The Diary of David Heathcote (6)
15 Oct 2016 0 comments. tbs.pm/9949
Life then took over. I taught Archimedes’ Principle, I married, we had two children, I got promoted – first to Head of Science in Berkshire, then to Deputy Head in Nottinghamshire.
The world of Education was rapidly changing, though, and as part of the Management Team in a large school, I found myself working 6½ days a week at my office desk… Something had to give, and one lunchtime when I came home to grab a bite to eat, I told my wife that I wasn’t going back. And I never did. I had a generous early retirement package, and after 23 years (the first 21 of which had been an absolute blast) I was no longer a teacher.
To go from the fast lane of work to just sitting at home reading was a recipe for disaster: I had to find Something Else To Do. Checking the local newspaper, I came across a report that sparked my curiosity. It seemed that Paul Jenner, a well-known local disc jockey, was planning to start up a radio station in Hucknall, the town where we both lived.
I’d known Paul from my Deputy Head days: he was the DJ we got in to run our school discos. As the only senior management team member living in the town, I often supervised these events. Paul was always reliable and responsible, and – best of all – he finished the disco bang on 10pm!
I gave him a call. I knew in my heart of hearts I was no natural radio presenter, but I had gravitas – years of leading school assemblies had honed that skill – and I wondered if they needed someone to read the news… I offered my services. There was a pause at the other end of the phone – too long a pause, I thought. Damn – I’ve blown this! “David, can I call you back in 10 minutes?” was Paul’s response.
After one of the longest 10 minutes in history, the phone rang. It was Paul. Would I take on the role of Head of News for the new station?? I later learned that Paul and his schoolteacher brother Steve, who were planning the station together, had assembled a talented crew of presenters from the local DJ population, but had drawn a complete blank so far as news provision was concerned. My phone call had been an answer to their prayers.
Paul and Steve had applied to the Radio Authority for a 28-day Restricted Service Licence to run a tiny local radio station as a trial. Hucknall listeners no longer had to choose simply between BBC Radio Nottingham and commercial Trent FM for local programming – local had become really local.
My next few months were taken up with planning a local news service, starting with nothing. No news feed. No reporters. No legal knowledge. No experience!! It was a terrific, terrifying period: one of the best times of my life! I recruited a couple of young volunteers to work beside me, but this was to be my project – I wasn’t the teacher here, I was the news editor.
I became part of the publicity machine for the new station, which was to broadcast on the medium wave from Wednesday 1st May 1996. It was to go by the name Wonderful Hucknall AM, which conveniently abbreviated to WHAM: “Your friend around the corner”! Soon I was to be seen in local newspaper features on my WHAM “rapid response vehicle”: a bright red, folding bike, to which (for added impact, and because I was relishing no longer being the Mean B*st*rd Deputy Head) I attached a front basket. I looked like Miss Marple.
It turned out the local newspaper – the Hucknall Dispatch – was mildly amused at the audacious idea that Hucknall would have its own radio station, and far from seeing it as any kind of threat the editor was happy to turn a blind eye if I lifted news reports from his weekly paper.
(Only later did I discover that “rip and read” was standard practice used by many broadcasters who couldn’t afford their own news-gathering operation: I was in good company with my cut-and-paste approach.)
The studio was in the cellar at Paul’s house, a modest terraced Victorian house with very solid walls. It didn’t matter that the house was next to the Nottingham to Mansfield railway line: with bales of cheap fabric material and a staple gun, the subterranean studio was made both sound-proof and acoustically more than adequate.
Music would generally be played out from the DJs’ own vinyl collections, using 2 turntables. Adverts – for this was to be a commercial radio service – were recorded on 8-track cartridges. IRN national news at the top of the hour came from the Asian station Sunrise Radio via the Astra satellite. With just a couple of seconds of dead space before the start of each bulletin, accurate timing was crucial. Fade up the channel too early, and the good listeners of Hucknall would be treated to some closing notes of sitar music!
The new radio station was a challenge not only for programming, but also for engineering. Fortunately, Paul and Steve had the services of a talented radio engineer in Paul Hewitt, known to everyone as “Gadget”. It was said that Gadget had a particular problem with the earthing of the radio station aerial, located in Paul’s back garden. To get a really strong signal, I’m told a transmitter needs to be VERY well earthed. Legend has it that, one night, a shadowy figure not dissimilar to Gadget could have been spied, climbing over the Jenner’s back garden fence, and attaching an earthing cable to the metal rails of the “Robin Hood” railway line running alongside! Whether the story is true or not I cannot say, but WHAM’s broadcast signal came through loud and clear.
Initially, my team and I provided a live 2-minute local news bulletin at the bottom of the hour, every hour during the day, 5½ days a week. (Saturday’s news was sport, and someone else took care of that; Sunday morning we had no news bulletins.) Living at one end of the town, with the studio at the other, I found the rapid response vehicle was often the quickest way of getting to the studio – but if I was held up by an unlucky sequence of red traffic lights, I sometimes made it to the microphone just as the News In jingle was being fired up and my delivery was more breathless than it should have been. I think I also delivered many a bulletin still wearing my cycle clips.
There couldn’t possibly be enough news in the locality to fill the local bulletin with fresh reports every hour, and we quickly modified the news format to provide daily A and B bulletins which would alternate, though each was still read live.
On Sundays, there was precious little content left from the local newspaper that we hadn’t already used, so I created a “News of the Weird” feature for the afternoon bulletins. These were bizarre international stories which I gathered off the by then rapidly-developing internet, and which I delivered in a conversational manner to the Sunday afternoon presenter instead of a formal news bulletin. The presenter had no idea what was coming, and frequently looked horrified at the unbelievable reports I was reading out. It was not a success, but it filled the airtime.
May 1st arrived and WHAM Radio began live broadcasting from 6am every day, in the cellar of Paul’s home. While Paul, his wife and two young daughters were still asleep upstairs. This presented logistical problems. Firstly, how did the early morning radio team gain access to the studio? I came up with the idea of a mechanical keypad lock on the front door rather than several sets of Yale keys that could get lost: choosing the AM frequency of the station as the combination code may not have been the most secure strategy, but the Jenner family got their sleep and the station went on air on schedule every day.
The second challenge was how could any station members answer the call of nature? The house toilet was up two flights of stairs, and it really was too much of an intrusion to the poor Mrs Jenner and her two girls to have near-strangers urgently asking to use their loo before the current record finished… The solution was a chemical toilet located in the corner of the basement studio. Oh yes, they were classy times. I’m not sure that anyone ever had to use it but it was reassuring to know it was there.
All too quickly the 28 days passed and we had to be off air at midnight on 28th May. It had been an incredibly exciting experience for everyone involved: our listeners loved what we had done, local businesses found their adverts really worked, and the station’s presenters became household names, at least within the town. We all gathered in the studio for the final few minutes of broadcast: Steve Jenner said a few well-chosen words, and the station signed off.
The silence that followed was painful to hear.
To those bitten by the bug, that radio static was like a death in the family.