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Sony Award recognises Everett’s radio legacy

Kenny Everett was among the most innovative and influential presenters in British radio. Kevin Hilton talks to the makers of a Sony Award winning documentary that celebrates Everett's contribution to what he always called the "wireless" and how digital technology was used to restore and emulate original analogue material.

According to media cynics, most people only work in radio so they can eventually get on television. Kenny Everett (pictured) certainly got into TV and made his mark there but he always maintained his heart remained in radio, the medium that established him as an inventive, unpredictable talent. His love for radio and its technology was celebrated in the 2010 BBC Radio 2 documentary Wireless Kenny Everett, which won the Bronze Award in the Best Feature category at the Sony Radio Awards on 9th May. The judges declared that the programme, produced by Howlett Media Productions, “celebrated not only one of the UK’s premier broadcasting talents but the radio medium as a whole”. Producer Kevin Howlett was 11-years old when he first listened to Everett and was inspired by the creativity he heard. Howlett went on to a career in radio himself, working at the BBC before eventually forming his own production company. He met Everett only once, in 1985, while making a series for Radio 1 about leading DJs of the time. “Kenny loved the wireless – he never called it the radio,” comments Howlett. “That’s why I called the programme Wireless Kenny Everett. His TV career is mentioned but the heart of what he did, where he felt most at home, was on the radio – the wireless.” The documentary features comments from colleagues and admirers of Everett, interspersed with clips of interviews with the man himself, including the one conducted by Howlett. There are also plenty of examples of Everett in action. Some of this came from official archives but, as Howlett acknowledges, radio is an ephemeral medium, pop radio doubly so. Everett broadcast on many stations during his career – BBC Radios 1 and 2, London commercial station Capital, Radio Luxembourg and 1960s offshore pirate Radio London, where he first came to prominence. The National Archive has some of this material, a proportion of which came from the POZ (posterity) reels Everett kept at his home studio. Howlett had to rely on collectors of radio programmes for other illustrative material. Some of these enthusiasts are former BBC studio managers, who recorded straight from air, so the clips were good quality. Other items were off-air recordings by amateurs. This footage ranging from reel-to-reel tapes made using proper connections to recordings made by holding a microphone in front of a medium wave transistor radio. One crucial clip in the latter bracket was from the popular Kenny and Cash Show on Radio London, which Everett co-presented in the ’60s with fellow DJ Dave Cash. This was a less frequently heard sequence, with the duo talking about the BBC and – somewhat ironically – the policy that people shouldn’t record programmes from the radio. “It was a particularly bad recording,” remarks audio engineer Brian Thompson, who has worked with Howlett over the past 25 years, both at the BBC and independently. “Radio London used an odd frequency involving the heterodyne technique [combining alternating currents of two different frequencies to produce two new frequencies] and they used to play records at 48rpm instead of 45 to give a sense of urgency. So I had to change the speed of the record and equalise and pitch-change the voices. Luckily I’m familiar with Dave’s and Kenny’s voices so I could match them well.” Thompson uses Pro Tools version 8.01 at his home facility, running Waves restoration plug-in tools for clean-up work. These give noise reduction and pitch changing for material recorded on tape that has speeded up or slowed down over the years. Thompson recommended that Howlett should invest in Pro Tools, so the two can exchange clips between their systems using data CDs or FTP downloads. Howlett edits material on his Pro Tools and then passes it to Thompson for “equalisation, sheen and polish”. The links for Wireless Kenny Everett by presenter Paul Gambaccini were recorded, also on Pro Tools, at Wise Buddah studios in London. Everett was an important broadcaster, not just for his zany and irreverent humour but also for his use of the radio medium itself to do more than the standard DJ job of speaking between records. His great hero was bandleader turned presenter Jack Jackson, who, in the 1950s and ’60s, captured the imagination of listeners by cutting up clips from comedy recordings and having “conversations” with the characters. Going further than Jackson, Everett double tracked his voice to sing over records, played all the characters in the spoof space adventure Captain Kremmen and used phase reversal so he could add new words to Beatles songs. Examples of this experimentation are heard in the documentary but Howlett and Thompson also recreated some of the effects, laying them under interview footage. “Kenny was way ahead of his time,” says Howlett. “One thing we emulated was the looping he did on a B-side by the singer Clodagh Rodgers, which is like early sampling. We had a lot of fun doing that but with the advantage of having digital technology. Kenny never went digital but he was still multi-tracking things by dubbing tracks over and over. It’s very impressive.” The Sony judges called Wireless Kenny Everett “a finely crafted documentary which demonstrated the science behind Everett’s art and unveiled the passion for radio and audio that drove Kenny to create some of the most original content on the UK’s airwaves.” Kevin Howlett says he wanted to celebrate Everett’s talent and invention: “Some of his stuff is approaching 40 years old but it’s still sounding so fresh and timeless.”