Out of Coventry 

23 May 2024 tbs.pm/80965

Mercia Sound is on air. Coventry journalist DAVID BRINDLE profiles the station.

 

 

Cover of Radio Month

From Radio Month for July 1980

Independent local radio in the Midlands came of age at 6.58 am on May 23 when Coventry-based Mercia Sound went on the air.

But there was no party and precious little ceremony at the opening of Britain’s 21st ILR station, serving Warwickshire and parts of Leicestershire as well as the car-manufacturing city.

Instead, after a brief announcement, the Mercia team swung straight into their regular programme schedule — as if it was just another broadcasting day. In the words of programme controller Ian Rufus, the aim was to sound the same on Day 1 as on Day 101 and Day 1,001. No fireworks, no gimmicks, but a reliable, competent radio service — a public utility.

Indeed, managing director John Bradford told a prelaunch meeting in Coventry: “There will be nothing revolutionary about our approach. We think it’s radical enough to be bringing independent local radio to this area.” And this low-key approach has gone down well with a majority of the audience, who might report: “Works hard, shows promise.” But a highly-vocal local minority pressure group, the Community Radio Action Group, says that Mercia had betrayed its pledges to “community broadcasting”.

Midland Community Radio Ltd is the consortium behind Mercia Sound. They defeated four other hopefuls in the franchise race with their plans for a “caring” radio station and a commitment to spread share ownership as widely as possible within the community. But there was an immediate clash with CRAG when the pressure group bought 550 £1 [£4.10 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] shares to divide among its members — mostly local trade union branches, and political and voluntary groups. MCR Ltd vetoed shareholdings of less than £200 [£820] and there was no intervention from the IBA – Independent Broadcasting Authority.

In the event, MCR’s plan for widespread ownership flopped. Some 91 per cent of the shares are in the hands of 13 underwriters — all major Midlands companies. Undaunted, CRAG look set to harry MCR all the way to next year’s review of their rolling contract. The group is monitoring Mercia’s output against initial programme plans and earlier public pronouncements by MCR chairman John Butterworth, vice-chancellor of Warwick University.

 

A view of a studio, with an inset of a smiling man

Above: Mercia’s on-air studio. Left: chief executive John Bradford

 

In response to CRAG’s complaints, John Bradford has said frankly that he thinks the word ‘community’ was a dangerous one to use in the company title. He blames its ambiguities for what he sees as CRAG’s misapprehensions about Mercia Sound’s role. “Some people seem to have taken ‘community’ to mean emphasis on specific elements in society at the expense of the majority,” he said. “If they want to use the broadcasting medium to talk to specific groups, their argument has to be with the Home Office [then responsible for broadcasting – Ed] and with the legislature — not with me.”

As John Bradford rightly says, CRAG represent only a tiny minority of Mercia’s potential audience of 690,000, spread across a huge slice of central England. He has described his job as “slotting in the major missing piece of the Midlands local radio jigsaw”.

The 35-strong Mercia team are based in studios in a former working men’s club in the centre of Coventry, about five minutes’ walk from the station. Yet they are anxious not to be seen to be ignoring other population centres in their service area: Nuneaton, Rugby, Leamington, Warwick and Hinckley.

Coventry itself has a big-spending image with robust local industry and high wages — ripe pickings for advertisers. But the decline of the car industry has hit hard, with unemployment standing at 6.9 per cent and climbing fast.

Mercia’s sales manager, John Manley, reports no hesitation on the part of clients, however. He is delighted by his team’s results at both local and national level. More than 70 local advertisers have taken advantage of an opening 20 per cent free air time bonus, according to Manley, who was formerly with ATV. The station is said to be well on course for its 12-month sales target, set at £500,000 in the share prospectus but since increased.

A major problem for Mercia is the lack of any strong local identity. For John Bradford, coming from Radio Tees with its fiercely chauvinist audience, the contrast is stark. “We shall have to work hard to create a strong local identity rather than just pick it up,” he said.

Mike Henfield

News editor: Mike Henfield

The task of creating that identity falls to the station’s six main presenters, under Ian Rufus, and six newsmen, under Mike Henfield, formerly with local rivals, BRMB. Ian Rufus, ex-Radio Hallam, terms his daytime music content “Radio 1,” and has reserved the evening hours for specialist programmes, ranging from new wave music to brass bands. Weekday broadcasting runs from 5 am to midnight, although a 24 hour service is promised soon to cater for shift workers.

Mike Henfield concedes that his news team — all new to ILR — are stretched by the sheer size of the Mercia area and he is making great use of stringers outside Coventry. IRN news is taken on the hour with a local top up, and there are half-hourly headlines and four news magazine slots a day.

Two half-hour shows in Hindustani are scheduled each week for the large Asian communities in the area. Mercia say that Asian community leaders specifically asked them not to take out a whole block of English programming.

Sport is in the hands of another ex-Hallam recruit, Stuart Linnell, who doubles as host of the afternoon show. His first sport phone-ins were top-heavy with moans about Coventry City Football Club, but more variety is promised.

In general, the air fare has gone down well with younger listeners. Inevitably, others have criticised the intensive pop diet and lack of new ideas. But John Bradford remains unrepentant, saying that the station must learn to walk before it tries to run. When the time comes, he predicts some fancy sprinting.

– David Brindle

 

 

‘A mirror held up to life’

 

That was what Mercia Sound claimed their station would be in their application for the Coventry ILR franchise. Here we print their original programming submission to the IBA, and the station’s first schedules.

 

Overall needs of the community. Midland Community Radio will aim to provide enjoyment, benefit and participation for its listeners. It will emphasise local affairs and will mirror the pleasures, needs, hopes, news and anxieties of the area it serves. At the same time a radio station ought to offer guidance and instruction, and aim at providing an additional quality to local life. Genuine two-way ‘conversion’ is the objective; participation by the community is possible for a radio station – unlike a newspaper — because it has the benefit of immediate dialogue and can intervene in ongoing situations.

To ascertain the needs of the community it wishes to serve, Midland Community has sent letters to many representatives of different groups in the area and followed these up with discussions and a public meeting. The ideas and specific requests which emerged have given broad terms of reference for future programmes. The implementation of these terms will be under the control of the Chief Executive and his staff, but the Board members will wish to ensure that every part of the community has a fair representation. The Board wishes to hold a mirror to life in its local form, and to add an extra awareness to the lives of the listeners. We shall appoint staff who will regard serving the community as of the essence of the job and two-way participation as the hallmark of success.

 

Two men with a microphone

Presenters Tony Gillham (left) and Dave Jamieson

 

News coverage. Initially, Midland Community Radio will transmit from 6 am until midnight but will aim ultimately for a 24 hour coverage, especially bearing in mind the need of shift workers. National, international and local news will be of paramount importance in the daily programmes, but emphasis will always be given to items of local interest, with news bulletins transmitted at frequent and regular intervals.

International and national news from the Independent Radio News Service will be used to provide national and overseas coverage. Midland Community Radio will interpret and edit national and international news items, where necessary, for the area it serves and introduce local features and comments to add relevance for its listeners …

Local news will include frequent and regular weather reports, giving specifically localised information. Police co-operation has already been promised and news of traffic jams, diversions, crime detection, etc, will be included in a daily diary of events, together with information on local performances, exhibitions, charity efforts, food prices, etc.

To maintain a close link with the public, less than 40 per cent of whom have access to a telephone, Midland Community Radio will provide a roving radio car for immediate transmission of on-the-spot opinions and events …

Music. Initially, music programmes will predominate but Midland Community Radio will progress towards an overall equal division between music and other items, although the emphasis will vary at different times of the day, eg. more talk and less music during the early morning programmes and the go-to-work period and much less talk in the early evening. Serious music programmes are suggested at those hours when we realise the majority of the population will be watching television.

We reject the concept of being a “juke box of the air” and aim to produce a wide range of music for our listeners to include pop, traditional jazz, rock, folk, brass band, and all types of popular and serious music appropriate in a diversified community, with pop and light music especially at the times for travelling to and from work. Whilst we recognise that a broad range of music is essential to satisfy all tastes and retain an audience, we shall also provide more serious music as part of our educational venture. We hope it will be possible to include music from the University Arts Centre, the Coventry School of Music, the Cathedral, local Jazz Groups and the Coventry and Bedworth Brass

Bands. We would also welcome contributions from our immigrant communities such as sitar recitals and other forms of Indian music. …

“Local Conversation”. Discussion programmes on local affairs will play a significant part in allowing the community to share and express its views. To ensure this local forum, a network of contacts and advisers has already been considered, and will be carefully maintained. …

In “Local Conversation” the radio station will have a role to play in community service by making known the needs of one part of the neighbourhood to those who might be able to help, eg. Hospital Visitors, babysitting, help for the disabled, gardening for senior citizens, etc.

The telephone will play an invaluable part in live participation but the roving reporter in the small side streets and villages will make an important contribution.

Employment. Midland Community Radio will have an essential part to play in giving local information on jobs for at the present time, February 1979, the Youth Opportunities Programme needs local coverage in helping young people to find suitable jobs. …

The disadvantaged in the community. Midland Community Radio will be a friend and companion for the blind, the housebound, the mentally disturbed and the disabled. We aim to be a station aware of the particular needs of the disadvantaged, giving guidance on, for example, the best route for disabled people when visiting the local fair, cinema or pop festival, and advice to one-parent families, to the elderly and to the disabled.

The immigrant community. We have precise and comprehensive arrangements to ensure the closest possible co-operation with the immigrant community, who are mainly Asian, and we have already taken their advice on how best their needs can be served. Midland Community Radio will take its part in the team already offering weekly programmes from local radio stations in the Midlands for the Asian communities. On Sunday evenings Birmingham Local Radio, on Monday the Leicester Local Radio and on Wednesday the Derby Local Radio provide hour-long programmes for Asian people. Midland Community Radio will complement these programmes with an hour given regularly on another evening to Asian songs and music, traditional stories for children and national and local news in Hindi and/or Urdu. In addition, the radio will give time to significant Festivals… We would wish to help in fostering good race relations by giving in Hindi and/or Urdu, news and information about the whole range of community affairs from local creches and playgroups to local sport and trades union information.

Leamington has the highest proportion of coloured immigrants in the area, with Asians representing 8 per cent of the total population of the town, and they will greatly benefit from programmes in Hindi and/or Urdu.

The City of Coventry census shows that 4.4 per cent of the immigreat [sic – immigrant] population is Irish, 0.7 per cent is West Indian and there are also Latvian, Chilean and Polish immigrants. As these immigrants are mainly English-speaking their needs are more easily covered by the regular programmes.

Politics. Midland Community Radio wishes to experiment in the use of recorded material from local council Chambers and would give regular opportunities for all political parties, both at local and national level, to express their views. The community should be able to comment and criticise policies propounded by their elected members, and Midland Community Radio will be a catalyst, keeping local politics before its listeners, regularly and at suitable hours when people are at home and free to listen…

Children’s programmes. Midland Community Radio intends to ensure both pleasure and educational value in radio programmes for young people. Stories, plays, poetry and verse, songs, action music, games, news of local puppet shows, youth clubs, scout meetings, lectures and exhibitions for young people, etc, all these would play their part in programmes for children. A regular phone-in time each week for younger listeners with requests and comments will be a main feature…

Community Schools. In Coventry, Nuneaton, Rugby, Kenilworth and Leamington, community schools are emerging as an active centre in each neighbourhood, and a regular weekly programme for giving their news and events, and for comments from pupils, staff, parents and neighbours will be included. Such schools are becoming important centres of their communities in the evenings as much as in the day, and pupils in schools may well become aware of radio as a career, whether as engineers or programme organisers, advisors or technicians.

Sports and leisure activities. An intense interest in all kinds of sports and leisure activities is shown by the community and evidenced by a high level of participation. Local sports clubs proliferate in the area and are actively engaged in leagues and competitions of all sorts. Coventry City Football Club is a well-established and progressive club in the First Division of the Football League, and Coventry Rugby Football Club has been one of the major clubs in English rugby football for many years… In other sports, David Moorcroft is an international athlete from the Godiva Harriers’ Club and the speedway team is one of the leading clubs in the country. The standard of local cricket, hockey and tennis is high: and local swimmers have participated in the Olympic Games, having trained in the municipal swimming pool which provides facilities of international standards. Bill Lane, the former world champion angler, also lives and works in Coventry.

Midland Community Radio will seek to generate further interest and activity in sport by providing a more immediate and lively coverage of a wide variety of sports man the local newspaper is able to do. Live coverage of events will be considered and discussions with local and national sporting personalities will be a feature of the sports programmes. We shall seek a close relationship with the sporting personalities in the area.

Many people, however, follow less vigorous leisure activities at community centres and private clubs. Midland Community Radio recognises the importance to such participants of these activities and will seek to extend their experience and knowledge. With the creation of more leisure time through the advances of modem technology,

Midland Community Radio wishes to help the community in the furtherance and extension of their leisure pursuits. In the future, this function will no doubt become increasingly important and new ideas will be constantly sought.

The arts. Midland Community Radio is aware of the service it can provide in broadcasting stories, poetry, accounts of local exhibitions, etc, and wishes to investigate the economics of broadcasting plays. For many people the best way of developing the imagination is through the spoken word…

Women’s programmes. Coventry, in proportion to its size, has a larger number of women at work than any other city in the United Kingdom. It is therefore important to meet their needs by giving information and advice about local shopping, opening hours of chemists, recipes for meals which can be cooked on return from work or left for hours in a slow oven. Recipes may now be handed down from radio to daughter as well as from mother to daughter, for the greater benefit of the whole family. These programmes will be careful to cover the needs of women in rural as well as urban areas; they will be transmitted at suitable listening times and will encourage listener participation.

 

Four men

From left: Stuart Linnell (sport), programme controller Ian Rufus, and presenters Gordon Astley and Andy Lloyd

 

Local “specialists”. These programmes will come from centres such as the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh and the National Exhibition Centre which is situated midway between Coventry and Birmingham. Although these centres are of national importance their impact on the neighbourhood is considerable and information on exhibitions, day events, traffic jams, runaway cattle, etc, are all of significance for the local area.

Responding to crisis. A unique feature of local as opposed to national radio is the ability to react at once, with purpose, in a neighbourhood crisis. The immediate broadcast report of a missing child with a description could result in a happy return to home within a short time…

Education. Education has been left to the last, not because we regard it as unimportant, indeed, the reverse is the truth. For the purpose of this section it may be sufficient to make two points. First, we believe that education should not be compartmentalised. It is our intention gradually to try and improve the quality of our broadcasts in every possible way so that horizons are broadened and tastes gradually developed. Secondly, a great resurgence of interest in education at all levels has recently been taking place and the response to the courses of the Open University afford a particularly interesting example. Midland Community Radio would wish to join with education institutions in the area, such as the University, the Polytechnic and the Colleges of Further Education, to find ways in which open education for mature students can be furthered. Recently, discussions have been taking place to see whether a system can be devised by which the University and the Polytechnic will validate courses run by the Colleges of Further Education, and success on such a course would be regarded as equivalent to an ‘A’ level pass for the purpose of admission to the University and the Polytechnic. Midland Community Radio would wish to explore the possibility of collaborating with this, and indeed any other venture seeking to expand the opportunities for open studies. The feasibility of split programming to which we refer below will offer the means of providing educational programmes side by side with programmes of general popular appeal.

Conclusion. The preceding ideas are those brought forward after local informal surveys, meetings and discussions. These are the policy guidelines which the Chief Executive would be asked to adopt and implement. The interest and involvement of the community is a paramount aim and the two-way relationship with listeners is essential.

We shall use Free Flow Format at appropriate times. Free Flow Format consists of a fast, happy and snappy presentation of music, news, information, talks, phone-in calls, minifeatures, jokes, competitions, sports items, jingles, traffic and travel news (with Midland Red bus, British Rail train and Elmdon air travel information), local job features, local police spots, community appeals, etc, all liberally interspersed with short commercials. The presenter will be the important link-personality. These hours will be the peak listening times when the income from commercials will be earned. The format will ensure relaxed, friendly, lively and entertaining programmes and will include regular news and information, both national and local.

We are considering the possibility of solit programming and the specification of the studio centre has been drawn up to provide for it; for example, sports news on Saturday afternoon on MW and music on VHF with minimal addition of staff, and integrated commercials. The use of split programming might also be helpful in enabling us to cater for minority groups such as the immigrant community.

 

Weekday programmes

5.00am Good Morning Mercia with Gordon Astley. Music, traffic and travel information, weather reports and news summaries every half hour.

9.30am Through Til One with Dave Jamieson. Popular music, studio guests, what’s on information and competitions.

1.00pm Mercia Reports. News.

1.10pm Afternoon Delight with Stuart Linnell. Music, provocative guests, phone-ins, and Mercia Trading post three days a week.

4.00pm Radioactive with Tony Gillham. Music, news and traffic and travel information. Including the News Quiz and financial news.

7.00-9.00pm Specialist programmes: Monday 7.00pm Aakash Deep. Asian programme with Sarjit Myrrpurey 7.30-9.00pm Great Western Radio Show. Country music with Stewart White.

Tuesday 7.00-9.00pm Shockwave. New music with Andy Lloyd.

Wednesday 7.00-9.00pm The Rock Show.

Thursday 7.00pm Aakash Deep with Sarjit Myrrpurey; 7.30-9.00pm Mercia Folk with Norman Wheatley.

Friday 7.00pm Sports Call with Stuart Linnell (sports phone-in). 7.30pm Decision Makers from LBC; 8.00pm Private Life Public Image. A local personality talks and chooses music, with Ian Rufus. 8.30-9.00pm Mercia at Westminster. Local MPs plus Parliamentary news.

9.00pm-midnight (1.00am Fridays and Saturdays) Night Express with John Warwick.

Saturday

5.00am Good Morning Mercia with Andy Lloyd.

9.30am Mercia Musicomputer. Top 40 chart show with Tony Gillham.

1.00pm Sportacular. Music and sport with Stuart Linnell.

6.00pm Saturday Night Out with Andy Lloyd.

9.00am Saturday Night In with Dave Jamieson. Music, quizzes, chat, dedications.

Sunday

7.00am That Certain Sound with Roger Hall. Religious magazine.

8.00am A Touch of Class with Andy Lloyd. Music, competitions, what’s on, weather.

12.00pm From Me to You with Robbie Mason. Local requests.

2.00pm Lazy Sunday Afternoon with John Warwick.

6.00pm Bandstand. Big band and brassband music with Ian Rufus.

7.00pm Concert Hall. Classical music with Lyndon Jenkins.

9.00pm-midnight Night Express with Andy Lloyd.

 

From the Nick Taylor collection in the Transdiffusion archives

 

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