Angel Radio is the UK’s longest-running community radio station. Tucked away in a small parade of shops in Havant town centre, not far from Portsmouth, Angel plays a distinctive mix of rarely heard music from the 1920s to 1960s. And the DJs are similarly… unique. All of them are over 60.
Set up by Tony Smith as a pirate station in 1993, it soon gained a loyal local following and eventually went ‘legal’ in 2002. Via FM, DAB and the internet, Angel now reaches far beyond its Hampshire home, with listeners in 129 countries around the world. Funded mainly by donations and operated by a dedicated group of volunteers, the station has picked up a string of awards, including the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and Best Silver Surfer Website.
The station’s huge success has also proved that, even at 85, you can be a pilot of the airwaves!
Tony Smith, 65, founder of Angel Radio
I built my ﬁrst radio transmitter when I was 13 and used to broadcast a show from my mum’s house in Benfleet during school lunchtime. My mates wanted to listen to The Stones and The Beatles, but I was playing stuff such as Billy Cotton and Glenn Miller – all the tunes that my nan used to listen to.
At no point did I ever think that being a DJ could be my job. I ended up drifting through a few different careers… electrician, pavement artist, animal rights activist. That last one got me arrested a couple of times! By 1993, I was living on the south coast near Portsmouth because my mum moved down there after she got divorced. I was tuning through the radio stations one day and I thought, ‘This is all crap!’. So I bought an old transmitter from London Transport and I started a pirate station playing the music I wanted to hear. Songs from the 1930s to the 1950s.
The set-up was very community-based. Our phone number was the telephone box in front of the house: Mum used to stand in there taking requests and dedications. Unfortunately, we did get raided a few times and eventually had to apply for a legal licence that allowed us to broadcast for 28 days, twice a year. We called ourselves Angel Radio, and our remit was music from 1920 to 1960, with all the presenters aged 60-plus. Our oldest, Audrey, was 94.
The results were incredible. This was before the internet explosion, but news of what we were doing seemed to spread around the world. We were interviewed by US TV and national radio in Australia. We had calls from Italy and New Zealand. We even made it onto The Today Programme on Radio 4.
All the publicity came in very handy. In 2002, Ofcom invited us to do an experiment with a full-time licence and, here we are, 18 years later, the longest-running community station in the UK. We now broadcast on 89.3FM and DAB in London, Kent, Essex, Cambridge, Brighton, Norwich, the Channel Islands and Glasgow, and we’ve got internet listeners in 129 countries around the world. Unfortunately, the station also caused my divorce and several strokes. In the early days, I was doing 12-hour days with a lot of stress, but I don’t regret it for a second. This station is too important.
The majority of our listeners are older, but we’ve got one regular listener who’s only four. We also had a bunch of jazz students down here recently, all of them in their teens and eager to hear some proper music. There are a few famous fans, too. Ken Dodd used to listen to us. Roy Hudd, Vera Lynn. When one of our transmitters was damaged by high winds, we received a cheque from Keith Richards.
Why has it been so successful? We care about our listeners. We’re not in it for the money – we exist on donations plus the odd bit of funding and everyone is a volunteer. But, most important of all, we’re catering for older people, an age group that is ignored by mainstream radio.
Joan Adams, 85, is the station’s regular volunteer receptionist and DJ
I’ve been with Angel for about 20 years now. My husband ﬁrst heard it in the car when they had one of their early, 28-day licences. When he got home, he was full of it. ‘Joan, I’ve found a station that plays Glenn Miller’. After that, our radio was always tuned to Angel and I heard them asking for volunteers to go in and answer the phone. I used to work at Portsmouth telephone exchange, so I thought that I’d give it a go.
At 85, the memory’s beginning to go a bit, but being a DJ deﬁnitely keeps me sharp. For that hour, you’re singing along to the records, making sure the technical bits are OK, taking notes, chatting with the listeners… you have to be on the ball. And being part of the Angel team has brought me out of my shell a bit. I’d always been shy, but the radio show has really boosted my conﬁdence. Especially after my husband died.
Healthwise, things haven’t been too good just lately. I’ve had my hips and my knee done, but that doesn’t stop me coming in. Angel gives me a reason to get out and about.
And the best thing about listening to all this wonderful music is that it brings back so many happy memories. I hear a certain song and, suddenly, all my aches and pains disappear.’
Pete Cross, 72, regular DJ
I’ve been involved in the entertainment business since I was 20. I used to put on dances for the local Navy lads and was the promoter for a couple of clubs in the Southampton and Portsmouth area. We had some of the big names in the 1970s such as Cannon and Ball and Stan Boardman. I was always DJ-ing, too, and used to have a show on BBC Southampton. After I left there, my mate told me about Angel Radio, so I went to see them and ended up getting my own slot. That was 15 years ago.
To say that Angel Radio feels like a family friend is a bit of a cliché, but I honestly think it’s true. People ring in regularly and we get to know them… they tell us their story. And sometimes, we might be the only people they’ll speak to all day. They’re on their own or housebound, but the radio means we’re there, in the sitting room with them. Having a laugh. Telling jokes. Like the late, great Humphrey Lyttelton, I believe in the importance of silliness in daily life.
A few weeks back, I was on the show talking about Malta during the Second World War and we had an old Navy lad ring up. He was whispering on the phone, so I asked him what the problem was. He said, ‘Hang on, I don’t want the wife to hear’. And then he started telling us all about what him and his mischievous mates used to get up to when they were on shore leave in Malta. Suddenly, he stopped. ‘Bloomin’ ’eck,’ he said, sounding very worried, ‘I’m in trouble now. I’ve just remembered... the wife’s listening to Angel Radio in the kitchen!’
Anne Billingsley, 74, is a regular volunteer receptionist and DJ at Angel Radio
About ﬁve years ago, I came across an internet radio station that was broadcasting a special show about Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. It was called Angel Radio and I enjoyed it so much that it became my favourite station. I was living in Rhyl at the time, but I persuaded my husband to have a holiday on Hayling Island, close to the Angel ofﬁces in Havant.
I went to meet Tony and the gang and ended up doing a bit of volunteering. I had such a lovely time that we came back the following year and bought a holiday home on Hayling. My late husband, Roy, was very ill at the time and said, ‘Why don’t we move down here permanently’. He knew how much I loved being involved with the station, and I think he wanted me to have something to keep me busy after he was gone.
Before I retired, I was a librarian, so one of my main jobs is cataloguing all the music and getting it ready to go on to the computer. I’m involved in the shows, too. If you’d have told me, 20 years ago, that I’d be DJ-ing and helping to run a radio station, I’d have said, ‘Not a chance’.
To ﬁnd out how you can listen to Angel Radio, go to angelradio.co.uk
Top ten artists requested by Angel Radio listeners
1. Nat ‘King’ Cole
2. Glenn Miller Orchestra
3. Bing Crosby
4. Jo Stafford
5. Frank Sinatra
6. Frankie Laine
7. Andrews Sisters
8. Billy Cotton Band
9. Elvis Presley
10. Doris Day