EST-FM “Your alternative friend in Sound” broadcast to Birmingham between 1981 and 1984, but the roots can be traced back to the short-wave station Empire Radio, which took to the air in 1978.
“The Empire” developed a good reputation for innovative programming, mixing contemporary music with comedy, but the limitations of short-wave reception were not best suited to this style of presentation. During 1979 two of the station’s founding members – Mike Thomas and Dave Cooper – decided to pursue the idea of setting up local stations in their own areas. This eventually led to Mike (under the name Keith Rogers) launching Sounds Alternative in the Black Country, while Dave set up EST in South Birmingham, along with local businessman Rick St. James, who came up with the station name.
“EST” stood for “Electronic Sound Transmission” and was designed to reflect a new, vibrant style of broadcasting; avoiding the use of the term “radio”. It must be remembered that, in those days, the majority of listeners tuned to AM stations. This was before the era of PC’s and CD’s! We wanted to be dynamic, and forward looking, so preferred to be on FM. It proved difficult, however, to source an FM transmitter. We eventually purchased one from a station in Kent, but it proved to be unstable and had poor coverage. Following a couple of anonymous test transmissions, in autumn 1980, we decided to abandon FM broadcasting and buy an AM transmitter.
Using the call sign “Radio Father Christmas” two characters by the name of “Rudolph” (aka Dave Cooper) and “Father Christmas” (aka Albert Hall of Empire Radio) made a successful 2-hour broadcast on Boxing Day, 1980. A grand total of 2 letters were received at the mailing address (the editorial office of local music newspaper “Brum Beat”). These letters were extremely useful as, not only did they offer much-appreciated encouragement, they also led to new staff being recruited, and new transmitter sites being made available to the station.
In early 1981, much work went on, behind the scenes, to prepare for regular broadcasting. A big obstacle was that our AM rig required mains power, which severely restricted where we could operate. Then – through contacts in London we had visited to study the upcoming land based free radio scene there – we were put in touch with an engineer who could build us a suitable FM transmitter, powered from a car battery. We wasted no time in re-focussing our plans on establishing an FM station.
The frequency of 94.3 was chosen, as it rhymed with “EST” and was a clear channel. Mark Stafford – then of shortwave station Atlanta Radio, now of Radio Caroline fame – made our jingle package, and test transmissions commenced in the spring. We tried different broadcast times, and soon came across another free radio station called WKAT on 94.2. Not wishing to cause interference, we made contact with the operator, with a view to co-ordinating our transmissions. This actually resulted in the two stations merging, under the name EST.
The official station opening was set for 3pm on Saturday 4th July 1981 (“Birmingham Independence Day” as we named it!) We used our best available location – a secluded spot in the Clent Hills, to the south of Birmingham, with an excellent view to the city – and assembled our equipment. Naturally, programmes were pre-recorded. At precisely 3pm, EST hit the airwaves. With most legit stations airing sports programmes at that time, we felt it was a good opportunity to put out a rock station. The plan was to repeat the broadcast at 7pm on Sunday evenings, but this only lasted 3 or 4 weeks. The amount of time and effort required in organising and undertaking 2 transmissions, from 2 different locations, in 1 weekend, just proved too great. We were getting a better response to Saturdays, so decided to concentrate on this timeslot.
A couple of weeks after the launch was the day of the Royal Wedding between Charles and Diana. It was a public holiday, and we decided if would be a good idea – and relatively safe – to go on air all day with a live broadcast. Using the studios of now-defunct WKAT, and with an FM aerial on the roof, we started at 11am and went straight through until the evening. Apart from RF interference in the audio cables, causing a few hassles, everything went remarkably smoothly, and we received a phenomenal response from listeners. With everyone else covering the wedding, we were just about the only music station on the air.
Things were going very well. We had stickers printed, and even a batch of T-Shirts with very professional artwork. Posters were stuck up on billboards, in the dead of night, advertising our broadcast times. We also promoted the station at live music venues and rock clubs. One of these was Mr Bill’s Bier Keller, in the centre of Birmingham. The resident, highly-competent, and highly-respected DJ, Martin, was really supportive of our aims and efforts. This resulted in him joining the station – and in EST’s Dave Cooper becoming a resident rock jock at Mr Bill’s! With Dave now working there on Saturdays, it became necessary to change the EST broadcast schedule. From September 1981, the station was on the air every Sunday morning from 10am, settling into a regular schedule of Dave presenting the first hour; Martin the second; and a guest presenter (often Nick “The Quiet One”) the third and final hour. Sunday broadcasts became the norm for the duration that EST was on the air – with additional programmes at special times, such as public holidays.
One of these occasions was Christmas 1981. We decided to give a show to Linda, a member of our backroom team, and a big Ozzy Osbourne/Led Zeppelin/Deep Purple fan. She took to the microphone like a duck to water, although she never managed to use the equipment, so we had an engineer to drive the show, BBC style! Linda became a regular member of the on-air team in early 1982.
By now, station co-founder Rick St. James had left on amicable terms, due to business pressures. He had rarely presented programmes, but did contribute features such as the “Breaker Spot” in connection with the craze in CB radio. He was replaced by Paul Matthews, a big real ale fan, who selected a “pub of the week” to promote. Paul, we can now reveal, moved to Kent some years ago, and is better known to Radio Caroline fans under his real name of Steve Szmidt. He contributes features and photos to offshore radio websites.
Around the same time, another guy came on the scene. And what an entrance he made! One day when Dave was presenting a rock disco at Mr Bill’s amongst all the leather-clad bikers, in walked Tim Shepherd. Dressed in top hat and tails, he was an EST listener on his way to a wedding, and wanted a request on the next day’s EST broadcast for the Bride and Groom! This was the start of another long-term friendship. Tim soon joined the station, initially to assist with engineering, but then promoted to regular on-air programmes where he honed his craft. Two years later he left for Israel, where he joined the Voice of Peace. Again, he started as engineer, helping to install a Nautel FM transmitter, but then became the regular Breakfast Show presenter. He returned to England in 1986 to work on Radio Caroline for a short while, before heading back to the Voice of Peace, where he eventually rose to Programme Director. He is still living in Tel Aviv, and married to an Israeli girl.
Meanwhile, back at EST in 1982, things were OK- except for our signal. We had lost the use of 1 or 2 transmitter locations and were often forced to use less than ideal sites. Most of the time we could only be heard in the south and east parts of the city. The audience was loyal, but probably not that big.
Then, on the 6th June, we suffered our first raid, at the hands of the Authorities.
We did have a spare rig – the one we inherited from WKAT – and were back on the air the following week. But the signal was poor and the audio quality bad. We needed time to sort out the technicalities and improve security, so went off the air for a few weeks. It was around autumn, 1982, when broadcasts re-commenced from a new transmitter. But not long after that, the enemy were regularly on our tail again, often forcing transmissions to be curtailed early. Friends naturally became nervous about allowing us to use their property for our activities, so the choice of sites narrowed. The writing was on the wall and we decided to voluntarily close down at Christmas, going out with a live on-air party.
Following a few weeks rest, we were really missing the station. And so were our listeners, according to the mail that was still coming in. So we decided to re-launch in the spring of 1983. Security was further improved; we found some new locations; and we would limit all broadcasts to maximum of 2 hours duration (11am-1pm Sundays). We then commenced our most stable period on the air and were generally left alone by the Authorities. Once in a while we would spot them, but were always in a position to make a safe escape, with the transmitter.
EST managed 54 consecutive weeks on the air, but then the DTI struck again. It came as a bit of a surprise. We were near woodland, parked in a lay-by, when “the enemy” (in two cars) suddenly pulled up, one behind and one in front of our vehicle. The Police stood by as the Gestapo spoke to our crew who, strangely, could not understand why a transmitter was in the boot, connected to a cassette deck, playing a tape.
Albert Hall, and accomplices, were arrested and taken to Bromsgrove Police Station where they were strip-searched. Albert was asked to bend over. This, he was not very keen on, but obliged. Thankfully, nothing came of it. Seems a funny place to look for another transmitter……
The crew were released, and the car returned to its owner. Later, following a claim, some of the equipment was returned. Regretfully however, not the transmitter.
Then, on Sunday the 8th April 1984, came the big raid. We were broadcasting from the upstairs room of a pub that was temporarily closed. Suddenly, Police with a Search Warrant came banging on the door. Thanks to careful pre-planning; the use of ropes; and more than a little cunning, Albert Hall escaped by climbing over a wall, with the transmitter. He took it across the local park to a waiting helper (Sally Slapcabbage) who had heard the station suddenly go silent, before returning to the scene while Dave Cooper was being interviewed. “Accidentally on purpose” Albert allowed himself to be “caught” with a nicely labelled dummy transmitter (no more than a small metal box with a bunch of wires poking out of it) supplied by a sympathetic listener in a nearby property (who later became the operator of Crystal Radio on Short Wave).
Once inside the pub, the Authorities (four Police Officers, who were actually quite pleasant, and two DTI officials who were distinctly the opposite) took the rest of the equipment, along with the dummy transmitter. We assume they had a nice time examining it. Dave Cooper was interviewed and released, but Albert Hall was subsequently charged and taken to Court.
One week after the raid, EST was back on the air as normal on a new frequency of 103 MHz . However, the end was near. The Gestapo continued their harassment, but took a “heavier” approach. In addition to regularly tracking transmissions, they laid in wait for Dave Cooper to return home from work, one evening. Fortunately, he recognised the people walking up his drive and didn’t answer the door. But after this event, it was clear that the Authorities knew the people behind the station, and the locations used, so it became almost impossible to continue and EST suspended transmissions in mid-1984.
Albert Hall appeared in Court on Tuesday 13th November 1984. He was found guilty after admitting to “helping” the station. Had he answered the question as previously briefed by his solicitor, who had all the Prosecution’s questions in writing, he would most certainly have been found not guilty. The Prosecution had no witnesses to the actual crime because they turned up after the station had gone off the air. The law has been tightened up since then.
Stubbornly refusing to allow the Authorities to ‘steal’ money off him with a fine, Albert later weakened and paid it, which is something he has always regretted. Had he continued to play his cards right, EST would have blown a big hole through the Court case, with all charges being dismissed.
EST returned to the air on the first Saturday after the court case, the 17th November, between 10 PM and 2 AM the following Sunday morning, announcing plans to return at Christmas. This is indeed what happened with broadcasts from Midday till Midnight for 5 days from the 24th to the 28th of December. The plan was to then broadcast on Saturday nights from 10 PM but the next broadcasts were not until Easter, when they were heard from Midday till Midnight on Easter Sunday and Monday.
It is believed that the Easter 1985 broadcast was the last from EST as the one remaining transmitter was subsequently sold to another operator, to pay some of the Court costs, and the Authorities soon allocated 103 MHz to Beacon Radio.
Dave Cooper, Albert Hall, Tim Shepherd & Nick Winter 2007, updated 2020.
Where are they now?
- Rick St. James – Founding member of EST. Left to pursue business interests. Now happily married, with 2 children, and running a theatrical light hire company in South Birmingham.
- Dave Cooper – Founding member of EST. Went on to work a short spell on The Voice of Peace in 1987, then Radio Caroline over Christmas 1989, under the name Chris Cooper. Currently working on a technology project for Birmingham City Council. Still in regular contact with former colleague, Keith Rogers, who set up Sounds Alternative, and was Best Man at Keith’s wedding.
- Albert Hall – A great, innovative, broadcaster who did a lot of behind-the-scenes work for both Empire Radio and EST, making sporadic appearances on-air. Has connections with Radio Caroline, and acted as Tour Guide, on the Ross Revenge, at its most recent pubic open days in Tilbury. Currently living in Essex, where he runs his own cleaning company.
- Linda – Birmingham’s first female rock DJ. Married to Tony and still living locally. Working in the tourism industry.
- Martin – The “Peter Phillips” of EST, with his authoritative, BBC-style voice. What Martin didn’t know about rock music, wasn’t worth knowing. Had the most amazing record collection, and continued working as a full-time pub rock DJ right up until his untimely death in 1997.
- Paul Matthews – See text. Married, with 3 children, and a big supporter of Radio Caroline.
- Sally Slapcabbage – Another great individual, sadly no longer with us. Sally arranged many of the locations for EST and was a tireless promoter of the station. A poet and long-time free radio supporter. Passed away in 1996.
- Tim Shepherd – As already detailed, Tim has made a life in Israel, where he works in the computer industry and still presents radio programmes. Married, with young twin girls.
- Nick – Joined the station as a “Go-for” and became a rather reluctant DJ. Never spoke much, but had the knack of mixing great music. Decided to move out of the city, and set up home in Devon, where he started a gardening business, got married, and now runs a pet cemetery!