Music, not muzak…
Before September of 1988, Piccadilly Radio had all its programmes on both its MW and FM frequencies (1152kHz and 103.0MHz). You could listen to Umberto on Medium Wave, VHF, or by dialling ‘261’ anywhere in Greater Manchester.
In a bid to improve listener choice and competition, the UK’s Independent Local Radio stations were encouraged by HM Government to offer a different service on one frequency to another. Greater Manchester Independent Radio were reluctant to do this at the time. However, it was thought in Piccadilly Plaza that the yuppies needed a station to call their own. So, on the 03 September 1988, Key 103 was born with the name so-called after its FM frequency. Piccadilly Radio’s existing programmes, on the AM band, would become plain ‘Piccadilly 1152’.
In its first two years, Key 103 got off to a slow and unsuccessful start. Its music output was mainly contemporary radio friendly Adult Orientated Rock and chart music. The Medium Wave service held its own and had the better programmes. For example, the phone-ins, live football coverage, The Bradshaws and Curly Shirley. Key 103, aimed at upmarket listeners, had a business programme hosted by Anthony Schaeffer.
More Music, No More Muzak…
The early Key 103 began to face competition by a wave of new independent radio stations. After being a pirate station from 1984, Stockport’s KFM went legit in 1989. Sunset Radio, which began transmission in October, carved a niche in soul and reggae music. However, it was the former station which saw a change of fortune for Key 103. One which turned out to be for the better. Key 103, though under the aegis of GMIR (later part of Trans World Entertainment) began to find an identity.
A few names from the AM station joined Key 103 in the autumn of 1990, one of them being Spence Macdonald. In September, Piccadilly 1152 was renamed ‘Piccadilly Gold’. The rebranding worked.
‘Don’t Call Me Sunshine…’ – Wind-ups amidst the Corn Flakes
In 1990, Key 103’s breakfast show presenter was Spence Macdonald, in what would become the first of his two stints for Key 103. It was said that an incident with the coffee machine led to his sacking and replacement by another familiar face, one who would later move to London and return to Greater Manchester.
From 1992, Steve Penk’s breakfast show became required listening for most Mancunians. Key 103 was about to reach the height of its powers with a million or so people tuning in. One part of the programme would attract notoriety and affection in equal measures.
Like Beadle’s About and Game For A Laugh before then, people would be wound up by prank calls about the state of their front doors, overdue library books or the like. Sometimes, he would try to call celebrities: in the case of his ability in trying to contact one of the Bee Gees, his calls was littered with song titles in the conversation.
Near the end, he would utter these immortal words:
‘…This is Steve Penk from Key 103…’
Cue laughter and odd profanity, a la Beadle’s About. Suffice to say, the template would be copied by other stations.
Shortly after Beadle’s About left our screens, Mr Penk moved to Virgin Radio 1215 and Capital Radio. He would also present TV Nightmares, a late-1990s/early noughties answer to Denis Norden’s It’ll Be All Right on the Night.
Meanwhile, back at Piccadilly Plaza, Spence Macdonald would return to the microphone before joining Century 105 in September 1998. His replacement would be Mike Toolan, then JK and Joel from 2000.
Non Stop Music
During the 1990s, Key 103 was a good source for the latest chart sounds. In spite of this, the introduction of new technology made for a more monotonous playlist. There was also new music courtesy of Pete and Geoff’s IQ programme which showcased local bands.
The Top Ten at Ten
Once a staple feature of Key 103’s schedule, The Top Ten at Ten does exactly that: a run down of the Top Ten UK singles on a given week, at 10am and 10pm from a given year. Throughout the 1990s, it was often a 1980s year, with a bias towards noughties years being aired on today’s programmes.
The Quiet Storm
After the evening airing of The Top Ten at Ten would be The Quiet Storm. Instead of the Happy Mondays, Van Halen or loud dance music, listeners would be treated to the likes of Judie Tzuke or Sade. This would run till 1am.
Pretty much an institution from Piccadilly Radio, Stu Allan’s show continued on Key 103 till 1999. After that, he joined Kiss 100, mixing and producing the Kiss Mix.
Independent Local Radio charts
Before the ILR stations had an alternative chart to BBC Radio One’s own, each ILR station had their own chart. By 1986, the alternative ILR chart would threaten Gallup’s rundown, and co-exist. Syndicated throughout today’s ILR stations is the Vodafone Big Top 40, today’s version, albeit downloads only. Before then, the ILR chart was sponsored by Nescafé and Pepsi. In its last traditional form, it was the Hit40. Key 103 has had the ILR chart countdown in some form since it began.
Competition Hots Up
By the late 1990s, Key 103 along with its Medium Wave sister station was part of EMAP Radio (who would later be taken over by the Bauer Media Group). A new wave of smaller scale radio stations began to eat into its audience figures.
In Tameside, among the new recruits was Revolution 96.2FM which also serves Oldham and Rochdale. They would later be taken over by Clint Boon and afterwards, former Key 103 favourite (and presenter) Steve Penk. In Wigan and St. Helens, WISH FM, a reinvigorated Signal Cheshire as Imagine FM, and bigger players like Century 105. Chasing a similar market, and a perennial thorn in the side of Key 103 would be Kiss 102, later renamed Galaxy 102 (now today’s Capital FM). Their offensive included the arrival of former Galaxy presenters Adam Cole and Nicksy in Castle Quay.
Some parts of the old Piccadilly Radio would resurface on Key 103. James Stannage’s phone-in moved over to the FM frequency. Its sports coverage too would move to the FM band, but by the noughties it was a shadow of its former self. It was harder to get broadcasting rights for live radio commentary, and be able to cover Manchester’s footballing sides as impartially as possible in the commercial market. Hence Century’s exclusive rights to Manchester United’s radio commentary and Manchester City being covered on Key 103.
Key 103 maintained its core listener base, but another form of technology and a wave of community owned radio stations would bite into its market share.
The Revolution Will Be Podcasted
By 2013, there were more ways to listen to Key 103 than ever. As well as on 103.0FM, it was made available online and on Digital Audio Broadcasting radios. However, in the last decade, listener figures have fallen to around 400,000.
It could be down to the fact that the first wave of ILR stations are barely recognisable from their original form. Some have become regional outposts for a national brand like Capital or Magic (as is the case with Piccadilly 1152, which is referred to as ‘Piccadilly Magic’, as another station on the Magic network also broadcasts on 1152 MW). They cease to be our local stations in some form.
With the non-stop music format on some stations, the digital music player or streaming services have become competitors. In 2013, bigger independent radio stations were owned by publishing companies like Bauer and the Daily Mail and General Trust. Today, in 2019, Global and Bauer seem to be the only game in town, with many of the once local ILR stations becoming regional offshoots of a national brand.
Filling the vacuum over the last two decades are community owned stations. One station, Tameside Radio (103.6 FM), is more akin to the earlier ideals of ILR. As well as the chart sounds, some syndicated programming and populist programmes, there is some programming which fulfils a public service and community remit. Religious programmes and local news was a feature of the first wave ILR stations.
In 2013, Key 103 faced more competition than it did in 1988. We were only four years from seeing our first nationwide ILR station (Classic FM); satellite television and pop videos had yet to make sufficient inroads into most UK households. So far it seems as if the original ILR stations – Key 103 and Piccadilly Magic 1152 included – have become part of radio’s equivalents to Stagecoach, FirstGroup and Arriva. Will Key 103 still be with us in 2038? Who knows.
Farewell Key 103
2018 should have been a special year for Greater Manchester’s foremost commercial radio station. The 03 September 2018 would have been the station’s thirtieth year.
On the 18 April 2018, it was announced that Castle Quay would become the home of Hits Radio, Bauer’s new national station. The upside was that The Hits Radio would be a Mancunian undertaking, a vote of confidence in Greater Manchester’s rising importance as a media centre outside London. The downside was that Greater Manchester would lose its iconic FM station, with Key 103’s frequency going to The Hits Radio.
From a Piccadilly Radio enthusiast’s point of view, the 04 June 2018 was a black day. Out went a legacy brand with local presenters and exciting new talent. In came a national service with some bloke off Channel Four’s Coach Trip and the same station from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. Instead of giving Londoners the joy of Stu Allan, the new wave of Hits Radio DJs came from soap operas and reality television serials. Unsurprisingly, listening figures in Greater Manchester have fallen down to a hardcore of 100,000 people.
The Hits Radio was only a trojan horse for the future of independent local radio. Global and Bauer realised it was cheaper to have syndicated shows; the same breakfast show you may have been listening to on 103.0 FM, could be heard on DAB in Wolverhampton. As a result, Key 103 was one of many legacy and non-legacy ILR stations to have succumbed to homogenisation.
As 2019 comes to a close, recent listening figures have favoured commercial radio. Much of the demand is driven by digital broadcasting: DAB and online streaming. Today’s listeners are just as likely to listen to BBC Radio Two’s Popmaster on 89.3 FM alongside Scala Radio on their smartphones, and Talk Sport on a DAB receiver. They might listen to The Hits Radio in their car radio for the music, but will they have the same affection for Fleur East and Dave Vitty as they do with Steve Penk or Becky Want?
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The Voices of Key 103:
Paul Lockitt: for me, the voice of Key 103 and late-1980s Piccadilly Radio. Mr Lockitt was the longest serving Breakfast news editor in commercial radio. After a 39-year stint with Piccadilly Radio and Key 103, he moved to BBC Radio Manchester in April 2018. He also offers training services for public speakers.
Steve Penk: for me, many a ‘paper round was livened up by his wind-ups. Besides being popular on Piccadilly Radio from 1978, he won new audiences on Capital Radio and ITV. Returning as The Prodigal DJ, he took over Revolution 96.2FM, presented his own show and presided over an increase in listeners for the Oldham, Rochdale and Tameside station.
You can hear some of his wind-ups on Tameside Radio. He is also the genius behind Radio Dead, a digital station that plays music featuring deceased musicians and singers. Also The Steve Penk Wind-Up Channel, which is of course, self-explanatory.
Pete Mitchell: one half of the Pete and Geoff show which used to go out on weekday afternoons. Along with Geoff Lloyd, he moved to Virgin Radio. Pete later worked for Absolute Radio, Virgin’s successor. After a stint with Absolute Radio, he moved to the new version of Virgin Radio (owned by The Wireless Group). He has also written for the Radio Times and the Daily Express.
JK and Joel: or, to give their Sunday names, Jason King and Joel Ross. They were the voices of a typical noughties morning in Greater Mancunia. JK left in 2003, with Joel following in 2004. Both moved to BBC Radio One and presented the Official Chart Company’s UK Singles Chart from 2004 – 2007.
Simon Walkington: after working for Chiltern Radio, Mr Walkington joined Key 103 in 1990. He has worked as a Production Director for the Orion Media and has done voiceover work. Today, radio has driven him to drink: he is now the public face of Tatton Brewery, a microbrewery in Knutsford.
Jonathan Miles: another favourite from the mid-1990s apogee of Key 103’s powers. Prior to joining Key 103, he was previously heard on Radio Luxembourg. He has also worked for BBC Newcastle. Today, he can be heard on United DJs alongside Mike Read, Kenny Tosh and David ‘Kid’ Jensen.
Adam Cole: joined Key 103 from Galaxy 102. Today, he is now the presenter of Good Morning Oman!, which as you may guess is the breakfast show on Oman FM 90.4.
Stu Allan: quite a legend in Mancunian dance music circles, having joined Key 103 from Piccadilly Radio. Some of his early mixes were aired on Colin Cook’s drivetime show in the mid to late 1980s. After broadcasting on Unity Radio 92.8FM, his recent programmes have been aired on OSN Radio – an online radio station dedicated to Old School dance music.
Justin Moorhouse: Denton’s very own Mr Moorhouse rose to fame through stand-up comedy and as Young Kenny in Phoenix Nights. Around that time (2000 – 2002), he also had a weekend breakfast show. The ‘undercover vegan’ is still a regular fixture in comedy circles.
Steve Coogan: though he never presented a show, he was the first voice of Key 103. The ‘Music, Not Muzak’ jingles was voiced by Middleton’s finest.
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As with the pre-1988 Piccadilly Radio, Key 103 was a stepping stone towards national fame for many presenters. As well as Steve Penk, Pete Mitchell and Geoff Lloyd would follow him to Virgin 1215. JK and Joel would join BBC Radio One along with Scott Mills.
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Before I go…
As usual, feel free to comment. Are you still an avid listener of Key 103, or do you remember anything of the station’s early years. Could you add a few more DJs and presenters, past and present to the list? More the merrier…
S.V., 22 August 2013.
Last updated on the 22 November 2019.