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.

Advertisements

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.”

Exciting, exhausting… and I wouldn’t change a thing about my days as a cub reporter

We bought an iMac at the weekend after our computer died. Literally. Other PCs are, of course, available but I have to say it’s a great piece of kit. Stylish, powerful and – most important of all – a brand that is intrinsically-linked to my days as a cub reporter in the Mother Town some 20-odd years ago.

The purchase got me thinking about those crazy early days of my career as a journalist.

While studying for my A-levels at Sixth Form College in Fenton I got a Saturday job working for the Smith Davis Press Agency in Tunstall – shortly before they moved to Burslem.

I was 17 and had applied for a full-time job I wasn’t eligible for just to get a bit of work experience.

The directors – two ex-Sentinel men called Peter Davis and Dave Smith – took pity on me and had me in at the weekends.

I made tea, fetched and carried and got to go to Port Vale and Stoke City games with writers who, unlike me, could string a sentence together.

Most importantly of all I was taught the basics of journalese – in other words, how to write news, sports and features stories.

I thought I could write. I was wrong. I could cobble together history and English Literature essays and the odd bit of (bad) creative fiction but that didn’t mean I could write in the real world.

At Smith Davis I learned how to construct a story and to avoid repetition.

I learned about the who, what, where, how, why and when questions. I learned about drop intros and the need to check your facts with more than one source.

Those lessons in the basics, from a couple of veteran newsmen, were backed up by rollickings from the news editors from national newspapers who would shout very loud and turn the air blue if there was a single error in the you copy you had filed down the ‘wire’.

Let’s just say anyone who has had me as a news editor really doesn’t know they’re born. Suffice to say I learned quickly. It was a case of having to. It really was sink or swim. It didn’t matter that I was part-time at first and it certainly didn’t matter how old I was.

I had it drummed into me that you were only as good as your last story.

I did OK. Well enough, in fact, to be offered an £80 a week contract when I left college – which led me to turn down offers from three universities and enter the world of work at 18.
No-one tells you what to expect when you walk into a newsroom.

You have an idea in your head based on television and films but the reality is, in fact, a world away.

It’s seldom glamorous, often laborious, and certainly does not involve sitting in a pub all day.

Indeed, you’re more likely to spend the day with a telephone attached to your ear – like yours truly in the picture above. Back in 1989, the industry was very different to the modern day media world.

The internet was in its infancy and wasn’t yet on our radar. There was no email, no mobile telephones and no 24-hour TV and radio news.

Agency reporters – or stringers as we were known – really were (and still are) the dog soldiers of journalism. I worked Monday to Saturday and was on call 24/7 and carried a beeper – just like a hospital doctor – which would wake me up at all hours of the day and night.

I ran with the national ‘pack’, did regular work for Central TV, Granada TV and Signal Radio, and cut my teeth on Vale and Stoke match reports and the occasional exclusive for nationals – ranging from The Times to the Today newspaper and even the Daily Sport.

I was fingerprinted in a murder inquiry, tailed back to the office by special branch, went undercover at General Election time (can’t tell you), was threatened with a shotgun, met and photographed royals – including Princess Di, went clubbing with Vale players (those were the days) – and broke a couple of major national stories from which I’ve still got the clippings.

Looking back, I recall it was exhausting, exciting and I wouldn’t change a thing. I realise now that those five years were the best possible training a hack could ever receive.

Then one day we upgraded to new computers – funky new Apple Macs – and my colleague Andy Jackson started talking about something called the internet and electronic picture transfer which he said would hit our industry ‘like a train’.

He was right. Andy often was. Suddenly the landscape changed and newspapers were under threat from digital communications.

Some people will tell you that the print media is doomed. They’re wrong.

Take it from someone who’s had newsprint on his hands for two decades or more.

People like having something tangible in their hands. Something they can pass around and show their missus or their mates – something they can cut out from or keep.

There’s something reassuringly familiar about the product I am privileged to help create – my home town newspaper – which is what convinces me there will always be a need, a demand for its vital, grassroots kind of local journalism.

It’s been a long time since I’ve run with the pack and in recent years my profession has taken something of a pounding. What’s more, the technology involved and the demands and challenges we face are greater than ever.

But I still believe in the ethos of the job which I picked up in those early days: That our role is to inform, to educate and to entertain and that journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy.

I certainly wouldn’t still be doing it, if I didn’t. And I wouldn’t be doing it at all if it wasn’t for those boys at the agency in Boslem.
This one’s for you, gents.

This article is dedicated to some wonderful colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from over the years – especially the late John Hollinshead (Smith Davis photographer), the late Jeff Henderson (sub-editor with the Chester Evening Leader) and the late, great John Abberley of The Sentinel.

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

Will yours truly be any good in panto? Judge for yourself…

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Once the word got out, amid the hysterics from my colleagues, the first question I was asked was: “Do you have to share a sweaty costume with Robbie’s dad?”

The second question was: “Do you have to sing?”

Mercifully, the answer to both appears to be no – but yes I will be appearing in this year’s Christmas pantomime at Hanley’s Regent Theatre.

When I broke the news to The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief, he said it was a marvellous idea. He has, rather predictably, referred to me as ‘Buttons’, ever since.

The gaffer’s personal assistant laughed so hard at the thought of it I feared she had done herself an injury.

But that’s kind of the reaction you’re hoping for, I guess, if you are prepared to dress up in medieval garb and tights for a bit of slapstick festive comedy.

Working in a newsroom for 20 years makes you fairly thick-skinned anyway.

There’s what you might term a ‘robust’ atmosphere – i.e. everyone takes the Mickey out of everyone else – and there’s very little room for shrinking violets.

The panto role came about when Jonny Wilkes rang me to ask how I felt about taking over from Pete Conway and playing his character in the second half of the run.

To be honest, it was a no-brainer – once I’d got the necessary permissions from my family and employer and convinced myself I wasn’t going to let anyone down.

After all, if it’s good enough for The Fonz (AKA American actor Henry Winkler who is appearing in panto in Liverpool), then it’s good enough for me.

Let’s face it, it’s a fantastic opportunity to experience what’s it’s like to be on stage in front of thousands of people for a couple of weeks with the likes of Wilkesy and the legendary Sheila Ferguson.

I’ll also get to see what really goes on behind the scenes (before, of course, dutifully reporting any gossip back to Sentinel readers).

In addition, this unexpected opportunity gives me the chance to work with Su-Annagib – winner of Stoke’s Top Talent 2009.

I was a judge again this year and, while the other Top Talent judges all bring theatrical expertise to the panel, I’m there very much as a representative of the audience.

Next year, however, I’ll be able to draw upon my own memories of Su’s panto journey – which will hopefully be her first step on the road to a career in musical theatre.

And it is not as though I am without some pedigree in the performing arts…

In 1981 I was the court chamberlain in a play at Holden Lane First and Middle School in Sneyd Green. I was nine.

Wearing a large cloak and strange hat, I carried a metal-tipped staff and banged it down hard on the stage three times.

What’s more, I can even remember my lines. I bellowed: “His majesty, the King!” Followed by: “Her majesty, the Queen!”

That was it.

I suspect I’ll have a few more words to say as Alderman FitzSentinel in The Regent’s production of Dick Whittington.

The draft script was 85 pages long and my character appears on at least half of them, so this is no walk in the park.

In fact, I’ve already had the ‘forgetting my lines on stage’ dream.

“Oh no you haven’t.” Oh yes, I honestly have.

Will I be any good? You’ll have to judge that for yourself.

However, I’m acutely aware that a lot of people pay good money to enjoy this Christmas tradition that I am privileged to be a part of and so I will give it my all.

There is, of course, a precedent for an amateur in this type of role at The Regent. Signal Radio’s Andy Goulding had this gig for a few years and I reckon anything a DJ can do a local newspaper hack can do just as well… if not better.

My daughters (aged three and five) weren’t too sure about it all when I told them dad would be on stage.

(They want to sit with me, you see, and share my pic ‘n’ mix).

But they soon warmed to the idea of me wearing a funny costume and making everyone laugh. At least, that’s the plan.

Recently, I spoke to my colleague John Abberley before he wrote very eloquently and powerfully about his battle with cancer. It was something I could identify with.

John reminded me that life is short – and so I’m seizing the moment.

Roll on December 23…