From Gateshead to Belarus on the airwaves

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The Independent Online
Lawrence Galkoff had a parking problem. There was only one thing for it - his own radio station, and the transformation of a simple idea into a broadcasting success story. Kathy Harvey listens in.

Lawrence Galkoff recently spent the best part of a week ferrying van loads of radio equipment between two shopping centres in Gateshead and Watford, where he hastily transformed a few square feet of spare space into professional radio studios and prepared to go on air. The two local radio stations broadcast on FM and reach across both towns and although they'll only operate for a month, they'll make a profit for Centre FM, the company that runs them.

Galkoff, a former BBC sound engineer, is the driving force behind the business. When he started applying for short-term radio licences several years ago the motive was enjoyment and not profit - but it became clear he had identified a niche market with plenty of potential. There is room in the crowded radio market, it seems, for even more local and specialised services.

"When I was working at the BBC in Newcastle I used to get irritated trying to find a parking space at the local Metro shopping centre. It seemed to me that if I could tune in to frequent bulletins on traffic and parking I would have a lot less hassle - so I got together with a friend and approached the Metro's management."

They bought the idea, and the radio station is now in its fifth year. Capital Shopping Centres, which owns the Metro Centre, agreed this year to go ahead with a second radio station at the Harlequin shopping centre in Watford and there is talk of a third venture along similar lines.

"There were set-backs at the beginning of the process," Galkoff explains. "At the time the Radio Authority would only grant short-term licences for "special events". For some reason the Christmas rush at Europe's largest shopping centre didn't qualify under that rule, though I have always wondered whether the delay in getting a licence was due to objections from other local radio stations worried about their Christmas advertising."

From the start Centre FM employed someone to bring in advertising, while the station itself, a mix of music and chat, was kept going with the help of Galkoff's business partner - a media studies lecturer at the local college in Gateshead - and some of his radio journalism students.

This year a station manger has been brought in to run the operation at Watford and traffic information is being provided by AA Roadwatch. Some presenters are local professional broadcasters who want to increase their presenting experience, though Galkoff made sure he indulged his own urge to get in front of a microphone for the launch last week.

Unlike "instore" radio where the audience only consists of people visiting one shop, stations like Centre FM do have quite a large potential audience - up to half a million in the case of the Metro Centre operation. The Radio Authority grants more than 300 short-term radio licences every year, some for special events or for companies testing local demand. And although the advent of digital radio is likely to increase the number of stations on offer to a wider variety of audiences, the Authority believes there will always be a demand for the kind of short-term licence which enabled Centre FM to get going as a business.

Lawrence Galkoff's ability to see the potential in relatively modest enterprises has certainly paid off. Once the company had acquired enough of its own studio equipment and a couple of transmitters it began hiring out facilities on a regular basis to other people. British Services Broadcasting are using his transmitter and equipment at Catterick for broadcasts next month to Bosnia, and Luton University used Centre FM for a radio station to coincide with freshers' week. Several other universities are currently negotiating contracts. Galkoff believes the boom in media studies courses has helped to create an interest. "More colleges and universities are anxious to get some sort of onair facility. They know how to apply for the licence but don't have technical expertise. It's a service large companies don't seem to provide - so we are happy to fill the gap."

With years of BBC experience and plenty of contacts to back him up, sorting out the technical details is the least of his problems. "The steep learning curve came when I had to present my first proposal to senior management, and negotiate over contracts, but I found that once people are genuinely interested in the idea they will give you serious consideration."

For a long time the business ran on a combination of enthusiasm, a few hours' sleep a night and leave from the BBC. But as the downsizing of Auntie crept on apace and the business took up more and more time, Galkoff opted for voluntary redundancy this summer.

The company now has its own Website, and the skills needed to set up a radio station anywhere in the world are marketed with almost tiggerish enthusiasm. The latest inquiry has come from a potential customer in the former Soviet republic of Belarus. Several e-mails about the cost of transmitters and tape machines have already been exchanged, and inquiries are under way with the DTI about how British firms can operate in the region. Galkoff is already gearing himself up.

"Who knows, this time next month I could be hiring a van and heading off for Belarus to install a studio..." The strange thing is that he really means it, and as long as he remembers to take the right widgets it'll probably work.