Lost Liverpool #17: Crash FM – the rise and fall of radio’s alternative voice

Bernie Connor during his Crash FM days - by Mark McNulty

Bernie Connor during his Crash FM days – by Mark McNulty

With Crash FM a brilliant yet badly executed idea, Getintothis’ Bernie Connor rues a missed opportunity to establish an independent and alternative voice on the Merseyside airwaves. 

In the nineties, fanciful ideas like having a locally based alternative radio station were fair game. It seemed alright to think out of the box, things could only get better.

That future that Johnny Rotten said didn’t exist, was just around the corner. Twenty years late.

I had an idea to start a pirate radio station. Just an idea, really, I had no idea what to do with it. Sometime in 1994 I met Janice Long in Keith’s Wine Bar on Lark Lane, she knew what she wanted to do, and she wanted to set up a locally based alternative music station, like what they’d done with XFM in London. By the end of the decade that mad idea had turned into one of the most calamitous episodes in the history of Liverpool music.

Crash FM was a brilliant idea, badly executed by pretty much all concerned. With the benefit of hindsight, the only people that should come out of the whole sorry, daft episode unscathed were the presenters, Joanne the accountant and Sophie the receptionist.

Literally everybody else connected with the project worked tirelessly from day one to drive the poor bastard into the ground.

The beginnings were genuinely exciting, we were all entering a new and uncharted world. It was a fascinating and thrilling experience. Through Janice they’d secured a month’s Restricted Service Licence (RSL) for the month of November 1995.

Paul BerryJanice’s partner – and I went over to the studio at Mabel Fletcher College on Greenbank, turned on the equipment and played the first records right after the firework display in Sefton Park, November 5, 1995. We took to the airwaves for a month, music freaks buoyed by the opportunity to do something new and unique to the city; a chance to say that this city has another side, a thriving music culture unaffected by The Beatles or the sixties.

If it’s remembered at all, it will be remembered as the brainchild of Janice Long, a lovely woman with good intentions and the rough outline of a great idea to champion all that was good with Liverpool music and trumpet its myriad achievements in the field. The city was on fire at the time. Cream had taken nightclubbing to another level, even the celebratory pomp that was Britpop had filtered north, to where the wild things are.

What was required was some sort of alternative outlet where those left-of-the-dial tunes could be heard, where the best club disc jockeys could display their talents as they would playing live. There had to be this platform, Crash FM would fill that void, finally put Liverpool on the same par as other major cities whose alternative culture was lauded and turned into a small industry.

Once the month’s RSL was over I went back to my life. I knew that Janice was working tirelessly and contacting all the instant withdrawal casino no verification to find backers to finance her baby. I also knew how difficult these things were and how long it could take. There were rumours flying round – this is Liverpool after all – regarding the set up but I stayed away, not knowing what I could offer them.

At the beginning of 1998 I was called to a meeting in the Palace on Slater Street with Janice and a nice man called Mike. Following a brief chat and a cup of tea, I was told what the station’s intentions were and the on-air date. That was it. The next day Janice called to say I had a job on the station. I was given the afternoon slot, 2pm-5pm.

An on air date was set for late March 1998, the promotional element went into overdrive. To an outsider like myself who was dazzled by the whole set up, just being involved in a radio station was real thrill a minute stuff. It was – if I’m honest – the only aspiration I ever had: to play really great music and to tell everybody how really ace it is. I’d been doing it since I was a small child, now I had a platform and a potential audience.

In search of more memories of Liverpool past? Look back through our Lost Liverpool archive

The launch was a champagne breakfast affair, I think, based around Janice’s breakfast show. And an argument about which would be the first record on the station. Sadly, rather than play a record that would have its audience full of beans, punching holes in the air, they went for something worryingly uber-dreary like Sonnet by The Verve. It set the tone for a pattern of mis-timings and unfortunate events that would typify the station’s short existence.

It didn’t bode well that the station manager – if that was his title – was removed on the day of the launch. It seemed his main concern was getting the flowers right for the reception while overlooking the fact that he’d spent thousands of pounds on promotional literature that had the wrong frequency on it.

His genius stroke was billing the station frequency as 107 FM, as opposed to 107.6 FM, which has a marked and discernible difference. Alas, 107 FM did not broadcast our station. And so it goes. Generally it went down hill from there.

Crash FM

Crash FM promotional CD compiled by Janice Long

The roster of talent was the best that Liverpool had to offer at the time. Some of the biggest and brightest names in music were acquired to fill the 24 hour schedule. Disc jockeys from all of Liverpool’s biggest clubs were lined up to do their thing in, what has to be said, was one of the best DJ rosters any station has ever had ever.

Almost everyone other than Janice was new to the medium and completely unfamiliar with the workings of a radio show and its station. This is where training would have come in handy. I was given a mid-afternoon, three hour show, which I was expected to ‘drive’ myself, what little training I received consisted of me fumbling around in a studio on my own for a few hours, working out how to use the desk.

And despite their decided unfamiliarity with their new surroundings, most coped admirably and displayed some real, untapped talent. There was also a new computerised playlist system called ‘selector’ which was new to the industry and only the programme controller knew how to use it. He never bothered to share his knowledge with another soul.

But it wasn’t all bad, and it did get better. Once the presenters were brought up to speed with what they should be doing, it flourished for a short while. The audience were fully aware of the amateurish nature of the presentation and took that on board. The music was the important thing and that seemed to be working. It was hurried along by a sheer force of goodwill.

People wanted that music in their lives and in those pre-historic, pre-internet days, radio was the only place to quench that insatiable thirst. But it wasn’t working as it should be, those who’d stumped up the cash were making noises that it wasn’t professional or slick enough. What they were expecting from a staff of greenhorn recruits, untrained and thrown in at the deep end, I’m not sure. Whatever it was they were expecting to happen, didn’t happen.

Then the ugly rumours started. And they wouldn’t go away.

From what we could gather – they told us nothing, we weren’t important – those that really ran the show were getting cold feet over the nature of this alternative radio. The sales team were shit and couldn’t sell ice cubes in Dubai, therefore the programming would have to be changed, making the output more advertiser friendly. For that read top 40.

Then there was some sort of mad power kerfuffle upstairs and Janice left, or was fired, I can’t remember which, and the schedule was rearranged. I was given a night time spot, 9pm-midnight, play what you like. Which I did. It was ace, I was in my element. I set about changing the musical taste of an entire generation who had just been waiting for me to happen in their lives and give them direction.

And it worked in a really big way.

I got good audience figures, received incredible feedback from the public about how ace it was, a fantastic reaction and the robots upstairs didn’t know what I was doing or understand the music I was playing, so they left me alone. For over a year I was the champion of the night time hours.

But all wasn’t well upstairs. The robots had underestimated the depth of feeling things like this can generate in Liverpool. When Janice was removed a protest was organised, a group of about 100 people demonstrated outside the Fleet Street studios, horrified of the dumbing down of something they were promised would be the alternative voice of Liverpool. Or something.

Losing a voice of comfort during the desolate hours – the axing of Janice Long’s Radio 2 show

It became glaringly obvious even to me that something was afoot with the robots that run the station. Those who stumped up the cash to get us on air were getting cold feet about where their money was going. The sales team were saying they couldn’t sell adverts because of the name, the content, anything. A culture of blaming the product crept in, it was all the news they wanted to hear.

The top 40 nature of the daytime output became more real as the months went on, what we didn’t realise was that the station was being primed for sale, those who backed the station financially were always aware that they could sell the frequency for an enormous profit for all concerned after two years’ airtime.

This brought about seismic changes in the editorial output. One day it was The Cardigans and Mansun, the next it was even more Robbie Williams and that Breakfast At Tiffany’s record (not Moon River) and Children by Robert Miles on heavy, heavy rotation.

Janice Long

Janice Long

Less than a year later, it was all over. I was removed from the schedule, the day I was going on holiday as I recall, and my brilliant work in the night time replaced by ‘selector’ playing the big hits in that week’s top 40. I was gutted, really was, not only for myself, but because it seemed like another lost opportunity for Liverpool music –and indeed Liverpool itself – to move forward and become part of the creative hub of the country. Not long after the frequency was indeed sold for a massive profit to a media company that went on air as Juice FM and the rest, as they say, is pretty common knowledge.

The real shame is that Liverpool has always needed Crash FM. An alternative music station in a city of its size should be the accepted norm. In a way, it may have been a victim of being a little too soon. Much like the dot-com explosion a couple of years later, there was no infrastructure to support Crash FM in Liverpool in 1998.

Today, there is a thriving ‘alternative’ culture with a myriad local businesses that could support and feed a business project of that kind. You only have to look at the unfathomable success of BBC Radio 6 Music to see that some sort of semblance of alternative programming is possible on the airwaves, even in a universe increasingly dominated by streaming services and YouTube.

Naivety on our part and ruthless business practices on their part, put paid to the idea almost two decades ago. But it remains a great idea, one that could work, given the right market research and training. People still need radio culture in their lives, before it is replaced by the faceless, voiceless, personality free world of Spotify and its even uglier, as yet unborn children.

There is an enormous amount of faith in the regional music scene which, if translated into something tangible, would further the cause of whatever it is we do, which can only be a good thing. Every village and hamlet in the nation should have an alternative music station; it’s a noble suggestion that Liverpool should have its own.

We are the future now and in the future all those wondrous things were meant to be at our disposal.