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 Heroes’ stories give us a true sense of perspective

Journalists are, by their very nature, cynics. It should be a prerequisite of the job.

As it is, most of us enter newsrooms as reasonably well-adjusted individuals then, over time, we transform into something akin to Victor Meldrew.

It happens for two reasons. Firstly, we learn through bitter experience not to take anything at face value, because accuracy is king and you’re only as good as your last story.

Secondly, we become cynics due to simple over-exposure to real life.

On an average day a local newspaper journalist deals with deaths, road accidents, fires, crime, job losses, complaints and public sector ineptitude – along with all the associated moaning and misery.

Over time you become inured to it all. Very little surprises you and even less inspires you.

It’s sad, but true.

Then once in a while something comes along which lifts you out of the monotony and reminds you why you do what you do.

This may smack of navel-gazing but I believe the newspaper I work for has always been very good at leaping to the defence of local people and aiding worthy causes.

Whether it be our Proud of the Potteries campaign to answer the spurious claim that our city was the worst place to live in England, helping to launch a local children’s hospice or raising a 19,000-strong petition calling for a new hospital for North Staffordshire, The Sentinel has certainly done its bit.

For years our slogan was ‘A Friend Of The Family’ then at some point, almost by stealth, it changed to become Local and Proud.

I like to think we are still both.

This emphasis on community has, in recent years, led to a heavy commitment to events such as the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent, and the forging of new relationships with the city council and The Regent theatre.

They’re big, positive, annual events which help to show off all that is good about our circulation area.

The bean counters – who consider us journalists to be overheads – might argue that such events don’t sell us many newspapers.

My rejoinder would be that they touch the lives of thousands of people, generate enormous goodwill and a sense of pride in our region.

Tonight is the climax of one such campaign and yours truly is lucky enough to be going along.

In early 2006 my gaffer outlined his vision for an annual ‘Oscars-style’ community awards night. You know – staging, music, videos, red carpet, the works.

Later that year Our Heroes was born and the first awards ceremony took place in September.

Four years later and The Sentinel has published more than 400 stories of human endeavour, skill, bravery and selflessness.

During the same time, our campaign sponsor – Britannia – has given away around £40,000 in prize money to individuals and groups.

Tonight Children of Courage, Adult Carers and Charity Champions will rub shoulders with celebrities, sporting greats and civic dignitaries who are giving up their time free of charge to honour ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives.

The great and the good will all be there – the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, the Bishop of Lichfield and the Chief Constable of Staffordshire, along with the likes of Gordon Banks OBE, Anthea Turner, Nick Hancock and Jonny Wilkes.

But it’s not their night…

The real stars will shuffle in from the car park nervously adjusting hired dickie-bows, or smoothing out their new frocks and feeling rather embarrassed by all the attention.

Because the truth is Our Heroes are all self-effacing, humble people who have to be dragged (sometimes literally) into the limelight and told just how wonderful they really are.

It’s my job to organise the event, write the script and compere the show, and it is a privilege.

There is something genuinely life-affirming about being involved in an event like the Our Heroes awards night and gaining a brief glimpse into the lives of some truly remarkable people.

No matter what is going on in your own life, you can’t help but be touched and inspired by stories of the award nominees.

They give you a sense of perspective that can all too easily be lost in the chaos of your everyday existence, and they remind you of what’s really important.

OK, such events may not sell us many more papers.

However, this ageing hack is very glad that his newspaper still understands the value of championing the people it serves.

Perhaps we’re not all cynics, after all.