Mark Stafford

Mark Stafford

 Interview by Roland Beaney.

Where did you grow up?

 I was born in Lincolnshire, but as a young boy I grew up around Northampton and Wellingborough. Eventually we moved to a place called Chasetown in Staffordshire and I spent a lot of my schooldays at Cannock Grammar School.

My family moved down to Greatstone on the Kent Coast in 1970 and I've lived in Kent ever since. When I first moved to Kent our house was right on the seafront. Being a young anorak, I used to gaze out to sea vainly looking for new pirate radio ships!

Where do you live now and what are your favourite parts of the world?

I live half-way between Maidstone and Rochester in a little village next to the River Medway, with my lovely lady Angie. It's a good combination of being in the country and very close to some towns.

I love travelling and have many favourite places. I would say that the South of Florida around Naples is one of my favourite places. Last year we went to the Florida Keys for the first time and that's also a wonderful part of the world. As far as Europe goes, then I love the South of France and have been there quiet a few times. I love the fact that the sun gets switched to full power as you drive from Lyon to the Riviera coast. We went to Lake Konstanz in Germany recently and that was very impressive, with the Alps in the background to the lake. Talking of Germany, the Rhine Valley south of Koblenz is another favourite.

How did you get interested in Radio ?

  As a small boy, I grew up with the radio playing all day in the house, it seemed to be comedy shows and talk but at night it became Radio Luxemburg. Then around 1964 things changed, the big transistor radio in the house started playing pop music all day. I clearly remember the day when the MV Caroline sailed around the coast, even though I was very young. That was the moment it started to get interesting. Then one week in early 1966 I was ill in bed and I got the big transistor radio to play with, I found all these stations, Caroline, Big L, Radio City, Radio 390 and more and I just spent all week tuning around. I was hooked, and after that I got my own transistor radio and there was no looking back.

Within a few months I had the back off and worked out that if you "tweaked" screws on the little capacitor some stations got louder! Then, me and my "super-tweaked radio" spent every night under the covers listening to Johnnie Walker on Radio Caroline South, he was my radio hero.

When the Caroline ships were towed away in March 1968, I found Radio Veronica and Robbie Dale's English shows. Then of course it was 1970 and I latched on to RNI right from the very first test transmissions, I loved that summer of 1970, despite the jamming. After that it was the return of Caroline, and the English service of Atlantis and I was officially a fully-fledged anorak !

What made you get involved in broadcasting ?

I can clearly remember, standing next to a bus-stop as a kid, with my transistor radio in my hand listening to Caroline and thinking, when I grow up I want to be a Radio Caroline disc-jockey! But that moment took many years to arrive.

After being addicted to offshore radio from the mid-60s onwards, in 1977 I went out to the MI Amigo on one of Albert Hood's early boat trips. I remember the moment we pulled alongside, it was a very cloudy, grey afternoon and I thought how strange and eerie it felt as the guys came out on deck to greet us. The Mi Amigo looked like it was in "the twilight zone", amongst the grey surrounding sea with nothing around. The next time I went out on a trip it was a sunny day and it had a very different feel.

In August 1977, I went to the big Flashback'67 Convention near Heathrow Airport. It was a two day event featuring many big offshore names like Andy Archer, Robbie Dale and Ronan. While I was there I bumped into a few guys selling radio magazines and got chatting to Stuart Clark (who eventually went on to work for Caroline in the 80's). A few months later, I found out that a guy just along the coast from me had just started a new pirate on short-wave called Radio Cavendish. So, without any training at all (not even hospital radio), I sent Phil Collins, the guy running it, an awful demo-tape. Somehow he liked the music and the audio quality and managed to over-look my horrendous presentation-style, which sounded a bit like John Peel on valium!

After several months working on other people's stations like Radio Mercury and Radio Corsair (my presentation style must have got a bit better by then !), I ended up getting my own transmitter and starting Atlanta Radio. We opened in January 1979 and finally closed at the end of 1990. Along with this I also did several short-lived FM pirate projects and worked for a few others as well and from 1982 to 1989 I was in charge of the English service of an FM station called RBL (Radio Boulogne Littoral) based on the French Coast broadcasting

to the Kent & Sussex coasts. We were on the air three evenings a week and had a great line-up of guys including several Caroline presenters like Paul Graham, Dave Richards, James Day, Dave Windsor and Stuart Clark plus a whole bunch of guys who ended up having long careers in ILR like Tim Stewart, Mark Zeall and Pete Simester. One of our jocks, Jeff Johnson, eventually became Head Of Music on Radio One under his real name Jeff Smith.

Working with those guys taught me a lot and eventually, in the early 90's, I had a period of being self-employed and it gave me a chance to combine this with working in professional radio for a few years, firstly on Invicta FM & Invicta Supergold and then on Medway FM. But I've always had a very well paid job in "the real world" and so it's never been an option to do full-time professional radio.

When did you first join Caroline and why ? 

 Before Caroline I was involved with EKR, its predecessor on satellite from the Maidstone Studios. I was with EKR right from the very first test transmissions and, as I had done a lot on the music side to get the station on air, I was given the privilege of being the first voice on EKR at the very start of the satellite test transmissions.

I stayed until the end and built the music library and programmed the music on the station throughout its life.

Just before EKR closed, Caroline had been renting satellite air-time from them on Sundays. The Caroline team of Johnny Lewis, Steve Conway, Nigel Harris and Dave Foster asked me to join them at the end of EKR and to continue providing the music and programming it.

I jumped at the chance, having been a Caroline fan for several decades.

Tell us about your work on the music side of the station?

Well, at the start of Caroline on satellite from Maidstone in early 1999, I looked after the music on Caroline. As I had built the EKR music library, I somehow inherited it at the end of EKR. This became Caroline’s music library for the first few years on satellite. I steered the station onto an adult rock type format, but always with a loose touch. At the start of the satellite service, I was programming the station (as I had done at EKR) as well as providing the music and Johnny Lewis asked me to make it just a little to the pop-side of where EKR was placed, musically. So, I dropped some of the heavier stuff and lightened it a little.

After three years or so, there was a bit of a change-round at the time of the switch from analogue to digital satellite. The result was that I ended up not being involved in the music when Caroline returned to satellite after a short break. By this time it was using a digital playout system, with all music on hard-drive.

However, a few years later, the circle came around again and I ended up inheriting the music programming role again for a few years. During this time, myself and Dave Foster set about cleaning out the main library that had been infested with “Bob The Builder” and other horrors and turning it back into an adult music station ! We added thousands of songs and culled thousands as well. The result is the core library that has been used on Caroline for the past five years or so.

Around eighteen months ago, I decided to drop out of the day to day involvement in the music in order to get my “Stafford’s World” show idea of the ground. At that time, I handed the music over to Pat Edison. Luckily, Pat has kept the vast majority of the core library and of course added the new songs you hear every week.

What is the best and worst thing about radio today?

The best thing about radio today is without a doubt internet radio. At this moment, anyone can start a station and do exactly what they want, even if it’s only to an audience of 20 people. The only thing I really get “a buzz” out of radio-wise these days is stuff on internet radio, be it a small independent station from the UK or a big station in Australia or the US. With the advent of wi-fi internet radios and internet radio on 3G phones, it’s a definite growth area.

As far as Caroline is concerned, I see it as a “double-edged-sword”. We benefit by having listeners from around the world tuning in, but a lot of our listeners are radio enthusiasts and they now have much more choice.

The worst thing about radio today is that the big radio groups have taken the heart and the human element out of radio. Each station is a clone of the next. The typical ILR station plays around 500 songs and is happy to repeat the same handful of worn-out classics until the world ends. It’s “Groundhog Day Radio”!

What are your favourite bands or groups?

I have an incredibly low boredom threshold, when it comes to music. My favourite artists and songs are ever changing. I always want to discover something new, be it brand new music or a lost classic. I’m still excited by being the first to play a song that goes on months later to be a monster hit.

I’m a big fan of the singer songwriter side of music. Bruce Springsteen probably sits at the top of the pile for me and I’ve been into his music since Caroline we’re playing his original of “Blinded By The Light” back in 1973 or so.

What do you do in your spare time?

Spare time, what's that! I have a senior management job and work long hours at times and also have to travel a long way to work, that leaves just enough spare time to prepare for and present my radio shows.

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