BBC Radio Lancashire legend John ‘Gilly’ Gillmore on career highlights, Guinness World Records, and having fun ahead of final show
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The year is 1967 and an 11-year-old John Gillmore is off school sick. Wondering what he can do to keep himself occupied, he remembers his dad has just bought a brand new radiogram. “That’s where my love of radio came from,” says John. “I just thought ‘wow, this is brilliant’. From that day on, it’s all I wanted to do.”
From listening to BBC Radio Merseyside at his family home in Prescot to tuning into the pirate stations back in the day, John simply couldn’t get enough but, with a distinct lack of media courses for him to gain some experience and expertise, the ambition to work in the industry seemed destined to fade into the realms of pipedream.
Even when John mentioned radio when asked what career he wanted to pursue at school, the swift response was that he’d need to get a proper job instead.
“I’d grown up listening to the pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline North, which broadcast from Ramsey Bay off the Isle of Man, but what really attracted me to radio was the fact that BBC local radio was starting in my hometown,” John explains. “I just thought it was incredible and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
“I loved the idea that I could sit and talk and play my favourite songs,” he adds. It must’ve seemed too good to be true - I ask John if he was ever deterred by how hard it must've seemed to break into the industry. “These days, schools and colleges have radio stations and run media courses, but there was nothing like that back in the day.
“You got jobs based off your own personality and a real desire to do it,” he adds. “That and getting the odd lucky break, too!”
And John’s lucky break came from a very unexpected avenue indeed. Whilst working at his local Co-operative Bank in St Helens after leaving school, John realised that the dawn of commercial radio in the ‘70s meant that local companies would need people to record adverts.
Ferrying himself between Piccadilly Radio in Manchester and Radio City in Liverpool on his day off from the Co-op, John soon found that he was making more money one that single day through voiceover work for commercial radio ads than at his day job. He also started working on hospital radio at Whiston Hospital - an experience he credits as being invaluable.
“Commercial radio gave me a way in and, from there, hospital radio gave me experience and a chance to record my demo cassettes,” says John. “It was such a good testing ground. It was so important to me because, for all intents and purposes, hospital radio was run as a professional radio station broadcasting to patients - you had to communicate with people.
“I’d go out and get song requests from patients on the wards,” he adds. “That’s where it all really started for me.”
Despite firing off his demo tapes to any and every radio station in the North West in the hope of landing a job, responses were unfortunately not forthcoming. Then, in the mid-’80s, he entered a competition at Radio City called ‘Give a Jock a Job’ promising wannabe presenters air time. John didn’t win, but made the final five, and earned plenty of kudos.
In 1985, Red Rose Radio in Preston needed a presenter to fill-in last-minute, and so John sent in his tapes and got the job. He took to it like a duck to water, going on to spend 13 years at the station and earning a sterling reputation as one of its most skilled operators.
“I got the overnight programme simply because they couldn’t find anybody else to do it!” he says with a laugh. “On a Friday night, I’d finish work at the Co-op, get the train to Preston, do the overnight from 2am to 6am, go home for some sleep, then come back and do it again on the Saturday night.
“I did that for about 18 months before I got a full-time job with Red Rose and the rest is history,” he adds. “Here we are 35 years later. It’s always been a great industry to work in, but back in my early days everybody knew everybody else on the other stations, so we had such a great time. The competitions we ran were unreal.
“We gave cars away, we paid off people’s mortgages, we paid people’s poll tax, we gave holidays away… It was incredible,” John continues. “People had just never heard of anything like it before, which just made it so exciting to be a part of.”
Having left Red Rose in 1998 for The Bay in Lancaster, John then landed his dream job seven years later, joining BBC Radio Lancashire in 2005. He’s been there ever since.
“I’d always wanted to work at the BBC,” says John. “I have to pinch myself to this day. It’s just lovely because you get to do a lot of things which you wouldn’t normally be able to and I’ve met so many amazing people from all over the county. The best people to speak to are always ordinary people and the audience is just as great as it was back when I started out.”
Beloved by listeners across the North West, John has developed into one of the country’s most skilled broadcasters, interviewing the likes of Michael Parkinson, Sir Michael Cane, and Tony Blair. Having recently won the Lancashire Ambassador Award at the Best of Lancashire Awards, he’s also a record-breaker, too: in 2014, he broke the Guinness World Record for the most face-to-face radio interviews in 24 hours by interviewing 293 people, asking 1,648 questions along the way.
Asked how he thinks he developed as a presenter over the years, John pauses. “That’s a difficult one…” he says, sighing. “To be honest, the knack is just to be yourself, to really talk to people, and to listen. Radio’s changed, so I’ve had to move with the times, but I’ve always been myself - you can’t buy or be taught that.”