ZFM - Sheffield

ZFM Sheffield

In The Beginning...

The story of ZFM begins before the name or concept were even seeds in the fertile imagination of a future radio geek. In about 1984, a friend of mine (later to broadcast on ZFM as Tim Prince) had bought a cheap FM transmitter on sale in the back pages of Exchange and Mart. The transmitter had a single transistor audio amplifier and a single transistor oscillator (both BC108s if I remember correctly). The output power was paltry, probably no more than 10mW, it drifted if you went near it, had terrible audio quality and the transmission range was less than 100 metres up and down the road with the 20cm or so of wire that served as an aerial.

Linda Flewitt
Linda Flewitt or Tracey Thorn?

Being the inventive types we managed to increase the range by extending the wire up above the roof of the 'shed' that was his radio studio and into a neighbouring tree. Note that there was no coax nor antennas involved, just a simple piece of wire. This more than doubled the range which in retrospect, knowing much more about radio transmitters these days, is not bad going! It would be stretching the facts to the limits to say that we built up an audience for our occasional after-school programmes, but it was entertaining both for us and for any of our school-friends who lived nearby, and it gave us something better to talk about at lunchtime than whether Linda Flewitt looked more like Tracey Thorn out of Everything But the Girl than Tracey did herself.

Circuit Diagram of 2 Transistor FM Transmitter
Circuit diagram of a really bad 2 transistor FM transmitter just like the one we first used

Before long we had dissected the transmitter to reveal its circuit diagram and discovered how it worked. My rudimentary knowledge of electronics, gained through studying to take the Amateur Radio examinations (which I did at about the same time) indicated that changing one of the resistor values should increase the transmitter power, which it did, together with producing lots of spurious emissions that filled the FM band. Instead we opted to bolt on a third transistor as a 'power' amplifier and with a bit of fiddling managed to up the transmitter power and increase the range to cover a goodly portion of the small village where we lived.

The Path to Enlightenment

At this point mine and Tim's path diverged. He was more interested in presenting and I was more interested in the transmitter side of the radio road. I had soon built a replica of the transmitter for myself, and realised that the use of a proper dipole antenna fed by coax cable massively extended my range. Living on the edge of Sheffield, at over 700 feet (about 215 metres) above sea level and with a clear view of the city, even my 100mW or so of power got out exceptionally well. Some friends of mine that lived over 5 miles away on another of the city's seven hills could hear me no problem. Of course, audio quality wasn't great (and was still in mono) and programmes consisted of nothing more than playing 'mix tapes' but the buzz that I got from being heard and from flouting the law got me hooked.

Before long I had fashioned a crude mixer which connected microphone, cassette deck and record deck into the transmitter (and I also figured out that you needed 50µS pre-emphasis to make it sound right) and had expanded my RF skills to the point that I had managed to concoct a crude 3 Watt FM transmitter. It was at this point that I realised that my station needed a name and ZFM was finally born. The name means nothing in particular, it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

ZFM is Born

Girl in Sexy Pirate Outfit
The cause of many a throbbing pirate urge?

Initial broadcasts were on random nights of the week (though it was usually a Wednesday) on around 105.2 MHz which at the time was a frequency that officially was used by the railways though they were rapidly transferring to a new system (the National Radio Network or NRN at 200 MHz) so was pretty clear and thus interference free both to them and to me. The radio buzz became more of a throb and I began to thoroughly enjoy flying the proverbial skull and crossbones.

Transmissions were given a boost when I managed to find 2 stereo encoders in a junk sale at the local amateur radio club. I have no idea where they came from but they were professional units, calibrated and using very high quality components - much better than my transmitter. This led to me re-designing and re-building my transmitter using RF transistors also bought at the junk sale. ZFM now put out about 15 Watts in stereo into a dipole mounted about 25 feet above the ground on a very good vantage point overlooking the city of Sheffield.

The transmissions were heard as far afield as Lincoln (a distance of over 40 miles) and ZFM began to be logged in the pirate newsletters (such as Anoraks UK - see excerpts from the 31 May 1987, 7 Jan 1989 and 27 July 1989 issues - and AM/FM). Tim Prince re-joined the station and broadcast his own programmes as Centre Radio (using the jingles from the then defunct Leicester ILR) and the presentation team expanded to include Troy Tempest and Big Nige, two friends from school who mistakenly believed that being a DJ on a pirate station would give them badly needed street-cred. A couple of friends from school who were in a rudimentary band they called 'Stretch Armstrong and the Dyslexic Sponge Cakes from Hell' penned and performed a few Morrissey-inspired guitar-based jingles for the station which included the lines, 'ZFM - No flies on them' and 'ZFM - It rhymes with phlegm' - classics of their time.

No money for nothing for woofie and me...

The music policy was simple - we played whatever any of us had in our record collection, which tended to centre on rock and pop and stuff borrowed from Tim (whose elder brother used to run a local mobile disco). There were a few tracks thrown in from left-field (to this day I still don't know where they came from) including the infamous 'Ba-Ba-Bank Robbery' by Erste Allgemeine Verunsicherung with 'woofie and me' which got used as the station's opening and closing theme.

ZFM - The Super Station!

Combined ZFM/Ocean Sound Coverage Map
Combined coverage map of ZFM and Ocean Sound. Orange/Yellow = Stereo, Other Colours = Mono. (click for a bigger map)

I got to know some of the other local pirate radio operators especially DJ Robert of Ocean Sound 106.3 FM and Scooter Jones of Rebel Radio 105.3 FM. I never met Scooter but did meet with DJ Robert (who was the proud recipient of the second of my stereo encoders). Indeed one time ZFM's transmitters were used to relay Ocean Sound which sparked an idea that led to the crowning glory of ZFM. (See the map on the left for the joint coverage that Ocean Sound and ZFM's transmitters provide - I would have added in Rebel Radio as well to show the full coverage or our mammoth overnighter described below, but I don't know where their transmitter was sited!)

It was May 1987 and I was due to receive the results of my A-level exams. Troy, Nige, Tim and I figured that, like me, there would be loads of 17 and 18 year olds that wouldn't be able to sleep and that ZFM could fill the insomnia gap with our blend of mindless (nay, mind-numbing) programming. It was our most ambitious project to date. By now the transmitter power had lept to 45 Watts and with the help of Tim we constructed a proper studio in a nearby garage. We also commandeered a local telephone box so that people could phone-in and we linked the phone calls back to the studio using CB radios so that we could take them live on air. The programme commenced around 6 p.m. with a mix of pop music and inane chat, mostly from Troy as, being a sociology student, he felt that he was well placed to offer solace to jaded callers by untangling the inner workings of the teenage mind.

ZFM was loud and proud in stereo on 102.3 to Sheffield (the change in frequency was made to make it easier for Ocean Sound and Rebel Radio to relay us and to put the station near to pukka commercial stations and thus be found by people tuning around more easily - though it did put us perilously close to Pennine FM from Bradford on 102.5 in one or two parts of the city where both stations had overlapping coverage). The transmission was also being relayed by Ocean Sound and Rebel Radio in Rotherham on 106.3 and 105.3 MHz respectively, giving us near universal coverage of the whole of South Yorkshire and nearly as much coverage, and as many frequencies and transmitters as local ILR station Radio Hallam!

We kept broadcasting until about 1 a.m. by which time our supply of beer, wine, crisps, cheese and bread had run out (and the residents of the house whose garage it was were getting annoyed at the noise we were making) so we decided to close down. We only received about 7 or 8 phone-calls but most of these were from people we didn't know and who were in the same situation as us and had stumbled across the station, which was very heartening given that we hadn't announced the broadcast (I mean you just don't do you, 'Dear Mr. DTI, This coming Thursday me and my friends shall be...')

Just for the record, other pirate stations that used to broadcast in the late 1980's in and around the Sheffield area (or more to the point, which I could hear from my elevated location) included:

  • East End Radio (95.4/96.6) An occasional station from the Attercliffe area of Sheffield
  • Radio Veronica (104.9/105.5) The daddy of all stations broadcasting from Cleckheaton near Bradford - difficult to hear at my location
  • WLNG (104.9) From sunny Scunny, or Scunthorpe to the uninitiated
  • Weekend Music Radio (105.0) Back-to-back hits for the the week-end
  • Heatwave Community Radio (105.0/1) The whopping signal from this Nottingham based West Indian pirate made it to Sheffield sometimes
  • Rebel Radio (105.3) With Scooter Jones, the DJ who never took himself too seriously
  • Radio Nemesis (106.0) A station with good coverage from Clowne near Chesterfield
  • Ocean Sound (106.3) DJ Robert with all the Cutting Crew you could handle
  • Radio Britannia (97.8) Golden Oldies from Rotherham with DJ Ken(ny) Crescendo
  • The Wireless Company - TWC Occasionally heard in Sheffield from their Lincolnshire / Nottinghamshire base (now licensed and legal and broadcasting as 103 The Eye)

The Education of ZFM

ZFM continued to broadcast regularly until late summer in 1987 after which I departed for fields anew, a.k.a. Surrey University where I became a presenter (and later the chief engineer) of the university radio station, University Radio Surrey (URS) (later to be re-branded Guildford Campus Radio (GCR) and currently known as GU2) which is a story for another day, suffice it to say that that wasn't an entirely legal operation either. During holidays, when I returned to Sheffield, ZFM made one or two come-backs, most noteably in February 1989 when a presenter friend and I made a series of tapes and broadcast on 100 FM (a frequency newly freed of police transmitters) as Century 100 which marked the beginning of the end of ZFM's chequered history and our broadcasts to Sheffield.

There were one or two attempts to run pirate stations from university, usually late in the evening after a few pints. Campus Night-Time FM or CNFM as the jingles pinched from the Cambridge station of the same name (now Q103) proclaimed, was an occasional low-power affair to entertain student friends. Extra Super Bloody Good Hot Hits FM (ESBGHHFM) was the only high-power station to broadcast from the university which was intended to be a piss-take of the local commercial stations, however the presenters were trying so hard to be bad that they ended up being excellent. No vocals were crashed and even the news came in perfectly on time, despite massive efforts to be as unprofessional as possible.

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

When the Radio Authority (now part of Ofcom) decided to licence low-power short-term services, the ZFM / Century / ESBGHHFM transmitters were re-deployed for these Restricted Service Licence (RSL) stations and served, amongst other stations the aforementioned GCR in Guildford as well as:

Brazen Radio Logo
The Only Thing a Girl Should Have On... Apparently!
  • College of Woodhouse Radio (CWR) in Finchley on 101.7 I think.
  • CFM in Croydon.
  • Heat FM in Norwich, an offshoot of university station Livewire.
  • Downunder 106.2 FM later to broadcast as Nomad 107.8 FM, with studios in Hammersmith/Battersea and a transmitter site on Campden Hill in West London. Nomad applied for a London ILR licence but were pipped to the post by XFM.
  • Brazen Radio, a 'Women-Only' radio station broadcast to East London in March/April 1994 (who were rather embarrassed that they had to get a man to help them set up their transmitter!)
  • WRN with studios in Battersea and a transmitter in Hampstead Heath.
  • Radio Bognor and South West Sussex Radio in Bognor Regis.
  • Trust FM in Coventry.
ZFM's Transmitter Site in London
Where was ZFM's London Transmitter Site?

All this was done under the guise of 'Vector Broadcast', a company I set up to hire out transmitters, links and the like. In fact some of the designs I had created for things such as stereo audio processors even ended up on a full-blow ILR station, when Spirit FM in Chichester (which had grown from the seedling of Radio Bognor) used one of my 'DV-8' signal processors and my rather effective and snappily titled 'seemingly random lengths of coax joined together with N-Plugs and T-connectors' antenna combiner!

Since the start of the 1990's my pirating activities dwindled to naught. There was a rather grandiose plan to operate a high-powered FM station from a very high site in Central London (and I mean central!) for New Years Eve 1999 to add ZFM's mark to the capital's millenium celebrations. Me and the team had lined up a 500 Watt transmitter, access to the roof and the top floor of the building concerned, and some professional presenters (previously student friends but by then working in the radio industry proper). But sadly the plug had to be pulled on the project before it had even been put on the end of a piece of flex, when the wife of the team member who had access to the site in London gave birth to their first child just a month before the transmission was due. So London has never experienced the off-beat and rather crap presentation of the legend that never was ZFM.


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[ This page last updated Mon 30 Jan, 2017. Viewed 1538 times. Last viewed Fri 18 Aug, 2017 at 18:29 ]