A history of local radio in the Tameside area
In 2011, we have a cornucopia of radio stations to play with, whether on analogue or digital form. From niche internet radio stations to national stations, there are literally hundreds of stations at our disposal. Like most multichannel households it could almost be a case of 52 channels and nothing on.
It is hard to imagine that as recently as the mid-1990s, Tameside lacked a truly local radio station to call its own. This was addressed to some extent when Revolution 96.2 FM won the licence to broadcast in Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside in 1999. Eight years later, this was remedied by the launch of Tameside Radio on the 30 September 2007 – symbolically and exactly 40 years on from the launch of BBC Radio One.
The launch of Tameside Radio, nor the launch of Revolution 96.2 doesn’t mark the Year Zero Moment of local broadcasting in Tameside. In events with similar parallels to the dawn of independent local radio, pirates identified this gap in the market some time beforehand.
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1: 1922 – 1963:
For five years from 1922 to 1927, Greater Manchester’s first local station was the British Broadcasting Company’s 2ZY. Surviving the transition from ‘company’ to ‘corporation’ at the start of 1927, its transmitter and studio was based at the Metropolitan Vickers works in Trafford Park. The Iron Water Tower was used to support the transmitter. Regular programmes began on the 15 November 1922, broadcasting on 375 metres on the Medium Wave. Today, this wavelength nestles between BBC Radio Five Live’s 693kHz and 909kHz frequencies. The link with 2ZY will be re-established with these frequencies when BBC Radio Five Live moves to MediaCityUK.
In 1927, following improved technology, it became possible to relay some programmes from other locations, which led to the BBC National Programme and the end of 2ZY. The latter station, along with other provincial relays would be taken up by the BBC Regional Programme. In 1939, both National and Regional programmes were merged to form the Home Service, effectively reducing regional output for a generation. The North’s output became part of the North Regional Home Service.
1.1: ‘We are the Ovaltineys, little girls and boys…’
Far from the then staid nature of BBC’s programming, Radio Luxembourg was Europe’s first commercial station launched in 1933. Offering a mix of sponsored programming and contemporary music, it offered listeners a lively alternative with a mix of entertainment and informative programmes. Prior to the start of World War II, its English service offered the latest dance sounds (sponsored by Zam-Buk, a form of medication for curing bruises and cuts), a recorded Irish music concert and children’s programming (the famed ‘League of Ovaltineys’). The latter is looked upon most fondly by fostering a ‘club’ element, similar to the ODEON’s and Gaumont’s Saturday matinee clubs, albeit on radio.
During the Second World War, the station was closed down by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to protect its neutral status. The following year saw it taken over by invading German forces with propaganda broadcasts in English from Lord Haw Haw. When Allied Forces took over Luxembourg in 1944, the US Army took over till the end of the war.
For most listeners within Tameside, Oldham, Rochdale and Stockport, the Radio Luxembourg of the 1950s would be fondly remembered. By then, normal service resumed, this time following a change of frequency to 208 metres in the Medium Wave, made in the late 1940s. Programming began at 6pm each night, which is now the shoulder peak of prime-time television viewing. By the end of the decade, it was the first European station to afford extensive coverage of Rock ‘n’ Roll music. In 1960, it shunned the more paternalistic programming for light entertainment, with programmes like Double Your Money and Candid Microphone engaging listeners. Both programmes spawned a successful transition to television.
1.2: The BBC’s stations
In 1945, the BBC augmented its Home Service with the Light Programme. It took over frequencies formerly used by the Home Service in 1939 and was a civilian successor to the BBC Forces Programme. It offered a mix of light musical entertainment and comedies such as Beyond Our Ken, ITMA and Pick of the Pops. The latter, launched in 1955, would be the BBC’s response to their commercial rivals. Regional coverage came courtesy of the North Regional Home Service broadcasting on 434, 261 and 202 metres on the Medium Wave.
For most Tamesiders, the Reporter’s newspapers (including the North Cheshire Herald and Glossop Chronicle) formed the bulk of most regional news coverage with around 200,000 copies sold from Denshaw to New Mills. The rising popularity of television and the foundation of the Granada and ABC independent television franchises saw another regional source of information. The BBC needed to act, and act fast at that. With the regional structure of the Independent Television Authority’s franchises gaining popularity, the late 1960s would see radical changes to its radio stations, nationally and locally. In the meantime, on 199 metres in the Medium Wave…
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2. 1964 – 1970:
In a Christian viewpoint, Easter Day is seen as the harbinger of new life. It was prior to that very day in 1964 when Ronan O’Rahilly formed Radio Caroline. The BBC stations were seen by the pirates as the establishment stations. Unlike the Beeb’s offerings they went for the popular music angle pioneered by Radio Luxembourg.
2.1: ‘We Love the Pirate Stations’
Radio Caroline had two ships: one off the Suffolk Coast near Felixstowe [MV Caroline] and another one off Harwich [MV Mi Amigo]. The latter was inherited from rival pirate station Radio Atlanta with the former vessel moving towards Ramsey, Isle of Man for Radio Caroline North. Most Tamesiders’ first taste of the pirate stations came from MV Caroline. They succeeded in attracting the artistes of the day and in getting advertisers, but the 1964 – 1966 Labour Government weren’t having any of that. So, in 1966, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn introduced a bill, which later became known as the 1967 Marine Offences Act. It proposed the extension of sovereign territory along Britain’s coastlines as well illegalising pirate stations. Some were broadcasted on Maunsell forts a few miles away from shore.
By 1967, Radio Caroline North ceased transmissions, but the days were numbered for the pirate stations thanks to a new kid on the block. That of a ‘more with-it station’ featuring some ex-pirate radio DJs for good measure. And it all began with ‘Flowers in the Rain’ and Tony Blackburn.
2.2. The BBC’s Offensive
On the 30th September 1967, the BBC split parts of the Light Programme to form two new radio stations. The more sedate elements of the Light Programme transferred to BBC Radio Two. The more contemporary stuff became part of a new station, BBC Radio One. The Third Network was renamed BBC Radio Three with the Home Service becoming BBC Radio Four.
Meanwhile in Leicester, the BBC began a pilot scheme to introduce regional stations, almost harking back to the days of 2Zy, though with new technology and listeners sporting cheaper transistor radios. Three years later, Manchester would get its own regional BBC station, named BBC Radio Manchester of course.
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3: 1970 – 1983
In 1970, Edward Heath’s Conservative Government gave the go-ahead for the introduction of Independent Local Radio stations. The move was a long time coming, given the popularity of the pirate stations which set the standard for future stations and afforded ILR a guaranteed pool of talent. To accommodate this change, the Independent Television Authority was renamed the Independent Broadcasting Authority.
Between 1970 and 1973, there was only two commercial stations for UK audiences: one was Radio Luxembourg, the other was the closed circuit radio station UBN, the United Biscuits Network. Whereas the former brought Tamesiders the dulcet tones of Stuart Henry, the latter brought a small number of Stopfordians and Tamesiders, who worked at the Heaton Chapel McVitie’s works, Roger Day and Adrian Juste.
3.1. The Age of Aquarius
Though radio piracy was more or less dead in the water, a few mavericks wanted to start an ultra local station in the Stockport area, which was easily picked up in Tameside. Broadcasting from 1972 to 1975 was Radio Aquarius, a land based pirate station which moved in and around the fringes of the High Peak. They started out on Short Wave as Radio Lancashire with offices in Brighton, East Sussex (!). As a Medium Wave, then FM station on 97.6 FM, they adopted the name Aquarius Radio and moved their offices to Albion Street, Manchester.
Whereas Radio Caroline and other pirate stations moved positions, Aquarius did exactly the same along South Manchester from Disley to Wilmslow, and on moorland above Mossley. In 1974, its 97.6 FM signal was causing commotion with a bigger rival on Piccadilly Plaza. In spite of several run-ins with the law pertaining to unauthorised transmission, the straw which broke their donkey’s back was a ‘spoof’ advert on South Africa. Twenty minutes after broadcast, the GPO and Special Branch raided the station.
Today, in post-apartheid times, the advertisement would attract no controversy among contemporary ears as history would prove them as right fifteen years on. Radio Aquarius would be seen as a pretty ‘far out’ station with a mix of non-commercial music, poetry and soul music programmes.
3.2. ‘I’m Picking Up Good Vibrations…’
The first legit local commercial station for our area east of the M60 motorway was Piccadilly Radio. Founded on the 02 April 1974, it was an immediate success with listeners throughout Greater Manchester. It attracted a mix of local talent as well as experienced heads from the pirate stations.
The area east of the M60 motorway also made a significant contribution to the station. James Stannage’s talk show would be the most listened to phone-in show outside of London. Timmy Mallett, late of Hyde Grammar School, would have his own wacky show prior to presenting Wacaday on TV-am from 1987.
Behind the scenes, a Glossopian tape engineer, who worked with Phil Wood would spawn a monster. As the late great Kenny Everett had the likes of Sid Snot, Buzz Hawkins set to work on an enduring set of characters. Known as The Bradshaws (or separately as Alf, Audrey and Billy), their antics are set in a part of Barnoldswick suspended in the 1950s. A world where snake belts, penny arrow bars and split the kipper would be part of the vernacular. Combining nostalgia with sharp wit, the series began in 1982 with regular episodes initially aired on Phil Wood’s show.
Almost 30 years on, they are still enjoyed by young and old generations alike. Live shows featuring the trio continue to fill theatres around the North West of England. Radio stations beyond Greater Manchester too have aired The Bradshaws. Closer to home, Tameside Radio (more on them later) air Buzz Hawkins’ collected works twice a weekday.
3.3. Battlestar Andromeda
1979 saw the dawn of another pirate station. Formed from the ashes of Radio Aquarius was Andromedia Independent Radio. This continued where the predecessor left off with a similarly eclectic range of programming and music. This time they opted for a local focus, around Tameside and East Manchester. Programmes were aired on 94.6 FM, a little close for comfort to BBC Radio Four’s frequency. Its transmitting equipment skirted the foothills of the Pennines. In November 1979, it became the first – though not legit – Tameside station to use Harrop Edge as their favoured transmitter location.
The station attracted some press coverage in The Advertiser, The Guardian and Tameside Eye. Its April 1980 issue included a plea to deter listeners from making contact with them as well as listening to their station. James Stannage also had a brief stint on Andromeda. A bid to go legit saw little popular support spelling its demise in 1983.
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4. 1983 – 1999:
The year 1983 saw two key radio developments which would greatly affect local radio in Tameside and its surrounding area. One was the formation of another pirate station whom in future years would go legit. The other was only a heartbeat away, and one which would set the scene for one of today’s radio stations.
4.1. ‘Half the World Away…’
In 1983, Stockport gained her first pirate station. Unlike the nomadic existence of Andromeda and Aquarius before then, it was a professional set-up based in Wilmslow and Stockport. The age of the micro chip came to the fore; new technology meant a new generation of pirates with snazzier jingles akin to Alfasound’s or JAM Productions’ finest. Piccadilly Radio and the other first generation independent local radio stations started to get worried, and rightly so.
KFM, particularly in Stockport and South Manchester, got the likes of Piccadilly Radio worried. Broadcasting on 94.2 FM (close to Andromeda’s old frequency incidentally). Its keen advertising rates wooed small businesses – something which its catchment area was far from short of.
They also attracted local bands and owe a creative debt to The Royle Family. Craig Cash began his career on KFM before creating The Royle Family with Caroline Aherne. KFM was very close to the model operated by legal small scale commercial broadcasters today. Their approach to non-stop music was later picked up by bigger stations like Key 103. As a result, Piccadilly’s new baby went from strength to strength after aping the pirate station.
After being a legitimate station for almost six months, it all turned sour for KFM, but the station soldered on as Signal Cheshire. It was renamed Signal FM in 1997 before changing its name to Imagine FM in 2000. The station saw changes of ownership from EMAP to The Wireless Group and Ulster Television Radio before becoming an independent station again in 2009.
4.2. ‘Why do you miss when my baby kisses me…?’
Tameside’s radio revolution began in the least assuming of premises: one October in 1983, in a basement in Tameside General Hospital. Preparations from 1981 up to its on-air date of the 22 October 1983 included a meeting at Ashton-under-Lyne town hall, and an outdoor unit at the 1982 Tameside Canal Festival. Numerous fundraising events and sponsorship from the League of Friends later, Heartbeat Radio was born. It had a mixed bag of chart music, some speech based programming, plus local news and sport. The station was opened by Lady Christine Kenyon on behalf of Tameside and Glossop Health Authority.
At first, programmes would only be aired on weekends and Wednesdays with Piccadilly Radio following on after closedown. Its success soon led to the station having a daily schedule and a renaming of the station from Heartbeat Radio to that of Eight Towns Radio. Their roadshow van would become a regular fixture at local events such as the Tameside Canal Festival and Mossley Carnival.
Though Eight Towns Radio finished in 1997, some of the presenters moved on to Tameside Radio. One time head of news for Eight Towns Radio Andy Hoyle and journalist Mike Wallbank are among those who would return to our airwaves ten years later.
4.3. So Many Stations, Too Few Listeners…
The middle of the 1990s saw a glut of stations playing virtually identical music. KFM’s non-stop music model, albeit stripped down to the bare essentials by the bigger stations made for a tedious experience. Computerisation of playlists made for a sterile experience devoid of character, close to the ‘automatic stations’ prediction in a early Human League album track. This was epitomised by Atlantic 252 which by then was a popular alternative to BBC Radio One despite its Long Wave signal.
Then, suddenly, the competition started to hot up. A wave of second generation commercial stations like Talk Radio and Fortune 1458 started to prise listeners away from the Piccadillys, Red Roses, Hallams and the BBC stations. BBC Radio Manchester, at the start of the 1990s was renamed GMR in 1988. For a brief time it opted for a speech only format as GMR Talk (a Mancunian answer to LBC).
At the start of the 1990s, there was Sunset Radio, which specialised in soul music. In 1994, it was replaced by Kiss 102, a dance music station far removed from the dance music heard on Radio Luxembourg several years ago. Fortune 1458 offered easy listening/middle of the road music, but it sounded like a lame version of Piccadilly Gold.
Though new national commercial stations like Talk Radio and Classic FM was launched, we also said goodbye to the English language service of Radio Luxembourg. Every other station sounded like the self-styled ‘station of the ’80s’ (whom in the 1950s had the Ovaltineys), so its uniqueness was lost. Besides LW, MW, SW and FM, the end of this decade would see digital stations enter the fore. Other than that, satellite radio and cable radio station. Yet, all this was before the emergence of internet radio.
The 1990s also saw the emergence of further small scale commercial stations. Besides the Piccadilly stations in Greater Manchester, the end of the decade would see them augmented by Tower FM (Bolton and Bury), WISH FM (Wigan and St. Helens) and Revolution 96.2 FM (Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside). Bruce Springsteen’s ode to multichannel television was equally true among Tamesiders with a modest portable radio. At the other end of the scale was the North West’s first regional commercial station, launched in September 1998. Century 105 was no tiddler and was owned by Border Television’s radio subsidiary, who owned a similar station in the North East of England.
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5. 1999 – 2007
August 1999 saw the opening of a more local station serving Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside. Entitled ‘Revolution 96.2’ it was at one time part-owned by Hirst, Kidd and Rennie, the publishers of the Oldham Evening Chronicle. As well as attracting more local advertisers it started taking listeners away from Key 103 and Piccadilly 1152 (recently renamed from Piccadilly Gold). Commercial stations came and went throughout this period. Fortune 1458 played on its easy listening nature and re-emerged as Lite AM. That too was short-lived as the new millennium saw another name change: this time Big AM, as an Adult Orientated Rock station. In 2002 it was swallowed up by Capital Radio, who renamed the station Capital Gold. By then, most of the local stations were merely regional offshoots of a national brand.
5.1 Children of the 96.2 FM
Revolution 96.2 started life as Oldham FM in 1996. The nascent station had a limited one month broadcasting licence in a bid to gain public support. Its studio was based in the Town Square shopping centre before winning the licence to broadcast in Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside. This warranted a name change to Revolution 96.2, given that the name includes the first letter of each area it serves.
The station played the usual mix of 60s – 90s music as well as contemporary chart hits. Its local format saw a meteoric rise in listeners from 1999 to 2005. In spite of this, a change of musical director (former Inspiral Carpet Clint Boon) saw the station play rock and indie music, which may have alienated some listeners. However, the station found a new audience of hipsters bored with the chart music and golden oldies, with a fair few from outside its broadcasting area. Mancunians took advantage of its strong signal from the top of Oldham Civic Centre.
Then it all turned sour in 2008 after Clint Boon jumped ship. It sounded barely distinguishable from any other commercial station which led to its sale. Saving it from being Oldham’s answer to Atlantic 252 (repetitive music and eventual demise included), former Piccadilly Radio/Key 103/Capital Radio DJ Steve Penk bought the station. Listening figures started to rise again and the station hasn’t left the public eye since.
5.2 Oldham’s other radio station
Prior to the launch of Tameside Radio came another radio station. Whereas The Revolution was commercially orientated, the one time cotton spinning town also spawned a community radio station, albeit more speech based.
Oldham Community Radio, on 99.7 FM is aimed towards local information and programming. This includes local news programmes, a children’s programme and dedicated shows for brass band music and soul music lovers. It it one of 107 community radio stations in the UK, granted a licence in 2005. Transmission began on the 17 March 2007.
As with hospital radio stations, Oldham Community Radio depends on volunteers. All members are local to the Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council area. One presenter, Gilbert Symes (of the Community Brass programme) has been involved in brass banding for most of his life. Moved by the lack of brass band coverage on the BBC stations, Gilbert sensed a gap in the market, and Community Brass was born, going out twice weekly on Mondays and Wednesdays (the former day being a repeat of last Wednesday’s show).
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In South Manchester, more of the same happened: Wythenshawe and Levenshulme got their own community stations. The former location with ‘Wythenshawe FM’, with the latter location served by ALL FM. The title, as well as referring to the inclusive nature of the station also stood for Ardwick, Longsight and Levenshulme. It gained a local reputation for its jazz and soul based programming, giving a bigger commercial station [Jazz FM] a run for its money. Soon the list multiplied with the following community radio stations available for Mancunian ears:
- NMFM: North Manchester (106.6 FM);
- High Peak Radio: Glossop, Buxton and the rest of the High Peak area (103.3 FM/106.4 FM/106.6 FM);
- Bolton FM: Bolton (96.5 FM);
- Crescent Radio: Asian community radio station serving Rochdale (107.8 FM);
- ALL FM: Ardwick, Levenshulme and Longsight (96.9 FM);
- Gaydio: LGBT community radio station for Manchester (88.4 FM);
- Unity Radio: Central Manchester (92.8 FM);
- Pure Radio: Stockport (107.8 FM);
- Peace FM: African-Caribbean community radio station for Manchester (90.1 FM);
- Salford City Radio: Salford (94.4 FM);
- Wythenshawe Radio: Wythenshawe and surrounding area (90.2 FM);
- Oldham Community Radio: Oldham and Saddleworth (99.7 FM);
- Tameside Radio: Tameside (103.6 FM).
With the number of radio stations available by the end of the noughties, the DAB receiver seemed to be poor value for money given the amount of goodies on the FM wavelength alone. With digital radio available on the Digital Audio Broadcasting standard, digital satellite stations and on the internet, it was literally impossible to listen to them all. This was particularly true in Greater Manchester.
On the 30 September 2007, one of the conurbation’s twelve community radio stations would make an immediate impact on its locality, opening with the U2 song Beautiful Day.
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6. 2007 – 2011
The last four years saw consolidation of nationwide commercial station brands. Instead of expecting to hear different songs at any one time at a different region, greater use of syndication meant Cooler Than Me would be played at 10.28 am at Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and London. Kiss 102, then Galaxy 102, would be renamed Capital FM. Amid this, further local offshoots of national brands like XFM on analogue and digital radio frequencies. At the other end, ultra local stations started to gain momentum and made significant dents on the listening figures of the established order.
6.1 Live from Harrop Edge…
After several failed attempts by land based radio pirates and numerous temporary licences for Eight Towns Radio, the 30th September 2007 was a momentous day for Tameside’s radio listeners. Tameside Radio started broadcasting. Having seen all trace of local identity sapped from the first generation ILR stations, it was a breath of fresh air.
The station plays a mix of golden oldies and contemporary music. Reassuringly, it is very close to the old Piccadilly Radio with a vibrant mix of music, news and sports coverage. It filled a yawning gap left by commercial stations and (to some extent) BBC Radio Manchester by offering Non League Football coverage and a weekly brass band music show. National news coverage is sourced from Sky News, also used by Capital FM and Absolute Radio stations with an hourly local bulletin. Like Piccadilly Radio did in the mid-1980s, it even has The Bradshaws.
Local presenters, again volunteers as at Oldham Community Radio, have established themselves as local celebrities. Some presenters were hitherto known through Eight Towns Radio (Andy Hoyle and Michael Wallbank). Michael Wallbank’s Newsround (from the previous station) is revamped and forms part of ‘The Show That Time Forgot’, a two-hour long golden oldies programme which goes out on Sunday afternoon. Wayne Kay, presenter of the breakfast show is a regular feature at most outside broadcasts. Tameside Radio’s mobile unit has made regular appearances at Ashton-under-Lyne’s open market, the Stalybridge Splash and at Christmas Lights switch-ons.
Today, most pubs, shops and public buildings throughout Tameside seem to have Tameside Radio on as their regular station. Prior to then, it was often Key 103 or Magic 1152 (late Piccadilly Gold/1152), and Tameside, it seemed for several years, was a Key 103 stronghold. Even at home, Tameside Radio became my regular and most listened to station in all.
To secure the future of Tameside’s community radio station, extra funding has been gained through New Charter, a social housing company who owns most of Tameside’s former council housing stock. With local popularity and a financial injection, its future is assured.
7. 2012 and beyond:
For some time, I can see us all listening to analogue radio stations for at least another five years. The extra expense and disappointing sound quality of DAB (at odds with the hyperbole) will deter listeners from upgrading, unless as part of a new stereo system. Not least the content; why listen to the same analogue stations on DAB when it has been proven by some commentators that a strong FM signal surpasses the MP2 standard used by Digital Audio Broadcasting in the UK?
The proposed cutbacks to BBC’s local radio stations will see their local stations as little different to their commercial competitors (obvious exception being the lack of ad breaks). Therefore, the extra expense of DAB and reduced local focus from the BBC and first generation ILR stations will see community radio rise in popularity. Casual listeners seeking local information would be more likely to take it in through radio compared with local newspapers or internet sites.
The popularity of mobile internet, and its convergence with local radio would offer greater potential, not only for the delivery of local news stories, but also scope for personalised marketing initiatives. Being able to download a programme from the previous night onto the iPad or Android handset will become as second nature as catching a bus.
The future of ultra local radio is brighter than it ever was. In the words of The Six Million Dollar Man titles, ‘we have the technology’. Instead of an office block, our studios could be the bedroom or converted garage.
- The Iron Water Tower, Trafford Park: an article on 2ZY, Manchester’s first BBC service which used Metropolitan Vickers’ water tower to strengthen the transmitter;
- Radio Aquarius history: a rip-roaring history of the pirate station including their run-ins with Special Branch and the General Post Office;
- Andromeda Independent Radio: the successor to Radio Aquarius, broadcasting mainly in and around Tameside;
- The Bradshaws: the official website of Buzz Hawkins’ creation. If you get the chance of seeing Alf, Audrey and Billy, don’t miss out! Failing that you can download their stories or purchase them on CD;
- Wikipedia article on KFM Radio: a comprehensive article focusing on the station’s early years as a pirate station;
- Eight Towns Radio/Heartbeat archive: the definitive reference on the hospital radio station which begat Tameside Radio in 2007;
- Tameside Radio: their official website. Includes programme listings, pen pictures of the presenters and reference to local events.
S.V., 22 November 2011.