his energy, enthusiasm and charisma.”

“At the end of the show we were all completely drained – both emotionally and physically.

What did you do after Live Aid?

“I came away from Live Aid having produced this massive show feeling on cloud nine. However the feeling was somewhat short-lived as the BBC recruited Janet Street-Porter as “Head of Youf” and within a year she had cancelled Whistle Test.”

“I left to join Matthew Bannister and set up Greater London Radio out of what had been BBC Radio London. As Programme Controller, it was my first real management job.”

“I was there for five years before setting up my own production company in 1993. However, within a year of having done that I was head hunted to rejoin the BBC as Head of Radio 1. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and so I was back at the BBC once more.”

“At the time Radio 1 needed changing. It had good audience figures but it had no credibility among its supposed target audience. To get the under 25s the BBC wasn’t connecting with, we needed to shake things up.”

“This didn’t make us very popular with the over 35s who had grown up with Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates, and I was even nicknamed ‘Dann Dann the Hatchett Man’ by the Daily Star in 1995. But by recruiting new presenters like Chris Evans we brought in new listeners and ensured its survival.”

Then you were made Head of Music Entertainment in 1996.

“Yes. The BBC decided to merge the management of radio and television and I was given responsibility for all popular music. It was great as for the first time we were able to have a strategy for the BBC overall and provide our combined audiences with a consistent approach. “

“However, then Greg Dyke arrived and decided he wanted to split radio and TV again. I had another ‘Trevor Dann moment’, handed in my resignation and went to work for EMAP as Managing Director of Pop running some of their radio stations, TV channels such as Smash Hits TV and their pop magazines.”

So how did you end up at Radio Cambridgeshire?

“After 20 years of commuting into London I just got to the point where I had had enough. I guess I was ‘downshifting’ as the sociologists call it.”

“I set up another production company and started producing radio programmes for local radio. I was then approached by Radio Cambridgeshire to see if I was intersted in doing a show. Next thing, the breakfast show host left and I was on the early shift.”

“I think it’s the most satisfying work I’ve done in a long time and I’m really proud of the show. A listener recently described it as, “more intelligent than Radio Four, more fun than Radio Two and more relaxed than Radio Five”. I’ll live with that.”

But haven’t you recently left Radio Cambridge?

“Yes, time to move on again.”

“I am currently writing a book due to be published in September 2005 about Nick Drake, an English singer-songwriter who died in mysterious circumstances in 1974.”

“I am also busy consulting for a range of media companies, I write for the Independent and the Guardian and I teach media studies two mornings a week at a Cambridge Regional College. Now I’ve joined the teaching staff of Extensor too, so I’m as ‘happy as Larry’.”

Alistair Schofield is MD of Extensor.