The Partridge family

Local Radio: The comic creation Alan Partridge showed us the hell that is regional radio. But is it really like that? In fact, most of Britain's radios are tuned to provincial stations, and the people responsible for that success are the presenters. Michaacks down radio's local heroes
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The Sony Awards, the Oscars of British radio, are doled out on Wednesday night. Big names like Zoe Ball, Bob Geldof and John Peel are among the nominees. But lurking in the shadows, sweat patches under the arms of their salmon pink blazers, toupees tipsily askew as they finger their acceptance speeches, will be the untouchables of the airwaves. Like trolls beneath the bridge of fame, these are the much-ridiculed stars of local radio, each waiting for their moment to bask in the national spotlight.

Some will be instantly recognisable as the vainglorious leisure-wear- clad buffoons parodied by Alan Partridge and Smashie and Nicey. But others are broadcasting heroes.

Talented, committed and hugely popular, anonymous beyond their catchment areas but superstars within it, often working for peanuts (even former national jocks don't get much more than pounds 300 per show), theirs is a uniquely intense type of fame unrecognised by the national media, except in parody. But, as the figures show, to their listeners these broadcasters are more entertaining than Terry Wogan and more trusted than John Humphreys.

Despite its terminally unfashionable image, local radio is booming. The audience for the UK's 260 local stations dwarfs the ever-declining national broadcasters. The weekly reach for local and regional radio is over 32 million. That's an audience share of over 50 per cent, more than Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 combined and three times all the national commercial radio stations put together.

Local radio may be the graveyard for national jocks past their prime, but it's also the fecund allotment in which may sprout next year's Chris Morris or Mark Radcliffe.

Owen Money, BBC Radio Wales "These people really care for me, but I care for them as well," says Owen Money (below left). "I just had my silver wedding and I had about 50 cards. My listeners send me presents, they knit me jumpers, they're wonderful. I know the places they come from. I know the local pub, and I often make surprise visits to listeners who can't get out. I'm a very emotional person. I can tell you there's a lot of tears and a lot of joy. I relate to most people who ring in. I'm just an ordinary man."

Owen, 51, began his showbiz odyssey as a member of the early Sixties band, The Bystanders. "I was in Germany at the same time as The Beatles," he says. "I never actually met them, though." He supported Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, won Welsh Comic of the Year three times in a row, and had a successful career with comedy band Tomfoolery, who topped the bill at Blackpool's South Pier in 1979. Then, one fateful day, he was booked to play at a kidney research charity show, broadcast live from Cardiff. Another turn didn't show up, which left Owen with an hour's radio to fill. "The editor liked what I did and gave me the Sunday morning slot. That was in '87, and now I have three shows: a mix of quizzes, chat, Sixties classics and live entertainment."

Owen is a Sony Award winner, beating the likes of Steve Wright and Terry Wogan in 1997. With an audience of 400,000 ("I've a big presence in North Wales"), his Saturday show is the most listened-to radio programme in Wales.

As a consequence of this success, the mature regional broadcaster's Valhalla is beckoning. "Radio 2 is obviously something I would have to consider," he ponders, "Ed Stewart's slot ... that would do nicely."

Cindy Kent, Premier "When we first went on air we deliberately didn't play any Cliff Richard for four weeks because we thought that's what everyone would expect," says Cindy Kent (below) of Britain's first Christian radio station.

Cindy, from West Bromwich, began her career as a singer with folk group The Settlers. Stints followed on Radio 2, LBC and Capital (as their religious affairs producer) before the approach from Premier at its launch four years ago.

"People seem to like my enthusiasm, and it's not put on. When I broadcast I always have one person in mind: he's called George. He doesn't actually exist but he's the sort of person who would listen to just about anything as long as it's well presented."

Cindy, 53, is now Premier's features editor, responsible for producing 12 slots a day. "All our stories have a Christian bent, but if you are a Christian it pervades almost everything in your life which makes just about any subject fair game.

"Today we've been following the debate about the lowering of the homosexual age of consent, so we've been talking to agencies who've been campaigning to try and stop it. I also present This Is My Song, our version of Desert Island Discs: we've had Wendy Craig, Cannon and Ball and Cliff Richard. All sorts of people."

Since Premier began, Cindy, a churchgoer since her teens and now a sub- deacon, has seen her public profile grow and is often recognised. "I have a fairly distinctive laugh and a few weeks ago I banged my head and was taken in an ambulance with mild concussion," she recalls.

"The ambulance man thought I needed oxygen and as he put the mask on he said something that made me laugh, and he suddenly goes: `I know who you are, you're on Premier.' He'd recognised my laugh!"

Cindy's proudest achievement was working with the charity Love In A Box to raise money for families in Armenia. "I followed a box to Armenia and met families living in cardboard boxes with holes in the ground for toilets and it was the most moving experience of my life. We arrived back in the UK the day before Christmas Eve and the contrast couldn't have been more remarkable: shops ablaze with lights and goodies.

"In church on Christmas morning I sang the last lines of `Good King Wenceslas' with feeling: `You who now will bless the poor, shall yourself find blessing'."

Shujat Ali, Asian Sound Radio For most DJs, the desire to broadcast surfaces at an early age, unhealthy amounts of time being spent producing pretend shows in bedrooms. Shujat Ali (right) is different. His background was in marketing and sales when he founded Asian Sound Radio in 1990.

"I'm more of a businessman than a broadcaster," he says. "But I didn't have a choice when we started. I had to get up and do the breakfast show for a year. I had no training whatsoever. I literally had to work out for myself how radio works using my sales and marketing techniques."

Asian Sound now occupies the first two floors of Globe House (soon to be renamed Asian House, Shujat tells me proudly), a modern office block opposite Manchester Arena that is within striking distance of major Asian communities in Cheetham and Rusholme. The station broadcasts to a potential audience of 180,000 in East Lancashire and Manchester and is growing fast. The staff has doubled over the years to 16 full-timers who produce, as Shujat calls it, an "all singing, all dancing, to all men, women and kids output". Seventy per cent is music, the rest talk.

Shujat, 34, is originally from Rochdale but now lives in a "really nice" part of Manchester. He co-owns and runs the station with his brothers and sisters, though he is its public face. "I'm very much a role model in the Asian community now. I'm very well known. I can walk into a shop and I'll hear the whispers: `Isn't that Shujat?' To be honest, in the first year I couldn't handle it, but now I really enjoy it. I give speeches and open things."

Commensurate with his new found position in the community, Shujat no longer presents the breakfast show, but he does host a debating programme boasting such guests as the cricketer Wasim Akram.

"We always try and find Asian angles for our news and features," he says. "For the Budget we brought in the relevant specialists who could speak the relevant languages - Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali and English.

"But actually I can see this station becoming more and more Westernised as the years go on.

"We're an expanding Asian media company. We're ambitious, we want to go places. I've been making profits every year I've been trading. Last year I visited the Queen: it was a do for people excelling in their careers. I met Prince Charles and Zoe Ball. I said hello, but she was busy being chatted up by too many other guys."

Rob Chandler, Broadland 102FM Alan Partridge is alive and well and he thrashes Zoe Ball in the ratings - at least his real-life equivalent does. Rob Chandler (above) of Norwich's commercial station, Broadland, attracts a greater share of his catchment audience than any national station, despite the disparity in marketing budgets and hype.

"It annoys me when national radio people like Simon Mayo put down local stations," says Rob. "They started here, of course. I can laugh at myself. I loved Smashie and Nicey, but I saw Alan Partridge once and didn't like it. It's just not my kind of humour. I switched off after ten minutes.

"I've listened to Chris Evans doing his show and it sounded like they were doing it pretty much for themselves. I'm not in it for ego reasons.

"It's not enough just to be local," he reckons. "You have to give high- quality entertainment, which we do. I like to think that I'm naturally witty and funny. Either you're naturally funny or you're not. I was always the class joker, and getting into trouble for cheeky comments."

This August will see the 20th anniversary of Rob's first broadcast. "I started at Radio Orwell in Ipswich when I was 20 and still working at the Co-op. I played radio stations in the bedroom, did the school discos, mobile discos - all those sort of things. I'd seen an interview in the local paper with a local presenter. I sent him a tape and he called a few weeks later and invited me to an audition."

Rob's show at Broadland has often been the country's number-one breakfast show in terms of potential audience reached. "A typical listener comment would be: `You lot are mad, you're crazy, but you make us laugh.'

"It's great when we hear that, but the financial rewards are not as good as the public might think - probably as good as a second division footballer."

Tony Snell, BBC Radio Merseyside Sixteen years ago, unemployed bricklayer Tony Snell (left) saw an advert in his local job centre for people interested in radio. "Fifteen minutes into the interview I realised that it wasn't a job fixing radios," he recalls. "But the guy persuaded me to get involved. I think he just wanted to prove to the industry that you could pull someone in off the street and put them on air."

He may have started as an Eliza Dolittle of the airwaves but, 16 years on, Tony still broadcasts on Merseyside from 8.30 to 11.30am. Based in a modern block in the heart of the city, Radio Merseyside is the biggest BBC local station in terms of audience size.

"We've got such a loyal audience, you could put two hours of test tone on and they would still listen," he says.

"It doesn't surprise me that we beat Chris Evans. If he's going on about condoms, the last thing you want is your seven-year-old daughter saying: `Dad, what's a condom?' Our listeners don't want to know whether Julia Roberts has bought a new Porsche, they want to know what that police helicopter was doing over their house last night. We get people coming on and asking for videos of an old Everton game, and a few minutes later you'll get someone ringing in with it. I can't imagine Terry Wogan doing that."

Tony's finest hour came when he made the front page of the Liverpool Echo after he'd spilt some milk over his control desk and the whole city had heard the air turn blue. But despite a fondness for the city he doesn't shrink from criticising it: "There is an element who keep looking back and saying: `Wasn't it great with The Beatles, and when we were winning the FA Cup.' But that's all gone. You can't go forward while you're looking back. I'm also aware that I'm in a very well-paid job. I go to nice places on holiday, I have a nice car. But it's something I would never mention on air. I have to remember there are a lot of people listening who haven't got two pennies to rub together."

Though he readily admits that its image could be better Tony (or "Snelly" as he is known across Merseyside) is a stout defender of local radio: "I could name you three Alan Partridges and I'm sure the same goes for any BBC station, but I do feel that BBC local radio is a sleeping giant. It just needs a bit of freshness to wake it up."

Mary Ann Kennedy, Radio Nan Gaidheal "It's probably the only news service in the world where you'll hear a report on Kosovo followed by an appeal for a missing cat," says Mary Ann Kennedy (above) of Scotland's national Gaelic radio service. Mary, 31, juggles a career as a harpist and folk singer with a full-time post as Broadcaster Without Portfolio on the station, which is based in Aberdeen.

"Because I'm a singer, most people know who I am but they don't necessarily make the connection between Mary Ann Kennedy the singer and Mairi Anna NicUalrig the news reader. The workload can be a nightmare. I spend all my spare time singing: I didn't get home last night until one o'clock. But I can pretty much work from anywhere. I'll broadcast from the studios in Skye or Stornoway or Glasgow and the listeners don't know the difference."

Another benefit of working for the BBC is the money. "At Radio Nan Gaidheal I'm earning a good living compared to other jobs in the Gaelic market. It's the same BBC rate whether you're working in the Shetlands or Bristol."

Radio Nan Gaidheal reaches 90 per cent of Scotland's 65,000 Gaelic speakers: "We have to be aware of the sensitivities of some of our listeners who observe the Sabbath, and it's hard to balance being grammatically correct with being understood - they let us know when we get it wrong. But our listeners are very, very possessive and protective of this station, and they do make a noise when a campaign is needed."

Mary is particularly proud of the station's '97 election coverage, which saw the team broadcasting ballot results before anyone else. "Some English- speaking colleagues almost look down their noses because we run everything on such a shoestring budget: we're a tiny team of 12 in the newsroom, and it's a miracle what we provide. But I just think: `Well, you come and do it then'"