Graham Young meets the 'Godfather' of modern commercial radio, Richard Park.
Paul McCartney’s prophetic question about turning 64 has become a strange kind of anthem for many late in life employees: ‘Will you still need me?’
In Richard Park’s case, director of broadcast at Global Radio, the answer is unequivocally ‘Yes’.
“I’ve been married twice and have got four children – I gave each wife two children each,” he says.
“I’ve got six grandchildren and seven radio stations.
To which he might have added: ‘And 20 million listeners’.
He scoffs at those who say Rupert Murdoch is ‘not fit’ to run a major company at 81, pointing out how many great achievements he’s made.
“There’s clearly an agenda there and some people have a massive axe to grind,” he says.
“Murdoch has trusted people and they’ve let him down, but he is capable of making his own decisions.
“The Times and The Sunday Times don’t make money, but he closed the News of the World because it was toxic. Isn’t that admirable?”
Almost 20 years ago in the late spring of 1993, Park was the iron-man warrior from Capital Radio parking his tanks outside BRMB to ‘save the station’.
This year, rival three-year-old owners Orion Media have rebranded BRMB as Free Radio, while Park’s Global empire now includes networks Heart FM and Capital – both with stations in Birmingham – as well as Classic FM, LBC, Choice, Gold and XFM.
“Heart FM is the biggest commercial network this country has ever seen,” he says of a station which was once his enemy when launched against BRMB in Birmingham in August, 1994.
Since then, the industry has played musical chairs with ownerships while embarking on an extraordinary, technological revolution.
Behind Global’s main reception desk is an ‘obsession’ statement dedicated to those who... ‘strive to make each detail right’ and who are ‘bold enough to try the never been tried before’.
“I think everything is right for its own time,” says Park.
“We live in highly competitive times where we are trying to get into first place, but commercial radio has to cut its cloth accordingly.
“We’re here in Leicester Square and have all the benefits of being right in the heart of town, but we’re not here at any price.
“All the presenters here drive their own desks and that’s something that someone like Ed James (Heart’s ten-year breakfast host in Birmingham) is very skilled at.
“Would any of the presenters of the ‘60s have people splitting their sides now?
“Music has become very important to individuals and we respect that. When people think of Heart they know it stands for ‘More music variety’.
Park says commercial radio has had to adapt to the BBC cornering the market with highly paid stars by consolidating individual stations into bigger brands, like Heart and rivals Smooth.
“Time waits for no man,” says Park. “Since MTV, you can’t change the world (in one city). You have to position yourself where you want your services to be.
“So we have national brands, locally delivered with local news and local adverts – that’s been booming, really, because companies love being on our programmes.
“And local people want to hear high quality output, rather than have a local presenter (for the sake of it) who isn’t able to reach the standard required.
“We can still deliver the news quicker than anyone else.”
Orion Media chief executive Phil Riley (a former BRMB DJ who ended up running Heart himself when it was owned by Chrysalis) recently turned BRMB, Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern into the one-size-fits-all Free Radio.
Asked to comment, Park says: “I’m not a sentimentalist and it was a magnificent name in its day, but those four letters BRMB are not a good enough reason to keep it.
“It’s sad, but there was an inevitability to it.”
Does he like the name Free Radio himself?
“It might come to compare in a position in the market place,” says Park. “I couldn’t say that for certain but the people running it like Riley and (David) Lloyd are legends.”
Since we first met 20 years ago, Park admits that the rise of the female singer has been the big change on the back of The Spice Girls.
“Guitar bands haven’t done as well, but another of our stations XFM has a big audience for people who don’t necessarily want wall to wall pop.
Park admits that the public don’t care who owns which station when they can just switch off if they’re not happy.
“It’s like when people go into Boots,” he says.
“They just want to know where the Anadin is, not who the store manager is.
“What people want now are brands. It’s all about the brands. Beanz Meanz Heinz!”
Park himself began his career as a journalist, switched to newsreading on a pirate ship and was very soon playing records. Always ambitious, he was quickly enjoying a prolific mainland career covering his beloved sport of football – several times during our 75-minute conversation he diverts quite naturally into the inner workings of Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish.
Though publically best known for being the ‘headmaster’ on BBC1’s Fame Academy equivalent to The X Factory, radio is Park’s natural home.
“I enjoyed the telly, but I’m not the same as Simon Cowell,” says Park.
“I’ve known him for years and think he’s a really good guy, but I don’t have the same desire as he does to be the earliest adopter of musical talent.
“I’m a better judge of someone who has already made a record.
“Will Young (from Cowell’s Pop Idol) is still about, but most of them aren’t the real deal.
“They’re not musicians and most of the people who were on Fame Academy have gone back to being musicians.”
As for Cowell’s career, he advises: “You have to remember how powerful Hughie Green once was and how his career went – when you lose that youthful look, the world has a habit of putting you in your place.”
How would Park react if I offered him Cliff Richard’s next single?
“I’d say: ‘Can we hear it? Does it fit the brand?”
What are 76-year-old Engelbert Humperdinck’s chances at Eurovision?
“I’m not interested. I’ve never been a fan of that type of crooning.”
Would he pay £175 to see Madonna at Birmingham’s NIA this summer?
“I saw her in 1983 in the Palladium Club in New York and I was thinking ‘This chick is hot’.
“I’ve seen her a few times on tour since and each time she hasn’t been as good as the the time before.
“It’s the law of diminishing experiences.
“We’re acquaintances, not friends. She won’t be on the phone asking if I want to go out for a cocoa.”
Park worked with Michael Jackson at Hampden Park during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year and suggests that, when he died, he probably ‘had the body of an 80-year-old’.
In February of this year, Park was preparing to attend the Grammy Awards in LA’s Peninsula Hotel when he heard that Whitney Houston had died in a fourth-floor suite in next door’s Beverley Hilton.
After quickly attending the first, small-scale police press conference, he used his iPhone (his Blackberry helps to weed out the important from the very important) to file an exclusive report for his national network.
“I saw Amy Winehouse’s father in the Beverley Hilton that night,” Park recalls. “He was the saddest of the sad – I knew Amy when she was an unaffected girl before some had let her down.
“It’s part of modern society that we think we will all live forever and some of us will squeeze out as much as we can.
“Going to a music bash straight afterward Whitney’s death doesn’t get any stranger than that and I wouldn’t have believed 20 years ago they would have both died so young.”
Does he harbour any guilt that the media has contributed to their demise?
“No, because you can’t stop people from becoming addicted,” says Park.
“Had they not been musicians, they might have become addicted to pork pies.
“Addictions are addictions. For a while, I was running six or seven miles a day thinking I wasn’t doing myself justice if I didn’t. Now my knees haven’t been brilliant for the last few years.”
On the day of our interview, Park had been walking the three miles to work when he slipped on a wet pavement and suddenly found himself looking up at the clouds wondering if he was about to be run over.
“I think I’ve hurt the ligaments in my shoulder,” he grimaces.
To ease the pain, some improtant light entertainment issues.
Who might he have been... in The Beatles? “George Harrison.”
The Stones? “Out of the originals, I wouldn’t have made it in the band.”
Black Sabbath? “Not Ozzy!”
Led Zeppelin? “Not Page or Plant... John Paul Jones.”
Slade? “Jimmy Lea, but Noddy’s a great guy. When I was on Radio Clyde I was with Slade promoting the Flame album and I was dressed as a fireman.
“We had some fun, When it came to partying, nobody had anything on those boys’ appetites for beers and birds.”
Few execs have a bird’s-eye view of Leicester Square, the UK’s capital of fun and home to many a major Hollywood premiere.
I suggest Tommy Lee Jones would be a good likeness to play Park. If only the star wasn’t so craggy, eh!
“Liam Neeson can do me,” chimes Park in return.
Even as one of five children in Scotland, he always knew where he wanted to be – and his lessons are as appropriate today to any other 16-year-old in a world where even the good times at the sharp end of business are always tough.
Eldest son Paul Jackson, who ran both Virgin Radio and Capital Radio, moved to Australia 18 months ago to work for Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan Murdoch at DMB Radio.
To prevent his grandchildren from feeling homesick, Jackson (who changed his name to avoid charges of nepotism) will have been away for two years before Park sees him again.
“You can’t mither your own children any more than my parents did me,” says Park.
“When I was 16 I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go...
“You have to want to be here from 7am to 7pm without feeling any pain and I’ve never missed a shift.
“Today, for some, ‘working from home’ is a euphemism for a hangover but I have an agenda that’s unfinished.
“I see guys 12 years younger than me who already look ready for the knacker’s yard. My advice to young people is that if there’s anything that you are enthusiastic for in life and you think it’s a dream, chase that dream, and if you only get halfway you will still have a very special working place.
“Technology has washed a lot of people to the touchline, but my fire is always burning bright and I’m always going to chase even half a chance, from hospital radio up.”
Several times I give Park the chance to tell me how well off he is (his second wife runs a chain of fashion shops), but he’ll have none of it.
His HQ might be bristling with the lastest Apple Mac computers (‘give people the equipment and let them get on with the job’) but one personal luxury is a simple £20 haircut from the same hairdresser every time at the nearby Pall Mall barbers.
“Is it worth paying more?” he asks me, implying that money is never wasted unnecessarily.
To get away from it all, Park has a Norfolk bolt hole – and I wonder in which direction this visionary sits on the train to get to Kings Lynn.
“Always at the back, always on the left, always looking forward,” he says.
“Do you know, I’ve never thought of it like that, but I’m always looking forward to see what’s coming next.
“Listen, unless you’ve got stuff going forward, you’re f*****.”