Interview: Americana UK Reader’s Poll multiple award winner Mike Ritchie on successful music radio

Mike Ritchie explains how to be an award winning music broadcaster despite repeatedly getting an artist’s new album title wrong.

Mike Ritchie is one of Americana UK’s more successful Reader’s Poll award winners with his Celtic Music Radio programme ‘Mike Ritchie on Sunday’ winning Best Radio Show in 2017 and 2020, as well as being runner-up to Bob Harris in the same category in 2016, 2018 and 2019. The COVID lockdown and the streaming of recorded music are proving to be significant challenges for music radio, particularly Community Radio, and Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Mike Ritchie to discuss these issues, his poll success and the mechanics of music radio broadcasting. If you have ever wanted to get a better understanding of Community Radio then this is an ideal opportunity and if you are already a fan of Mike Ritchie this is your chance to find out a bit more about him and his popular programme.

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?

We are well, Martin, thanks. My wife, Maggie tested positive early in November after losing her sense of smell but, thankfully, she was not seriously unwell though it did take her some time to feel 100 per cent again. Our 14-year-old son has hardly been in school this past year and online lessons in his bedroom are tough going, but he has certainly been sticking in well. Hopefully, he will make a fuller return to school soon.

What does it mean to you personally to win The Best Radio Show Of 2020 in AUK’s Readers Poll for a second time?

That so many people who love their music and rate the show so highly is such a good, pleasing feeling. My aim has always been to play great tracks, engage with the audience and chat directly to them. They also take time to vote, so I’m hugely grateful and also pleased that it’s an accolade for Celtic Music Radio (CMR) which, after all, is run by music-loving volunteers.

You seem to have come to a career in radio later in life. What drew you to it and how did you develop the necessary skill set to be a successful presenter and producer? 

I would say it’s a hobby, not a career – but if a national broadcaster wants to give me a trial, then I’d be pleased about that. I bumped into station presenters at various gigs in Glasgow over the years and one in particular, Bill Morris, was persistent. With a business to run and family life, I didn’t think I would have the time to commit to be perfectly honest. But once I stepped into the studios, I was just hooked. The other volunteers were patient – extremely so – and showed me the technical things I needed to do. I found the technical side trickier than the actual communicating at a mic, but the more I practised, the bits and pieces needed kicked in. I always joke it’s a successful show if I’ve not set anything on fire.

Which broadcasters have been your biggest role models?

As I’m fairly long in the tooth and been listening to radio since my teens, there are broadcasters I admire, obviously – John Peel, Johnnie Walker, Bob Harris, Tom Morton, for example – and that’s because they play music I like. So, I wouldn’t say they are role models though each of them is informed and I certainly try to make my shows interesting with background info and tit bits. That said, the folk who listen in are really clued up and they help the show with their input and music suggestions, though I don’t do requests, generally.

How is Celtic Music Radio doing and how typical is it of community radio?

CMR has found surviving during the COVID emergency to be difficult as many of our potential supporters have been forced to stop trading, meaning our income is drying up. Recently we have been more reliant on listeners’ contributions and I believe this is typical of the majority of the Community Radio sector, which is not awash with cash, does not subscribe to RAJAR and, therefore, does not attract business from advertising agencies. To subscribe to RAJAR would cost around £25,000 per annum – that’s a lot of money we don’t have.

How do the finances for a community radio station work and how would someone go about establishing a new station?

In the case of CMR it has been very much a personal crusade with a band of enthusiastic volunteers and our listeners providing some financial assistance. Establishing a Community Radio Station is very different today, people with this expertise at the station inform me. With CMR, Ofcom invited applications for FM licences in a given area but this no longer happens. The emphasis is very much on SSDAB (Small Scale DAB).

COVID has made significant changes to many aspects of our lives, are there any particular challenges and opportunities for the broadcasting industry?

COVID has had a major impact on CMR and most community stations. We have become a remote operation with our studios in Glasgow shut since March 2020. I have to emphasise that it has only been through the ingenuity of our technical team that the station continues to provide excellent programming. Our volunteer team operate from home via internet connections to our studio base and then to the world. Some have converted garages and one presents her show from her farmhouse. I’m set up in a spare room, commandeering a desk my wife was planning as a space to write her fourth novel. She has had two already published and a third coming out in June called “Daisy Chain” on Two Roads/Hachette UK. Hope it’s OK to plug that.

Music streaming is a hot topic, particularly regarding artist royalties. Do you see streaming as a potential competitor for your radio audience and if so how are you combating any potential threat?

You are right. Music streaming is very much the ‘in’ thing, but CMR presenters like me spend a lot of time on research and production to provide information and detail relating to an individual genre. I doubt that streaming could ever replace that and, with that personal touch, I believe radio has a bright and long future. At CMR we actively encourage our “community” to be a part of our programming, to create more interaction with the audience. Where performers can no longer play in a live venue having access to an audience via radio ensures that they can remain in the public eye.

CMR gives you the luxury of building your own playlists. How do you go about drawing up a playlist and what characteristics do you hope to bring to each show?

You’re right. It is a luxury and I think it is marvellous that Celtic Music Radio puts trust in presenters like me and gives us the freedom to deliver as good a show as possible, week in, week out. I hope no-one is disappointed to learn that there is nothing greatly scientific about my process behind each playlist: I just listen to music as much as possible, but I’ve always done that. Today, I’m lucky that I get a lot of new releases sent to me by record labels, PR teams, promoters and acts as well: there is a constant and growing list of tracks to consider. Then when I add in my own collection of newly bought records and older ones, I never face a shortage of playlist candidates. I always start with a Neil Young track and I like to follow that, generally speaking, with a female act. The rest of the playlist will then reflect new releases, upcoming gigs (sadly not at the moment) and a selection from my trawl through the week. Quite often, a song will just pop into my head, I’ll hunt it down, then play it on a Sunday. Far from being an organised approach, I confess. But it is brilliant fun compiling the playlists. Sometimes they come together quickly, other weeks they take a bit longer. I really have no idea how long I spend on preparing them. Not really taking notice as it very enjoyable. 

How do you stop your show simply being an ego trip for Mike Ritchie’s favourites?

While I do like every single track I select and some acts may be played more regularly than others, I think my selections are varied. It’s quirky, I suppose, to begin each week with Neil Young but I don’t feature him every alternate track or anything like that. So, the show is not an ego trip in any sense – I would hate anyone to think that. To me, it’s about delivering two hours of music, roughly 25 tracks every week, that will please the folk who join me to listen. I really hope at 6 pm they think tuning in had been worthwhile.

How do you judge a particular show to be a success or not? 

Thankfully, in the past six years of presenting the Sunday show, no-one has been in touch to complain or say it was ‘rubbish.’ So I could say that’s a success. I have a Facebook show page and post tracks as they are played: the feedback from listeners is instant and my choices tend to go down well. I can’t recall the last time a track attracted no ‘likes’ at all.

If there have been technical issues in the studio then I might be less than happy with a show but I think that’s happened only a couple of times as the tech team at Celtic Music Radio are brilliant.

What is your favourite war story from your time with CMR?

From my earliest days, I could provide a list of my blunders such as sliding the wrong desk fader and playing a track peppered with swear words until a colleague dashed in to save me or interviewing a singer/songwriter and getting the name of his new album wrong every single time I mentioned it. I come from a journalistic background so that was pretty poor on my part. The guest was more than understanding. I liked the walk to the current studios but forgot my keys once and no-one else was around. My wife managed to rescue me, after a mad dash by car and I got in to do the show with about five minutes to spare.

You mix established and new artists on your Sunday show. Who are your go-to musical heroes?

There’s always a place on playlists – not every week – for the likes of Amber Cross, James McMurtry, Nathan Bell, Willard Grant Conspiracy, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Gillian Welch, Richmond Fontaine but I also really like playing new acts and giving them the airplay they might not be getting elsewhere. CMR is determined and always happy to promote up-and-coming acts and here in Scotland we have many truly fine singer/songwriters and bands – like Doghouse Roses, Martha L Healy, Roseanne Reid, Norrie McCulloch, Dean Owens, James Edwyn – to name but a few that the station has supported.

CMR is closely linked to the Glasgow cultural scene. How does this drive the station’s content and how do you balance the local needs with your potential worldwide internet audience? 

Though CMR is based in Glasgow, it’s far from Glasgow-centric. For example, we hosted House Concerts at our Admiral Street studios for a while and Eef Barzelay of Clem Snide – one of my favourites – was the opener. Other acts from the USA, Canada and Ireland, as well as the UK, also appeared. The city, of course, stages many festivals such as Celtic Connections, the Glasgow Americana Festival and more. In the run-up to these, the station has feature programmes as previews and during the actual festivals, CMR presenters invite acts in for sessions and interviews. There is something special about presenting shows at those times and, speaking personally, I’ve had the chance to meet many acts I greatly admire like Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine); Chip Taylor; Nathan Bell; Amber Cross; The Orphan Brigade; Blue Rose Code; Chris Smither; Molly Tuttle; Carson McHone and JP Harris, who is terrific. I got to his Sunday afternoon gigs in Nashville in 2018 and 2019 and they were memorable, a wonderful way to round off AmericanaFest. Overall, CMR caters very well for our local and our international audiences, and the feedback is healthy, proving presenters are doing their preparation and production properly, and professionally.

Why do you think that Glasgow has such a vibrant music scene?

As a city, Glasgow has a big, wholehearted, unabashed buzz all of its own in everything it does. I came here in 1978 from Dundee where the music scene was very good though big names stopped coming so regularly to the Caird Hall there. But in Glasgow – named UNESCO City of Music in 2008 – there are people from all over playing every imaginable type of music in venues big and small. The people here have a good ear for music. They are happy to listen to different types as well and don’t seem stuck in one genre or another. Its citizens are certainly colourful and lively so there is a constant demand for entertainment and that includes music, lots of it. And touring acts love the reception they get here. There is nothing more vibrant than a full house at a Barrowland gig. It is so, so special.

How was Celtic Connections 2021 and what does Celtic Connections mean for CMR generally?

In ‘normal’ times, CMR probably puts out more live broadcasts during Celtic Connections than BBC Scotland, and we are proud of that. The tech team – again I have to praise them – set up a temporary studio in the Royal Concert Hall so we are at the heart of the festival, and this is acknowledged by the Celtic Connections’ head honchos as well. We host live sessions, interviews and so on but the pandemic didn’t let that happen this year. However, it was impressive that we still broadcast, remotely: John Joe MacNeill hosted twelve magazine style shows with music and chat and interviews, while Liz Clark, one of the station directors, produced and presented the Danny Kyle Open Stage, a key feature of Celtic Connections. CMR has been covering the Open Stage for new and emerging talent since 2008 and this year a total of 90 acts (six per night) for 15 nights appeared, pre-recorded. They came from the USA, Canada, Norway, Germany, Australia, Ireland and all over the UK. This programming took a lot of effort and teamwork, but our listeners welcomed the shows as they got a flavour of Celtic Connections.

What will Mike Ritchie be doing to support the kick-starting of the live music industry once COVID restrictions allow? 

Buying tickets for shows – I will insist on paying though I have been fortunate enough to have been given many ‘on the doors/guest list passes’ over the years through writing reviews and latterly because of the show. Actually, just bought tickets for a Courtney Marie Andrews’ gig in Glasgow in October. Fingers crossed it will happen. But I think it will be better to pay at gigs to get the acts and the business overall back on its feet. I’ll probably focus on smaller gigs as opposed to the huge audience ones – but if Neil Young or Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds hit town, I’ll be there as well. I would like to think that my show could help, too, to highlight as much as possible any festivals, gigs, house concerts, album launches and anything, really, that can act as some form of support. Without support then acts will disappear in some cases and that would be so sad.

What do you do for the other 6 days in the week when you are not broadcasting?

I would love to say I sit poolside in my secluded villa somewhere in Spain, but the reality is quite different, but in a very nice way. The week is a mix of running our PR and Media Relations business with my wife, doing Dad things with our son, occasional park trips to see our two grandchildren, playing lots of tennis and sipping wine, eating Maggie’s great dishes, all the while listening to music new and old.

2021 could be a big year for Scotland and the wider UK. If Scotland eventually gets independence what do you think that might mean for the Scottish music industry?

Tricky to predict as I feel music should be supported better across all sectors of the business, regardless of how a country is governed, or who by. And post Covid, there is a lot of national debt to be settled. It’s floored at the moment but, like so many others who get great pleasure from music and musicians, I really hope the necessary financial measures are found so a bounce back is achievable. Music plays such an important part in the lives of millions of people.

At AUK we like to share music with our readers. Who are your top three artists/albums or tracks on your personal playlist? 

Without a doubt that’s your toughest question, Martin. Lists of music-related topics are great fun but, as you will agree, picking a top three of anything is so difficult. Let’s just say Neil Young will always be my No1 act while Courtney Marie Andrews is hard to ignore and I think my show was among the first stations in the UK to play CMA music. She let me introduce her on stage on her last Glasgow visit – she is a gem and a huge favourite with listeners to my show as is Amber Cross, who is from California. She has made a huge impact on me in recent times with exceptional albums. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t listen to Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark or James McMurtry or Gillian Welch or Ray Wylie Hubbard or Lucinda Williams, who are all wonderful. Scottish bands like King of Birds and The Wynntown Marshals are terrific, too.

Finally, is there anything you want to say to AUK readers?

If you haven’t listened to my show, maybe it’s something you might like to consider and please keep supporting this excellent site. I hope you have enjoyed this interview, too. Thanks to you, Martin and AUK for the opportunity to highlight CMR – any sponsorship or advertising really would be most welcome, too, if it’s OK to say so.

About Martin Johnson 105 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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