90s nostalgia - Stray FM's early years in Harrogate

Members of the volunteers behind the launch of  Stray FM in its first year in Harrogate
Members of the volunteers behind the launch of Stray FM in its first year in Harrogate

“Proper Local Radio for Harrogate, Craven & Wharfedale” - Stray FM is currently celebrating 25 years of success. But its roots lie in a small band of radio pioneers from Harrogate in the 1980s.

Here Stray FM’s first station manager J Peter Wilson talks to Graham Chalmers about its beginnings.

A copy of Stray FM's application for its first licence to broadcast in Harrogate.

A copy of Stray FM's application for its first licence to broadcast in Harrogate.

Its very earliest days were spent in a portable cabin in a school car park and at least one of its founders remortaged their house to help finance its launch... but in 1994 Stray FM went on air for the first time.

Now 25 years since that news was trumpeted on BBC Radio 1, no less, a lot of hard work from many people has gone into making Harrogate’s radio station the force it has become.
From the very beginning Stray FM was about local people and team work.

In fact, the group of independent radio pioneers who first won a licence - and found the money - to broadcast in Harrogate was 12-strong.

Harrogate College changes hands in new transfer

Harrogate man and the original station manager of Stray FM, J Peter Wilson pictured now.

Harrogate man and the original station manager of Stray FM, J Peter Wilson pictured now.

There are a lot of tales to tell about that journey which progressed from a transmitter on top of the clocktower at St Aidan’s School to delivering “proper local radio for Harrogate, Craven & Wharfedale.”
One man, in particular, remembers it all well.

J Peter Wilson was Stray FM’s station manager for its first year when it was based in its first real home - the Schlatter office block on Station Parade.
Now retired and living with his wife Maddy in Bridlington, he has fond memories of his days at Stray FM and all the years of effort it took to turn the dream of a high quality radio station for Harrogate into a reality.

Peter said: “Chris Parkin, an electrical engineer, and a few others used to meet in the front room of my house on Yewdale Road in the late 1970s to discuss the possibility of a radio station in Harrogate.
“As the laws on commercial radio changed over the years, there were stations in Yorkshire but none in Harrogate itself.
“We thought ‘why should we listen to something broadcast from Leeds or Hull or Teeside?’”

Their early efforts in the late 1980s saw them set up a temporary station each year during Harrogate International Festival.

Peter said: “We called it Stray FM because we broadcast from a portable cabin at St Aidan’s School next to the Stray. Things went so well, we decided to lobby for a licence to set up a permanent radio station for the town. We were told there were no spare frequencies left in the Harrogate area.
“So Chris and myself got in a car and drove round the district trying to find a spare band width.
“We found just two; 104.7, which became Minster FM, and 97.2, which became Stray FM.”

The next headaches were, perhaps, even bigger - how to build a case in the licence application and how to raise the money to launch Stray FM.

Peter said: “Our target was a quarter of a million pounds. Between us, we managed to find 250 shareholders paying a minimum of £250 pound each.
“I even remortgaged my house to help.”

The first full-time broadcast of the brand new station took place on July 4, 1994.

Peter’s tenure as Stray FM station manager lasted less than a year but he continued to support Stray FM afterwards and, like a lot of previous managers and shareholders, has kept in touch with the station he helped to launch.

Peter said: “Life is interesting. Harrogate is my hometown and it needed Stray FM to be a success. Long may it continue.”

Surge of support for new Independent Harrogate

J Peter Wilson - A life in radio in an era of changes

Born into a Leeds textiles family, Harrogate man J Peter Wilson had been a radio fanatic since the era of ‘Pirate Radio’ stations in Britain in the 1960s when he would listen to the Beatles and the Stones.

Once he’d left Leeds University and went to work in London for Macmillan book publishers such was his passion for the subject he even wrote a report in 1986 for the Conservative Political Centre about the future of radio.

In future years his lobbying meant he crossed paths with the likes of Douglas Hurd and Lord Puttnam as the law-makers at Parliament continued to expand the landscape for local broadcasters.

As a committed Christian he was a key figure in the creation of a station in Zambia – Radio Christian Voice.

He later went on to lobby Parliament to change the law to allow Christians to own radio stations and broadcast in the UK, a battle which was eventually successful.
Mr Wilson has experienced most of the changes first-hand for the last 40 years.

The latest major development is the consolidation of owenrship which has seen Bauer Radio come to own the following stations in the Yorkshire region: The Pulse (Bradford/Huddersfield), Radio Aire (Leeds), Hallam FM (South Yorkshire), Ridings FM (Wakefield), Trax (Doncaster/Mansfield), Rother FM (Rotherham), Dearne FM (Barnsley), Lincs FM (Lincolnshire), Compass FM (Grimsby), Stray FM (Harrogate/Skipton), Minster FM (York/Northallerton), Yorkshire Coast Radio (Bridlington/Scarborough/Whitby), Viking FM (East Riding/Northern Lincolnshire).
In addition TFM, that can be heard in Harrogate, is also owned by Bauer.

J Peter Wilson believes out of experience that the future of community radio will lie, ultimately, in DAB digital radio.

Dear Reader - what's it like to be a politician + the big beasts tackle Harrogate's woes