Celebrating an exceptional career

Jo Francis
Monday, February 9, 2015

It seems as if Steve Wehrle was destined to work for the Radio Times. His father worked for the corporation at various outposts, and his mother was a BBC secretary.

So, when Wehrle left school in the 1960s it was only natural that he would apply for a job as an office boy at the then-BBC Publications, at its offices on Marylebone High Street. 

His first day at work involved delivering the new, hot-off-the-press issue of Radio Times to BBC bigwigs. 

“They were stamped ‘early copies’ and I had to take them to all the bosses – in advertising, production, circulation and to the director general at Broadcasting House.”

This was an era when male employees at the BBC were required to wear a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie. ‘Ladies’ were not allowed to wear trousers, and their skirts had to fall below the knee. 

Incredible to think of this now, but one of Wehrle’s other tasks involved taking the ‘booze trolley’ around to those same bosses, with each selecting their preferred tipple. 

His initial contract of employment ran until his 18th birthday, but 50 years later Wehrle is still, effectively, there. The BBC has changed, BBC Magazines has changed ownership, and Wehrle has changed roles over the intervening decades. 

Over the years he worked in the Radio Times editorial department, in distribution, and in the subscriptions office, gaining a great understanding of the various aspects of the publication’s operations. 

As one might imagine, he has some great stories from along the way, including the time he was entrusted with a role in the ‘cash post’ office, which handled incoming postal orders and cheques. On one memorable occasion this involved being responsible for hundreds of bags that were literally stuffed with money. 

“There was a regular Radio Times offer for a celebrity photograph, which cost half a crown. We did Jimmy Ellis from Z-Cars and sold 600. Then it was Millicent Martin from That Was The Week That Was, and she sold about the same,” Wehrle recalls. “The next one was The Beatles, and we had requests for more than one million!”

As a result of this unprecedented demand, everybody and anybody in the BBC offices was stuffing photographs into envelopes, and Wehrle had to take responsibility for the mountain of postbags full of letters from Beatles fans containing postal orders – effectively bags of cash.

He subsequently went on to run the Schools Orders office, a department that was crying out for the sort of slick workflows that are commonplace in today’s printing industry. Sadly, they didn’t exist at the time. 

“It was the most stressful job I ever had. We were dealing with teachers’ notes and pupil pamphlets for 46,000 schools and there were so many things to potentially go wrong. At every point there was an opportunity for a human error of some type. One day alone we had 743 phone calls.”

Wehrle says the role, which had resulted in nervous breakdowns for two of his predecessors “nearly tipped me over the edge”, but fortunately he was able to effect an escape by applying for a job in production.

This was the mid-1970s and Wehrle has been involved in the production side ever since, taking on paper buying in 1984. 

Over the intervening 30 years he’s seen it all – strikes, shortages, paper prices that have gone up, and then down, and even the occasional inebriated paper salesman. 

“The paper trade is great and I’ve met some wonderful people over the years, but it has changed enormously. When I started there were 30 paper companies in Finland. Now there are just three or four,” he notes. 

He was there when Radio Times posted its record-breaking sales figure of 11.2m copies for its 1988 Christmas issue, a feat that earned it a place in Guinness World Records for the biggest-selling magazine. “It was logistically astonishing: 5,500 tonnes of paper, 280 lorries, and seven printers over two days.” 

Stuck stock 

He’ll also admit to the odd hairy moment, and one involved not just any old issue (which would obviously be bad enough) but one of the flagship Radio Times Christmas editions.

“The cover paper was coming from the continent and it was stuck on a train in France due to some sort of strike. It was close to the print date and I had to call in all sorts of favours. We ended up with three different deliveries of different papers.

“No-one noticed the difference. I just kept quiet, sorted it out, and told people about it afterwards. In all my time – touch wood – we haven’t lost anything.”

In 2011 BBC Magazines was acquired by Immediate Media, a massive change that had the potential to cause unrest among long-serving staffers such as Wehrle. 

“I thought, I’ll give it a chance, and actually, it’s better. I love it,” he says. “Tom Bureau [Immediate chief executive] is a real people person. This is a great company, a friendly place, and people want to work here.”

Bureau, who was on hand at the recent company celebration to mark Wehrle’s half-century of employment, proves the point when asked to comment about Wehrle’s career and contribution to the business.

“Steve came to see me a year after we bought BBC Magazines and it was one of the best, most important moments. He said he was shelving talk of retirement,” Bureau says.

“It was really important to me and I really remember it. You could feel the energy. We were creating a new culture here, a dynamic culture that’s about unlocking the potential of people. What Steve said was an important validation of what we’re doing.

“It is an extraordinary achievement to have worked for so many decades in this industry. Steve is an absolutely key part of our business and we doff our caps to him and his vintage suits,” Bureau adds.

Alongside long-serving production director Mal Skelton, Wehrle negotiates annual deals for the circa 34,000 tonnes of paper required by the firm. 

“That way, you know where you are and everyone can budget accordingly.”

There’s always something new to get on top of, be it changes in the paper manufacturing supply chain or at Immediate’s print suppliers. One of Wehrle’s most recent challenges has involved organising the special 2.86m-wide reel sizes required for the new 96pp web presses at Polestar Sheffield. 

Immediate’s key paper suppliers are Stora Enso, Sappi, SCA, Denmaur and Crossleys, which handles Finland’s Kotkamills. 

“Mal is Mr Nice and I am Mr Nasty,” he jokes. “Mal is a very relaxed and calm guy; he keeps my excesses under control. And I’m a bit more relaxed about it all now, anyway.”

Is he, though, relaxed enough to consider retiring after reaching that big 50-year landmark? 

“If I do another three years then I’ll be 70. If I do another eight I’ll be 75 and it will be the 100th year of Radio Times …” is Wehrle’s enigmatic answer. 

Now that really would be an exceptional end to an exceptional career. 

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