Recently I read over on Radio Today a story entitled Star to flip format 10 times in 10 days reporting “UKRD station Star North East is to try ten different music formats in ten days in order to find something different for listeners.” This is the brain child of their recently appointed “star” Programme Controller Robin Banks.

Radio Today quote Banks:

“They gave me this radio station and I wanted it to grow the largest balls ever. Yeah we’re small, yeah we have no budget, yeah it feels like the radio equivalent of Mean Machine, but we’ve got balls… and success in the future is about having the balls to be different now!”

Radio Today also describe this as a “UK First”, meanwhile over on Twitter I see people noting this “stunt” has been pulled in USA many times over.

There’s a difference between what Star is doing and what happens across the pond. As Radio Today highlights, UK radio regulator Ofcom stipulate that service must be a “Broad Hits-Based station”, in the US stations have no such format restrictions imposed.

When I first read the story I thought that this asking listeners to vote for their preferred music format is not new, it’s been done right here in blightly and with a somewhat more diverse selection of music formats. Cue dig around my box of cassette tapes:

Download: Big fm bolton 106.2 10-2-97

Wind back the clock 16 years to February 1997, The Radio Authority, the predecessor of Ofcom, are advertising a Small Scale Alternative Location Licence a.k.a. SALLIE for the North East Manchester area. In the run up to this there are many temporary Restricted Service Licence ‘RSL’ broadcasters who broadcast for up to 28 days to ‘trial’ their formats to drum up public support prior to applying for the permanent licence. In these RSL broadcasts you can adopt whatever music format you like as long as it confirms to the regulations on “taste and decency” and such like.

Big FM was run by one of three Bolton based aspirant groups. They are on the air with an interesting idea, each of the four weeks they broadcast a different “music format” and solicited listener feedback. The recording clip I’ve got was their “Country” week, my memory is hazy, but I seem to recall they also did a Rock and Chart Music week as well. I’d appreciate feedback from someone with more knowledge than myself.

Now 1997 was pre mainstream internet access so there is little “on-line” evidence of what came of this broadcast.

Back in 2013 Radio Today report the outcome of Star Radio’s listener voting exercise and cue Robin “if you didn’t get the drift in the last press release I’ve got Balls I’ll tell you again” Banks:

“”You won’t be hearing Take That, One Direction and Will Young I can tell you that much.. Get ready for Guns N Roses, Coldplay, The Beatles, Bon Jovi and loads of other music legends!”… So a new Format is born.. “AC with Balls”.”

At risk of echoing those folks over on the Digital Spy forums, “Adult Contemporary with Balls” fairly predictable given the need for Ofcom approval to deviate from being a “Broad Hits-Based station”. I doubt non-stop “real sound of the 60s” would fit the format restrictions on a full time basis, though justifiable as one day balanced against other days of “rock music”, “old Skool” and “love songs”.

So do I decry Banks’ ten days as just a publicity stunt?

Well I do acknowledge it was a “publicity” tool – I hope that the station good some column inches out of the “stunt”. Given that that last sentence on it’s own shows a somewhat limited and dated view that a piece in the local rag is the way to get the word out, I hope the station also got good “word of mouth” via social media, and by this I mean amongst the “real” audience, not media industry types.

Sure the whole mechanic and eventual outcome was constrained by regulation and commercial concerns, but fostering a relationship of listening to the views of the listener can only be a good thing.

If Star did a “New Country Day” like Big FM did a “New Country Week” every country music fan in the area could be casting a vote which might not be an accurate reflection of real make up of locals. Back in 97 I assume there would be a limited number of ‘votes’ cast from Bolton locals. Today we’re in a different landscape Country fans who’d never even listen to a “New Country Star FM” would be prompted to place their vote via Facebook campaigns.

To be a commercial success Star needs to have a fairly mainstream music policy and do some “standout” bits between the records. Star seem to be banking, excuse the pun, on Robin to do this. Will this tactic work? I guess it’s a case of wait and see.

As for what came of Big FM? The Radio Authority awarded two licences to what is now “Tower FM” a.k.a. “Bury Sound FM” in their RSL days and “The Revolution” a.k.a. the Oldham FM RSL group. I can’t even remember if Big FM applied for a full time licence – that would need me to start digging through paperwork to see if I’ve notes to the effect (I wonder if Oldham reference library still has all the application documents on file from when they were lodged for “public inspection”?)

A final aside the core of one of the other Bolton groups, Radio Bolton, have eventually made it on air as Community Radio station Bolton FM.