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Friday 11 May 2012
A decade of change at AFC Wimbledon: Radio WDON

In the fifth of our series of features on 10 years of AFC Wimbledon and the changes seen during that time, we spoke to the WDON radio team about how their match day coverage has evolved over the past decade.

The crowning glory for our club radio station came at Manchester last May when they reported on Wimbledon’s promotion to the Football League. Commentating from the plush press seats at Manchester City with TV replays to aid their broadcast, along with complimentary sandwiches and drinks, WDON’s Rob Cornell composed himself and delivered the words we had all waited for. “They’ve done it, we’re in League 2,” he said.

The WDON team was rightly proud of their coverage that day and the BBC’s Non League Show opened its next programme with their reaction to Danny Kedwell’s all-important penalty. The WDON team had never had it so good. It was all a far cry from nine years earlier when such a broadcast would not have been possible. This was highlighted most significantly when WDON attempted to report on a match at Walton Casuals in the Combined Counties League from the clubhouse roof. It is the radio station’s professional coverage of matches both home and away that marks the biggest change during the past 10 years. Mikey Taliadoros (Mikey T to regular listeners), who estimates he has reported on 450 AFC Wimbledon matches, was there from the start and he recalled the early days and scrambling around to get a radio connection at less fashionable grounds than the Etihad Stadium.

“My first game was North Greenford United at home on 21 September, 2002, and I can remember that we won 4-3 and Keith Ward scored an overhead kick,” he said. “The original team was Chris Philips, Marc Jones, Matt Couper and me. We had done an experimental broadcast for the Brimsdown Rovers game before that and it proved to be a success.

“I was asked to be a part of it and I said that I would be happy to. It has all gone from there really. I have not missed a Wimbledon game for 23 years as a supporter. However, at WDON during the Combined Counties League days we did not have the means to report on away games. It is only in the past two years that we have managed to transport equipment to away games and been able to set-up with the right technology. I can remember trying to commentate from the roof of the clubhouse at Walton Casuals. There was a technical problem and we tried to run a cable from the payphone in the clubhouse, but that did not work.

“The first away game that we did was 12 October, 2002, against Frimley Green in a match played at Farnborough FC. We won 5-0 and I think Kevin Cooper scored. The demands on us have increased as the club has progressed and our technology has become more sophisticated. This has allowed us to report on big games for our listeners. Hampton and Richmond in 2009 when we got promoted (record audience for WDON of 1,000 listeners) and Manchester are the ones that stand out. There were rows of Luton fans in front of us though at Manchester and we had to be respectful of that a little bit.”

The WDON team recognise the crucial contribution of Geoff Hawley in setting up the tools of the trade that have allowed Wimbledon’s radio team to work alongside the more renowned media organisations. Rob Cornell is a relative newcomer to WDON, but he is quick to acknowledge the “technological wonders” that Hawley has worked in allowing AFC Wimbledon fans access to live reports from every home and away match. Cornell, who brings experience as a broadcaster to the table having worked for several independent radio stations in the south-east, was subjected to an audition in order to make the grade at WDON and that perhaps sums up best how the radio channel has strived to become a more professional operation.

“Mikey threw a hypothetical situation at me before my first match against Eastbourne Borough and asked me to respond,” he said. “He told me that Wimbledon had won 6-0 at Eastbourne with a Sam Hatton hat-trick, which was a bit unlikely, and I had to sum it up. Geoff asked me back after that match, a game we won 3-2 to go top of the Conference, and I have been here ever since. As we have become a professional club, it has changed as you have to watch what you say. We all have a history of being Wimbledon fans, but you cannot be totally biased and say certain things about the opposition, but I think that we have been mindful of that. It has changed dramatically as we now provide a service every week for people in far-flung places who cannot attend that matches.

“I think that is the important thing as they can feel a part of it. I have tried to bring the listeners more access to audio interviews so that they can hear the emotion of what the players have to say, which is obviously different in a victory to a defeat. I think we all gel as a team and it has been a privilege to be a part of it. I joined at the start of last season and by the end of it we were promoted so I guess I have been a bit lucky.”

There has been no luck about Geoff Hawley’s ability to master the equipment necessary to provide a quality service to WDON listeners. Hawley, a regular commentator on match-days, said: “We have tried to produce a more professional output, which has been a major difference. We aim for a regular team who the listeners can identify with. Though we do want it to be like having a chat with your mates down the pub, the best compliment we have had is that our coverage has been compared to a test-match special in cricket.

“Over the years we have also introduced interaction with the fans via iPlough Lane and Twitter. We have commentators from Radio Five Live, including Jacqui Oatley, who follow us on Twitter. We regularly get 500 listeners for each game and we have a core following abroad. As the communication lines have improved throughout the world, people from abroad know it is available and listen in more. We have also had more publicity as the club has grown, which was shown by our commentary from Manchester featuring on the BBC Non League Show. I had never done anything like this before WDON and I am completely self-taught as regards broadcasting and the technology side of it.”

Getting to grips with that side of making WDON operational has been a major part of Hawley’s responsibilities over the years.

“It’s quite intimidating rolling up to a big ground with a lucky dip bag of cables and boxes and being treated as the regular media,” he added. “We have had to change the equipment that we use to cope with the demands over the years. Our regular away games service started at Basingstoke Town in the Blue Square South with a mobile phone call or a mixer crudely wired into a phone, tricking it into being seen as a hands-free device. This made commentary appear like European games from the 1970s, which sounded pretty poor. This phone call went to a Skype client at a ‘relay station’, who encoded it to our distribution server. We had a team of relays, situated in Chelmsford, Fife, California or Virginia and me in Basingstoke.

“The last couple of years then saw us using a mobile skype call from the ground to the relay, which improved audio quality, especially when the mixer was used. As we learned more, we began to use methods to encode directly at a ground, taking the relay out of the system. Using a Bluetooth or USB tether or a personal Wi-Fi phone from a data connected phone allowed a laptop with a USB mic or mixer input to provide coverage to be as clear at away games as it is at home fixtures.

“Manchester was a mentally-draining day and somehow I made it through the penalties while providing audio punditry, Facebook and Twitter updates. You never quite realise the magnitude of it all until afterwards. I had a twitter feed through from a guy in Australia who was listening in at 3 ‘’clock in the morning. It is great to have been able to provide this service at WDON.”

Chris Philips, who was instrumental in setting-up WDON, believes the quality of radio broadcasts has changed dramatically. “WDON is completely different now and is very professionally run,” he said.

“At first we made a point of being biased, but now it is more balanced. I have done broadcasting for 28 years and I now concentrate on my job at Jazz FM. I wanted to have a go at broadcasting a bit of football from Wimbledon as it seemed such a worthwhile thing to do. We would get people from places like Peru and Australia listening even in those days. It was a very special thing as we brought match-days to people who could not get there due to distance. We were unique in providing the service that we did as a Combined Counties club. I stopped doing it on a regular basis because I was working on Saturdays. I still contribute to WDON, but I mainly do the PA at home matches. I decided to let the rest of the team get on with it and I have always said that Mikey T had a career in broadcasting waiting for him.”

Wimbledon fans the world over are unlikely to disagree with that opinion and hopefully they will be listening to WDON’s unique way of reporting on our success for many more years to come.