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SERVICE IN REMEMBRANCE OF MR. ROBERT HILARY TOMALSKI

(7th February 1953 - 13th January 2001)    2nd February 2001 13.00hrs





Speech by John Briggs

I should start by saying I didn't know Bob for long - and I didn't know Bob the man either - I'm not sure that many of us did. But I did know Bob the broadcaster, Bob the encyclopedia, Bob the patient problem solver and Bob the smiling genial gentle giant.

For me and thousands of LBC listeners, Bob was Inspector Gadget. With a familiar cry of 'Greetings' he bounced into the studio, normally accompanied by a large suitcase with the latest silver or black box stuffed full of circuit boards and silicon chips - and a team of wild software engineers couldn't have restrained him from explaining the benefits and pitfalls of this latest offering. I took over the Saturday morning show, where Bob was already resident, in January last year. Bob's section was just 30 minutes long - but it was clear that with my love of gadgets and Bob's pure and unadulterated enthusiasm for his subject we had to extend it to an hour, which we did almost immediately.

In a world that is pushing us all headlong into the network, wired, digitised and pervasive world of technology - Bob was there to make sense of it all. He truly enjoyed teaching people how to understand the intricacies of his work. His wealth of knowledge solved hundreds of problems for listeners with modems that wouldn't connect or videos that wouldn't tune - and even the simplest problem was handled with care and consideration for those people for whom technospeak was not their first language.

We rarely clashed. In fact our major disagreement was his belief in Windows and PCs and my love of Apple Macintosh. Bob would sit and listen patiently while I attempted to defend the Mac in a PC dominated world - happy to give me my two penny worth. Bob was generous to a fault as a broadcaster - and never ever corrected me - at least not so as the audience could tell - but when he thought I was talking completely out of the back of my hat - which is not unusual - he would raise his eyebrows in surprise as if to say - 'are you sure about that?' - but we were always on the same team on air. I say team - let's be honest - this was Bob's hour. I'd introduce each caller by name as in - 'so Fred you're live on LBC - what can we do for you' - and the caller would reply - 'Hello Bob' - and who could blame them. Bob's breadth of knowledge was staggering - and I should add irreplaceable.

I should add that Bob was not of course purely defined by his knowledge of things technical - he loved music - and had managed to recreate his large collection of vinyl albums digitally - how else but by downloading them over the net. He would often enter the studio and comment on one of the previous musical guests that he'd heard on the show as he was driving in to join us.

I'm not an especially religious man - and I'm not sure I know where we end up on the next stage of our voyage - but wherever it is I have a sneaking suspicion that Bob is able to watch down on us today. And I am pretty certain that he has a broad smile on his face - for two reasons. The first one is that he would smile to see so many people here today. He might even be faintly embarrassed - Bob was not a man to make a fuss on his own account. I'm not sure he ever knew how many people thought of him as a friend and how many people wanted to pay their respects to him today. And secondly, because wherever it is he is watching from - for all my protestations to him that it should be run by Apple Macintosh - I bet you he's found out that it's run by Windows on a PC... and he knows he was right and I was wrong.



Speech by Trevor Brook

Bob.  What was all this radio stuff about then?  Most of us here know that Bob had his tangles with the authorities, like almost anyone in this country who tried to do something creative that involved using the highly government-regulated radio spectrum.  What was going on here?  What made a well brought up young lad in South London get involved in activities like this?  What was it that Bob believed in, and what were the changes that he wanted to see?

Well, Bob was interested in gadgets.  He was interested in bits of technology from an early age, and one of the few pieces of electronics around in a 1950's and 1960's household was a radio set.  Most people pay little more than passing attention to a radio; they quickly fiddle with it until they hear something they like and then leave it alone.   But Bob was more curious than that.  What he did was to spend hours tuning around carefully in the gaps between the big stations that everyone listened to.  He found the foreign stations.  He found the Welsh service.  He found the Scottish service.  But most strikingly of all he found Radio Jackie and one or two other pirate stations which appeared on the airwaves on Sundays.  These were exciting.  For one thing, the people on them were little older than Bob himself.  But that wasn't the only attraction.  Can you imagine what was happening when each presenter had just a single one-hour programme each week?  An entire week's events, news, jokes and so on were packed into that hour.  Terrific energy and production effort went into every one of those programmes. This stuff was radio that you 'listened to', not radio that you 'had on'.  Quite a different thing from most of today's music stations, where people have to do a four-hour programme stint every day of the week.

So, one thing led to another, and Bob met some other locals who happened to be keen on soul music.  In fact, so keen on soul music that they wanted to broadcast it around London, so that everybody else could hear it.  And that is exactly what they did.  It broke the law of course.  People who went on to the tops of tower blocks with transmitters did rather tend to be pursued by the radio investigation service.  The government told the story that there were no frequencies available.  Now Bob was not stupid.  He had enough technical knowledge to know that this was simply not true. So, either government officials were too dim to realise the truth of the situation... or they were just lying.  Nowadays we have 300 independent transmitters operating in those same wavebands, so you can probably work out which it was.  Anyway, in Britain, the result was that any proper public debate about the possible merits of more radio listening choice was sabotaged by this perpetual claim that it was impossible anyway.

So, we had pirates.  Other countries which had not liberalised the airwaves had pirates as well, but some of them took the refreshingly realistic approach that no harm was being caused and they permitted unlicensed operations to continue until they got round to regularising the situation.  Ambulances still reached their destinations and no aeroplanes fell out of the sky.  Not so in this country though.  The enforcement services here were too well funded and the established orthodoxy too well entrenched.  That 'frequency cupboard' was going to be kept well and truly locked!

Bob had thrown himself into running a regular soul station, Radio Invicta.  He built a studio, tore it apart and built a better one.  He eventually sectioned off part of the flat as a separate soundproofed area.  He built transmitters - and got them working.  But Bob was nothing if not multi-skilled and he excelled in producing the programmes themselves.  Using nothing more impressive than an old four track reel to reel tape recorder Bob would create highly polished jingles and station identifications.  "Roger Tate, super soul DJ".  Other stations, both official and unofficial, listened to what Bob and his colleagues did and their ideas were copied or imitated.

Faced with the authorities Bob was remarkable, because he was absolutely fearless.  He was certain they were in the wrong and, given enough time, were going to lose the battle.  It was a war of attrition and only perpetual piracy was ever going to bring about change.  And he was quite right about that.  The government kept winning the battle in the courts but began to lose the moral one.  Eventually the law was changed.

Do we have free radio now?  In the sense that anybody can decide to start up a new magazine, find the finance and get on with it, no, we don't have that for radio.  The process is bound up with a long winded regulation and approval process involving a statutory body which has had its fingers burnt in the past by the odd bankruptcy and the odd scandal.  So they play safe and issue more licences to those who already have stations.  The consequence is that originality and creativity get crushed into blandness and mediocrity.  My own teenagers constantly flip between stations in the car, but they don't care enough about any of them to listen indoors.  Fresh people don't get to control stations.  Behind boardroom doors they might think it privately, but in what other industry would the chairman of the largest conglomerate in the market dare to say publicly that even the present regime was too open and, I quote, "was out of date and was letting inexperienced players into the market"?*  That is a disgraceful statement.  Where would television, theatre, comedy, the arts, and so on be, if new and by definition inexperienced people didn't get lots of exposure?   The industry is stale, complacent and rotten.  Bob, there are more battles out there and we needed you here.

For several years Bob worked for a hi fi retail business and that was during a period of dramatic changes in technology. A whole range of developments occurred and digital systems began creeping into the consumer world with the invention of the compact disc.  Bob was in a place where he could get his hands on new products before most people in the country.  That enthusiasm and understanding of what was coming next is what developed into Bob's work in broadcasting and journalism.  His experience and ease behind the microphone, combined with the skill that he had learnt in the hi fi world of explaining complex technical matters to the layman, meant that he was regularly called on by producers and researchers of radio and television programmes.  You never knew when Bob's voice would pop out of the loudspeakers as you were driving around the country.

Despite a quite frantic pace of working though, Bob always had time to help people.  He was ready to teach complete strangers about some piece of equipment they had or give them guidance for getting the best out of it.

The magazine work Bob did over the past ten years gave him many opportunities to travel abroad and meet the designers and manufacturers themselves. Bob thoroughly enjoyed all of that.  He was always fascinated and enthused about new ideas and new products.  In fact, when you think of Bob, you just think 'cheerful'.  I cannot ever remember Bob getting seriously narked or stressed about something.  Cheerful it is.  That has to be the keynote for today.

Bob often surprised me by ringing from a mobile for a detailed engineering assessment of some manufacturer's technology or claims for a product.  And then, after a half-hour long conversation, he would announce that he was in Tokyo, or somewhere equally outrageous... and had better go.  There was no one like Bob and I shall certainly miss that cheerful, ebullient and irrepressible personality.

As someone has already said: I hope that wherever you have gone Bob, they have lots of gadgets.


Bob Tomalski - Broadcaster and journalist, 1953-2001



 

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