Nestling between Swinton’s Town Hall and a generic looking Salford car park, is a tiny, fenced off portakabin. It’s almost unnoticeable amongst its bleak surroundings, but nudge aside the surrounding prison-like bars and scruffy exterior and you’ll find yourself immersed in a world of unsigned bands, musical passion and a massive dollop of record spinning.
For the past 6 months, I have been making a weekly trek to Salford City Radio, a community run radio station in Swinton. Although its external appearance is a little hard on the eyes, it’s a secret haven for over a hundred little known DJ’s.
Awarded its broadcasting licence in 2007, the station pleases every possible audience, featuring everything from political talk shows to band sessions, to presenters unearthing new music. Guests from David Cameron to Frank Turner have visited the tiny premises, buzzed the shabby-looking door and entered into the three studio strong building. Photographs of previous guests and presenters adorn the walls, mimicking your grandma’s mantelpiece and emphasising the ever present value of community spirit.
I have always had an unhealthy obsession with radio. As a child, I’d religiously tape the Sunday night chart, haphazardly cutting the tracks halfway through if I got bored. I’d gather some easily bossed, impressionable friends and tape my own radio show complete with bewildered, unhappy guests. I still have the endless cassettes of waffling chatter and clunky recordings cluttering my room to prove it. So, when I got the chance to nosey around SCR, a real life radio station, I donned my headphones and vowed to visit once a week.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a blueprint for a volunteer in community radio. Unlike lovey amateur dramatics actors or pretentious painters, the only defining feature that bonds volunteers together is a love of spinning tracks and wittering about music.
DJ’s range in age from sixteen to their early seventies. Their full time, bill paying jobs couldn’t differ more, from working in hospitals to driving lorries and working with mental health patients, yet they all gather united in a complete devotion to all things music.
New recruits find themselves embarking on the dull as murky water tasks of completing ‘what’s on’ guides or compiling lists of local events to be read out on air. However, after just a couple of months at the station I found myself presenting a breakfast show with DJ, Stu Currie. Not only did we unite over our mutual love of all things Amy Winehouse, hatred for Simon Cowell, and Beyoncé’s backside, but we fast became friends. One of community radio’s biggest pros is the extended family you immediately gain, fuelled by a wealth of musical knowledge.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and we’ve just finished pre-recording our Wednesday morning breakfast show. ‘You’ll love this’ Stu says, handing me a soggy square that once resembled a cd, ‘it got a bit wet in my car but I think you’ll like it. And, there’s this really amazing cover of Outkast that I’ve got to play you.’
There’s a familiar gleam in his eyes as he start’s trawling the internet for the song, it’s a recognisable sparkle that only a deep passion for music can trigger.
Stu is a familiar face at the station, previous to his stint here, he has lived in America, grown a Jack Osbourne-esque afro and performed in various raucous bands. At the age of 28, he’s settled back down in his hometown of Swinton. It is from here that he drives the length and breadth of the country in his job as a truck driver. But, he told me that ever since he’s been old enough to whack on a pair of headphones, he’s dreamt of being on the radio.
“All my mates that I’ve had since I was a little kid have always known that I’ve wanted to be on the radio. When I was a kid I used to sit there with a ghetto blaster pressing play and record and I’d sit there in my room doing my own radio show. I’d be sat there just reading a magazine and interviewing all the people in it, I’ve still got the tapes somewhere!"
Aside from developing the audio talents to rival a mixing desk genius, he’s achieved his own live slot, ‘Stu Currie’s American Experience’ on Sunday afternoons. I often wonder how he finds the time to prepare and plan his obviously unpaid hour’s track lists, links and interviews. He admits that some weeks it isn’t easy.
“A lot of American music doesn’t make it over here, just by essence a lot of the bands that you read about in Q or NME, they’re all British, so I have to spend a lot of time searching for American bands. I sort of do it throughout the week, say if I’m listening to the radio and hear a track I just make a note of it. But, I’d say for a one hour show, it probably takes me about four hours. I think that’s because I make an effort, I won’t just play anything. Say if I get a new album, I’ll listen to an entire album instead of just the singles on it so it does take a long time, but I’d only be at home listening to music anyway. Even people like Chris Moyles and Chris Evans who make it sound like they’ve just turned up put loads of preparation into it, you can’t just turn up.”
Trying to squish the four hour prep, band interviews and breakfast show recording into his tight work schedule never seems to leave him stressed. I have only known him to miss one show, and that was after witnessing him as a stumbling blur, fleeing the building as he clutched his face screaming ‘TOOTHACHE,’ which I think makes his absence perfectly understandable.
He admits that a major part of what pulls him back each week is the rapport he’s struck up with the other volunteers.
He said: “It’s just fun, it’s a hobby, I mean obviously you don’t wake up every day and think ‘okay, brilliant I’ve got to listen to loads of music today that I don’t necessarily want to’ but it’s just fun. I mean like we have a good time doing the breakfast show and that is one of the things that I do sort of think ‘right well I’m going to do the breakfast show with Clémence and I’m just going to have a mess about basically. So yeah, that’s what motivates me, you!” he finishes, bursting into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Unlike some of the DJ’s at the station, Stu has managed to perfect his ‘radio voice.’ I watch in awe as he steps in front of the mixing desk and becomes the most enthusiastic, knowledgeable, likeable voice. I once asked one of the station managers exactly how you should go about developing the perfect presenting voice. He replied frankly, ‘it’s simple, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.’
Stu disagrees with this and puts his talent down to the time he has time spent touring with various bands.
He said: “I do think it’s helped me actually because I know you’re not standing in front of somebody when you’re in a radio studio but you have the mic technique and you don’t get nervous in front of a mic. You’ll notice a lot of people when they first get in front of a microphone they start acting stupid and act daft, much like we do on the breakfast show,” he jokes, “but yeah I do think it helps a lot if you’ve got experience of doing that and working in music and also because you can listen to music in different ways. There’s music just to listen to and then there’s musicians music. I think because I’ve played in bands I can choose not to play the musicians music and just think ‘right, people don’t want to hear that, they want to hear the other stuff.”
The area outside the three studios is where DJ’s tend to congregate before and after their shows. It’s home to two 70’s floral patterned sofa’s, which were undoubtedly uncool the first time round, and an old chair overflowing with sobbing wires bearing the homemade sign ‘RIP headphones.’ In the centre is a round table, which today is slightly busier than its usual derelict state. About eight DJ’s schedules have brought them to coincide here and the rock ‘n’ roll conversation is fast flowing.
‘I had two bottles of wine and four cans of that really strong stuff to myself last night’ groans one DJ whose show is in a very fast approaching ten minutes. ’I used to be able to cane it all night on pills’ he continues, resting his head on the table, ‘but now.’
On most professional radio stations, this sort of talk would be banished before you could say ‘ad break,’ but there’s a certain 60’s pirate radio element to working here. There’s an ever present vibe of scratched vinyl and muffled beats, a bit ‘the boat that rocked’ but with less indecency.
The air is often tinged with tales of beer crates being stashed in studios and fights with band members.
The hung-over DJ stands up and runs outside for a few puffs on his Marlboro light before silently shuffling into the studio. Within seconds, he’s a vision of professionalism, fresh faced and beaming with enthusiasm.
Between the DJ’s there’s an inconceivable amount of talent, regardless of their unpaid status, and the preparation and ability to provide a high quality show obviously means everything to them.
Usually volunteers work alongside each other fairly tranquilly, but every so often a collision of opinions can erupt. I once witnessed a particularly fiery argument, in which Metallica’s biggest fan was politely informed that their back catalogue was utter ‘garbage.’
Stu said: “I think the main thing we’ve got in common is we all want to do radio. Especially with the music, just everybody loves listening to music. There’s a lot that you have in common with some people rather than certain others.”
Fast forward a week and I manage to corner Chris Brophy, one of the station’s paid managers. He works at SCR as well as running a music industry learning project at Salford’s Media City, hosting free workshops for budding musicians and still helping his wife to juggle the care of their typically energetic children.
He first became involved with community radio in 2001 and tells me that he hasn’t taken the normal route into a broadcasting career.
“I’ve done things back to front,” he said “I worked for professional radio first, Kiss FM and Galaxy before doing this. I just wanted to keep my foot in the door and study technical work within a station but I found out that they were setting up a Salford community radio project and I just got involved as a volunteer, but over the past ten years I just got a real good taste for what community radio was about. For me it wasn’t just about playing records, it was that we were providing an invaluable service to these people. It’s not your ‘Radio One’ style station, its primarily talking about things that are affecting the local people. It was run by local people for local people and that for me was why I stuck with it and over the years did more and more volunteering and then became studio manager in 2007 and in 2010 station manager. I loved what it was about and that’s what I still love about it today.”
Chris is one of the most cheerful, friendly faces at the station. As everyone’s favourite manager, he’s often the most in demand when a DJ needs help. He admits that not everyone appreciates how stressful his role is.
“No, nobody understands.” He laughs wearily, “people come here to escape the pressures of life and it’s good for them to be able to come in here and just be able to walk in and see Mary who’s on reception during the week, she’s somebody who they can have a nice chat with. That’s what I wanted, a front of house person who can just be friendly and nice so that if people want to come here and talk about how their budgies died or that their nana’s got toothache, they can. For me, I have a job to do, a very demanding job which involves me raising tens of thousands of pounds a year to keep the station running because without the station there’s no voluntary roles for these hundred people and there’s no job for me and I can’t feed my kids. I know that sounds drastic but I always think of the worst scenario. I don’t think people really understand what happens day by day for me, but I have a lot of things to do.”
Mid-sentence, there’s a knock at his office door.
“Chris, can you just come and turn the monitors on for me?” a face asks, peering round the ajar door.
“Which monitors, the speaker monitors?” Chris asks.
“No, the computer screen.”
“Well just press the on button then.”
“Oh, ok.” A sheepish sounding voice replies before shuffling back into the studio.
The door closes and Chris looks at me wearily.
I ask him which trait he thinks bonds the volunteers and he tells me that it’s their differences that allow them to work together so well.
He said: “I think that they don’t have a lot in common with each other and that’s what makes it work, with your commercial radio stations they all have that ‘radio voice’ in common, that set style that you hear but with community radio everybody’s different. Our youngest DJ is 16, our oldest is in his early 70’s. Some people come here with no intention to ever do anything professional with radio and others do, like Adam Brown who came here four and a half years ago with the sole intention of being a professional broadcaster and now he’s on Key 103 and BBC Radio Manchester. So it’s a great thrill for me to be somebody who trained Adam. But some people are just here to escape the pressures of family life and work life so nobody really has much in common with each other, we don’t want everybody to be the same. There are so many people here who are very different, that’s what makes it fun for me. I like that I can be talking to a 16 year old who’s into hip hop one minute and a 70 year old guy who’s into Tchaikovsky the next.”
As I walk out of the office I catch the end of Stu’s show, which he’s broadcasting from the main studio. He waves at me through the glass window, his desk laden with cd’s.
“I’m going to play an acoustic cover for Clémence who’s just come in,” I hear his voice beaming from the portable radio on the opposite side of the room and look over to see him grinning at me with his thumbs up.
Another DJ walks in, “Oh!” he says excitedly, “I found this amazing French band, you like French music don’t you, it’s got a 60’s feel to it, come in here and I’ll play it you!”
As he ushers me into a free studio, I can’t help but feel an immense sense of content. After years of scrawling lyrics into my schoolbooks and scratching punk tattoos onto my skin with biro, I’ve finally found a group of people who are equally as barmy about music. Here, I can spend hours delving into the depths of 60’s girl groups and debating whether Green Day should ditch the rock opera and head back to crystal meth, girls and smoking too much weed, without the recipient yawning and falling off their chair with boredom. As I listen to the retro beats and soft vocals I realise that community radio has brought me more than a weekday slot and a new appreciation for adobe audition, it’s given me a whole new musical family. And that’s worth more than any amount of airplay.