This month, in the heart of darkest Lancashire, one of the countries smaller yet rather well regarded radio stations is celebrating a special anniversary. Hard to think it now, but this March marked 21 years since The Bay first took to the airwaves from its studios in the heart of Lancaster. To commemorate the occasion the station created a mini feature on its website with pictures and memories from its two decades plus on the air.
The reason this resonates so much with me? Well despite never formally being a member of the team of the radio station, it played an important part in my own career development and my growing love of radio. Because I was there too, right from the start.
The story all began in the weeks leading up to the launch of the station. The big on-air moment was scheduled for 8am on the morning of March 1st 1993 with a breakfast reception featuring representatives of the great and good of the Lancaster area, all crammed into the cleverly designed function room which allowed a goldfish bowl view onto the on-air studio. Needing some willing hands to help out on the day, the management of the station reached out to those of us running the student radio station at the university and asked if we’d be willing to provide support. Nothing glamorous obviously, mainly being car park marshals or manning the cloakroom – which is how I found myself in a position to hear first hand the welcome message from the Captain of Royal Navy Submarine HMS Vanguard as he radioed in live to officially put the radio station on air. We listened to all the speeches of thanks, handed everyone back their coats, drank the left over orange juice and pretty much thought nothing of it.
The launch of The Bay was an immediate success, particularly in an area which had until that point been poorly served by local radio, Preston station Rock FM (as it had mutated into by then) treating Lancaster as something of an afterthought in terms of coverage and attention. The Bay’s music policy was branded on air as “Classic Hits” although in tone it was closer to the middle of the road easy listening sound of the present day Magic network rather than a Gold service, playing famous old hits but unafraid to stir in newer sounds if they merited inclusion on the playlist. I never for a moment imagined I’d end up broadcasting there though, particularly not whilst still a student.
That was until later that summer when the campus radio station set forth grand plans for its first ever Restricted Service Licence, enabling us to cast off the crackly old AM loop system which restricted our audience to broadly nobody and spend a month spreading the word on FM. The plan was to go live for the very start of the new academic year in September 1993. We made sure funds were in place, gained the support of the University Dean who was legally our licencee and submitted the application to the Radio Authority. Who promptly turned us down flat.
The problem was the existence of The Bay. To protect the new business whilst it did the hard work of building an audience from scratch, the Radio Authority had an unwritten rule that no RSL stations could be allowed to operate in its area during the first year on air. Essentially we would be clashing with their attempts to establish themselves and despite an amateur student rabble presenting no clear threat either in terms of audience crossover or competition for advertising spend, we would have to go without. Our station director (these days a very big name in the world of broadcasting technology) was undaunted and wrote a pleading letter to The Bay to ask if they’d be willing to support our application and allow this rule to be waived.
Sensibly they declined, but instead dangled an intriguing carrot. How about they let us invade their airwaves. Overnight they took the Chiltern-originated Classic Gold service rather than running live shows themselves, so for the very first week of term – fresher’s week – they suggested that we wannabe DJs filled two three hour slots ourselves – it was to be Bailrigg On The Bay.
Now this was actually rather clever politicking on the part of the commercial radio station. Faced with their first ever influx of potential new listeners for the new university year, they were effectively getting us to do their marketing to campus for them, encouraging these new arrivals to the area to try out the local radio station. Because after all we’d still be playing Classic Hits on The Bay. Still, it was too good an offer to pass up. Plus was I, the most unashamedly ambitious radio presenter wannabe on the membership list at that time, going to throw away the chance to kick start what I hoped was going to be a stellar career? Heck no.
So it was that I (and my then two car loads of possessions) arrived back in Lancaster a day or so earlier than usual that September, ready for a Sunday afternoon training session at the radio station.
As I recall we had all had to submit demo tapes to the programme controller Kenni James (of whom more later) but virtually everyone who wanted a slot was going to get a go on air – or at least that was the plan at first.
To this day I can still remember just what an extraordinary thrill it was. Up to that point I’d only ever presented on ancient hospital radio desks, RSL stations using disco mixers from Tandy and the rather rickety contraption that represented studios Alan and Bob back at the University Radio Bailrigg base. To just walk into the gleaming environment of The Bay was like stepping into another world. It wasn’t just that the setup was still brand new, with every light and switch active, the carpets clean and the music library still on fresh almost untouched CDs – although that helped. This was my first time in a professional environment and one which had been lovingly constructed by a team of experts with great skill. I’ve since presented on radio stations across the country, both local and national, but never have I been in a studio that made you sound so incredibly good as those at The Bay. I opened the mic during a training session, said my name, and heard my voice come back to me through the headphones sounding deep and rich and smooth. The perfect studio environment is a game raiser, make no mistake, and I knew that I owed it to myself to make what was effectively my professional debut (albeit at midnight and totally unpaid) the most brilliant sounding broadcast of my short life to that date.
In the interests of putting our best foot forward, I was selected to launch Bailrigg On The Bay on what if memory serves was the Monday night of that week. Naturally they weren’t going to let us loose on their precious airwaves unsupervised and so during the week various members of the presentation team were instructed to ‘babysit’ us as we played Mariah Carey songs through the night. Our host for the first hour was the man in charge – Kenni James himself.
He was an extraordinarily intimidating presence, an imposing figure of a man and a radio presenter from the 80s school of local radio talent, when the jocks on ILR services were legitimately local superstars and developed a stage presence and egos to match. A veteran of north-west broadcasting (for years the soul man on Radio Merseyside before a successful career as Programme Director on Red Rose and Radio City), he was every inch the pretend rock star, complete with gleaming smile, a huge mane of dark hair and a radio voice that he never really dropped, his every utterance sounding as if he was talking to thousands. But he’d generally been there, worn the t-shirt and was now advancing his own career by putting together his very own radio station from scratch for the first time. And this man was going to be sat at my right hand side during my first three hours on air. Ready, I was presuming, to throw me off the moment I put a foot wrong.
So for the first 20 minutes I was a mess, shaking with nerves and hardly daring to say much beyond time and namechecks. During one disc I muttered something about not getting this completely right, to which Kenni James responded that I could always step away and let someone else have a go. Like that was ever going to happen. Suitably motivated I took a call from a lady living near by who wanted a mention as she was about to start University as a mature student that week and was nervous. I dedicated a record to her and just as it started added: “being a student is dead easy, don’t worry you are going to love it, I promise.”
“Excellent stuff, great link” enthused Mr James. From that moment on I knew I’d nailed it. I was suddenly the king of late night, gaining new confidence with every link and even daring to ride the intro of certain discs. It was everything I’d dreamed of since fourth year and more. Later that night Kenni drifted away into the office to nap (or style his hair, we weren’t completely sure), leaving myself and 3am shift jock Karen to snap away at each other to preserve the moment.
Little did I know just how much he was appreciating my work. Stirring from some much needed slumber later that day I was greeted with the news that the boss of the station had thrown a spanner in the works. He wanted me as the star of Bailrigg on The Bay for the rest of that week, taking the midnight slot each night. Everyone else who still wanted to do it would have to go on at 3am. Naturally few of the other hopefuls at the university station were impressed and I had every sympathy with them. They deserved their shot at it too. On the other hand this was for me the most extraordinary affirmation. I’d coveted a career on the radio since I was 15 years old, had spent years playing with cassettes at home before paying my dues on a variety of amateur platforms. For the first time ever someone with professional experience and the power to hire and fire had heard my efforts and told me I had a future in this job. I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree with my chosen career path. It seemed I had within me the talent to do it.
Ultimately I did end up doing most of the week on air, save I think for one night when for the sake of retaining friends I took a back seat and two of my colleagues took the reigns instead, although I still stayed overnight at the studios just in case of disasters. It meant that during the week I got to speak to and learn from many of the other presenters on the station, well known northern radio names such as Les Gunn (who played me the demo tape he was sending out at the time – giving me tips on job hunting before I’d even started looking for one), evening presenter Dave Collins (a pirate radio veteran and scouse radio legend in his own right and who bemoaned to my friends the fact that I wasn’t at all gay but who did suggest that the fact that in my 20s I was irresistible to camp men would stand me in good stead in the media) and the new boy on the block Dave Richards who was the token local lad who had been plucked from obscurity to join the line-up. The only two presenters from the launch squad we never encountered during those late summer nights were regrettably the two biggest, velvet-voiced Manchester giant Mike Shaft (who has his own tribute to his days at The Bay on his own site) and the then slumming it afternoon presenter Spence MacDonald who perhaps quite sensibly was not trusted to make sure a bunch of students behaved themselves on air and would almost certainly have led us dangerously astray. By the weekend though they had either run out of volunteers or trusted us (me?) enough to behave ourselves. It meant I had the run of the building, although I never did locate the air conditioning controls which meant that one night the kitchen fridge had a more pleasant ambience than the on air studio.
Memorabilia? Of course I kept it, from the Bay Megamug which I’m sure is still tucked at the back of a cupboard at my parents’ house, to the now faded printout of one of the music logs from that week which still has pride of place in my box of special radio moments.
The week ended and we all went our separate ways, save for a free party for our new station recruits hosted in the function room one evening a week or so later. Kenni James had intimated that he had plans for me, wanting to shoehorn me into the weekend schedules somewhere but for whatever reason (maybe because I didn’t seem to want it enough or just didn’t keep asking) nothing ever materialised. Even so, when I graduated at the end of that year and needed to do the hard work of looking for a proper job, The Bay was the first place I turned to. I booked myself to see Kenni James once more, sent him a demo tape of recent work and phoned him once a week for a month when he didn’t completely turn me down flat. In the end though, I had to let it go only to find my career taking off in the offices of a slightly more established radio station back in Yorkshire – although that of course is another story altogether.
21 years later the radio station is still there, still the core property of the tiny group which operates it, although now a much more generic Top 40 hits station rather than the “best music ever” format it launched with and still in the same converted warehouse near the quayside in which it was first built. Over the years I’d present and produce on bigger stations, in better slots and to far wider audiences, but I don’t think the magic of those first moments on my first ever professional radio station has ever actually been topped.