The Diary of David Heathcote (8)
29 Oct 2016 0 comments. tbs.pm/9953
In the Spring of 1998, home PCs were not that common. I had a computer, I had a printer, I had a word-processor. So it was that I was involved in the drawing-up of the application Paul and Steve made to the Radio Authority. They had approached local businessmen as potential investors, and Spire FM – as the new station was to be called – had put together a strong bid. (There was a radio station of identical name broadcasting from Salisbury, but there was apparently nothing to stop a name being used in another part of the country – and Chesterfield boasted a church with a famous twisted spire.) Steve hand-delivered the necessary number of copies of the application to the Radio Authority’s London headquarters, together with the quite substantial payment required for making an application. All we could then do, was sit back and wait…
On the day the Radio Authority was due to announce the successful bids, everyone involved in the Spire FM application was gathered in the local golf club, as guests of the chairman of the proposed new station.
The telephone rang. The chairman took the call. I remember my heart was pounding, my mouth felt dry, this was the big moment.
The chairman told us we had come second.
The contract for bringing commercial radio to Chesterfield had been awarded to Grand Central Broadcasting, led by local radio personality, Dave Kilner. Looking back, he would have been a very tough act to beat, but at the time I was completely stunned. NOT getting the contract had really not entered my mind: we had worked so hard, etc., etc. There were tears shed in the golf club that afternoon. We left the club house in despair.
Within weeks, however, Paul and Steve had bounced back with a new plan. Looking at a commercial radio map of England, one of the few white spaces left, where there was no adequate coverage, was the Peak District – just up the road from Chesterfield. There was good reason for this. From an engineering point of view, getting a decent FM signal into the main areas of population in NW Derbyshire – Buxton, Glossop and Chapel-en-le-Frith – was a nightmare: so many hills!
For the Chesterfield bid, Paul and Steve had had discussions with two experts in commercial radio – Chris Carnegy and Roger Price. Chris had been involved with a number of BBC and commercial radio stations over the years, mainly in the South of England, and had been part of TLRC, The Local Radio Company, which had an interest in the Salisbury Spire FM. Roger, though he kept a lower profile, was both a skilled radio presenter, and a knowledgeable studio / transmitter engineer. (Just to be clear, this was not the Roger from Southend Action days.)
Chris and Roger came to have greater involvement. Roger was convinced he could design a transmitter set-up that would cover the High Peak area and the Hope valley.
We began RSLs in Buxton, first of all in a Portakabin outside Buxton Town Hall, overlooking St Anne’s Well and the spa. Made of metal, the studio walls were certainly secure, but they rang like a bell when struck from the outside. The local lads soon discovered this characteristic, and they made live studio shifts in the studio on a Saturday evening quite “memorable”!
I was offered the Sunday morning show again, but I lived an hour’s travel away, and really couldn’t face getting up so early to drive into Derbyshire for a start at 6 or 7am. So I slept in the studio on a camp bed over Saturday night. Classy eh?
We made an impact, and came back again and again, moving to a room over the pub in Buxton Market Square. Better acoustics for the studio, but the toilet was quite a distance away. That was when I discovered the beauty of Don Maclean’s “American Pie” song: 8:41 long. Think about it!
We could not concentrate on Buxton, to the exclusion of other towns in the High Peak area like Glossop. So for one RSL we moved north and west up the A6 to a village called Buxworth. The studio was again a Portakabin, beside a steeply-inclined farm track. In wet or icy weather, you had to take a “run up” in the car to avoid slipping. I have to pay tribute to Roger, and Paul/“Gadget” from previous broadcasts in Hucknall, our two engineers, that the transmitter operated so well. They were out in diabolical weather, probably up a tower in the freezing rain, clinging on with one hand. Health and Safety – pah!
These were crazy times, but we were all fiercely loyal to Paul and Steve – and the dream of being part of a full-time commercial radio station.
One incident marred the RSLs in Buxton. A local DJ, who had been brought in to add a bit of “localness” and who was a bit more “edgy” than our usual smooth operators, announced a listener competition on air to win a car. The competition was ridiculously easy to enter – as they always are – and the station received many entries. The day of the draw arrived, the winner was declared, and she was presented – with a toy car! She was furious, and believed she had been duped.
Realistically, the station was far too small, and too briefly on air, for the prize to be a real car. But, the winner argued, that wasn’t the point. Worse still, although Paul and Steve had not been consulted about the competition, and certainly didn’t know about the toy car, they were held legally responsible as station managers. The presenter just shrugged his shoulders. Not his problem. The case went to court, and judgement was awarded against Paul and Steve; they had to pay the legal fees and buy the aggrieved listener a real car out of their own pockets. Dark times.
Even so, the brothers put on a brave face – at least publicly – and continued towards their goal.
One of the changes Paul and Steve made, in consultation with major local investors, when drawing up the bid for a licence in the Peak District was that no small investments were to be allowed. I’d put £400 into the Chesterfield licence bid, and of course lost every penny. But I was not allowed to put any money into the Buxton/Glossop bid, which was a shame.
I was more distanced from the application this time round, therefore. On announcement day, I had to wait until Steve phoned me to learn that the bid had been successful – all Paul and Steve’s efforts over the years had finally paid off. They had won the licence! The station would be called High Peak Radio.
Garage premises just off the High Street in Chapel-en-le-Frith were purchased, and the space was transformed into two studios, a news room and admin area, a meeting room, a kitchen, two toilets and a shower, and a transmitter room. One area that was only provided as an afterthought, it seemed, was an entrance lobby.
Roger Price oversaw the whole set-up, both in construction and technical terms. The studio was equipped with an ENCO DAD play-out system, which Roger had acquired at some point. It was still MS-DOS based, at a time when every PC was using a Windows operating system. Roger’s justification was that it was more stable, and certainly in the early years the system didn’t fall over. Much.
Paul asked me if I wanted to apply for the Head of News position, but – much as I would have loved the job – I was unqualified for such a role. And from a practical point of view I just wasn’t going to drive every day for one hour to get to the studio, another hour to get home, sometimes in wintery conditions across the top of the Peak District. So, with heavy heart, I declined the invitation.
High Peak Radio went on air on 6th May 2006. And was greeted enthusiastically by listeners in the High Peak and Hope Valley, who got reception from several transmitters serving Buxton, Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge, Glossop, and the villages along the Hope Valley. Roger’s engineering skill did the station proud.
The prime-time Breakfast Show, the Mid-Morning Show and the Drive Time Show all went out live, but most of the other daytime programmes, evening programmes and overnights were on automated playout: seemingly live, but with generic presenter links that were rotated and played between music tracks and adverts by the ENCO DAD system.
National and international news came from IRN at the top of the hour, together with a sponsored local weather forecast; and 3 minutes of local news at the bottom of the hour, two editions a day, plus news features, interviews and entertainment slots. The morning edition of the news was prepared and recorded the afternoon before; the afternoon edition was put together in the morning. Ever the optimist, though not part of the news team, I always worried what would happen if a 747 crash-landed in the Derbyshire hills (unlikely) or the Queen Mother died (inevitable). Even when news staffing was at its best, there were only two reporters, and – given that the station should get out and gather news and especially interviews itself – the journalists were hard-pressed at the best of times. A major breaking news story always stretched the station’s resources to the limit.
It was round about this time that, for fun (because I had my retirement pension already), I joined Mastercare, the telephone support organisation for the Dixons/Currys/PC World computer group in Nottingham. I thought it would be interesting, working on the phones, chatting to people.
On our first day at Mastercare, we new recruits were sat in a circle and set an embarrassing “ice-breaker” challenge. We were each invited to tell the group something interesting about ourselves. It was cringeworthy. Then, from the opposite side of the room, a fair-haired youngish guy with a Scottish accent piped up: “I had some GRRREAAT sex last night!” Some were shocked, but I burst out laughing. It was the first time I met Lee Burnett.
I knew from that moment we would get on well together.