Play it again, Hamish

Loch Broom FM may be Britain's smallest radio station, but it inspires huge affection among its growing audience around Ullapool. It must be something to do with the Mac Archers and the midges. By Ken Stephinson
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The Independent Online
The Argyle Hotel is situated just over a hundred yards from Loch Broom FM. This information may not seem important but if you are a local DJ and have been on the air for three hours it is vital. You see the Argyle Hotel has toilets - Loch Broom FM has not; yes, Britain's smallest radio station is that small. Having said that, this tiny tin shed perched on the banks of Loch Broom (local wags call it the Broom Cupboard) is making waves in the radio world. On the air for only four months and with a transmission radius of just 20 miles, it has already established an 80 per cent share of the potential 4,500 audience in the area. Broadcasting from Ullapool, 60 miles north of Inverness, it sends out an eclectic range of programmes that are pitched to the heart of local radio and are very much by the people, for the people.

All the staff are volunteers with day jobs. They get no wages from Loch Broom FM. There are those who believe that to work here you have to be dedicated - and slightly mad. Most of the presenters I spoke to agreed to being both.

The day kicks off with "The Morning Show" hosted by Morag Anna McCloud (a press officer for the Gaelic Association) and Andy Mitchell (a radio mast engineer) and is a mix of music and chat with guests sometimes dragged in off the street to explain what they are doing in Ullapool. It is a kind of "Richard and Judy" with one very different ingredient - the midge. This small winged insect is taken seriously on this programme and with good reason. At the height of the summer there are thousands of them - all hungry for blood. Any aspiring young Hitchcock could film a re-make of The Birds' here with these little characters taking over the title role. To this effect "The Morning Show" transmits a regular midge report based on the exact science of looking out of the window and saying, "Aye, I think it will be a six today, maybe even rising to a seven." The top of the scale being a 10 when everyone is advised to stay indoors. The other reason they do this might just have something to do with the fact that they transmit adverts for an insect repellent throughout the programme.

After this comes Raymond Ross (the owner of a local ferry company), who hosts "Mission: Impossible", whose signature tune is - yes, you've guessed; he calls his show this because he says it is a mission impossible to please everyone in his audience. You begin to understand how difficult this is when he tells you that part of his mission is to find interesting, humorous guests passing through Ullapool. But Raymond is a very enterprising lad, quite good with accents and sometimes he, should we say, improvises, so you might hear him talking to a very interesting French man who is fond of the local ladies, yet walk past the studio window and you would swear he was in there by himself.

Another show is "Classic Rock" from Alan Downey (a local fisherman and old rocker) playing all the legendary greats. While we were there a particular Elvis track was requested that was not in the Loch Broom library but within half an hour a fan had brought it round on his bike. It is that kind of station.

At the other end of the musical scale is Kenneth McDonald (an accountant), with long hair and piercing blue eyes, known to all as Dulcie. He plays music for the young and laid-back - "where you're coming from". He doubles as a disco DJ and daily drags his own gear into the tiny Loch Broom studio to create what he calls the Techno sound.

And then there is Hamish doing the fiddles and accordion show - having to explain to a young lady who has requested "Play Misty for Me" how difficult this would be on a fiddles and accordion programme. The authenticity of this show, however, has to be considered alongside the knowledge that Raymond Ross of "Mission: Impossible" is a frequent guest on Hamish's show.

One of the most popular programmes is the daily soap. An everyday story of Highland folk, known affectionately as the Mac Archers. All the cast come from the local drama group and do a remarkably good job. The story lines are written by the station's manager, Steve Boyle (radio engineer), who with Andy Mitchell decided to set up Loch Broom FM back in 1993 with the idea that apart from the locals there was a potential audience from the fishing fleets that operate in the area. In 1995 they were granted a three-month temporary commercial radio licence, followed by another two-month licence in 1996, and then a full eight-year licence came into operation at the end of May this year. Ironically, the fishing fleets that used to be operational for eight months of the year in 1993 have since dwindled to a two-month operation, while the land-based audience has shot up to its 80 per cent share, taking on all five BBC radio channels in the transmission area.

The original funding of pounds 45,000 came from the Scottish Arts Council Lottery fund, pounds 65,000 from European Regional Development and pounds 32,000 from local enterprise. This was followed by pounds 9,500 from Virgin Radio for the purchase of additional equipment, which came about when the chief executive of Virgin Radio, David Campbell, was on honeymoon in the area, heard of their needs and offered help.

Loch Broom broadcasts daily from 7am to 9am and from 5pm to 11pm, with Virgin Radio filling in in between. It has established itself at the heart of this community and is an idea that might well work in other rural areas - but where would you find another Hamish, Morag, Dulcie, Andy, Raymond ... and the Mac Archers?n

The writer is the producer of `Here and Now'.

Loch Broom FM will be part of the new series of `Here and Now' which begins today, 7.30pm, BBC1.