John Cavanagh

Glasgow based broadcaster, voice-over artist, musician, records producer and performer, John Cavanagh explains his eclectic and varied working life.

I represent perhaps a rather odd inclusion for this feature, as I’ve never had a succession of jobs that could be described as a “career path”: I’ve never aspired to such a concept in the past or now. However, I’ll begin with the first work I was paid for and this involved a very unkempt garden. When I was thirteen, our next door neighbours wanted their grossly overgrown little wilderness restored to a state whereby they could reasonably persuade someone else that it was a good idea to move into their house. At the outset, I don’t think they felt I’d last more than an afternoon, but I kept hacking away, imagining I was creating paths through uncharted jungle with a machete, à la films starring Cornel Wilde! There were many small antique & junk shops in Glasgow at the time and the money I made from gardening took me to those in search of old mechanical music machines.

As a young person interested in early sound recordings and the machines to play them on, I met lots of fascinating characters who were involved in – or orbited around – the antique trade. Some of these people spotted an aptitude in me that went beyond my personal interest in sound and I was encouraged to become involved in the trading too. My dad gave me sufficient funds to pay rent on a space for 6 weeks, saying that even if I didn’t make a penny, the experience would be worth the money he’d supplied. In the end, I ran a small antique shop for over 11 years. The latter end of this time overlapped quite a bit with what would become a huge part of my life and the discovery of a realm where I felt I fitted in and could get paid for doing work I loved!

A latent interest in radio fired up to the point where I wanted to learn how programmes were made. At the time, the fact that I’d been able to edit tape since I was nine years old was helpful in getting involved in a BBC Radio Scotland show making short features. An interview with Roy Harper marks my first professional radio engagement. What happened thereafter could be counted as several jobs: I have been, variously, a presenter of music and/or speech programmes across much of the BBC, including all five U.K. networks (presenting heavy rock music on Radio One and opera on Radio Three being just a part of all this), World service/Radio International etc. I have also been a radio newsreader/continuity announcer at Radio Scotland (along with presenting many music shows there), a television continuity announcer, the voice of the Classified Football Results on TV & radio for 14 seasons (I don’t like football, so I was impartial in that role!), narrator of documentaries etc, etc. It’s worth mentioning here that the first music show I presented was at Radio Clyde, not the BBC, and there it was that I had my only formal interview for anything I’ve ever done. This was conducted by Clyde’s highly respected DJ Mike Riddoch and head of programmes Alex Dickson. At the start of the interview, Alex asked me a question and I began to answer “Well, I think…” and before I got another syllable out, he’d thrown open the door to the production office and bellowed “THIS ONE’S DANGEROUS… SAYS HE THINKS”! Mike and Alex asked someone who knew me if he thought I should be given a show. They found me highly interesting, but eccentric, I heard later. I took that as a compliment!

The next development I would cite as a separate job from broadcast work was when I got into the world of the commercial voice-over. My first of those was for a Sony Records TV commercial highlighting a compilation album called The Sound of the Suburbs: “Gathered together for the first time: 18 punk classics!” There I was in a Soho studio called Silk Sound, sat on a pale grey leather sofa waiting my first ever v/o booking when in walked Tom Baker. I say “walked”, but Baker made a spectacular sweeping entrance and, gliding up to the receptionists, he boomed “Good morning DAHLINGS” and I thought – gasp – “That’s Doctor Who… what am I doing here”?!

At this point it’s very confusing to consider what I should include next in a chronology. Although hosting live events, public discussions and so on is something I do now, the root of this role lies in presenting outside broadcasts for radio, some of those at venues like Wembley Stadium and Castle Donnington. Making music and producing records is another strand of my life which goes back to discovering I could be a performer as well as a consumer of music, both as part of the duo Electroscope and solo under the name Phosphene. However, I think that, in the elision of employments, I was paid for writing something before those things happened, so reference that here. I’m especially pleased that my little book on the early days of Syd Barret, Pink Floyd and the emergent ’60s counterculture in London is still doing well after nearly ten years in print, particularly because it has made it into Italian and Spanish translations and I’m told a Korean edition should be happening too… all part of the adventure and I guess that’s really what I’ve always been looking for: an adventure, rather than a career. I like to keep an open mind and who knows what will happen next? Much more fun, I think, than trying to drive my life along any set line based on where some convention suggests I ought to be in a certain number of years!

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We’ve asked professionals in creative industries what jobs they have had in the past to get their foot through the door (or at least pay the rent). For more in the “My First 5 Jobs” series look here.