Radio Gorgeous is a radio station run by women for women, and Josephine Pembroke is the woman behind it. In her fiftieth year she has finally arrived at her dream career, and is looking forward to spending the next decade and beyond on air.
The idea came to her, as many good ideas do, in the bath. That much I will tell you up front, but here’s the edited answer to my question to her: how did Radio Gorgeous come about? I think her response tells you masses about her.
Josephine says: “My ambition was to be the naughtiest girl in school and I was expelled, so I came down to London from Yorkshire at 17 and tried to be a make-up artist. But I got thrown out of beauty school, too.
“I became a wild girl about town, living in squats and being crazy. I wanted to be a singer, so I did that for a while. Then I went to live in New York and was a hatcheck girl at the legendary Limelight Club.
“Back in London [are you keeping up at the back?] I moved to Soho and got a job working for Anthony Fawcett, who was an assistant to stars such as Andy Warhol. My job was to be glamorous. I could hardly type.
I started a cabaret act, Pussies Galore. It was ironic, so tongue in cheek. We were sex symbols, goddesses…
“Then I went and worked in fashion PR, eventually being head-hunted by fashion guru Lynne Franks. I only lasted three months [with her] because you had to work really hard. But the great thing was that I learned PR skills.
“While I was there I realised I wanted to be an actress, so I went to drama school. But I got kicked out because they said I was un-directable. Unlike school, I was really upset.
“So I started a cabaret act, Pussies Galore, which was inspired by James Bond. It was ironic, so tongue in cheek. We were sex symbols, goddesses… I remastered James Bond songs into club tracks and sang along with them.
“Thanks to my PR skills I could sell the idea, and we played everywhere: Café de Paris, Heaven, Cream in Liverpool, the Haçienda in Manchester. We were on the cover of City Limits [the now-defunct London listings magazine] and featured in The Face.
“By then I had met James Pembroke, who was marketing manager for City Limits, and we fell in love and got married. I decided I wanted to be a TV presenter so I became an agony aunt on Janet Street Porter’s gay television programme.
“I had a baby at 33, moved to Dorset and found a summertime radio station, which offered me a job. We moved to Bath; I trained to be a producer and a presenter, and following that I got a job as a broadcast assistant at BBC Bristol, where I worked for two or three years.
“It was brilliant when the kids were little, and I was finally acceptable!
“Then we moved back to Dorset and I was so bored. I became a jazz singer. That was really good fun. It was more about entertainment than music. I’d dress up like Shirley Bassey. Wonderful!
“But Dorset wasn’t fast-moving enough for me. My husband bought a share of the Oldie magazine, of which he is now publisher, and we came back to London.
“One day, I was lying in the bath thinking: what do I really love? [FINALLY!] And the answer was radio. I am a radio junkie. I am so passionate about it. And women are my inspiration, so it made complete sense to put together a radio station for women where they could be entertained and get relevant information.”
Making it happen
Never one to let the grass grow under her feet – as her potted life story illustrates – Josephine enrolled in a radio production course where she could learn practical skills. She completed her diploma, with not a hint of the threat of expulsion, and her next task was to find a home for her embryonic idea.
Enter OnFM Radio, a London community station serving nine boroughs of the metropolis. Having presented her vision and flashed her credentials, she won a regular two-hour weekly slot and Radio Gorgeous became reality.
She says: “I am appalled at the lack of female voices on air, and bored by the celebrity-obsessed, baby-centric content that is aimed at women. Radio Gorgeous is for women with lively minds, an eye for style and a sense of humour.”
She works with two colleagues: co-presenter Donna Freed, a fast-talking New Yorker, and producer Harriet Childs. It truly is a labour of love, as all three work for nothing. But the fact that they don’t draw a salary is not reflected in the professionalism of their output.
“People really want to be on Radio Gorgeous,” says Josephine. “It gives women a voice, it says: ‘This is me, this is what I do.’ Women want to help women, and they suggest people we should feature. Yesterday someone described us as pirate radio for Vogue readers.”
Each two-hour programme can be heard live in London on Tuesdays between 12 and 2pm on 101FM, or downloaded as a podcast, or listened to online at Radio Gorgeous. It is a lively mixture of discussion and interviews spliced with music. Previous guests include writer and columnist Zoe Williams, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, writers and agony aunts Mary Killen and Virginia Ironside and a host of others. They cover topics as diverse as gender imbalance in the film industry, female stand-up comics, the resurgence of craft, infidelity, chicken wrangling and city allotments.
But is there a genuine need for Radio Gorgeous? Haven’t Jenni Murray and co got it covered on Radio 4?
“We’re different from Woman’s Hour in the way that we are women-only while they have male experts. We are irreverent while they are worthy, and we want to have fun, primarily, and entertain. We’re more of a magazine programme,” she says.
So who listens to Radio Gorgeous? “We say it’s for women aged 25-100 but on Facebook we can see that most fall into the 35-55 age range. We get masses of feedback from our listeners. Our most popular item has been a discussion on toxic friends. That one really struck a chord.”
Now that Radio Gorgeous has established its identity, the next phase is about to be deployed. “This year I’m going to try to get sponsorship so that we can expand,” says Josephine. “Then we can afford the equipment that would allow us to become an internet radio station.
“Our audience is there, and we want to give them more. We’re evolving in an organic way.”
Just like Pembroke herself. With her big five-oh approaching this year, her extraordinary life is getting bigger and better. And we can all be inspired by that.
Hear high50’s Daniela Soave on Radio Gorgeous: