The story of Max by John Ryan
Steve Martin writes:
“I’ve known John Ryan since our schooldays. He’s is a true radio enthusiast with high professional standards, passion for new ideas and the attention to detail that production people will appreciate.
John always starts projects with a vivid sense of what he wants to achieve so I was thrilled when he agreed to reveal for Earshot how his new 80s station in Manchester was conceived, the thinking behind its positioning and the behavioural style rules that keep Max consistent and on brand.”
The moment when…
I can pinpoint the exact moment Max was born. Somewhere on the M5 on 27 June, travelling back to Manchester with Toby Whitehouse. We’d just made an edition of Clueless, 2ZY’s game show for BBC Radio Wales, and were talking about ‘name’ radio station branding following the recent change from Jack to SAM in Bristol.
As is often the way with radio ideas, the name came first! Toby and I work together at Gaydio, where Niocast’s mini-mux is sited, and our conversation moved on to dream formats and whether there’d be capacity in the pilot for any other stations.
I DJ with Hattie Pearson from Xfm’s big 80s night in Manchester (Girls on Film) and love the music of that time. Absolute 80s is clearly very successful, so there’s a market. Within 72 hours, we spoke to Niocast and had a carriage agreement!
What would Max do differently?
It’s very much an experimental station, and there were a number of considerations when designing it. 2ZY’s other commitments means it needs to be comparatively low maintenance. Our playout is hosted in the Cloud by PSquared. The only live show is a relay of Girls on Film. With no marketing budget to speak of, there needs to be talkability. This is also a chance to try some new ideas with format and the delivery of shortform content.
The imaging is even more important than on other stations. With two exceptions Max doesn’t have shows. It will develop over the next couple of months into a non-stop stream in which 80s content will be delivered by a range of voices. They’re presenters, not VOs (continuity with personality is my shorthand), but never live.
Toying with Mr Headroom
The name sounds a bit 80s .. Max is excess, hints of the fact there’ll be a lot of something (the 80s in this case) and there’s a nod to Mr Headroom. In fact, we made enquiries about using Matt Frewer or a soundalike as a VO, with the same kind of treatment as the original Max Headroom. But we couldn’t come to an agreement with the rights holders for the character.
Louise first played the part of Leela in 1977 and went on to become a travelling companion to Tom Baker’s Dr Who in two seasons of the show. The Radio Times cost 12p.
I then wanted to go in an opposite direction. FVO, British rather than American MVO. Very little treatment rather than stylised Headroom stuff.
As a massive Doctor Who nerd, I knew Louise Jameson of course and followed her on Twitter after interviewing her for a Radio 1 documentary I made about Trock.
Whilst wondering about who the voice would be, she popped up in my news feed and I heard her voice in my head. I went to her website and listened to her showreel there and knew I had found the voice of Max. It’s a beautiful voice obviously, but also with the emotional range I needed to deliver everything from big station IDs to quirky one-liners.
What Max never does
Max loves the 80s so it never slags them off. No lines about bad hair or the fashion of the era! And we never brag. So no ‘bigger variety’ or best this or greatest that. It’s more intimate, less shouty.
Max plays almost all the 80s including early 80s disco, late 80s dance as the 90s tone starts edging in. You won’t hear Anita Dobson or The Tweets anytime soon, but it’s a very eclectic mix. I think that’s important on a genre station to avoid burn and still have that element of music discovery.
Our primary target might be 40-something but every week, 250 hipsters come to Girls on Film so we’re not just catering to those who know every word of ‘Marlene on the Wall’.
Most of our first-generation liners came from Daniel Blythe, the writer of the Encyclopedia of 80s Pop, who I’d worked with when we presented 80s Night on BBC Local Radio in Yorkshire 10 years ago. He also wrote our brilliant station opener.
Much of Max’s imaging is based on 80s song lyrics. It’s a way of further underlining our music passion and makes a connection with those who love the songs as much as we do. I’m also working with my friend Keri Jones from Radio Scilly on topping these up. Stuart Morgan at Audio Always produced the opener and Chris Stevens (some of whose Chris Country ideas we’ve shamelessly and with permission adapted for Max!) produced the functional IDs for us. Music IDs are by IQ Beats.
The opener was important. Yes, about 3 people would have heard it on first transmission but the positive reaction to it elsewhere has proved its value. It’s a piece of audio shorthand for my peers and clients, past and future, about the kind of work 2ZY can deliver – and they’re an important audience too.
We’re relaxed about monetising Max during the pilot. It’s more about a live testbed for format and technical ideas, a bit of after-hours research and development for 2ZY more widely. But hey, we want people to hear it and love it too!
John Ryan runs the independent production and consultancy business 2ZY. Max is on DAB in Manchester and online at thisismax.com and in aggregators including UK Radioplayer.