The wonderful expanding universe of radio

We are 15 years into the 21st century and radio might seem old-fashioned in an age of smartphones, tablets and apps but fear not – radio is adapting and, in some ways, I believe, getting better.

I love listening to the radio, and I’ve written blogs on the subject three times before. In 2011 I complained about the programme content from Orkney’s Super Station (it has subsequently closed down); in 2012 I wrote about my childhood radio memories and some current favourites; and in 2014 I wrote about my changing listening habits in the age of the smartphone.

Kenny Everett (image: PA Photos)
Kenny Everett (image: PA Photos)

In the second of those blogs I quoted the late DJ Kenny Everett who once said: “Stay loose, keep cool, keep on trucking, and remember – telly may be too much, but wireless is wonderful.” Quite.

I am returning to the subject again because radio just keeps expanding and, in my opinion, becoming more wonderful. You have to dig around though – too many radio stations available today on FM radio in the UK, and the USA, are heavily formatted, playing the same few songs, and not allowing the presenters the freedom to be themselves.

There are some exceptions and, if you move into the internet and the world of smartphone apps, there are many good choices for your ears.

The station I most listen to is Radio Caroline. I continue to meet folk who think this one-time pirate radio, or offshore radio, station was long ago sunk. But broadcasts continue over the internet and smartphone apps thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers.

These days the station uses a land-based studio in Kent but on special occasions the last Radio Caroline ship, the Ross Revenge, is still used.

As I wrote in my most recent blog (A Remarkable 24 Hours), the Ross Revenge is now moored on the River Blackwater and last month a day’s broadcasting came from the ship thanks to some very clever new technology.

To repeat what Radio Caroline said on their website: “Friday’s experimental live broadcast from the Ross Revenge was a great success. We were trialling a high tech means of getting the signal ashore and into our web streams – a 4G Wi-Fi router fitted with a small outdoor omni-directional aerial to ensure a constant mobile data signal as the ship moves through 180 degrees with the tide.” That’s pretty neat, I would say.

Radio Caroline's Ross Revenge on the River Blackwater (image: Steve Anthony)
Radio Caroline’s Ross Revenge on the River Blackwater (image: Steve Anthony)

The presenters – Kevin Turner, Barry James and Steve Anthony – were clearly having great fun and the sound quality on my internet radios was excellent. I hope they are able to do more of this in the future.

But this is not the only development from Radio Caroline. A new station, or stream to use the modern parlance, was launched earlier this year, Caroline Flashback.

As you might imagine from the name, the music on Caroline Flashback is geared more to the Sixties and Seventies. Gradually – remember this is all voluntary – the schedule is moving from non-stop music to one with regular programmes. These include Caroline favourite Roger Day and a chance to hear again the station’s specialist music programmes such as the brilliant Good Rocking Tonight, presented by Dell Richardson. A schedule appears at the bottom of this blog.

Alongside the main Radio Caroline service – which features largely album music, broadly in the rock category, with knowledgeable, engaged presenters – Caroline Flashback provides a useful alternative, depending on what mood I am in.

Radio Caroline has a fascinating, and still developing, history, much more detailed than I can explain properly here. But, briefly, Radio Caroline began in 1964 with broadcasts from a ship off the south-east coast of England. Shortly afterwards Radio Atlanta began broadcasting nearby but within two months the stations merged to form Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South.

This archive film of the briefly-lived Radio Atlanta is fascinating – look at the jackets and ties the “pirate” presenters are wearing:

As I said, Radio Caroline is available through its website, its own smartphone app and through other apps such as TuneIn.

TuneIn is well worth exploring – it streams, onto my phone, stations from all around the world. And, the pro version, which is not expensive, gives me the ability to record programmes.

So my online favourites – such as Steve Conway’s A To Z Of Great Tracks on 8Radio.com, or the archive 1970s Dutch top 20 on RNI – can if necessary be recorded and saved for a convenient time.

New discoveries available from TuneIn and/or my internet radios are made all the time. Recent ones include WGHT 1500 AM, an oldies station in New Jersey (it is fun hearing the adverts and the weather reports); Serenade Radio, an online easy listening station based in England; and KJZZ 91.5 FM, a public radio station in Arizona (where my in-laws now live).

There has also been a significant recent development from the BBC – its excellent BBC iPlayer Radio app now offers the ability to download programmes to my smartphone for listening (without the need for wi-fi, 3G or 4G) at a later date. The sound quality is really good.

It should be noted that most of the programmes are time-limited and, after a certain date, will delete themselves, though hopefully not in the style of the Mission Impossible tapes in the late 1960s US TV series.

But there is also a huge archive of older BBC Radio programmes, for example more than 1,500 editions of Desert Island Discs, which are not time limited.

Incidentally, the FM Radio on my smartphone – in itself an app – was upgraded recently and that now offers me the ability to record programmes.

All of which means that, finally, after more than 40 years, my use of cassette tapes for recording from the radio is diminishing quickly.

Well, I could go on but I must reach for the off switch. Before I go, a quick mention for some of the super programmes I have featured in previous blogs and still love – Alex Hawkins’ Homely Remedies on Frome FM, Alan Waring at breakfast on Biggles FM, and my old chum Graham Lovatt who presents the Eclectic Eel Radio Show via the Mixcloud platform (49 wonderful back episodes are available) and Radio Vera.

Yes, like the actual universe, the radio universe is expanding. What will be next?

Graham Brown

PS Currently listening to Ray Clark on Radio Caroline

My previous radio blogs

Where is the Super Station in Orkney? –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/super-station/

Turn on, tune in, but don’t drop out –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/radio_90/

Radio diamonds in a digital age – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/radio-diamonds/

To find out more

Radio Caroline website: http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Wikipedia on Radio Atlanta: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Atlanta

Alan Beech’s website on MV Ross Revenge: http://www.rossrevenge.co.uk/

TuneIn: http://tunein.com/

WGHT 1500 AM: http://www.wghtradio.com/

Serenade Radio: http://www.serenade-radio.com/

KJZZ: http://kjzz.org/

Desert Island Discs archive: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnmr

Homely Remedies on Frome FM: http://frome.fm/programmes/music/homely-remedies/

Biggles FM: http://www.bigglesfm.com/

The Eclectic Eel Radio Show: https://www.mixcloud.com/GrahamLovatt/

Caroline Flashback schedule (as of 24 August 2015, UK times)

Monday
14.00-16.00 Ray Collins (repeat)
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-19.00 Steve Anthony (repeat)
22.00-23.00 Gary Ziepe: Mellow Show (repeat)

Tuesday
14.00-16.00 Tony Christian (repeat)
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-21.00 Stafford’s World
21.00-00.00 60s & 70s Request Show (simulcast with Radio Caroline)

Wednesday
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-19.00 Steve Anthony (repeat)
19.00-21.00 Archive Roots Americana Show (repeat from Radio Caroline)

Thursday
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-19.00 Steve Scott
20.00-21.00 The Elvis Hour (repeat from Radio Caroline)
22.00-00.00 Barry James

Friday
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-21.00 Good Rocking Tonight (repeat from Radio Caroline)

Saturday
10.00-12.00 Tony Christian
12.00-13.00 Dave Foster: Retro Chart Show
13.00-14.00 Steve Anthony
14.00-16.00 Ray Collins
16.00-18.00 Graham L Hall
19.00-21.00 Barry James (repeat)

Sunday
10.00-11.00 Gary Ziepe: Mellow Show
12.00-13.00 Dave Foster: Retro Chart Show (repeat)
13.00-14.00 Steve Anthony
14.00-16.00 Brian Cullen
16.00-18.00 Graham L Hall (repeat)

Thank you to the guys on the Radio Caroline Fan Mailing List on Yahoo! for the Caroline Flashback scheduling information: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/RadioCarolineMailinglist/info

Radio Caroline schedules are on the main station website: http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Where is the Super Station in Orkney?

Grandma's old valve radio

Here in Orkney we’re well served by local media considering we only have a population of about 20,000.

We have a fine newspaper, The Orcadian, packed full of local news, information and advertising. There is also an award-winning colour monthly magazine featuring local folk, Living Orkney. And the monthly Orkney Advertiser, a free publication of useful classified advertising.

Add to that a number of smaller publications, newsletters and websites such as All About Orkney.

But in this blog I want to write about our local radio and, in particular, ask some questions about our community radio station the Super Station and how it compares to BBC Radio Orkney.

First I should tell you about Radio Orkney. It operates as an opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland – and a damn fine services it provides as well.

Every weekday morning at 7.30am we get Around Orkney, 30-minutes of vital news, weather and information. At 12.54pm there is a six-minute bulletin of local news and weather.

Then every Friday at 6.10pm we have the Radio Orkney request show, a glorious 50 minutes of everything from Daniel O’Donnell to heavy metal, as well as local music. Thanks to my wife Kathie I’ve had my birthday request on here twice – last year it was Esther & Abi Ofarim’s Cinderella Rockefella and on Friday it was Captain Beaky.

In addition, in the winter months, there are programmes from Monday to Thursday at 6.10pm covering folk music, traditional music, local history, the arts, language, farming and more.

In between times Radio Orkney posts lots of information on its Facebook page. So, all round, an excellent service.

As I said, we also have the Super Station which began broadcasting in 2004, and then full-time from 2005.

Originally, anoraks amongst us remember, they used studios on the radio ship MV Communicator, which had previously been the home of the popular Eighties offshore radio station Laser 558.

But the Super Station moved to land-based studios and sadly the MV Communicator was scrapped in St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney.

Remains of the MV Communicator being scrapped in Orkney

But where is the Super Station now? The address on their website is The Old Hospital, East Road, Kirkwall but you would hardly know it from listening to the broadcasts.

I’m sure the presenters work very hard but the station sound is not Orkney – you could be listening to a top 40 radio station anywhere in the UK. A friend of mine described the station as “broadcasting from Essex”. I’m not sure if he really meant that, but it does sometimes sound like that.

The advertisements are mostly for local businesses – and it is good to hear them – but the ads also sound as if they were produced in England somewhere.

Last Friday morning Orkney was facing the aftermath of a big storm – one wind gust was recorded at 138mph the night before, property had been damaged, roads blocked. Blizzards were forecast, there was travel disruption, all the schools were closed and many homes were left without power.

In addition, BBC Radio Orkney was off-air due to a transmitter problem and relaying all its information via Facebook.

So where was the Super Station in all this?

I listened until just after 9.30am and there was some travel news, though it was not comprehensive and seemed incidental to the music. And where is this place Sharpinsay that was referred to? Could that be Shapinsay?

Critically I did not hear one single mention of schools closures or homes without power. Come on – that’s not good enough.

I appreciate Super Station does not have the journalism resources of Radio Orkney but for a community station not to mention that all the schools are closed?

The problem, it seems to me, is in at least three parts.

First, limited resources. The Super Station serves a small population and so will have limited income, particularly in the current financial climate. This might explain why the station now claims to serve Caithness as well as Orkney, further diluting its local focus.

Second, BBC Radio Orkney. The presence of a licence fee-funded news operation in the islands makes it hard-going for any rival station.

Third, where are the roots? I have only lived in Orkney since April 2010 but I’ve never seen a Super Station presence at any event or noticed them in the local press. The presenters’ profiles on the station website make no reference to Orkney, good or bad.

This is a shame because reading back over the station’s licence application to broadcast it promised a breakfast programme with 45% speech, a broad music policy to include local and Celtic music, news programmes at 1pm and 6pm, and regular studio guests.

Now it is pretty well non-stop top 40 music – nothing local, no specialist music – with no news programmes, very little local news and no studio guests. Many of the programmes outside peak times sound voice-tracked, ie the presenters have pre-recorded their links and are not actually in the studio.

Incidentally, the Super Station application to broadcast also suggested a relay transmitter to improve reception in Stromness as well as a wish to have further relays for the northern isles of Orkney.

The solution? Well, I’m not a businessman, nor have I ever run a radio station. But I have followed the radio industry with interest over the years and I am an avid radio listener.

The Super Station needs to find its roots. It needs to concentrate on Orkney.

It needs a studio and office that is a hub for the local community. It needs local folk going on-air to talk about their lives, projects and charity work. It needs local folk presenting at least some of the programmes.

It needs to broadcast from local events. It needs a much bigger spread of music, both to celebrate the fantastic musicians of Orkney but also to cater for a wider range of tastes. It needs live music sessions on its programmes.

And all of this is going to need volunteers. A community radio station in a small community like Orkney cannot be run like a commercial radio station in a big city.

How about it Super Station?

To find out more

To get an idea of how other community stations operate as part of their communities, take a look at the websites for Cuillin FM in Skye or Biggles FM in Bedfordshire, England:

www.cuillinfm.co.uk/

http://www.bigglesfm.com/

Here is the Super Station website, its application to broadcast, and the BBC Radio Orkney Facebook page:

http://www.thesuperstation.co.uk/

http://licensing.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/radio/community/archive/superstation.pdf

http://www.facebook.com/pages/BBC-Radio-Orkney/31395967167