Feature by Mike Wade on Cumbernauld-based Christian radio station Revival FM. IT’S AN unfeasibly warm April morning, but it’s not the weather that is steaming up the windows of the tiny radio studio. The opinions in the room are raising the temperature. The war in Iraq, four dead British soldiers, the Iranian hostage crisis – what on earth is going on in the world?
“Tony Blair has admitted that sailors selling their stories to the press wasn’t a good idea,” wheedles the DJ, with the smart-ass tone of a practised wind-up merchant. It’s as if he has dropped a lit match in a fireworks factory.
“I could have told Tony Blair that it wasn’t a good thing to do,” explodes his studio guest. “We’ve seen this so many times before. The defence secretary, Des Browne, should have the decency to resign – and if he doesn’t resign he should be sacked.”
If you had chanced on this discussion on your radio dial, the accents and the anti-establishment attitudes would quickly pin the speakers down to central Scotland. But this isn’t Radio Solidarity. The presenter isn’t Tommy Sheridan, nor is the special guest George Galloway. This is an altogether different animal, as the DJ breezily reveals in his very next link. “This is Andrew Polson on Revival FM, where hearing is believing – talking about the stories behind the news with Bill Anderson.”
These are the studios of Scotland’s only Christian radio station, broadcasting from deepest Cumbernauld to a potential audience of half a million souls scattered around the north-east of Glasgow. Right now, the red recording light is on, warning intruders to stay out of the studio, and we are listening to Anderson – a white-haired former bank manager – giving New Labour both barrels. “This is another example of this government with their snouts in the trough, with people getting as much as they can for themselves,” he snarls. “Our servicemen are the best in the world, but they have been made to look like money-grabbers.”
When the station was preparing to launch its daily service in September last year, its research showed that Revival FM could expect an audience of 38,000 local listeners. Since then there have been enough texts, phone calls and e-mails to convince supporters that such a figure has comfortably been achieved. Factor in internet radio users on the USA’s eastern seaboard, across Europe and in Latin America and Africa, and you might plausibly suggest an unsung success story from the Scottish media.
Revival cannot claim to be the only Christian channel to find its way into Scottish homes (Premier Radio, Cross Rhythms Radio and Talk Gospel are all on the airwaves too), but it can boast an authentic flavour of good old-fashioned anti-establishment puritanism. There is righteous anger in the chat, an unshakeable belief in the station’s virtue and a community spirit that keeps Revival FM on air 24 hours a day.
That’s the upside. The downside is the pious tone, which rises and falls in intensity throughout the day. It is the same tone that keeps 90% of Scots in their beds on a Sunday morning instead of in church. If Thought for the Day has you swooping for the ‘off’ button, Revival FM’s morning reading will make you chuck your radio out the window. Then there are the jingles. “Why not gaze into Galatians with George Mitchell on a Tuesday evening?” asks one plug for a programme. “New Beginnings Church – come share with us in Moodiesburn,” cajoles an advert. And that’s not to mention the music. Ah, the music – but more of that later.
This is a place where, like the man said, you’ve got to have faith. And if that is true for the listeners, it certainly applies to the 50 or so staff who get the station up and running every day. Only Dorian Stone, a young Canadian technician who used to work for the BBC, is paid, because without his expertise the station couldn’t function. The rest – the receptionist, the presenters, the bookkeeper, the cleaners – are volunteers.
The red light is off now, and Polson and Anderson can talk in the breathing space of a record. “We’ve got to do all this on the hoof,” says the DJ, hanging his headphones round his neck. “There are no researchers.” Polson seasons his discussion with internet news stories he takes from the LCD screen pinned to the wall above his sound deck. Anderson has to rely on his paper – the Cumbernauld News – and the memory of the BBC headlines on his car radio as he drove over to the studio.
Still, what they contrive has enough sparkiness to surprise the cynical and the secular alike. When the station first applied to Ofcom for an FM licence in 2001, Polson believes the regulator’s decision to turn it down was based on the image of a full-on American-style operation, with slick-suited frontmen prising money from the faithful. “That’s definitely not us,” says the 34-year-old. “We took a decision that it is not the best way to get across what we would call the gospel. Particularly in our country, people don’t like things rammed down their throats.”
Instead, says Polson, the station, which finally emerged as a community channel, is broadly evangelical. “We’re not church-on-radio. We’re a community radio station with a Christian perspective on life – we draw from all different denominations. You have to have a softly-softly approach to let people see your lifestyle as a Christian, let them make their own judgments,” he says. “That is all we are trying to do on radio – to get alongside people and say, ‘Listen, the Christian life is not all about crazy people who are dancing and jumping about.’ Our desire is to be – and it’s the only way to put this – normal people. People can think of Christians either as a wee bit woolly or a wee bit extreme. But we watch Doctor Who on a Saturday night like everybody else.”
When it’s going well, this credo makes for compelling radio, and the piety level falls away amid heated discussion. “People think because it is a Christian radio station it will be all wishy-washy – but it is not,” says Anderson, who quit the banking world at 53, when he could no longer stand its increasingly acquisitive morality. “We recognise the issues as well as anybody else. We don’t have licence-payers to bear in mind when we are expressing views. I think we can be honest without being afraid of upsetting people.”
The red light is on again, and as soon as the morning show’s discussion turns to business (the ostensible reason for Anderson’s presence as a studio guest this morning), the spikiness shows through again. First up is a story about a bank in Dorset. This particular branch of HSBC intends to serve only customers with ‘premier’ accounts (a salary of £75,000, a mortgage of £200,000 or savings of £50,000) – in other words, rich people. Anderson suspects that the branch might be operating almost as a private bank within the bigger HSBC organisation. “At the end of the day, these institutions are phenomenally profitable, but they just want more,” he concludes wearily.
Next is the excessive fees mobile-phone customers must pay if they use their handsets abroad. “No one objects to paying – but getting ripped off is another matter,” growls Anderson. It’s like those outrageous prices you get charged for calling from hospitals, he says. “It’s an absolute disgrace.” If you armed political activist George Monbiot with only a copy of his local paper, you wouldn’t expect such well-informed, nonconformist anger.
Polson cues up a record by Christian rock group DC Talk. The red light snaps off and music fills the room again. And at precisely that moment the piety problem returns. There’s something about contemporary Christian music that brings to mind Bertie Wooster’s old saying – “Slice him where you will, a hellhound is always a hellhound.” Rap and hip-hop, rock anthems and ballads are all served up by the station, many of them passionately written and brilliantly produced – but, to the unconverted ear, everything sounds preachy.
Polson is aware of the problem – although he has a foot in both camps. On one side he sings in the Gospel Heirs, one of Britain’s more successful Christian bands, who have a gold disc to their name. On the other, he earns a living as a producer, with his own recording studios in Scotland and Northern Ireland. He helped with the production of the debut album from The Fratellis, and would like to play the Glasgow band’s music more often on the station. The trouble is, Revival’s playlist is sacrosanct.
Still, he says, every now and then a presenter might try out a tune, perhaps for a birthday request. On certain conditions. Such as? “Well, so long as the lyrics weren’t way out,” says Polson, “and we would have to look at the artist’s life to make sure it didn’t jar with our ethos – then we would play it.” The DJ in him is pleased he managed to squeeze The Stereophonics’ ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ on to the Revival airwaves.
But even now staunch Christians in Polson’s Church of Scotland congregation in Cambuslang find Revival’s output a bit steamy, and he has to acknowledge that the station still leans heavily on a traditional brand of Christianity, which wears Sunday suits and ties. “It’s tough getting our presenters out of that mind-set,” says Polson. “They go into platitudes – I’ve done it myself, you go into churchspeak. Getting out of that is important. But I think we do okay.”
And here’s another thing working to Revival’s advantage – the positive spirit that drives its staff. It cost £150,000 to establish the station as a daily broadcaster, the bulk of the money coming from individual donations, and it is charity that now keeps it going. While other community stations can fall back on the largesse of the National Lottery, that route simply isn’t an option here. “We can’t say gambling is wrong and then take lottery funding,” says Anderson matter-of-factly.
Instead, there have been extraordinary acts of generosity. Julien Crispin, a 43-year-old undergraduate reading media studies at Stirling University, decided to work at the station for a few hours a day, but couldn’t see how he could afford to give up paid employment as well as funding his way through a degree. He mentioned his dilemma to a long-standing friend, the artist Peter Howson. “Pete said, ‘I could give you a couple of pieces to sell on eBay, and that might keep you going.’ And that’s what I do,” says Crispin, a father of four who now presents a two-hour lunchtime slot, and has ambitions for a late-night music show.
The sketches fetch between £150 and £250 each, and Crispin sells three or four works every couple of weeks to fund his work and studies. Howson receives a percentage of the money – which he gives away – as well as the satisfaction of knowing that he has spread his work among collectors who might never otherwise have been able to afford it.
The coda to this arrangement is provided by Anderson, who, as he looks to the future, could be talking for the Pilgrim Fathers surveying the bleak Massachusetts shore. “We believe that God will provide the money we need,” he says. “Sorry if that sounds weird.”
By now it’s ten o’clock, and the Breakfast Show is over. Polson and Anderson are soon slipping on their jackets and heading away from the studio towards the parts of their lives that aren’t occupied by Revival FM. I can afford to take my time driving away, listening to the morning show host George Owens – ‘the Weegio’ – as he spices up the station’s playlist with a series of less-than-astonishing facts from The Book of Film Lists. “There were 292,000 extras on the set of Gandhi,” he reveals. “Isn’t that amazing? Now here’s Allison Durham Spears with ‘The Dearest Friend I Ever Had’.”
But at Bargeddie junction on the M8 the reception begins to break up, and as I drive east Allison’s voice gets lost in a fog of interference. By Harthill service station I’m back among the godless, and I’m obliged to switch from radio to CD. My reward? A blast of The Fratellis’ ‘Got Ma Nuts from a Hippy’, along with the certain knowledge that it’s not on the Revival FM playlist. r
Revival FM (www.revivalradio.org.uk) is broadcast on 100.8 FM.
Full story at Scotland on Sunday.