The Full Story
ANGEL RADIO – By Jo Biggs
Angel Radio was the brainchild of electrician, art & design technician and former pirate radio operator, Tony Smith. This unique station, Angel Radio, was launched in 1999 to bring music and memories into the homes of older people at a time when most other radio stations were concentrating on much younger listeners. It was also Tony Smith’s ambition to provide an opportunity for older people to participate in the running of the station, including the creation and presenting of programmes. Tony himself is 67 and visually impaired as a result of several strokes. He has demonstrated that despite some of the effects of ageing, it is still possible to learn new skills and enjoy being part of a friendly community, whether in person or through the airwaves.
Angel Radio began as a temporary broadcaster in Portsmouth with a licence of just a few days. It was designed as a 24-hour a day ‘memory box’ with presenters playing music from the 1920s to the early 1960s and providing friendly, informal, memory-jogging chit-chat. The first broadcast proved so popular that several further short-term licences enabled the station to become more established. Its unique nature gained national publicity, including a dedicated leader column in The Times newspaper, a five-minute news feature on BBC Radio 4, and Portsmouth City Primary Care Trust awarding Angel Radio ‘Most Effective Public Information Project 2001’.
At that time, temporary 28-day licences were the only way a small community group could broadcast. The radio waves were primarily under the ownership of the BBC or large commercial stations. However, in 2002 the Radio Authority (now part of Ofcom) invited Angel to run on a full-time licence, as an experiment to test the feasibility and viability of a small group of volunteers running their own community radio service. After Angel, and several other ‘Access’ stations had run, non-stop, for four years, the experiment was judged successful, with one of Ofcom’s leading figures, Kevin Carey, stating “Angel Radio is fabulously off-beat but it has the potential to be a national brand”. The all-round social benefits for Angel’s team of volunteers and regular listeners to the station had proved substantial. Responses from both clearly indicated a rise in self-esteem and a positive effect on reducing both the sense of, and the reality of social isolation. Local charities spotlighted by the station had shown an increase in those taking advantage of their services, listeners and local organisations were contributing to a regular weekly calendar of local events and activities, and the station was providing information and advice on a variety of listener concerns such as scams and cold-callers. In 2006 Ofcom announced that they would be issuing the first full-time community radio licences. Angel Radio was there at the very beginning of experimenting with, and legalising “community radio, the most significant innovation in terrestrial broadcasting in the UK this century, and probably the last” (Tony Stoller, 2021). There are currently around 300 community radio stations serving small communities of interest around the UK. Having been on air continuously since February 2002, Angel Radio is the longest running community licensee in the UK and is still unique in both the music it plays and its aim to offer mental and physical stimulation to older people, provided by older people, in a relaxed, informal atmosphere, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Whilst Angel’s uniqueness continued to attract national TV and radio news and documentaries, up to 2010 it was still only broadcasting to an area of about 15 miles on FM. There was plenty of feedback from potential listeners living outside the broadcast area, who had read or heard about the station. So, in 2010, Angel Radio began broadcasting on a regional digital (DAB) network covering West Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Being one of only 2 community stations to attempt this. Initially, this cost many thousands of £££s per year, but the huge rise in listener numbers and their donations offset a major amount of the expense. Although Angel continues to seek financial support from a variety of sources, the largest part of Angel’s funding has always been listener donations.
In 2014 Angel Radio attempted to take over Portsmouth’s commercial broadcaster, formerly known as The Breeze, (now South Coast Greatest Hits) which would have enabled Angel Radio’s FM signal to be considerably stronger, raising its potential FM audience by tens of thousands. Although the bid failed, Ofcom were impressed by the quality of Angel Radio’s proposal, so they quickly found and advertised another radio licence for the Portsmouth & Havant area, which Angel applied for and won. This new FM licence provided Angel Radio with the extended FM coverage that the Breeze takeover would have provided. FM is often still the radio of choice of many older people, which is why Angel Radio spends much effort getting the best FM coverage possible. In 2020 Angel Radio received, from Ofcom, a further expansion of its FM coverage with a power increase of its FM transmitter from 80 watts to 200 watts. In September 2021 Angel changed its FM frequency to 98.6MHz and moved its transmitter to a new higher site where it now shares Heart FM’s broadcast antennas, further expanding Angel’s FM coverage area. In fact Angel Radio’s FM service now enjoys better signal coverage than the commercial radio station that it tried to take over in 2014. In September 2021 Angel Radio advised Ofcom they would be seeking a further 3 FM licenses providing coverage of Fareham & Titchfield, Chichester & Bognor Regis, Petersfield & Liss. Ofcom couldn’t fulfil the granting of a licence for Petersfield & Liss as there are currently no spare frequencies, but Ofcom have awarded Angel the FM licence for Chichester & Bognor Regis to broadcast with 200 watts on 94.8MHz. It is hoped to be on-air in April 2022. Angel Radio is now in the process of applying for the licensing of a third FM transmitter, this time to cover the Park Gate, Fareham and Tichfield areas.
In 2015 Angel Radio began another ‘community’ experiment for Ofcom, this time to prove that a small community group could run its own DAB multiplex. The increased income from listener donations, and income from Angel Radio’s experimental Small-Scale DAB transmissions, enabled further expansion of Angel’s DAB coverage too. For those with digital (DAB) radios, Angel Radio’s broadcasts currently cover Hampshire, West Sussex, the Isle of Wight, Dorset, Surrey, the Channel Islands, London, Birmingham, Norwich, Brighton, Bristol, Tynemouth, South Shields, Cambridge, Galway, Dublin, Tipperary, Cork and Wexford. Later in 2022 Angel Radio will also broadcast to Salisbury, Sheffield, Rotherham and Glasgow. This expansion is due to the ground-breaking work of Angel Radio’s Digital Development Manager, Ash Elford. Ash is now also the DAB Platform Manager for Nation Broadcasting, one of the UK’s fastest growing media companies. Ash has stated that it was Angel Radio and its founder, Tony Smith, who inspired his enthusiasm for radio. Angel Radio’s own DAB multiplex was the first in the UK to use DAB+, now the digital broadcast method used by hundreds of UK stations. Angel’s DAB multiplex also introduced Slide Show, the transmission of radio station logos to car radio screens.
Angel Radio also broadcasts on the internet to a world-wide audience. Notable countries where Angel has a developing audience include Germany, France, USA, Israel, and many others. Several magazine articles and TV documentaries shown in Germany have resulted in Angel Radio’s founder assisting a group of older people there to create their own version of Angel, Radio Ginseng, which recently began broadcasting online and is seeking a 'proper' radio broadcast licence to broadcast to older people in Germany. A documentary about Angel has been produced by South Korean TV to show older people what they can achieve after retirement. Angel Radio has also featured on Russian TV news channels and was held up as a “perfect example of community radio” during a debate in the European Parliament.
Angel Radio’s team of 70+ volunteers are mostly aged over 60, many in their 70s and 80s. Angel’s oldest volunteer, now sadly passed away, was still presenting 3 shows a week at the age of 94. But Angel is also keen to encourage intergenerational listening and understanding. At one point the youngest regular phone caller was aged 4 (listening with grandparents) and the oldest was 104 … a 100-year age gap. Angel Radio regularly provides secondary school students with work experience placements. They learn about the importance of the station for the elderly, particularly those who may live on their own or be housebound, as well as hands-on experience of producing and presenting on radio. A number of the students remain with the radio station after their work experience is complete and have continued to volunteer for many years.
Angel Radio’s unique record library holds over 160,000 records dating from 1900 to the 1960s, which are available to listeners through daily request shows. To ensure no listener should be put off contacting the station because of worries over high telephone charges, a free-phone number is provided. Request shows are on air for at least two and a half hours a day, often more. Listeners can call in, request a piece of music and hear it played on their radio within minutes. Some programmes carry a theme, which encourages listeners to think of songs on that topic or guess the theme of the show. Other programmes provide mental stimulation through quizzes, word games and memory-jogging conversation. There are frequently guests who visit the station and volunteer their time to chat about a particular subject of interest to listeners, or one that will jog memories from the past. Past guests include Dame Vera Lynn, Ken Dodd, Kenny Ball, Angela Rippon, Britt Ekland and many others. Physical stimulation is provided by daily coffee-time exercise programmes, as well as encouraging listeners to get out and about by publicising events of interest. Highly visible, bright yellow, enamel Angel Radio lapel brooches can be worn so that listeners can identify one another.
Despite its name, Angel is not a religious station. Starting with ‘A’ puts the station at the top of many alphabetical lists. The name ‘Angel’ was chosen to signify ‘heavenly music and devilish fun’. Although it is not a religious station, it does provide an old-fashioned Sunday morning church service for those listeners who can no longer get to the church of their choice. As far as possible, Angel tries to provide what is asked for by its audience. When a number of listeners asked for more 1960s records it was found that some of the later pop songs did not always sit comfortably alongside the big bands and crooners of the 30s, 40s and 50s. So a few 60s-only programmes were introduced on Angel, and a sister station, ‘Swinging Radio 60s’, was launched playing only music from that decade so that listeners could choose the station that best suits their taste. The Swinging Radio 60s station is also now expanding its coverage and can be heard on DAB in Portsmouth, Brighton and Aldershot. Swinging Radio 60s is also on 104.3 FM providing the overnight service for local rock station, The Flash.
Over the past twenty-three years on air Angel Radio has received many awards for its unique work, including: Best Radio Station Serving Listeners in the South of England, 2014. The judges of this prestigious award from the Radio Academy described Angel Radio as; “A station with its own unique place and purpose, Angel Radio celebrates the past in a warm and inclusive way and is clearly adored within its target demographic. With a charming mix of fun, nostalgia and practical support for its listeners, the station serves a very powerful purpose in bringing together a community and giving them a place to belong.”
Angel Radio’s other awards include:
Community Action Award, 2000
Most Effective Public Information Project, 2001
Daily Mail Unsung Hero, 2002 (station’s founder)
Portsmouth News Local Heroes, 2003, 2004, 2005
Hampshire Good Neighbours, 2008
Best Silver Surfer Website, 2008
Queen’s Award, 2009
Media Trust - Make A Difference, 2009
Sunday Independent Happy List, 2014 (station’s founder)
Best Radio Station South of England, 2014
NIACE – Transforming Lives, 2014
Radio Station of the Year (Bronze), 2016
Greatest Contribution to the Community, 2018
Hampshire Hero, 2019 (station’s founder)
Outstanding Arts & Creativity in Dementia Care (finalist 2019)
Havant Coronavirus Community Hero (station’s founder 2021)
Honours Award for Commitment to, and Impact on, Community Radio 2021 (station’s founder)