On Air: Student radio you can listen to

A new campus broadcasting network is a model of professionalism.
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The Independent Culture
STUDENTS HAVE always wanted to storm the radio stations. In the Sixties they would have taken them by force, but in the Nineties, it seems, they simply buy them. And they buy the best. In a smart street in London's Holland Park, tall, elegant gates opening with an electronic drone give way to a clean-swept courtyard. Walk into reception and uniformed security will show you a seat while you wait. An administration hall looking like the headquarters of a design house extends into recording studios humming with state-of-the-art equipment. The coffee they offer you is filtered and comes in clean, shiny mugs - they even know how to wash up properly - and you start to think that the people who work here cannot be real students.

In the event, they are not, though none of them are long out of college. The newly launched Student Broadcast Network is the brainchild of Roger Hall, its 24-year-old controller and a physics graduate of Brunel University. Like his surroundings, he is not what you would expect. His desk is tidy, and his conversation is as far from rag-week inanity as SBN's equipment is from the home-made broadcast desk he used at Brunel's B1000 station.

What he has now is not a station, but a service which aims to elevate British campus stations to the level of their vaunted American counterparts. The organisation is providing the financial muscle for universities to get on the air, in return for which they will broadcast SBN's syndicated programmes. New medium wave licences, which broadcast to a five-mile radius from campus, cost pounds 10,000 each, and SBN has a war chest of pounds 1.5m earmarked for development in the coming year.

Needless to say, this sum did not come from student subs, but by courtesy of venture capitalists paying into a Coutts bank account. Venture capitalists and students may seem an unlikely combination, but here they seem to have an ideal relationship, and don't interfere in each other's area of expertise. The backers know a good business opportunity when they see one. They know that programmes such as Keni Barwick's chart show are potentially very influential when students are such a large part of the dance and indie-buying public. Both the staff and their backers expect student radio to become an integral part of the UK's radio and record industries within the next five years.

SBN's chief task is to also help ensure it is worth listening to. It was at Brunel that SBN's ethos was conceived, when Hall realised that student output could not compete with the likes of Capital and Kiss FM. "We had to be different," he says. "We couldn't afford to wait until the music we played was in the shops and going out on the mainstream stations." He was playing tracks by Garbage and The Presidents of the United States of America months before they were released, an emphasis which remains: recent discoveries include Cay, Guidance and Ten Benson.

Other discoveries include members of SBN's own presenting staff. The way "The Early Bird", Alison Hulme, audibly runs out of breath at the end of every sentence should endear her to the few computer science and engineering undergraduates up at that time of day: somebody in the big world of radio is merely keeping her seat warm. At the other end of the day is the most creditable attempt to date at an on-air lad mag. Craig Pilling fills the slot with material harvested from a day spent wandering south London. By 11 o'clock he is fit only for musical curiosity shows and nuisance phone calls, but both he and Hulme are creditably free of the naffness which tends to plague all things student.

"In a way, we get the best of both worlds," says Hall. "We can be professional, and yet we get to combine this with The Great Student Fantasy - whatever harebrained schemes we dream up in the pub can be put on air 10 minutes later.

But then we're not quite a normal company. We can do things which would be commercial suicide in any other business - we can even encourage our best staff to get jobs elsewhere." If their impressive early form is anything to go by, this may be happening a lot sooner than he thinks.