In this post about my life in radio, we’re still in 1970. I graduate from being a solo radio nut — I cement my friendship with a soul-mate from school, and together we embark upon an adventuresome period which begins with turning his bedroom into a pirate radio station …
My new-found school friend Bill had something I really wanted to get my hands on: his own radio studio. It resided in his bedroom in the fifth-floor flat of a tower block not far from where I lived with my mum in Leytonstone. Bill lived in John Walsh Tower with his long-suffering mum — a woman gifted with the patience of a saint, and someone I remember with great affection. I think she regarded herself as a kind of surrogate parent, probably because I spent so much time there and, as she knew I’d lost my dad and brother, her maternal instinct kicked in. She provided some welcome additional emotional support for me.
Photo: John Walsh Tower, Leytonstone, London. Credit: Find A Property
Squeezed into the tiny room along with his bed and virtually nothing else save piles of records, tapes and unwashed clothes, Bill’s ‘radio studio’ was an old, mahogany-veneered, floor-standing radiogram from which he’d removed the lid and extracted the Armstrong valve amplifier, making just enough space inside for two BSR turntables balanced on polystyrene blocks tall enough to raise them to a height where they could be more easily accessed. He’d removed the arms that held the records in place and put squares of felt on each of the turntables’ surfaces to act as slip-mats.
Photo: BSR turntable. Credit: jabw.demon.co.uk
The exposed amp, all glowing valves, huge, hot capacitors and other ancient, dusty components, now stood on a low table to one side. On the other there was a domestic reel-to-reel tape recorder — I can’t recall the brand, but it had a joystick control that you pushed away from you to play and pulled back to stop. Added to this arrangement was the tape recorder’s plastic microphone taped to a broom handle sticking up at the front of the radiogram box, and completing the set-up was a tiny, gold-coloured four-channel Radio Shack mixer no bigger than a tobacco tin, its miniscule knobs barely large enough to be tweaked between finger and thumb. This was precariously taped to the front ledge of the radiogram.
Photo: Example of an early Armstrong amplifier-tuner chassis. Credit: Audio Miscellany
All of these items were interconnected with varying lengths of bell-wire. Where a single length wasn’t long enough, he’d twisted the ends of several pieces together, wrapping the joins in black insulating tape and, when that had run out, Sellotape. They ran everywhere across and around the equipment, festooning it like randomly-flung strands of spaghetti.
When switched on and fully powered up, the thing was probably a death trap. But this didn’t occur to me — the first time I saw it, I fell in love with it instantly and considered Bill to be some kind of genius in the field of electronics.
At first, I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. He gave me a demonstration on how to use it — cueing the vinyl 45s up on the turntables, from which he’d removed all the cogs and things that usually automated the process of playing records, getting a jingle ready to play on the tape recorder (he’d recorded dozens of radio jingles from Radio Caroline, Radio London and the other pirate stations that had only relatively recently been silenced), showing me how you had to untwist two wires at the back of the mixer while talking between discs and re-twist one of the wires around a third — a natty innovation of his own devising that he called a ‘treble filter’, necessary because everything was so electrically unbalanced that without it the music playing through the radiogram’s 12-inch Goodmans speaker sounded way too thin and tinny); then, with a tweak of one of the tiny mixer knobs, the mic was on, and –
Here I must digress for a moment to explain that there were several aspects of this extraordinary setup that I can’t explain to you from this distance in time, such as how the PFL (pre-fade listen) circuit worked (so the next record could be cued up while the current one still played out loud), or how the headphones (a.k.a. ‘cans’ in the trade) were wired up.
Photo: Example of some old headphones. Credit: The DZ company
You’ll just have to take my word that, somehow, these functions, essential to a radio studio’s operation, just worked. Thinking back, there must have been some little switches somewhere within the maze of ad-hoc circuitry that needed to be flipped to get the PFL piped into the cans, but the detail escapes me now. And the cans were nothing like the modern-day variety, lightweight and padded — bought from a local Army Surplus store, they had naked metal head straps that cut into your bonce after a few minutes’ use and earpieces made, as I recall, from Bakelite.
Anyway, Bill tweaked the mic up as a record faded, and away he went.
Like me, Bill had picked up all his DJ-ing tips by listening to his heroes on the radio and sought to emulate them. With all this equipment to hand, he’d had much more practice than me with my single tape recorder and no turntables. So when he back-announced the record in his “Gor blimey” Cockney accent, yelling at the top of his voice, yabbering away at ninety miles an hour and calling himself Alan West — “WEST HAR!!!” — I was immensely impressed with his performance. He sounded just like a real DJ!
Photo: Alan West on RNI. Credit: offshore-radio.de
I was a relative newcomer to RNI — Radio Northsea International, a pirate station that had only recently come on air — but was familiar with the line-up of English-speaking DJs on the Dutch-based offshore station. Alan West was one of its stars.
“Can’t use your own name mate,” he explained. “No-one does on air. You’d be arrested coming through customs if they saw it on your passport. So who d’you wanna be?” I decided that for my bedroom broadcast debut I would be Stevie Merike — “Stee-vee MER-ikk!” — one of Alan West’s zany colleagues on RNI. I don’t remember the first record I played, or how that first link went as far as my style was concerned. It was all eclipsed by the concentration needed to deal with the mechanics of the process.
Photo: Stevie Merike (with Alan West in foreground) on RNI. Credit: quizquest
Bill sat on his bed as I stood in front of the microphone and held the square of felt on the revolving turntable with one hand, the needle lined up at the start of the track. I turned up the mic knob with the other hand, then untwisted the ‘treble filter’ wires and grappled with re-twisting one of them with the other elusive strand (an acquired accomplishment, using just finger and thumb, that took me weeks to master before I could do it without thinking) while mumbling something along the lines of “And that was … er [insert name of artist and song], um — here on, er, Radio … Northsea International — ah, yes, Stevie err Merike with you, um — and now, er … we’ve got, um [insert name of next artist and song] …”
Thus was born my broadcasting career.
We were West and Merike for a few more weeks of constant practising upstairs in his cramped bedroom, using every spare moment we had after school and at weekends. After a while a change of names came when Bill decided he’d be Dave Cash, so I became Kenny Everett. Then Bill had an inspired idea.
We needed more room. So we’d move the equipment downstairs, into the living-room.
As I said, his mum must’ve had the patience of a saint, because one weekend the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle suddenly appeared amongst the armchairs and the settee, the coffee table and the TV, occupying a vacant corner of the lounge. We moved it all ourselves, while she was out. I thought he’d asked her if it would be OK. I should’ve known Bill’s mind didn’t work quite like that. What Bill wanted, Bill generally got.
Fortunately, she soon became accustomed to living with the beast in the corner — she even did one or two sessions on the gear once she’d calmed down.
Another little innovation Bill added to the equipment while it was in the lounge: he wired a spare radio into the circuitry, found an open frequency on medium wave and mixed the sound of the radio’s white noise into our ‘signal’, so that it sounded just as though we were broadcasting for real. He put the Goodmans speaker in his bedroom, the wires dangling from the bedroom window to the balcony below and snaking in through the balcony door to connect to the amplifier, so whoever wasn’t on air could sit upstairs and listen to whoever was on air and provide a critique of their work afterwards.
Several months passed with us doing our ‘on-air shifts’ whenever time permitted. We used to rush back to his place in our lunch-breaks (school was just around the corner) and do precisely twenty-two and a half minutes each, which gave us just enough time to get back for afternoon registration. Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 10pm were filled with additional three-hour shifts, turn and turn about. We listened avidly to each other’s shows, dispensing praise for the occasional good bits and criticising the rather more frequent rubbishy sequences.
And then: more inspiration from Bill — he proposed another move, this time into the L-shaped walk-in wardrobe in his mum’s bedroom upstairs. This time he asked first, and she was only too happy to agree in order to get her living-room back. The cavernous walk-in wardrobe had enough room for us to install a proper working surface, which we had someone cut from pieces of plywood board. It was supported with legs of three-by-two timber. Holes were cut in the plywood for the record decks, an angle-poise lamp was adapted for a mic boom (we’d bought a better microphone for our new studio), shelves were erected for the records and tapes and other sundry items. Bill fitted loudspeakers into every room in the flat, including the bathroom. I remember the thrill of anticipation we felt during the evening as we prepared to switch it all on in its new home: we were astonished and mightily relieved when it all worked without anything catching fire or blowing any fuses.
Whilst we’d been planning the physical move, we’d also been working on expanding our ‘service’ and further developing our individual personas — it was time for us to do away with the purloined alter-egos of Kenny and Cash and become ourselves. Bill didn’t like his real full name, and I wasn’t keen on mine either — and we had this thing about using different ‘on-air’ names just like we thought all real DJs did. So one evening we thumbed through the letters pages of a Record Mirror and picked two names from the contributors there. We swapped the surnames around, so I became Bob Kingsley and Bill became … well, for reasons explained in Radio Daze: Interlude #1 — From This Perspective, that will remain my little secret — but that was how I chose my on-air name, and it’s stuck with me ever since, being finally adopted permanently when I changed my name by Deed Poll over a decade later.
We’d also had enough of pretending to be Radio Northsea International. We wanted our own station — so we re-branded our little enterprise as Radio Freedom International, broadcasting from the M.V. Freedom II anchored five miles off the coast of Holland on medium wave, FM and short wave.
All of it was make-believe, yet to us it was more real than the air we breathed, more important than the final exams we were soon due to face at school.
We had lived through this stage in our lives thinking we were unique in what we were doing — certainly, no-one else at school shared our interest: most seemed to think we were a little mad and we were ribbed mercilessly about our geeky behaviour. This coloured our judgement — we couldn’t imagine anyone else in the wider world going to all the trouble we had. But we found out we were wrong when we finally plucked up the courage to visit a local hospital radio station to see if we might, by now, be good enough get some on-air work there.
That’s where we go on the next part of the journey.
To read part 1 of this series, see Radio Daze: Beginnings
To read part 2 of this series, see Radio Daze: Schoolboy Dreams
To read part 3 of this series, see Radio Daze: Interlude #1 — From This Perspective