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.

Verity’s still radio Ga Ga 30 years after her debut on BBC Radio Stoke

Verity Williams, as she was, was seven the first time she rang in to BBC Radio Stoke.

She wanted the presenter – a certain Jack Ward – to play a song for her: Love Me For A Reason by The Osmonds.

However, Mr Ward – a firm favourite of Verity’s nan – was having none of it and instead treated her to The Old Rugged Cross.

Amazingly, she wasn’t put off for life and at the age of 14 it was her prowess with a pen that earned her a part-time job with the station in Cheapside, Hanley, in 1981.

Verity said: “I actually wanted a job working in a shop but I was too young so my nan suggested I wrote to Radio Stoke. She was an avid listener to Jack Ward.

“My handwriting was very neat, apparently, and the bosses at the station were obviously impressed because they let me go in on Saturdays and answer the telephones and write down music requests from listeners. There were no computers back then, of course.”

It was another local legend – Bruno Brookes – who really gave Verity the bug for radio.
She said: “Bruno was wonderful to work with – such a lovely man who had a great way with all the people he met.

“However, he had a bit of a problem with his time-keeping. He would always turn up a bit late for his show which meant I ended up opening up the station, handling the switch over from Radio Two, introducing the first couple of records, and holding the fort for him. I would have been about 15 at the time.”

Back then it was records too – none of this digital playlist mullarky which yours truly enjoyed the benefit of when I did my first two shows on BBC Radio Stoke at Easter.

Verity, surname now Hilton and aged 45 and living in Bucknall, explained: “All music was chosen by the listeners or the presenters. The lazy presenters would just use the pile of records left by their colleagues while others did proper research in the old gram library.”

This autonomy meant each show sounded different – depending on the preferences of the presenters and their audience.

Verity said: “When the music began to be chosen by computers this was certainly more efficient and made it easier to put shows together. But it also gave the station a very definite ‘sound’, as the same type of tunes were heard with more regularity.”

It was 1984 when Verity began working for BBC Radio Stoke full-time and she worked for the station on and off until 2000, as well as enjoying stints as a researcher for BBC Breakfast television and as the Beeb’s producer for the Stoke-on-Trent Garden Festival.

She said: “In the 80s local radio really was all about the local audience. There were an awful lot of local people involved and there was a great sense of community.

“There wasn’t so much regional input into shows as there seems to be today. It was very much about what was happening locally.

“Even the local commercial station – Signal – was of the same mindset and they became a great rival for a time.”

Verity is perhaps best know for her work with partner Sam Plank – real name Terry Hilton – whom she went on to marry, but she also enjoyed working with many other well-known names such as the late Bill Humphreys and Mel Scholes, Grant Leighton – who now works in the U.S. – and my mate Pete Conway.

But what was it that made Sam Plank so special and so loved by locals that, at one time, one in three listeners to local radio in North Staffordshire was listening to his show?

Verity said: “I think the station bosses saw something in Sam back when he was working for the council and he would drop in and try to get publicity for various things.

“He was very chatty – a real people person. I remember once he was sent off down to London on a training course and they told him he should refer to the Stoke-on-Trent North MP as Ms Walley.

“Sam said: ‘If I start calling Joan ’Ms Walley’ then she’ll have to call me ‘Mr Plank’. Dunna be daft’.

“That, in a way, was his charm. He just wanted to talk to people – to hear about their lives. He would play daft games like asking listeners what was in his cup. He didn’t really want them to say what was in the cup – he just wanted them to ring in so he could have a chat with them.”

Technology may have changed local radio in the past 30 years, but nothing has diminished Verity’s enthusiasm for it.

She said: “I still love it. I still get a real buzz whenever I’m on air. It’s a great feeling and a real privilege.”