In August 1979 two pirate stations started broadcasting. One was the short-lived Radio Active, while the other was someone relaying tapes of London’s Radio Jackie on 227 MW. A meeting was arranged, and in staggered the radio legend that is Steve Merrick, “wanting to sound like Radio Jackie”. That was met with some amusement by a few in the pub, but Steve had the last laugh on them by becoming the most regular Midlands Pirate in the first half of the 1980s.
The two groups merged with Steve setting up the former Radio Active, 100-Watt transmitter on 1248 kHz Medium Wave. A lack of communication between everyone for the first broadcast resulted in some programme tapes being recorded as Radio 227, some Radio 242 and Steve himself called the station Radio Veronica! However, the signal boomed across the Midlands from 12 noon every Sunday from his flat at Rowley Regis. On some weeks Radio 242 went mobile from a field using a rather heavy generator to power the 100 Watt TX. This was rather risky, noisy and resulted on one occasion the Radio 242 DJ’s being threatened with a shotgun by a rather angry farmer who did not believe the ridiculous suggestion that a generator was being tested in his field!
Broadcast hours varied, but always started at 12 noon with DJ’s including Steve Johns, Rankin’ Jacko, Paul Kent and Dave King. At Christmas 1979 the station name was changed to Radio Free Birmingham, just in time for a raid in January 1980. It was a comical operation with two home office and four police involved. Home office official Frank Preston asked for Jacko at the door, believing that the station was operated by the famous Radio Jolly Roger presenter. RFB soon returned on a new frequency of 1323 kHz, 227m, but Steve was later fined £300. An absolute fortune in 1980! It was often believed that no one would have been prosecuted following the raid but Steve talked to the Birmingham Evening Mail about the station, giving the Gestapo the evidence required.
A week before the raid, RFB started separate broadcasting on 97.5 FM. This could be heard on many Sunday evenings until the TX self-destructed one evening. Such was the determination of everyone involved that many Sundays were spent attempting to broadcast from a field or wood with a low power TX on 227 MW using either 12 or 24 volts and a mains inverter donated by Empire Radio. Unfortunately many of these broadcasts were not very successful. Eventually, due to the workload, many helpers drifted away and transmissions became sparse.
Following help from UK radios Paul Johnson and David Jarvis, RFB returned in July 1980. This, however, did not last long, resulting in a temporary RFB breakaway for a few weeks operated by Paul Kent, Dave King and others using a brand new TX. Some of this breakaway group would, in December 1980, leave to form Sounds Alternative.
As the first birthday approached the Evening Mail were informed that Radio Free Birmingham will continue on 1323 kHz, but will eventually move over to FM. Steve did this successfully, with regular Sunday broadcasts from 1981 on 94.2 FM and also Medium Wave over Bank Holidays and occasional Sundays.
By mid 1982 they had changed their name to County Radio and went on to become one of the stalwarts of West Midland free radio in the early 80s with DJ’s like Mick Richards, Rick Marks, Steve Dunn, Bob Barton, Paul Mclaren, Paul Anthony, Rod Lucas, Simon James, Sue Jacobs, Kelvin Scott, Jon Taylor, Mike Wilson and Neal Clarke.
As well as Steve’s flat in Rowley, various other sites were used including Kipling House and about 25% of the time the transmitter and tape recorder was run by battery from the top of a few hills such as Clent and Wrens nest. They would base themselves in a pub at the bottom of the hill with one or two of them walking up the hill every hour to change the tape.
It was said that even the authorities were fans and used to love booking their Sunday overtime just so they could listen to the antics of Steve Merrick who…how can we put it…liked a drink…
A number of DJ’s left in June 1983 to join Sounds Alternative, so once again Steve Merrick called upon the help of UK radios Paul Johnson and David Jarvis. They both did shows until Easter 1984 when they left again to re-launch UK on 103.5. In late 1984 and into early 1985 County also used 104.8 FM as well as 94.4. Reception was often better on 104.8, but 94.4 was kept as the main frequency.
Following the closure of Sounds Alternative in August 1985, many of their staff joined County and Steve Dunne bought their 80 Watt Medium Wave transmitter that he later let County use. The station was going from strength to strength and over Easter 1986 was heard for 5 consecutive days, a rarity in those days, on FM and Medium Wave. With the addition of the presenters from Sounds Alternative the schedule offered a wide variety of programmes.
However, Easter 1986 was to be County’s last broadcast. The station suffered a big raid whilst it was off air in April 1986. The equipment had been left in a flat, and a fire broke out on the same floor whilst no one was at home. Firemen put out the fire and broke down the door with Police Officers present to check that no one had been overcome by smoke, only to find the station’s equipment with Easter programme schedules pinned up on the wall of the studio. On finding no one present, the DTI were somehow alerted and they confiscated their equipment. Comments by the DTI at the time included “Were they Black?” thinking that this was a PCRL site. They also roughly treated the son of one of the County DJ’s, who lived locally to the site, in an attempt to obtain evidence. No one from County was prosecuted, but Ross the flat owner was eventually heavily fined after admitting the offence under pressure from the DTI.
There were numerous test transmissions over the next couple of years, mostly consisting of old tapes, but unfortunately County Radio was not heard again. The 80 Watt medium wave transmitter survived, as it was elsewhere at a former Sounds Alternative location and was later used by UK Radio at Christmas 1988.
Some County DJ’s, including Steve Merrick, went out to the Voice of Peace off the coast of Israel with others ending up on Radio Caroline. Later, Steve did shows for UK, as did Mike Wilson who also ran the highly successful short wave station Radio Orion. More recently Steve could be heard via the net as Radio Mi-Amigo.
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