At 51, Mike Skinner was old enough to know better. The same could be said of his three friends. But they were ignorant, in a manner of speaking – which is why, when they met together in a field in East Sussex and started talking, they came up with the Big Idea.
Around them hummed the hurly burly of the Uckfield Festival, a sort of super-fête. The music was loud, the atmosphere was heady, and yes, there was a beer tent. But was that any reason for Mike, Gary, Alan and Paddy to think up such an over-ambitious, pie-in-the-sky, hopelessly impractical Big Idea as… “Let’s open our own radio station”?
It may be that there in that noisy field they realised that their experience and maturity gave them both a sense of adventure and a willingness to try something new and challenging. Though now, some eight years later, Mike admits: “Looking back, I’m amazed that we did it. But we did.”
What they – that’s Mike, Gary King, Alan French and the late Paddy Rea – did was to establish their own fully-fledged community radio station in Uckfield, a market town with a population of 13, 000. Today, it broadcasts music, news, features, weather, travel, and all the other bits and bobs of the airwaves, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
According to a recent survey, 105 Uckfield FM is the third most popular station in the town, after the BBC and Heart. It is recognised nationally as one of the most professional and effective in British community radio.
An hour’s sample listening the other morning included plenty of music, national news, local news, a chance to win 50 quid’s worth of groceries at the new Waitrose, the information that the 8.34 would leave Uckfield for London Bridge on time that morning, and a joke in the weather forecast that made me laugh out loud.
Today Mike and his colleagues look slightly rueful as they remember their early days. Their common bond, and to a great extent their common experience, involved hospital radio. Standing in that festive field eight years ago, they suspected they had a mountain to climb. At a sober meeting the next day they knew it.
“Our first headquarters was a little cramped,” Mike recalls. “The local cinema manager owed me a favour, and so his popcorn store became our office. The studio itself was the broom cupboard in the corner.”
They started small in every way. They begged for some equipment, borrowed some more. At first they broadcast for two weeks only, to support the Festival. After a year that became four weeks – when they supported the town’s Christmas shopping bonanza – and it kept building.
They were advised not to go full-time. They were told they couldn’t manage it, not with part-time volunteers and no finance. So one year ago, Uckfield FM went full-time. Knowing Mike and Gary, who today are the station’s chairman and programme director respectively, no one was surprised.
Finance was perhaps their biggest challenge, a challenge met partly by vigorous fund-raising, and partly by three wads of lottery money and various other grants. And today 105 Uckfield FM is located in a spacious unit set in a re-developed farm in fields high above ancient Uckfield. The main studio (one of two) is a state-of-the-art model with a panoramic view over the town.
There is no trace of the station’s amateur beginnings. The whole operation is high-tech, with 12 computers running things, all under control of IT specialist Ian Rennison, another man who has found his fifties to be full of new challenge and achievement.
Despite its well-oiled professional presentation, the station remains true to its roots, deep in the local community. “We support several organisations in the town,” Mike says. “They in turn support us. That’s what it’s all about – community.”
Uckfield is a rural town, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, so it is fitting that its radio station began in a field. Now, when the weather permits, the studio window stands open to the fields that surround it, and sounds of the country – cows, birds, and the yelping of dogs from the nearby grooming parlour – filter on to the air. It all makes for easy listening.
And that joke in the weather forecast? The announcer said: “Today there will be scattered showers, and average temperatures for the time of year. Tonight will be the same – only it will be dark.”
Visit the 105 Uckfield FM site to learn more and listen online