Tony Cummings recently went to Bournemouth to catch the sights and sounds of the Christian radio station HOPE FM.
Radio stations come in all shapes and sizes but there can't be many like Bournemouth's Hope FM where in the same complex you can pump iron in the Lifewise Fitness Centre gymnasium or put on pounds with eggs, beans and chips in the café. Hope FM is based in the sprawling YMCA building a stone's throw from Bournemouth's promenade and I am visiting the station - one of the pioneers of UK Christian radio - to see what exactly goes on in this successful broadcasting initiative which since its fulltime launch on 27th May has been enticing 400,000 potential listeners with its peppy mix of Christian music, secular hits and community-orientated speech. On a Friday afternoon in a cramped office sporting five computers, I meet the station's programme controller Kevin Potter, a friendly South African with a wealth of community radio experience in his homeland and who started with Hope FM as launch manager when the station, after years of pioneering broadcasting twice a year with 28-day RSL licences, finally won one of the coveted Community licences enabling it to broadcast day and night. Kevin is a hugely busy man - he selects all the tracks played on air and gets them fed into the computer where the ingenious ENCODAD programme sorts them ready for programming, and oversees a team of volunteer presenters which has today reached a staggering 36 people, mostly men. "We have a lack of females at the moment," says Kevin ruefully. "We could do with some 16 to 24 year olds keen to learn radio."
I am listening to Hope FM on the car radio as we move, very slowly, through the traffic clogged streets. Kevin has explained to me that Hope's musical mix is 60 per cent Christian music, 20 per cent mainstream artists (whose lyrics are carefully vetted to weed out anything potentially off colour), 10 per cent praise and worship and 10 per cent "specialist" (everything from classical to hip-hop). As our car crawls past the Bournemouth Spiritualist Church "I Cling To The Cross" by Paul Baloche and Matt Redman (which I note is number two on the Hope FM Weekly Chart) is playing. Such in-your-face proclamation isn't continued. The next track is "I Love You" by Jay Holiday which is dull, even by the standards of groove-based R&B and seems to consist of the soul man purring the title at least 50 times.
The station signal isn't good and here on the outskirts of town we keep losing it. Apparently Hope FM's 25 watts signal on 90.1 right beside Radio 2, is I am told, less effective than the 15 watts signal they had when there were doing RSLs. Momentarily though, a signal breaks through the static. "From the heart of Bournemouth. For the heart of the community. Hope FM." The jingle is followed by a track from June Rochelle, called appropriately enough, "Radio".
Driving back in on Saturday morning, I am momentarily wallowing in Jesus music nostalgia thanks to the flow of oldies emanating from the car radio. Saturday 10.00am to 12.00 noon is the slot for The Early Years presented by a local Anglican vicar, Geoff Boland, and as the flow of tracks by Liberation Suite, The All Saved Freak Band and the truly obscure Poema pour forth I remember again what Kevin Potter told me about the station "appealing to as many different musical tastes as possible." Indeed, a look through the programme schedule reveals programmes like 60 Going On 40, Urban Underground and even a programme dedicated to Polish music (there are a lot of Polish nationals now living in Bournemouth apparently). Diversity rules.
Stuart Sharkey, Hope FM's station manager, caught the radio bug through hospital radio and took early retirement to run the business side of the charity. He also presents the Good Afternoon programme very Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Stuart tells me about that momentous day on 27th May when Hope FM went on air. "We had the Archbishop Of York, the mayor and a whole heap of people wishing us well. It's a day we'll never forget." Hope is budgeted to run on around £170,000 a year, half coming from advertising and half coming from grants and donations. I ask for some of the highlights of the station so far. "Well, the outside broadcast from the New Wine Summer Conference in Shepton Mallett in August was pretty important for us. We took an ISDN feed the second week, Sunday to Saturday, and broadcast the celebrations every evening and topped them up to the hour with interviews we did there. We had very good feedback and the hits on our website went up 100 per cent." A big advantage of Hope FM's Bournemouth base is that the Labour Party hold their annual conference there meaning that the station has been able to interview such figures as the home secretary. But for the whole Hope FM team the outstanding achievement so far has been the key part the community station was able to play in the life of Samar, an Iranian woman who after converting to Christianity had to flee her homeland and was living in Bournemouth. A local church contacted Hope FM to tell them that Samar was about to be deported back to Iran despite threats that she might be put to death for her religion. A Hope FM broadcaster Ruth Oliver had interviewed MP Ann Widdicombe a couple of years before and still had her mobile number. Ruth phoned Ann, explained Samar's plight and the MP agreed to try and get a question about Samar's imminent deportation asked in the House Of Commons. "Ann's question on 18th June had a dramatic effect," says Stuart. "That day Samar had been told a bus was coming to take her to the airport. But within 20 minutes she'd been told there had been a stay of execution." In part through Hope FM's efforts, Samar's desperate plight was catapulted into the media spotlight and briefly Hope were besieged by reporters and TV crews. A final decision abut Samar's plea to stay in Britain is still to be made by the authorities. In the meantime, Samar, through the Hope FM website, has communicated her gratitude to Hope FM listeners for their prayers and emails of support.
I sit in the coffee shop of the Pavilion Theatre, opposite Hope's YMCA HQ, listening to the broadcaster and visionary responsible for the station from its humble beginnings. Blair Masters is an ebullient bear of a man who is a veteran youth worker and broadcaster. As well as the founding father of Hope FM, he is the programme manager of YMCA. He got into radio with Radio Hallam as their religious broadcaster and eventually had a four hour programme on Classic Gold. After moving to Bournemouth YMCA in 1990, Blair's vision for the potential for Christian radio resurfaced and in 1993 he persuaded his board to invest in a "broom cupboard" studio and, under the Radio Cracker umbrella, to apply for an RSL 28 day licence. "We did RSLs, two a year, for 15 years. We were pioneers I suppose. We had a vision to act as a bridge between community groups, giving local people an opportunity to express their views and enrich the lives of people living in our area by helping to foster social gain, by seeking to empower ordinary people through training and by giving them a voice in the world of media." Having gained their precious community broadcasting licence, Blair has set up the station to appeal to as wide a section of the Bournemouth listening public as possible. "We could have made Hope FM in-your-face preaching and Bible teaching. And indeed we do have programmes like Bible study with Chuck Swindoll and James Dobson's Focus On The Family. But we decided to make it much broader. For example, on The Breakfast Show I present each day with Jane Dobbins, we have an item highlighting local business news and we have Community Matters programmes Monday to Friday. Remember, a survey in 2001 showed that 70 per cent of people in Bournemouth say they're Christian yet only around eight or nine per cent - and that's above the national average - go to church. Hope FM aims at reaching these people."
I sit in the live studio next to a large sing which reads FOLLOW NEWS WITH WEATHER. BE AWARE OF SPONSORED WEATHER. Next door in the tiny production studio someone is slaving over a new jingle but in here it's Luke Bennett presenting a teen issue programme Generation Y. Luke is eminently qualified to present a youth programme. He's 15 years old and is probably the holde of some kind of broadcasting world record by presenting his first programme (during Hope's RSL era) when he was 11 years old! Luke is certainly adept at keeping the music and chat flowing, touching the computer screen to trigger a Switchfoot track. I ask the bespectacled teenager, who will soon be going to college to study media, what is his favourite song at the moment. "Probably something off the latest Casting Crowns," he replies. Minutes later he's reading a chunk of UCB's Word For Today on air, playing an Anastasia song and plugging a special offer where listeners can get cut price tickets to watch AC Bournemouth. Then, after an ad for the India Ocean Restaurant he gets a chance to play his favourites, Casting Crowns' "East To West". I leave Luke as he's explaining to listeners how they can make a greener Christmas this year (suggestions including making your own cards, purchasing gifts made locally and using recycled stationery).
While the Generation Y Review Section gets underway I chat in the administration office to Dave Griffith of local rock band Bosh about Bournemouth. . .and Hope FM. "Bournemouth has a kind of schizophrenic reputation. It's known as God's Waiting Room with lots of old people who've come here to enjoy their retirement by the seaside. Then in the evening the old people disappear and Bournemouth becomes South Coast Club Capital with thousands of young people making the pilgrimage for a night of drunken debauchery. There's some wild stuff going on here, for instance Horse Shoe Common is the most violent patch of ground in all of Dorset. Hope FM is doing a fantastic job in bringing an alternative voice to all that. They've improved hugely since they launched, though I think they still play far too much American music. Britain desperately needs radical radio stations like Hope FM. We Christians need to keep praying for them."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.