As he signs up to his 30th year with Metro Radio Alan Robson speaks to Hannah Davies on ghosts, paganism and broken noses.
I’M sat silent, next to Metro FM’s PR woman. We’re both listening as man speaks urgently, then a shot fires, then a long pause, then there is a soft whisper in Norweigian.
This Alan Robson tells me is the voice of the man’s wife, who died four days previously in a car crash with their young son, telling the man to, “come, we are here”.
Welcome to the ghostly world of Alan Robson. There’s not a lot could send a shiver down my spine during rush hour on a Wednesday evening but that certainly did.
Things you probably know about Alan Robson: he has a ginger hair and moustache and he presents the multi-award-winning Nightowls.
Things you may not know: he is a qualified exorcist, a pagan historian, presents a ghost-hunting show for ABC in America called Scariest Places on Earth, has had his nose broken five times, held down a job in the civil service at the same time as working for Metro FM and has won a New York radio award.
I’m well acquainted with Alan’s work, I used to listen to it before going to sleep, my ears pressed next to a portable radio along with thousands of others across the region.
There are some urban myths about Alan. One is he was beaten up by Geordie heavy metal band, Venom. Another is his ways with the ladies (strictly off bounds during the interview and judging by his current 15 year marriage to fourth wife now all in the past).
Alan was born in Benwell, the west end of Newcastle, on October 1, 1955 and grew up “a typical working class lad”.
His mum was a housewife and dad, a hardworking man who among others was a builder, welder and worked for the gas board. He also has a sister who is 12 years older than him. Alan’s dad worked hard all his life, sometimes taking on three shifts in a row with the Gas Board.
“I never saw him, he was always working and I suppose it is a good thing,” Alan muses.
“It’s certainly something he’s passed on to me. I’ve never stopped at all ever. Even when I was a kid during school holidays me and some mates would follow the bin men around saying if you give us a £1 we will empty the bins for you.”
Alan’s first job on leaving school at 16 was as an apprentice electrician. It wasn’t a happy experience. “As a prank my boss had nailed me under a floor and left me there for four hours.
“When I got out I attacked him and he broke my nose. I’ve had it broken five times.”
A change of career was sought so he got a job with the DSS, but, Alan adds: “They told me everything I was going to do for the rest of my life in 20 minutes.”
Insulted Alan sent a letter to his bosses saying he was bright and could he do anything else. Amazingly they responded and gave the precocious 17-year old a new job as an assistant scientific officer.
Meanwhile though Alan was also pursuing a showbiz career. He says: “I was trying to be in bands. I wanted to write my own stuff but I realised I wasn’t any good.”
With music defying him as a career Alan then decided to, as a lover of the limelight to try out comedy. But yet again that didn’t satisfy. Instead he discovered Dj-ing, at the same places he had toured in bands and as a comedian, which he was good at. The crowds seemed liked him and word got around. It was in this way Metro Fm, in the late 70s and on the look out for new talent for a rock show, heard about him. Alan recalls: “They said what do you know about rock music? I didn’t know that much then,” he laughs. “But of course I told them I knew everything.”
Alan’s rock show soon found its time slot increasing, and after a few years another opportunity came his way.
“The evening show seven to 10 came up and they agreed to give me that show.”
But to take on the evening show Alan would at last have to quit his day job.
He’d become pretty successful in the Civil Service leading a large team in the centre of Newcastle. Still it was a simple choice for Alan. He quit, and headed to Metro FM HQ. He was in for a shock.
“I’d only been there two days when management called me in they said, ‘our phone-in show is dying on its backside, would you mind going in and giving it a try?’”
This was the last thing Alan wanted. He explains: “I hated phone ins because they were all done by people who ranted on and seemed to just try and make themselves sound smarter against other people. But I’d just joined so I did what they said, reluctantly.”
To add insult to injury Alan was also told to drop his North East accent. He laughs, a little painfully: “So I started talking terribly posh for two and a half years.”
Luckily after that time passed Alan, with a little experience under his belt, had a word with the bosses. He asked if they would mind trying the phone-in his way.
They agreed and he lost the fake posh voice, gratefully readopting his “proper” voice, and “spoke to the callers as if they were normal people”.
Nightowls as it is today was born, and an immediate hit.
Since it started in 1980 Alan has had a direct line to the thoughts, hopes and fears of the people of the North East.
“The Nightowls are proper friends. Like anyone we want to get together and have a good time, but when someone needs us we are there for them,” he says thoughtfully.
“You never realise how bad it is for other people until some body says, ‘my three children were taken off me by the social services last night because of my violent ex-boyfriend was living with me, now he’s gone – how do I get them back?’”
There have been other harrowing moments, one man on North Tyneside called the show threatening to set himself on fire.
“He’d doused himself in petrol and called saying he was going to knock a candle over and set himself alight. Luckily we managed to trace his call and get the police there.
“They said because of his job he had all these cylinders which if he’d set alight to himself it would taken out half the street.” Alan recognises his responsibility to his listeners. He adds: “Because I’m on the radio every night that guy, like others, who have no one else feel at least they’ve got me to talk to, and they have.
“It’s a privileged job, you can make massive changes in people’s lives.”
Now he says he’s in his “perfect” job – mainly due to a new interest: Ghosts.
“I never believed in the whole ghost thing that’s the weird thing. Mostly I’d say to people ‘are you drunk?’
“Although I couldn’t explain a lot of it, I didn’t believe any of it either.
His major change of heart came from a chat with a church exorcist who, after hearing Nightowls invited Alan to come out with him.
“He said if you really want to find out come out with me to a couple of places.
“The first two places I felt nothing happening. But at the third he walked through the door and said ‘this might be too much for you’.
“Of course nothing else could have made me want to go in more. When I got in you could tell something was wrong.
“And then I saw all kinds of things, shadows and objects moving by themselves.”
Alan says you can often tell if a house has a ghostly presence by it’s “feel”.
He describes it as: “When you first walk in somewhere you generally know if it is a happy home or not. When you walk into a place which has unhappy spirits in it you feel it right away.”
Another outcome of this new-found interest in ghosts is that Alan has become incredibly interested in paganism, describing himself as a “pagan historian”.
He is passionate about the pagan tradition of the last 10,000 years, speaking of Christians re-writing history, “all of our books came from historians who were killing pagans,” he says.
Alan describes the massacre of pagans by Christians as “along the same route as Judaism with the Nazis”, and denies devil worshiping allegations as Christian propaganda.
“Nobody believes in the devil. The devil was invented with Christianity.”
Alan stops short of describing himself as a pagan though. He declares: “I believe if we treat the world well then it’ll treat us well if we treat it badly – then we’re going to pay for it.”