Ben Toney:
Star of the Lone Star State
14th Feb 1931 – 10th May 2018

A personal tribute by Mary Payne

While I was an avid Radio London teenage listener in the Sixties, I never gave a thought about who was behind the station and why it sounded so different from any of the other pirates. I doubt if many of my fellow listeners gave it any consideration either. We had no idea who was responsible for commissioning those catchy PAMS jingles; whose voice was informing us that, "Radio London News - tells you more, says it better!"; who was inciting advertisers to "Call Mayfair 5361". Behind everything about the Big L that we came to love, was a Programme Director called Ben Toney. How many people working in today's radio industry are familiar with the role that Ben played in innovating UK radio? How many know that Ben was the man who brought us Top Forty radio, jingles, snappy news bulletins and a host of innovative presenters, including an unforgettable multi-talented DJ called Kenny Everett?

I knew nothing about Ben, or his fellow-founder Tom Danaher, till I met them both aboard the Yeoman Rose during the 1997 Summer of Love Radio London recreation. Chris Elliot's 'The Wonderful Radio London Story' arrived from the publishers then and the picture of the station's origins finally became clear. After our initial meeting, Chris and I corresponded with Ben and Tom Danaher and met them both again at the 2001 USS Density Reunion in Dallas.

(Left) Ben in the galley of the Yeoman Rose

Ben was aged 33 and working at WTAW Radio, Bryan-College Station, Texas, in August 1964 when Don Pierson phoned, saying that he wanted him to go to England on an 18-month contract to set up a new offshore radio station. Don, a man who favoured swift action, gave Ben only one day to make his decision. Ben was swayed by the fact that he was being chosen to put a station on the air with five times the power of rival Radio Caroline, which was newly merged with Radio Atlanta and operating from two ships covering the best part of the north and south of the UK. Bill Watkins, his boss at WTAW, fortunately appreciated that this was an opportunity that Ben could not afford to pass up.

The decision to work for Don Pierson was one that was to change Ben's life in unprecedented ways. It was an adventure that brought him two very special people, a wife, Ronagh, and a daughter, Raquel along the way.

Initially, Ben had to fight both Don Pierson and Radlon MD Philip Birch and his British management team, in order to set up a Top Forty station with a significantly different sound to attract big UK audiences. Both Don and Philip had their own ideas about how the station should sound, but Ben was a man who knew about radio. He was introducing something innovative to an audience unfamiliar with jingles, commercials and fast-paced delivery and he was well aware that he had to find the right way to do it. Top Forty radio had passed its heyday in the USA, but for us, it was just beginning. Ben set about finding the right DJs and building The London Sound. He was changing British radio for ever.

In 2009, Ben mailed me a copy of typed memoirs that he had written mainly for the benefit of his family, asking me to be truthful about the prospects of their being suitable for publication. I found that while there were many stories that would be fascinating to our site visitors, there was not enough material to interest the general public and tempt a publisher. After I gave Ben my honest opinion, he agreed that I should edit the memoirs and publish the appropriate parts on the Radio London site in instalments.

This proved to be a marathon task, as there was no computer file; the only thing available for me to work from was the finished, printed document. How was I going to edit the memoirs without retyping the whole thing? The only answer was OCR - optical character recognition. This was a somewhat old fashioned method of scanning the existing pages and allowing the computer to turn the contents into an editable text file. It was very time-consuming and painstaking work, but some of the results that the machine came up with proved hilarious! A reference to an encounter with Sir Joseph Lockwood, head of EMI came out as, "there was also Sir Joseph Locoweed, managing director of EMI. I aquaplaned him." There was also the revelation that "Don Person brought the Radio Highland/Britain Radio ship into the UK".

Once having editable text files, my task was to polish Ben's fascinating tale of his Radio London career without altering his account, but fleshing out certain aspects of the stories and adding photos where appropriate. In one instance, Ben had referred to the Small Faces and their role in Dateline Diamonds. He stated that nothing had ever come of his co-stars in the movie that had been made as a promotional vehicle for them. The truth was that Ben had left Radio London and the UK before the Small Faces made the big time.

I was proud of the finished result and was delighted when Ben called my work 'outstanding', but I was even prouder when Ben came to the UK to attend the surprise 60th Birthday Party that Chris arranged for me. Having a strong Radio London connection and a party with Ben, Duncan Johnson, Mitch, Ian Damon and Ron Buninga as VIP Guests for my 60th birthday, was something I could never have envisioned as a youngster.

(Right) Ben chatting to one of his 1965 DJ recruits, Duncan Johnson

Radio London was a short episode in Ben's long and productive life, but he saw it as one of the most significant parts.

Ben was not sufficiently well to travel to our Offshore 50 reunion in August 2017, but he sent a lovely message to be read out to our guests.

I was very touched that when he went into hospice care, Ben took the trouble to ask his niece Cheryl to inform me. I felt honoured that he should think about me at such a time and it gave me the opportunity to send him a message telling him how much he was loved and appreciated. His daughter Raquel was by his side during his final days and read out many such messages to him.

Smooth sailing, Ben. We shall never forget you.



Mark Roman's Tribute

Ben Toney has left us and we mourn his passing. Each of us has reason to be grateful for his contribution to our lives.

Ben Toney a Tall Texan with a booming voice, (when he wanted it to be so).

Ben Toney a Tall Texan who knew how to do it and could prove it (when required).

Ben Toney, why am I repeating his name so often? Above all others this man changed the face and tone of British Radio. Forever!

Before Radio London arrived there was nothing of great import. The BBC was locked in a 'bureaupratic' time warp. Luxembourg was trying, but battling with a poor signal, Caroline did her best, but in the early days largely followed the BBC, although with better music and more of it. Then came Radio London, created by two visionary and energetic Texans, Don Pierson and Tom Danaher. That part of history is well known but one vital part is missing.

With great respect to those two entrepreneurs, anyone can start a radio station, the proliferation of offshore imitators proves that, but the vital ingredient is the programming and style. Radio London had that in the person of Ben Toney. It was he who initiated and chose the Top Forty format, and introduced it to the music-hungry population. It was he who introduced unscripted personality deejays to the airwaves. The BBC required approved scripts of the jocks' rehearsed 'adlibs'. Yes it sometimes went wrong, but that was what the ever-growing audience loved. They never knew what might happen or how it would turn out. They were listening to real people in real time and they loved it.

(Right) Mark on stage as MC at the 1997 Summer of Love party, with (l to r) Keith Skues, Ben, Dave Cash, behind Dave, Duncan Johnson, Tommy Vance, David Hawkins, Tom Danaher, Ian Damon

The audience loved the guys hired and encouraged by Ben who would later become stars, Kenny Everett, Dave Cash, Ed Stewart, and others like Keith Skues still going strong, and of course Tony Blackburn who started with Caroline and blossomed with LIL. 

BIG LIL, named by Kenny and how the audience loved her for a brief period before she was silenced by an unthinking cretinous and controlling government (aren't they all?). Then she was replaced after a suitable interval by Radios One and Two, etc, and populated by many of those personalities from the offshore stations. Not surprisingly it sounded very similar to Radio London – why was that so? Because as daft as the BBC was, and is still, they recognised quality, success, creativity, and talent. 'If it ain't broken why fix it!' A true, but unrecognised, tribute to Ben.

Sadly much has deteriorated in the past fifty-plus years and it is so sad to see that the legacy that Ben created has been betrayed. As you grow older I beseech you do not let the name of Ben Toney be forgotten. It was he and he alone who led the way, because unlike so many others, he could prove he knew how to do it.

On the occasions that he visited the Galaxy and stayed overnight, those of us on board would challenge him to Be a Deejay! In those days we talked over the instrumental part of the vinyl disc until the vocal came in. Despite often hearing the most obscure disc we could find Ben, would hit it on the button every time. Respect! How many PD's of today could do that? Of course they will argue that modern radio does not require it. Maybe so, but what happened to real people with personalities who entertained, conversed and were welcome in your Home, Kitchen, Bathroom, Bedroom, Car or wherever? Do you remember those days?

So long Ben Toney. I am happy to have known you and I am so grateful for your contribution to my life and the lives of so many others, so VERY many others.



Michel Philistin, Ship's Steward 1964 – 67

Ben, you were very kind and helpful, especially with me.
God bless you and rest in peace.

Sitting with Tom Danaher and Chris Baird and taking the microphone on stage at the 1997 Summer of Love party

See Page 2 for more photos and Page 3 for audio clips

Photos: Chris and Mary Payne, Hans Knot, Martin van der Ven

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