How a much loved radio station was born in a Lancashire church

With Rock FM set to pull its broadcasters out of Preston, Mike Hill looks back at the early days of a radio institution

Thursday, 6th February 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Friday, 7th February 2020, 2:22 pm
Inside the brand new studio of Red Rose Radio ahead of its launch in October 1982

At 6am on a crisp October morning, way back in 1982, a shaky hand reached across a control board and excitedly turned on a microphone.

From that moment, Lancashire’s first and most successful independent local radio station was born.

Red Rose Radio took to the airwaves with three hours of music, weather and travel bulletins on 301 medium wave and 97.4FM on October 5, 1982.

Looking down from the newsroom on the reception at Red Rose Radio ahead of its launch in October 1982

Before splitting into Rock FM and Magic 999 in 1990, Red Rose Radio was hugely popular.

At one point it drew in 60 per cent of people listening to the radio in a catchment area of 1.4m.

It also kick-started the careers of countless DJs, journalists, producers and executives.

Popular comedian Jon Culshaw cut his teeth on Red Rose Radio, as did Sky News presenter Kay Burley, who started off in the news department.

Russell Harty and the Mayor and Mayoress of Preston Joe and Vera Pownall pictured on the day the station was launched on October 5, 1982

TV personality Russell Harty, and DJs Allan Beswick, Simon Tate, Derek Webster and John Gillmore all took to the airwaves in the early years.

The station was born when a consortium, led by tycoon Owen Oyston, successfully bid for the franchise when the Government put them up for grabs in the early 1980s.

The TransWorld Communications consortium quickly found the perfect building for their new venture, the dilapidated shell of St Paul’s Church, on Ringway, Preston.

The Grade II-listed church was built in 1823-1825 and was considered ideal because of its thick walls, which acted as sound proofing, so it was gutted and then transformed into the studios which remain today.

Work underway to transform St Paul's Church into a radio station

Thousands of tombstones were moved to make way for the development, but the 6,500 human remains, many of which were interred in 1848 when cholera swept Britain, were not disturbed. The church was bought for £35,000 and the whole project cost £778,000, with most of the funding provided by the consortium’s 300 shareholders.

Once the building had been identified and transformed, attention was turned to the station’s programmes. As one station catering for all of the people of Lancashire, it had a range of different programmes, from those about big band music, soul and jazz to talk shows and a one-hour news bulletin at 5pm.

Despite the diverse music, the station also forged a reputation for its local news reports and the station’s coverage of the 1984 Abbeystead disaster saw it win two national awards.

The original line-up of presenters included several household names, with Harty joined by fellow Lancastrians comic Victoria Wood and former England rugby captain Bill Beaumont alongside Lancashire cricket legend Clive Lloyd.

Reception at Red Rose Radio ahead of its launch in October 1982

Children’s television presenter Atarah Ben-Tovim provided a special show for youngsters on a Saturday morning.

Behind the scenes, a staff of 40 was in place to help get the operation off the ground.

The first DJ to take to the airwaves on that opening day in October 1982 was Dave Lincoln, who later recalled: “It was quite amazing to be the first person on air. The station was the first one that was really for the people of Preston and I think they fell in love with it straight away.

“Things ran incredibly smoothly in the early days, to be honest. The whole operation was really well run and I think that was reflected by the number of people who tuned in.”

The first record played by the fledgling station was Barbara Streisand’s A Star was Born, which followed a 30-second welcome from chairman Owen Oyston. He told listeners: “This is a proud day for me and I hope it is for you and I trust you will accept my personal invitation to join us for many more days of enjoyable and informative listening here on Red Rose Radio.”

Hot on his heels came the very first advert... for Oyston’s chain of estate agents. Meanwhile, the first jingle for the station went,

“Red Rose Radio playing music and listening to what you say,

“Red Rose Radio lets you know all the news that’s happening everyday

“Everything that you want to hear is here in Lancashire loud and clear, Red Rose Radio.”

And the honour of the first dedication to be broadcast went to Dave, Mike and Mark at Car Radio, in Wigan, from their pal Harry.

Among Red Rose Radio’s early stars was Allan Beswick (pictured inset) whose late night phone-ins set the standard and drew readers from beyond the Lancashire borders with his often confrontational style.

Famously one caller was so disgruntled with his treatment at the hands of Beswick that he piled a load of tyres up next to the studio door and set light to them.

Another former DJ hit the headlines after asking then Labour leader Tony Blair if he ‘picked his nose’ during an interview.

Kev Seed also asked: “If you could get away with a one night stand with a top supermodel, who would you choose?”

To which an exasperated Mr Blair replied: “Thank you Kev. That’s quite enough.”

Over the years the station changed name and expanded, as Red Rose Radio split its frequencies on June 1, 1990 during the Government’s local radio shake-up.

Rock FM was broadcast from the Granada TV mast at Winter Hill and aimed at an under 35 audience, while Red Rose Gold was pushed on to the airwaves via medium wave from a transmitter in Longton.

By 1999, after a brief period as Red Rose 999, Red Rose Gold had been recast as Magic 999. In January 2015, Magic 999 was rebranded as Rock FM 2 and, four years later, it was renamed again, this time emerging as Greatest Hits Lancashire.