by John Morrison


88: At the End of the Dial

Not many people know that Milltown has its own radio station. And it's the thankless task of Reg Poultice, the station manager, to try to wean Milltown folk away from their usual listening - Blind Optimism FM - and discover the "music and smiles at the end of the dial", otherwise known as Valley Sound.

It's shoestring radio... back bedroom broadcasting... the trailing edge of communication technology. It's difficult to maintain a pretence of professionalism, especially since the station operates not from some spacious suite - with potted plants and a bored receptionist - but from an unassuming terraced house in Milltown that Reg shares with his long-suffering wife and kids.

Children and broadcasting equipment make awkward bedfellows. So Reg's first task each morning is to check every item of equipment; he knows from bitter experience just how much damage can be done when a slice of hot, buttered toast is slid into the CD player by the jammy fingers of an inquisitive toddler.

Reg is the station's only full-time presenter. He may dream of having a whole stable of smooth-talking DJs to cruise through the schedules, but that's all it is... a dream. There's just no budget to pay proper wages. In any case, how many professional broadcasters would be prepared to 'get down' and 'strut their funky stuff' when surrounded by a menagerie of Fisher Price toys, in a room so small that they could touch all four walls at once? So the workload falls on Reg himself, and a handful of star-struck volunteers who are prepared to work for Valley Sound for next to nothing. It's something to put on their CVs when they try to move up to something bigger and better, like hospital radio. No wonder Reg has red-rimmed eyes, identity problems and an over-active fantasy life.

For the breakfast show Reg is Mike Hazzard - bright, breezy, relentlessly cheery - waking Milltown up with the breaking news, once the newspapers have been delivered. Reg hands over to himself - in the guise of Gary Slapper, 'naughty but nice' - for the morning slot. The lunchtime show is tackled, once he's finished his rounds, by our milkman, Bernie Coutts. On the air he adopts the persona of Mack Givern ('A smile, a song and a sexually transmitted disease') while downstairs, in the kitchen, Reg cooks Bernie's lunch (sausages, Bernie's favourite) before taking a well-earned nap.

Reg is back at the mixing desk from two in the afternoon (he assumes the urbane, mid-Atlantic voice of William Stroll, 'the housewives' favourite') with the tea-time phone-in. As Charles Caundle, gravel-voiced anchorman, Reg interrupts himself with the news and weather 'on the hour, every hour'. Frustrated social worker, Mildred Veal, lets her hair down most evenings with a programme of easy-listening classics - the choice dependent on whatever CDs can be borrowed from the Milltown library. "We've got some great music coming up", she enthuses, "but in the meantime let's have another spin for 'Lady in Red' by Chris de Burgh".

By 10pm Reg has made his last transformation of the day, to Alan Ginseng: softly-spoken new-age seer and sage, with a collection of meaningless aphorisms and a boxed set of 'Now That's What I call Whale Music' CDs. He signs off, on the stroke of midnight, with his habitual farewell - "Take care, sleep well, and remember, listeners, it's a holistic jungle out there" - before setting the alarm and crawling exhausted into bed.

Guest spots punctuate each day's scedules. There's Madder Rose, 'the fortune teller's fortune teller', offering 'astrological predictions, whatever the weather'. Carmine Lake, Milltown's lady novelist, reads chapters from her latest bodice-ripper. Financial advice comes from Barry Wedge, including the day's mickle/muckle exchange rate and the muck/brass proximity quotient. Plain-speaking Gary Mullet 'talks football', chronicling the peregrinations of our local team, Milltown Rovers, as they begin this year (like every other year) thrashing about in the relegation zone. Vendetta Lamour (possibly a pseudonym) helps listeners with their more intimate problems. Couples whose libidos have gone into winter hibernation and seem unlikely to wake up again.

The station hosts regular discussion programmes, tackling the pressing issues of the day. It's a familiar format: engage someone who thinks that black is white, and incarcerate him for an hour with someone who thinks that white is black. That's what the listeners like: a pair of single-issue campaigners locking horns for a fruitless session of intransigence and wilful misunderstanding. Yes, that's entertainment...

The staple diet of Valley Sound - when all else fails - is the phone-in. It gives listeners the opportunity to air their grievances, and proves, beyond all doubt, that "talk is cheap". Whenever Reg can engineer a heated argument between two callers, he can lay both phones down on the desk, in a sort of telephonic soixante-neuf position, and let the protagonists harangue each other for as long as it takes to make himself a cup of tea and rifle the biscuit tin.

It's been a quiet week in Milltown, so the subject of today's phone-in is the usual fall-back: "What is the world coming to, eh?" The result is a surreal pot-pourri of conversational cul-de-sacs... "Couldn't we have saved one missile from the raids on Iraq... just one measly Cruise missile... to shoot Richard Branson's balloon out of the sky for good"... "This disgusting video should be banned forthwith; it'll just make impressionable teenagers go out and discover how long it takes to stone a cat to death." "About four and a half minutes"... "I was offered a dodgy TV for fifty quid in the pub last week." "Did you contact the police?" "Well, no... I'm just ringing in to say that the picture is excellent and I'm very happy with it."... "You know, it's not how big it is that counts... it's what you do with it." "Well, I'd just like to put it on record, here and now, that mine is huge... and it doesn't matter what I do with it"...

Yes, Reg Poultice waits all day for calls like these. The only saving grace, when the airwaves hum with profanity, is that hardly anyone will be listening.

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