So last Friday proved to be the last ever commentary of a Wigan game on Wish FM with the coverage stopping at the end of this season.
Wish FM was taken over, along with several other stations, by Bauer Media Group earlier this year and it came as no surprise, as a radio group that didn’t really cover sport on its stations, that they decided to end the coverage.
Basically, local commercial radio is dying, and this decision is part of the process. You’ve already seen Century/Real Radio become a national station called “Heart” and whilst at one time they were obliged to still be local at Breakfast, the regulations changed at the beginning of the year. This resulted in basic maths for the owners of “Heart” who consolidated paying 22 productions of regional breakfast presenters into just one production. Plenty of listeners kicked up a fuss but, If they are allowed to do it, it’s a no brainer, whether we like it or not.
It shouldn’t take a genius to understand that Bauer, who also own Rock FM & Radio City, have not bought a load of tiny local radio stations with the idea of running them all as tiny local radio stations. Consolidation and networking will occur. If the names of Rock FM & Wish FM are still around in one or two years it would be a major surprise to me.
For me thought it isn’t only the end of an era in being part of the sports team, it’ll be the end of an era as a listener.
When Wish FM started in 1997 I was attending the High School opposite the studios. I remember the test transmissions. I remember the cheesey (or was it genius?) “Wish FM 102.4cast” Weather jingle. I remember the mid morning DJ putting on a fake voice to try and disguise the fact he was also the “Love Doctor” from 10pm at night.
They didn’t do full match commentary at the start but in a totally different era, pre internet, getting updates between songs on the football and rugby was often the only way to keep in touch if you didn’t go.
The first commentary they did was on the 1999 Auto Windscreens Football Final between Latics & Millwall and the sports commentaries built up from there, albeit more on the football side.
In the mid 2000s a decision was taken to axe sport commentary and it proved to be a ratings disaster. Wish FM covers both WIgan & St Helens, the clue was always in the title. They had a Premier League team and two top Super League teams but the local station didn’t give you the reason to tune in for that.
Over time both Wire FM (Warrington & Widnes) & Tower FM (Bolton & Bury) moved to be broadcast in the same building as Wish FM in Orrell and in 2010 a guy called Craig Beck became boss with a brief “to grow the audiences”. He did this by simply bringing commentary of Wigan Athletic, Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Warriors, St Helens & Warrington Wolves to those three stations and until this year coverage had lasted ever since.
To be fair, in a commercial radio world where costs are always being cut, it’s been a miracle the coverage has lasted this long and that’s where Chris Milow deserves all the praise in the world.
Listeners may only think he presented the then afternoon show and latterly and currently the breakfast show but he has driven the sports output all this time.
Every week we get scripts and discussions put together for our pre match build up and it’s all comes through him. At one point the stations were also covering Leigh & Widnes and I got the impression that organising his own breakfast show whilst, when seasons overlapped, preparing up to seven pre match sports shows was driving him up the wall but his understanding that sport was key to it all was always evident. He was forever the driving force and deserves a lot of the credit.
So how I did become involved? Well ever since 2002 I ran the website cherryandwhite.co.uk and over time I’d match previewed, reported and archived years and years of Wigan stuff.
In 2012 ish after the first year or two of commentaries being back, Chris asked me into the station to give an opinion on how I thought coverage could improve. Over the years I’ve offered tons of ideas but the biggest thing I said then was that to make it work, a regular commentary team is key.
I contrasted this to football coverage on Merseyside, where Chris had previously worked for Radio City. The BBC in that area would, and still do, mix and match its commentators between coverage of Everton & Liverpool whereas the commercial Radio City, when they used to cover games, generally had two people covering Everton & two people covering Liverpool and they’d be the same every week.
I thought both stations offered excellent coverage, but I always drawn to stick with the familiarity. If your listening along side the same people every week you know they are going to be feeling the good times, the bad times, the joy, the frustration, the anger, the delirium. They are on that journey with you and also a good pair will learn how to bounce off each other and make it sound good. It just comes naturally.
In no way shape of form was I putting myself forward to do it, and it probably a year later before I ended up doing it, but I 100% believe that in the subsequent years, time has proven that I was spot on with that assessment. It’s clearly worked tremendously for the station and the amount of social media interaction we get during games highlights the fact.
In the early days I used to listen to commentaries whilst watching from the back of the East Stand and would twitter interact with then commentator Mark Wilson. This led to a post match beer in the long bar at London Away in late 2012 and on 15th March 2013 he asked, about thirty minutes before kick off, if I wanted to be summariser on an Away Game at Leeds because he had no one else who could do it.
Unfortunately, a full day crawling the Trans Pennine Ale Train route had left me, well bladdered basically, so my debut instead came at Hull KR two weeks later on Easter Monday. I had a feeling he’d ask again so this time I stayed off the ale. Nevertheless, it was about 2:20 when he asked and after palaver of being allowed into Craven Park without proper accreditation I sat down at 2:40 and by 2:45 I was on the air talking to studio presenter Matt Munroe and by 3pm I was into my first match commentary with zero training, zero idea and basically having to educate myself.
I learned two things pretty quickly. One is to always have a bottle of water on standby as the voice will soon dry up, and secondly that to be a summariser you need to be eagled eyed about not necessarily what is happening where the ball is but everything going on around it. I recently did a lead commentary effort for Wigan TV and the two are totally difference roles. I’d describe lead commentating as looking inside the box. The ball is key and that’s what you need to describe. Summarising is about looking outside the box. Where’s the missed tackle? Where’s the good dummy run? Why did that break down? Why did that end up a try?... .and a lot of the time it’s not necessarily the work done with the ball.
After an hour that first game was a very easy run of the mill 42-6 lead for Wigan. No need to push much further. The game was won already. However, Wigan decided to go wild and added 7 more tries in the last twenty minutes and, totally from memory, I called correctly that when Wigan passed 72 points they had set a new all time record away victory beating a match against Wakefield in 1987.
I have to admit I did miss saying that Wigan, subsequently in reaching 84 points, had gone on to set a further record for all time league victory either home or away (beating 78 v Workington in 1996) but you can’t win them all. Internet access was not as good back then to fact check.
It must have gone pretty well because I was asked back for the next few away games and eventually, they decided to put me on home matches also. Wigan at the time were heading towards a double but sadly they did not do commentary on the victory at Wembley that year, for reasons I never understood, and regrettably I have never had that pleasure.
Old Trafford has become a second home though and on the first occasion in 2013 it was decided that I was to be trusted with broadcast kit to begin the program at 5pm in case Mark, who also covered Bolton and given they were playing in a lunchtime kick off at Birmingham had gone to cover that also, didn’t make it in time to start the broadcast.
Guess what? He was late. And with very little experience of the technical side of things I had to set myself up and talk to studio presenter Simon Green whilst not only being nervous for the broadcast but also being nervous as a fan (it’s harder when you can’t have a beer or few to settle).
A Grand Final at Old Trafford is not like a run of the mill game at Wakefield or Hull. The press gathering is swelled with loads of faces you never normally see. You have to dress smartly and this was totally not a comfort zone for me with so little experience. I’d only really worked with Mark, so without him I was like a fish out of water and feeling a bit lost.
I sat there meekly on my own, reading the match program, when a certain Dave Woods came over and said hello. I don’t think I’d ever spoke to him before at that point but he asked how I was feeling and about the nerves. That’s Mr BBC….. the man who calls the cup final on the telly, taking the time to say hello to basically a supporter who’s ended up in a place he never imagined he’d be.
That gesture will be a total insignificance to Dave but to me on that day I thought it was such a nice gesture. Was probably 30 seconds of chat, no more than a minute, but the small thing relaxed me into the environment.
At 16-2 that final looked horrible but thankfully we came back and won and if you ever listened back to the commentary you’d hear me choking up at the end as I looked towards the Wigan support on my right celebrating the secured victory.
After one game the following year, Mark announced he was leaving to help launch coverage on a new station called Radio Yorkshire and so Wish decided to lump with a fella called Joe Mills who had been covering Widnes the previous year. The rest, as they say, is history.
Our first game calling together had actually been the year before when Joe “filled in” during a 21-16 home win against Hull KR but our first regular game was a 46-24 win over Wakefield.
I must admit that compared to others Joe is not the most organised person but what he has done with the broadcasts is make sure that regular listeners from far flung places feel part of the show every single week. That was all down to him, not me.
We were part of a team effort that won an IRN Radio Award that first season, which was a proud moment, but for a match that I’d rather forget – the Ben Flower Grand Final.
Things carried on but I had to take a break towards the end of 2016 and sadly missed calling the Grand Final. At that time I had been voluntary doing cherryandwhite.co.uk, radio and writing for the local papers 18th Man Column and I found myself basically saying too much at a time when my dad was seriously ill with cancer.
At the same time my dad was in hospital having a serious operation I said some things which saw me get a volley off a few players in the press and whilst I didn’t particularly mind that it just emphasised that it was all too much at that time. Although I missed the 2016 Grand Final, I ultimately had made the right decision.
Basically, my summer of 2017 saw my Mother in Law get cancer also which resulted in me and my wife organising a wedding over just seven weeks in the hope of getting them both to it, but neither made it. We held my mother in laws funeral ten days before and my dad was just too ill to make it. To have a happy day in circumstances like that is just an absolute mind fuck. I spent the first four weeks of marriage watching my dad wither away. He died hours before the Wembley Cup Final.
That year changed me. I don’t really worry about the rugby as much as did before that. But passion is still very much alive and I was delighted to come back in late 2018 to call the Grand Final win with Joe, more special because we’d called to losses previously. You can feel the joy hearing the winning try.
2019 always felt like the beginning of the end, however. A decision was taken by management to not have Rugby air on FM on Sunday Afternoons just because of the chart shows sponsorship deal. So it proved. It was a great ride though. I absolutely loved doing it.
It isn’t all glamour and unbeknownst to listeners it was often quite challenging to achieve. Some of the press boxes are absolutely garbage and technology is still stuck in the 1980s. Leg room at places like Castleford, Warrington and Old Trafford is terrible for me also.
One time when London played at Barnet we had to broadcast at such a low level from a disabled bay that umbrellas blocked our view of the far side (we actually called a try scorer completely wrong) and a supporter walking past tripped on our plug and kicked us off air during the game.
Another time we played Dewsbury on a Friday Night in the cup and with it being the only game of the evening, the place was swamped with national press. The place was totally inadequate for such a quantity but we managed to do a commentary, albeit by mobile phone, by using a plug in the back of an executive box and running a long extension through a window, taping it up around the window frame to drop down just for a phone charger to be able to call the game.
Once at Magic Weekend at Etihad Stadium and trying to fix the fault I had been under the desk messing with cables whilst Joe commentated by phone. Wigan scored so he decided to have a try himself, which was fine but I was then on air having to summarise a try I hadn’t even seen.
This year at Leeds our broadcast point was dead until 7:4pm and we’d given up being able to do the game when miraculously it came alive just in time to start. To go from an hour of frustrating to being into commentary in one minute is not easy I can tell you. Problems happened more than you thing but good team work got us through nearly every time.
The good news is that, in partnership with the club, me and Joe will be back next year. Not on radio but on an online platform to which more will be announced.
Finally I want to do a few thank you's. To Chris Milow for listening to my many suggestions and keeping us on air as long as he could. To Mark for giving me the chance. He's even doing odd games for Sky's these days. To Joe for everything except that bloody moose noise. To all the staff at Wigan who, whilst it was never job to do pre or post match stuff, were always helpful when I did ask.
Our Saints commentary of Chris Price, Dave Lyon & Mike Bennett who we’ve shared many derbies and pre matches with. Benno once said I should become a coach because my analysis was so astute. That was nice to hear from an ex player. I know I can’t give an opinion from a players point of view but good to know I was on the right track.
Our Wire FM colleagues Matt Horton & Rob Croston were often close also. I was pleased they got to enjoy calling Warrington winning at Wembley together this season after Wigan did them in three Grand Finals and a semi final – I have some heart! Other fill in commentators like Craig Murdock, Harvey Wiles & Guy Clarke.
Our main producer Ste Crook and others who helped back at base, forever having to keep on his toes for when Joe read the wrong part of the script plus the odd studio presenters we had. Also the many bodies who've been in the news team over the years, collecting pre match audio. All big parts that shouldn't be taken for granted. Thank you!
Finally, to all you listeners, you know who you are. Without you it just does doesn’t work!
I've always done the role with Wish on a voluntary basis which was often quite an effort on my part. I did a lot of it just to help Chris Milow out but it has been a great pleasure.