Sunday, 19 February 2017

Inside Salford City Radio

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, 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. 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.

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 completing ‘what’s on’ guides or compiling lists of local events to be read out on air. However, after 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.

“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!"

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.

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 usual. 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.

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.’

Fast forward a week and I manage to corner 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.

He is one of the most cheerful, friendly faces at the station often making him 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.

“Can you just come and turn the monitors on for me?” a face asks, peering round the ajar door.

“Which monitors, the speaker monitors?” He 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 he 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.

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