Peter Mackley - From Radio to Riviera Royalty
Published in DJ Mag April 2013
"How did you end up on the French Riviera?"
That's the question I get asked most frequently. The short answer is that I came over for summer work 20 years ago, and I'm still here. The longer answer involves a number of rather strange decisions and some huge slices of luck.
It's a story that wouldn't have been the same if it wasn't for a summer job on a camp site, a karaoke bar in New Orleans, Shirley Valentine .... and a scratched vinyl single of La Bamba!
Would any of this have happened if it wasn't for Steve Wright! "That's who I want to be" said a 12 year old me! In those days he was an up-and-coming jock on late-night radio Luxembourg, and I was growing up in Belgium with no access to English TV. My best friend was a little transistor radio and the presenters on Fab 208!
Of course, Steve Wright went on to become a celebrity DJ and a household name. My path took me to the French Riviera, and a career as a radio presenter, "special events" DJ, Master of Ceremonies and now as event manager with Riviera Organisation! It's a career that has been exciting, challenging and rewarding, but, at the same time, it's amazing it ever happened at all!
La Bamba was my first lucky break. I have never heard of this game since and perhaps it was unique to our school! Everytime La Bamba was played at a school disco, a circle was formed around the dance floor with one person in the middle. That person could choose to kiss anyone in the circle, who would in turn move into the middle and so on and so on. Of course, it degenerated into everyone kissing anyone sometimes more enthusiastically than others, and so teenage relationships were formed. How did that launch my DJ career? Well I was the only person in my school year that owned a copy of La Bamba. I found it in a second hand store and it was quickly the jewel in my growing record collection of almost one hundred singles. A friend of mine, Victor, had all the DJ gear ... but I had the music, and I had La Bamba !!! For that reason alone I became the DJ for all our school parties from the age of 13!
Coming to the French Riviera was such a spontaneous off-the-cuff decision that it almost seems like destiny.
At the end of the University school year, I had a regular summer job waiting for me at the University refectory but I decided to do something different! I borrowed £100 from a friend of mine and booked a train to Antibes - the next day. My plan was to get a job on a campsite and only chose Antibes because it was first in alphabetical order and it seemed like a good place to start! I arrived in Antibes early one morning in May 1988 and started knocking on doors trying to find work. I had enough refusals to start questioning the wisdom of my impulses, but by mid-morning I had landed a job on Camp du Pylone cleaning toilets. I was soon reluctantly moved to the reception as I spoke reasonably good English, and my adventure on the French Riviera had began!
By this time, I had already clocked up quite a few DJ airmiles, mostly at the University of Sussex near Brighton. With my room-mate Mark, we had the highest profile radio show on University Radio Falmer imaginatively called "Pete'n'Mark". We won the award for best radio show several years running, but that was probably due to all the voting forms we filled out ourselves. Our first celebrity interview was Norman Cook, then of The Housemartins but future Fat Boy Slim. He amused himself telling us how few people listened to University Radio but we still claim credit for breaking him into the big time. Within weeks they had a top 3 hit and by the end of the year the Housemartins were at number one! Surely no co-incidence!
Don't ask me what I studied! It's completely irrelevant, but the hours I spent each week preparing and presenting radio shows, pub quizzes and organizing discos set me up for life! Every term Mark and I gambled our grant on staging the end-of-term disco! From memory, it cost us around £800 to rent the main hall, hire the DJ gear and print as many posters as to plaster every notice board on campus. We charged every one £2 to get in and we regularly made a massive £300 each which was a welcome supplement to a grant that could barely buy us enough beer.
After my degree, things weren't going as I hoped. Having turned down an offer to become the University Entertainment Manager (it seemed more administration than creativity), I found myself working at the HMV in Brighton, my only experience so far of a big corporate structure. I remember being repulsed how everyone seemed to be "licking up" to their nearest manager then backstabbing them to try and get their job. On one December day, I had a visit from the regional manager offering me the job of manager of the Singles department (very tempting for someone with a long-standing obsession with the UK singles chart), but that evening I saw the film "Shirley Valentine", and the message came across loud and clear. There must be more to the world than this grey and miserable life I had created for myself. The next day, I quit my job and booked a flight to the other side of the world. Not surprisingly, my travels ended up back on the camp site in Antibes and that's where my adventure really started to take off.
Three key moments in the next 12 months laid the foundations for my future career - a male beauty contest, a gamble that paid off in Monte Carlo and a rendition of Crcodile Rock in a New Orleans karaoke bar!
I don't know why the in-house camp site DJ chose that day to have a row with his employer, but he walked out of his job just before he was due to host the annual Mr Pylone male beauty contest. It was one of the highlights of the summer calendar on the campsite and even the local press were present to cover it. Somewhat foolishly I offered to step in at the last minute and presented the show in English & French totally off the cuff with no preparation or notes. It could have been a disaster, but somehow I pulled it off. It was to be the first of thousands of events that I would be responsible for on the French Riviera, and my prize was a job as the regular DJ on the campsite for the entire summer season. My pay was £20 a night but the rewards would be so much greater!
After the summer season, I had no intention to go back to the UK. I still had my job in the office on the camp site and that was extended into the winter season. It was my boss Henri that suggested I contacted Riviera Radio, the local english-language radio station that I had on all day in the office. Following on from an enthusiastic application offering my services for voluntary work, I met up with the station manager Richard Yonge and to my surprise he offered me a trial show. This lead to regular shows 3 nights a week from 11-2. At the time I had no car, so after my show I'd have to hang around Monte Carlo for a few hours before catching the 5.20 train back to Antibes ... and then I'd need to be fresh to start work the next day at 9am! Crazy times - but totally exhilarating!
As much as I was enjoying life on the airwaves, it wasn't making much money. Let's be honest, I was making no money and I had to fork out the train fare and the cost of a few beers. I arranged a showdown with my boss demanding full time work, but this was refused! In retrospect I'm surprised he didn't sack me for being so ungrateful for the opportunity he had given me, but at least he agreed to pay me the grand sum of £15 per show!
Around the same time I was offered a chance to by a mobile karaoke machine for £10000. Jon and Errol were 2 wide boys from the East End of London. You wouldn't want to buy a second-hand car off them, but I was inspired after seeing karaoke for the first time in New Orleans during a recent vacation. I was amazed at the excitement that was generated, mostly thanks to the presenter. I remember belting out a tuneless version of Crocodile Rock thinking if I could recreate this in France then I would be on to a winner! I went ahead and borrowed what seemed like a huge amount of money from my Dad in exchange for a second hand karaoke system ... and a massive horse carriage to transport it all around. I persuaded my University sidekick, Mark, to join me promising great riches and the company that was to become Riviera Organisation was born!
Looking back, how we ever managed to survive was a miracle. I was still living on the camp site and we ran the business from a caravan with no phone or computer or any idea how to run a business. No-one had heard of karaoke in France at that time, and there weren't even any French songs to demonstrate it. We had no real clients - only dingy bars offering us meal vouchers or a derisory percentage of takings. The whole venture was being sponsored by my radio career which ironically was taking off well now that I had decided to dedicate my energy to another project. The shows were getting more and more frequent ... and earlier and earlier. After a series of regular fill-in shifts mostly in the afternoon and a successful week-end show based on quiz questions and golden oldies, I was awarded the flagship breakfast show and all the profile that went with it. This led to dozens of gigs as a DJ or MC that I would run through my own company. I soon found myself DJ at star-studded beach parties during the Cannes Film Festival, hosting prestige awards ceremonies, organising cabaret shows starring top-ranked tennis players during the Monte Carlo Open and even presenting quiz nites in front of Prince Albert and other members of the Monte Carlo elite. The karaoke business may have been struggling but I was on a roll!
People often ask me about career highs and lows, and there's no doubt that the highest high and lowest low came on the same day.
It was a cold November evening in the early 2000's. Monte Carlo was hosting the World Music Awards and I was representing Riviera Radio. All the biggest selling music stars around the world were there and my mission was to capture a few fun sound bites for the next day's news bulletins. I'd attended the usual press conferences and Q&A sessions but then I struck gold big-time. Through some personal contacts, I managed to get into the VIP after-party. All the stars of the moment were relaxed, having a good time and willing to talk. I must have collected together a dozen celebrity interviews. It was just one mega-star after another, and I was on a roll. Admittedly there were a few dud interviews amongst them: for my entire interview with Sean Paul, I thought I was talking to Shaggy (totally unforgivable as I had interviewed the real Shaggy a year earlier), the female singer from Aqua walked out on me when I asked her if she was embarrassed to be associated with such a terrible song like Barbie Girl ... and I conducted a one to one interview with the up and coming star Shakira without the faintest idea who she was! However, there was no doubt these faux-pas were more than compensated by some absolute gold dust. Britney was talking from the heart telling me how much she hated attending these sort of functions. Did I have the very first signs of her forthcoming breakdown? Kylie play-flirted for the entire interview ... but the highlights of all highlights was an exclusive interview with Prince Albert.
Prince Albert did not give interviews at the time, but despite his status and all the security around him, he's actually quite an accessible and very pleasant character. Our paths had crossed a few times previously and believe or not he regularly attends quiz-nites that I host every year in one of the Monaco restaurants, but at the time I was surprised and thrilled that he knew who I was. We chatted casually for a few minutes then I got out my microphone and asked if he would say a few words for Riviera Radio. There were a few awkward moments as security stepped in but again he surprised me by breaking with protocol and agreeing to the interview. For me it was the best interview I have ever done as I chatted casually to a remarkably relaxed and open prince. He told me how it was his mother, Princess Grace, who had the idea to start an English-language radio station in Monaco and how we were all doing her proud. He claimed to listen to my show regularly ("What else is there to listen to?") and he talked openly and candidly about life as a prince. It was an absolute gem!
As I left the party, there's no doubt I was on the highest high imaginable. I had the material that would take my career to another level. I would be seen differently by my peers and listeners: a man of the stars who mixes with royalty. I foolishly texted the station manager promising some explosive stuff on the morning breakfast show. I was so keen to show off my work I went straight to production studio at 4 in the morning to start editing! What followed was the loudest scream of frustration ever heard, so long and loud that I'm sure it would have woken the Prince himself in the palace a few hundred meters away. Every single one of the interviews was on the same mini-disc and when I tried to play it, to my horrors of horrors, it was completely blank. To this day, I don't know if it was a faulty disc, a faulty player or whether I somehow erased it in my tiredness and excitement, but it led to 20 minutes of me lying on the studio floor screaming in frustration. Of course on a worldwide scale it's no big deal: no-one was hurt, no damage was done, no-one was sacked or even reprimanded. Worse still, I cobbled together some generic soundbites from the previous years event and I don't think anyone even noticed. At the time I couldn't even bring myself to talk about it as I knew I would sound like the fisherman talking about the one that got away. It was the most horrendous feeling imaginable, yet somehow totally insignificant. It seemed so important at the time, but the fact that actually it wasn't important at all made it a hundred times worse!!!
Of course, I couldn't keep up the pace. Who could? In a typical day, I would be up at 4am. I would prepare my show and write the local news before going on air at 7! I would get back to my office around midday to try and develop a fledgling business then after a short power nap I would be out most evenings at a gig! Something had to give!
It was clear to me that I had to prioritise my own business rather than someone else's, so in 2004 - very reluctantly, I quit all my roles at Riviera Radio. To this day, I still miss the thrills of being on-air, but I had far more important responsibilities. I was a father to two young daughters, I was a husband to my wonderful wife, Caroline, and my business was in that critical stage where it needed energy to grow or forever being condemned to a short-lived side project to my radio career.
Now, over 15 years on, Riviera Organisation now operates from plush offices strategically located in Sophia Antipolis close to Cannes, Nice & Monaco. With my wife, we head an enthusiastic and passionate team of event organisers, production managers, sound & light designers, live performers, DJs and technicians. It's a wealth of experience, talent, passion and enthusiasm, backed by full range of sound, light & audiovisual material and dozens of stylish accessories designed to maximize the overall event experience.
It's a long way from the early days of karaoke and early mornings on the radio, but the journey has been challenging, inspiring and rewarding, and shared with thousands of clients, suppliers and contacts all around the world.