Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Looking at a past world through rose tinted specs will usually, at best, distort history as it actually happened. But for today’s blog, I hope you’ll indulge me. Because it’s exactly fifteen years to the day that I helped launch the East Midlands’ first regional radio station.
Radio 106FM was a wonderful invention. In part, at least. Somewhere between the local BBC and ILR stations, it was what we in the industry call a “full service” station. That meant large chunks of speech content, a wide range of music spanning the decades and ultimately a rather costly operation.
The summer of 1997 was as eventful for me as it was for the rest of the launch team. I’d been working in my first “proper” radio gig at Gemini in Devon. But the lure of returning to my native Nottingham was enhanced by one man. Ron Coles – the former MD of Radio Trent and the larger Midlands Radio Group – had won the East Midlands Licence for 106FM. I had an enormous amount of respect for the guy. After all, his former station had given me the radio bug. I’d grown up with Trent, had always wanted to work there – and when I couldn’t, working for Ron was the next best thing.
Click here for the Radio 106FM documentary, made by Central TV in 1998
It was also the chace to be part of something brand new. Regional radio was in its infancy, and the prospect of serving three counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire was an exciting challenge. But building a radio station from scratch wasn’t without its challenges.
One of the biggest challenges came before we even got on air. How do you solve a problem like Diana? The People’s Princess was killed in Paris and the whole of the radio dial went into obituary mode. Except us. 106FM was in test transmissions, broadcasting an automated loop of happy songs and chirpy announcements from our team of presenters. Ron had to call Clive – our characterful security guard – to go into the studio and fade the output down.
Diana’s passing also allowed us to do what I think was another radio first. We were given unprecedented permission by the Radio Authority to go on air – for one day – to broadcast the funeral. It was a strange mix of locally presenter classical and easy listening music, interspersed with IRN’s commentary from London. And actually, I think it sounded better than the BBC.
Setting the “right tone” ran through the early ethos of 106FM. The result was a range of programming so diverse that it really didn’t have any clear direction. Sunday mornings was a good example of this : an hour of classical music, then religious programmes complete with hymns, followed by a “Desert Island Discs” style show, a gardening phone in, then regular pop music. Oh, I think country followed that.
Yet because of – or maybe in spite of – this unique combo, Radio 106FM gained a respectable 11% reach in its first Rajar ratings. Quite a feat from a standing start. But it simply wasn’t enough.
By this time the parent company – operated by Border Television – was getting restless. The station needed to start making money if it was to continue paying the bills. Enter John Myers – the man who was charged with making the station profitable. This BBC documentary shows the way things progressed. Click in at about 4 minutes and you’ll see just what he thought about religion.
But God wasn’t the only one shown the door. In fifteen years the station’s had four different names, and four very different brands. Nostalgia’s a thing of the past – and so is Radio 106FM.
Yet the memories of those early days, for me at least, are good ones. I made some lifelong friends – and one or two enemies! And on the whole, it felt a good family. It also gave me a step up the career ladder – and one I’ll alway be grateful for.
The Radio 106FM format was deeply flawed from the start. Yet despite a lengthy period of networking through the Century and Heart days, the frequency today is home to Gem 106. A regional radio station, with most of its output still firmly rooted in the East Midlands.