103.5 FM – A Personal Recollection by Terry Starr.

The mid-1980s were an exciting time to be a young radio enthusiast growing up. The second wave of ILR stations was getting established, with mergers and acquisitions being a hint of the future landscape of commercial broadcasting. The BBC was reforming their services and began installing a network of FM transmitters for BBC Radio 1.

But it was the alternative radio scene that most captured the imagination. Radio Luxembourg was still going on 1440 kHz, and in those days was joined by a short daily English language pop broadcast from, of all sources, Radio Algiers in Algeria. Once weekly, you could tune into BRT from Belgium on 1512 kHz for a DX programme called Radio World. And there was a new high tide of pirate radio on land and at sea. I listened to Laser 558, Caroline 576 and Monique 963 daily, and as well could just pull in a signal from Sunshine Radio (Dublin) on 531 kHz during the night. It was a great introduction to music as the pirates were freer and more exciting than Radio 1.

Routinely I checked the FM bands for any local pirate activity, and eventually it paid off. On the evening of Sunday 7th September 1986, I found a station that shouldn’t have been there – playing pop music and with a couple of DJs talking. The station was first heard around 7.30pm that evening, experiencing breaks in transmission and fluctuating signal strength due to antenna problems, but finally the service blossomed with a clear signal and identified as “103.5 FM”. Not, as is sometimes reported, even by the free radio press, Radio 103.5. All the jingles and ID’s just referred to the station by its frequency. On the air were two presenters and a format of contemporary chart music. At 9.30pm, they announced that they were off “down the pub” but that they would leave running “a pretty good tape”, before non-stop music ensued for the next fifty minutes or so.

The next Sunday they were on, and we learned more about the presenters. “Baldrick” and “Lord Melchett” presented a couple of hours together of pop music tunes and golden oldies in a tight “hits” format which belied the station’s hobby feeling. In future broadcasts, the station would freely admit to where they pinched the names from – it was of course, the BBC series “Blackadder”. Blackadder II had aired in 1985, and in 1987 the third series would be broadcast. The third presenter, Andy Chapman, usually followed the other guys with a show called “Skyrock”, playing more underground rockier music, some local bands and 12″ remixes. The three presenters were young: Baldrick gave his date of Birth as 1965 during one broadcast. There was also much interplay between the guys. Andy Chapman seemed to be the butt of the other presenters’ jibes, but it was all done in good humour. The programmes were fun and articulate. In October, Lord Melchett reviewed the newly released top grossing film Top Gun as “cheap, jingoistic, Pentagon finance rubbish!”.

Throughout late 1986, the station broadcast most Sunday evenings, between 7pm and 11pm. On Sunday 21st December, a special Christmas broadcast was made featuring holiday favourites, special seasonal jingles and a mention that the IBA had given the station’s staff permission to open their presents early! Baldrick and Lord Melchett were on the air again on Christmas Eve, Wednesday 24th December.

Broadcasts continued into 1987, with most Sunday evenings seeing a transmission, and surprise appearances on weeknights or on a Saturday evening – all unannounced. A broadcast in Valentine’s week 1987 featured love songs and impromptu compositions in the style of the poet Stephen Spender. Clearly, this was a station that knew its literature and political theory, and suggests that the operators were students. Late in February, Baldrick and Lord Melchett closed a broadcast with a manifesto. Lord Melchett: “We’ve got no government interference or left-wing Director Generals. We are completely independent. And that’s the way we’re going to stay……. You’ve really got to ask yourself, will you ever hear again a radio station like this, but unfortunately we can’t tell you when we broadcast, but you just keep listening about this same part of the dial”. Baldrick (interrupting, sending up the fashion of an evangelical preacher); “Brothers and sisters, your whole life will be lifted….” Melchett: “Your life will be lifted when [rising to fver pitch] You tune into 103.5 FM my GOSH!”.

It was about this time that a small, and not entirely unsympathetic article appeared in a small newspaper called The Bristol Journal. This paper was of the free, advert driven type that many cities had during this period. It, too, was produced in the face of competition from much larger concerns such as the Bristol Evening Post range of titles. The piece spoke about “Radio 103.5” on the airwaves each week. The inevitable spokesperson from the Department of Trade was dismissive to the point of self-caricature, crowing “Obviously it is much easier to find a couple of likely lads with equipment held together with sellotape than a well-financed onshore or offshore operation”. The article was the source of amusement on the station itself “I’m delighted”, said Baldrick the following week, “We’ve got a new studio this week” Lord Melchett (dryly): “We have – a new roll of sellotape has been purchased and we’ve wrapped it everywhere”.

Programmes from “103.5 FM” continued through the Spring months. On more than one occasion, there seemed to be some “sprogging” from their transmitter, with unofficial signals appearing along the FM waveband. At times, these were heard virtually everywhere there was not another signal. Whether this was deliberate, to give the station a ratings boost, or an unforeseen glitch is not entirely clear, but after a while, the sprogs seemed to have been ironed out and the station was just heard on its announced frequency. Perhaps this is just as well, as the FM band at this time had some more sensitive utility operations using certain frequencies.

“103.5 FM” was on the air for June 21st 1987, marking the Summer Solstice with a spoof on the police and government attitude towards the free festival scene which was characteristic of the rural areas outside of Bristol. By now the station had been joined by another: the black music operation B.A.D. Radio had started operating most Sunday nights on 106.95 MHz from 7th June. The two stations were so different that there was no competition between them: neither really acknowledged the existence of the other. As time pressed into July, “103.5” was also adding occasional Saturday morning broadcasts, with transmissions running from 9am to 1pm: when these took place, they usually took the Sunday night off.

At the end of July, the authorities launched a major offensive against pirate radio in the acquiescent and mostly pro-government press. (A previous press campaign, claiming that piracy was dead and there were only five regular operators in the whole UK having fooled nobody). London and Birmingham pirate operators were now characterised as being violent drug barons out to cause misery for DTI officers and the police. It’s a narrative that the various regulatory agencies have tried to pursue right up to the present day, although few people particularly believe it. At the time, shortwave pirate Radio East Coast Commercial pointed out that the stations accused were largely African-Caribbean, whereas the state officials were almost exclusively white and middle-aged. There was a strong underpinning of race politics underneath the anti-pirate initiatve. In any case, the negative publicity had, for a few weeks at least, an effect on pirate radio nationwide and many of the smaller stations went off fearing clampdowns and raids. August was quiet for both “103.5 FM” and B.A.D. Radio.

By September things were getting back to normal and on Sunday 6th, “103.5 FM” were back marking their first anniversary. A recording of the first night was briefly played and Lord Melchett claimed that the station was “still the best free radio in Bristol”. The signal was strong across Bristol and marked the start of the last period of broadcasting for the station as regular transmissions were made through September and October.

In November, “103.5 FM” started promoting a “relaunch” from 29th November 1987, on which date the station would be improved and stronger. With this in mind, several test broadcasts were made of continuous music and jingles on various weeknights in the fortnight leading up to the relaunch. When the big evening arrived, however, there was no appreciable change in the station’s signal strength at my location, and the programming continued in the usual format of Baldrick and Lord Melchett followed by Andy Chanpman’s show. The high standards of presentation were maintained, but it didn’t feel very much like a “relaunch”.

December sadly, saw absolutely no broadcasts from “103.5 FM”. Just B.A.D. Radio continued flying a free radio flag in Bristol that month (and in fact, was undergoing splits that would lead to a major increase in pirate activity in Bristol the following year). On Sunday 3rd January 1988, “103.5 FM” was back, but with a poor signal at my location, significantly down from the average strength. Andy Chapman opened proceedings on this occasion, with a two hour who, to be followed by Baldrick and Lord Melchett. Baldrick made reference to the fact that the station had missed out December completely, but gave no reason for their absence. As the evening progressed, the signal began to break up. The transmitter struggled on and off for several hours, making a horrendous racket, but by around 9pm had left the air altogether.

This marked the end of broadcasts from “103.5 FM”. There was no further information, and no clue in either the underground, free radio or regular local press about what had happened. The following month, February 1988, would see the nearby 104.0 MHz occupied by a new free radio station, Radio For the People (F.T.P.) which had split from B.A.D., and both these stations would start to experience raids by the Department of Trade as 1988 progressed. There is a footnote. One Saturday morning in April, a strong stereo carrier was noted on 103.7 FM, and I for one hoped that it signaled the restart of broadcasts for “103.5 FM”. Sadly, whoever was responsible for it, the signal vanished after several hours and was never heard again. It might have even have been F.T.P., who later in 1988 switched to a stereo service on that channel.

The frequencies around 103.5 MHz continued to be associated with pirate radio, through F.T.P.’s transmissions, and later with Savage Yet Tender Radio on the nearby 104.4 MHz. As late as 2002, dance music station Storm-FM was using the 103.5 slot. In 2013, a community radio station for North Bristol, Bradley Stoke Radio, was allocated 103.4 MHz, and full programmes began on this frequency in September of that year.

“103.5 FM” was a terrific little station, rooted in the hobby pirate scene, but which managed to outgrow the pure “transmitter under the bed” feeling of the attic stations and into a regular presence on Bristol’s airwaves. After 1986, nothing would be quite the same again, and Bristol had a growing number of pirate stations which would ensure that the free radio scene in the city remained healthy and strong well into the 1990’s.

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Lord Melchett & Baldrick – Andy Chapman – 5/4/8792 mins