The Signal for a new era in broadcasting locally

Signal Radio DJ, the late Mel Scholes.

Signal Radio DJ, the late Mel Scholes.

As someone who grew up with the BBC Radio Stoke on in the background, September 5, 1983 was quite a momentous day.

That’s the date that a new commercial radio station took to the air and, for the first time, gave the people of North Staffordshire and South Cheshire a choice.

DJ John Evington uttered the first words around 6am and chose Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise as the station’s first track.

Signal Radio was named after newspaper The Signal in the novels of Potteries author Arnold Bennett which, of course, was based on the then Evening Sentinel.

I well recall the early days of Signal, 30 years old this year, because – as an 11-year-old it provided a more ‘trendy’ alternative to the BBC station I had listened to every morning before school for years.

Radio Stoke was where I always hoped to find out at 8am that my school was closed because the boiler wasn’t working and there had been a couple of inches of snow.

Signal Radio, however, was different. In fact, I remember listening one Saturday morning and entering a trivia quiz against a bloke from Alsager.

I managed to win and the DJ promised to send me a single!

I waited for several days, the excitement building, until at last the parcel arrived.

I ripped it open to discover I’d been sent a copy of We’ve Got A Good Fire Goin’ by Don Williams.

I could have cried. I didn’t even know who he was.

Despite the crushing disappointment for me personally, Signal Radio’s appeal continued to grow.

The station, based in Stoke Road, Shelton, was one of the last in the country to split its frequencies.

It initially broadcast on 104.3 and 1170 – changing to 102.6 FM later.

Like any commercial station, in the early days it didn’t have the greatest budget but the dedication and enthusiasm of its staff and a bit of creative thinking more than made up for that.

In 1986, for example, it secured the UK’s first Restrictive Service Licence to cover the National Garden Festival in Etruria.

The station – now broadcasting as Signal 1 and Signal 2 – has been instrumental in staging many shows including the Battle of the Bands, a Young DJ contest and the annual Live in the City pop concert – as well as raising tens of thousands of pounds for various charities.

Over the years a number of stars who have gone on to make household names for themselves gained invaluable experience presenting shows or working for Signal.

They include comedienne Caroline Aherne, DJ Chris Moyles (formerly of Radio One), BBC NorthWest Tonight’s Annabel Tiffin, the late Potteries entertainment legend Mel Scholes, of Jollees nightclub fame, and even a certain Robbie Williams.

Showbiz sisters Anthea Turner and Wendy Turner-Webster also cut their teeth at the station.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

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Our performers could teach Simon Cowell a thing or two

The queue for Stoke's Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

The queue for Stoke’s Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

Sunday was a long day. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Even as we neared the finish and the clock struck eight o’clock, I didn’t want the auditions to end.

At that point, the frantic early morning registration for this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition was a distant memory.

Yet people were still huddled in groups around the auditorium, cheering and clapping enthusiastically: paying punters who had sat there for the best part of 10 hours and wanted to see it through to the bitter end.

I didn’t need to be there. I don’t start judging until the week of the heats when 50 finalists will battle it out in Hanley for the ultimate prize.

I was on a reconnaissance mission. I know that, come the week of September 7, this competition will be on everyone’s lips, and I want to be ready.

Sixteen months ago, the idea of having a variety contest here in the Potteries was just that… an idea. But anyone who witnessed last year’s dramatic climax at The Regent theatre will tell you that this concept, this show, is here to stay.

Even our Editor was left genuinely speechless by the standard that night (and that’s saying something).

Yes, the world and his dog might have gone potty recently over a certain Susan Boyle who came a close second in the final of Britain’s Got Talent.

Not me. I’ll let you into a secret. Whisper it quietly, but Stoke’s Top Talent is better.

OK, we may not have the pyrotechnics of ITV’s ratings winner and the trousers of our resident ‘Mr Nasty’ – Kevin Wood – may not be quite as tight as Simon Cowell’s.

But, by the same token, audiences who pay good money to watch our final 50 acts later this year will certainly get their money’s worth.

There will be no deluded, talentless individuals selected for the judges to belittle; no blokes who think that chucking wheelbarrows around qualifies as entertainment; no random picks to be humiliated in front of a live theatre audience.

Every single one of the finalists will be there on merit.

Of course, for many entrants, the auditions themselves represent their moment in the sun.

For countless youngsters, their minute-and-a-half in front of Jonny Wilkes and the other judges is just the spur they need to carry on singing or dancing – and to maybe try to improve for next year.

No-one leaves in tears. Everyone exits the stage with endorsements, advice and applause ringing in their ears. Which is just as it should be.

Take it from me, it takes some bottle to stand on that stage at the Victoria Hall and belt out 90 seconds of vocals or throw yourself into a street dance routine in front of hundreds of people you don’t know and judges who do this kind of thing for a living.

I saw every act and all the emotions etched on the faces of young and old alike.

I sat on the side of the stage and yet I confess I still have absolutely no idea how Birches Head magician Ben Cardall could predict which playing cards the three judges would choose out of his pack of 52.

I’m also not too proud to say I shed a tear when six-year-old Magenta Lee, of Madeley, sang Where Is Love? from Oliver!

You could have heard a pin drop.

Apparently, they’re doing a similar competition in Milton Keynes this year where the local theatre is owned by the same group.

I wish them luck. They’re going to need it.

I dare say the spies from down south who were watching our auditions on Sunday would have hit the M6 with their tails well and truly between their legs.

Why? Because nowhere else in the country can do what Stoke-on-Trent does with a competition like this.

We may be an introspective little city comprised of six disparate towns, but by God we know how to come together to champion the underdog.

When the final 50 are announced in next Monday’s Sentinel, I suggest you book your tickets for The Regent pretty sharpish.

Even if you never normally visit the theatre, it’s time to shop local and support the acts from your communities.

It’s Sneyd Green versus Kidsgrove, Longton versus Alsager, Tunstall versus Biddulph – and it’s bloody marvellous.

In fact, I’d like to extend a personal invitation to a certain Potteries pop superstar who just happens to have moved back to the UK.

Come on, Rob. Get yourself up Hanley with Jonny and your dad for the finals night on September 12.

You’d be really proud and we’d all love to see you.

Just for once, let us entertain you, Mr Williams.