Radio Teesdale is unsure about the size of it audience but, as the rural community station celebrates its first birthday, Will Roberts discovers that probably its finest hour was when it broadcast to no one at all

WITH three minutes to go before her lunchtime show starts, volunteer DJ Katey Wallace is sitting at the helm of the main studio at Radio Teesdale. "I'm normally more prepared than this," says the 27-year-old, checking the computer screen in front of her as the automated news feed wraps up its bulletin and the plastic clock on the curtained studio wall ticks to three minutes past noon.

Then with a sliding of a switch, Katey's onehour show rolls into action.

"Gooooood afternoon, I'm Katey Wallace, here with you this afternoon on Radio Teesdale, and to start us off is Amerie with Gotta Work."

Another slide of a switch, and the hip hop beat seamlessly fades in and Katey allows her headphones to slip from her ears to cling round her neck.

She is one of about 180 volunteers who, with the help of station manager Peter Dixon - the only paid member of Radio Teesdale staff - have helped to establish the radio station in the 12 months that it has been fully operational.

Like most of the volunteers, Katey's dedication to the show she has hosted every weekday since July last year comes from a passion for radio and music. "I would love to be able to work as a radio presenter as a full time job, but doing this is great. It wouldn't matter if the only listeners I had were two sheep in a field, I would do it anyway. A lot of the other presenters do it as a hobby - they want to do something with their spare time and want to get out of the house for a few hours."

Radio Teesdale has had to address the challenge of catering for an audience with a higher than average number of elderly people, while also making sure its shows appeal to young listeners.

It's hard to say what a pensioner in upper Teesdale would have made of the first song on Katey's show, so how does she please everyone?

"We've got to make sure play things from the Sixties through to the Nineties, as well as more modern songs," explains Katey.

"I'm not very good at the older ones, and I don't like some of the songs, but it's not about me, it's about the listeners."

The station schedule also boasts a variety of specialist shows, from punk rock to church hymns, so hopefully there's something to please everybody in Teesdale.

As if on cue, a listener calls up the station to request a song. Peter, who turns out to be the show's only caller that afternoon, wants "something older people would like", so she opts for a track by the Levellers.

"It's hard to say how many people listen to the show," says Katey.

"I don't know about you, but I would never text or ring in to a show - so there might be thousands listening, but just not getting in touch. Sometimes the phone is ringing all show and sometimes we don't get anyone."

Without expensive research, it is hard to tell just how big Radio Teesdale's audience is, although using a rough estimate, they admit that it won't be massive.

"There might be 25,000 people near a radio at any one time in Teesdale, but maybe only ten per cent will be listening to it. Perhaps only ten per cent of them will be listening to Radio Teesdale, so already we're down to a few hundred," station manager Peter Dixon explains after Katey's show has finished.

The number of listeners also has bearing on the radio station's finances, as sponsors are more likely to invest in a popular show.

But while the station is keen to attract sponsors to help contribute to the £80,000-a-year running costs, it is restricted by its status as a community radio station.

Only 50 per cent of the money raised by the station can come through sponsors, so volunteers have to work hard to attract funding.

The task facing Peter and his volunteers is to make sure as many people as possible know about Radio Teesdale. The corporate pens, mugs, balloons and T-shirts are on order, all heavily emblazoned with the Radio Teesdale logo. But no amount of freebies will ever better the publicity they received from one presenter's an on-air - or rather off-air - mistake.

When DJ Andy Greener forgot to press the broadcast button for his Wednesday morning show earlier this month, he ended up talking to nobody but himself. It was a diamond-studded clanger, but an honest mistake which turned out to be a PR dream.

After the story appeared in The Northern Echo, it was soon picked up by many of the national broadsheets and tabloids. Radio Teesdale was on local and national television and scattered across the worldwide media.

But what was most important was that it raised the station's profile in Teesdale.

"It was amazing really," says Peter. "I've had people who I have never met come up to me and say you're that guy from the radio, I really like suchand- such a show'. Andy took it in really good humour and was great with all the attention he got, but to be honest, I think he's happy it's all washed over now, and he can concentrate on being a presenter."

The inspiration for Radio Teesdale came in 2003.

"We were not long out of the foot-and-mouth crisis, which hit Teesdale hard," says Peter. "A lot of people were saying how good it would have been to have had something like a radio station, where messages could be spread across Teesdale more quickly. We heard that Ofcom was doing pilots for community radio, so we thought we'd give it a go."

The early period of Radio Teesdale's life was far from perfect. Two month-long pilot broadcasts were masterminded from a cramped end terrace house which had been temporarily let to the station.

But despite insufficient equipment or space and most of the volunteers having to learn about the technical challenges of radio on the job, the pilots were enough to convince the steering group, the residents of Teesdale and the backers that the station could be sustainable.

The station moved to Enterprise House on the Harmire industrial estate in Barnard Castle and finally began to look like a professional outfit. As they celebrate their first year as a full-time radio station this week, Peter Dixon is optimistically looking to the future.

"We already have some excellent people working here, who are really dedicated and very knowledgeable about their music. Now we want more presenters so we can rely less on the automated system and I want even more community groups to get involved, because it is a community station,"

he says.

"There's no guarantee we'll be here in five years' time, but we've come a very long way already."

■ Radio Teesdale broadcasts within Teesdale on 102.1 and 105.5 FM. To find out about volunteering, call 01833-696750.