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Solid Gold Radio Sovereign - Part 3

Issue: 1 Updated: 22nd January 2010

Continuing our Radio Sovereign feature this is the full story of stations history by owner John Kenning

Following the enforced closure of the station in the UK plans were put into action to re-launch Radio Sovereign in Italy

Research into the possibility of buying the existing Radio Nova located in Seborga was conducted, but in the end it was decided that it would be better to start afresh ...

In the days leading up to the sad demise of Sovereign U.K. I had investigated the possibility of launching a radio station on the French & Italian Rivera’s. There was already one English language radio station broadcasting there called Radio Nova (nothing to do with the one operated by Chris Carey in Eire). However, it was badly run & would frequently be off the air for long periods; residents on the coast had begun to nickname the station ‘Radio Nowhere’

There was an obvious gap in the market for a well-run station & I considered that there was enormous potential & it was a fabulous place to live with sunny days nearly all year round. To be accurate, Radio Nova wasn’t the only English language station broadcasting on the Cote d’azur, there was another called Radio Kost (pronounced coast) with an announcer called Greg which was owned by American, Ron Myers. However, Kost’s output was solely religious & relied on listener subscriptions to keep it on the air. Its signal was pretty weak & rather stupidly, as we shall see, I dismissed Radio Kost out of hand. In my somewhat over ambitious plans we were going to put out such an incredibly strong FM signal, it would blast every other station in the area off the spectrum

Mini arrives in Seborga

Condemned as scrap this 1967 Mini made a faultless trip from Twickenham

On 2nd Jan 1984 at 3pm, Peter MacFarlane (aka Kevin Turner) broadcast the final programme on Radio Sovereign from my home in Twickenham. I had asked Pete if he’d do it, although as the owner of the station, perhaps I should have had the courage. But quite simply, I knew I couldn’t, & the final words “Radio Sovereign is now closing down” completely broke me up. I’m not ashamed to admit that I collapsed, sobbing like a baby, into the arms of my long-suffering girlfriend, Jilly

In Radio Sovereign’s emergence on the French & Italian Rivera’s, I need to mention my involvement in Laser 558 because the two stations were to begin with inextricably entwined. We'll return to that story in its entirety in a separate feature

Radio Sovereign Italy HQ

The premises chosen was a villa in Camporosso Mare were swiftly converted into a Radio Station Base

During my research to set up what was to become Laser 558, I met Howard Rose (aka Crispian St. John) & Paul McKenna. I subsequently gave Paul his first break in radio on Sovereign UK and I recognised a future Kenny Everett in the making. He was very funny on Sovereign and yet when he went to Capital Radio in London years later, he wasn’t as funny. I met Paul backstage at one of his hypnotic shows and I mentioned this. He told me that Capital had gagged him to a large extent. Shame; although he should care, look at him now!

But for now let’s fast-forward to Spring 1984. Sovereign UK had closed & I'd had a dreadful meeting with the folk who'd become the Laser people, so with utter contempt I packed up everything I owned & set off for the French-Italian Riviera's. Jilly & Pete came with me but sadly, Howard Rose declined my invitation a great shame as I'd learnt so much about radio from Howard

Antenna & Greenhouses Versatower ready to raise

About to be elevated the Versatower Antenna alongside greenhouses

Initially the transmitter overheated as outside temperatures soared in the afternoon sun, as a quick fix greenhouse water hoses were diverted over the roof of the transmitter cabin

To reflect the suns rays the roof was painted white, & bigger extractor fans fitted

We didn’t know it then but if Sovereign UK had had a rough time, we were in for an even rougher ride ahead. We rented an apartment in San Remo & all began setting up our new station. Another person to join us was Grant Benson, a bit of a nutcase who would prattle on about nothing-on-earth for hours but was entertaining & amusing. The prerequisites of a good Jock, so I hired him & he became one of our best broadcasters, that is until he defected to Caroline

I wanted to call the new station Radio Riviera but that meant commissioning a new jingle package, as we already had the Radio Sovereign UK cuts, it was prudent to save money & use those. We did however decide that the on air call-sign would be Radio Sovereign International

Ian Hurrian at TX Hut

Ian Hurrian working on the Antenna

We encountered many, many problems getting Sovereign on the air. To start with, our new aerial mast, which had been shipped from the UK, was firmly stuck in an Italian custom’s shed. To get it out, we politely informed, with a nod and a wink, certain Customs officials’ palms would need to be crossed with much silver; if this were done & our mast might be released. The same went for all the studio equipment. My budget to set up the station had been £100,000 which was practically everything I had, we'd purchased at huge expense a brand new Italian Elpro transmitter. Suddenly, we were well over budget & not even on air

I had to do some drastic thinking, I called my bank manager in the UK & negotiated a £10,000 loan. My parents lent me another £10,000, we now had just enough to get us on air, but still had to pay wages & run for at least a month before we’d see any return from advertising, that’s if everything went according to plan

Radio Sovereign Crew by TX Hut

Jilly Nicholson, PA to Station Owner, John Kenning - Station Owner, Dave Bowman - Engineer, Oscar Porfirio - Engineer, Mario - Engineer from Elpro Transmitter Company & Kevin Turner at the transmitter site

See Kevin Turner on Caroline

Italian Television; Canale 5, Rete 4, Italia 1 broadcast from this site

For legal reasons, we'd decided to install the station on Italian soil, because an Italian radio station was easier to set up in terms of broadcasting regulations. In fact, to broadcast in Italy at that time (1984), you just needed to jump on a frequency & go. There was no licence, no fee, no bang on the door from any radio authority, nothing, what could be easier?

We rented a building in the Northern Italian town of Ventimiglia, just across the border from Menton & Monaco & set about turning the building into offices & studios. It was our intention to beam a powerful signal all the way along the French Riviera we'd intended to use 104.1 FM as it was a completely clear channel from San Remo to St. Tropez, in fact it was the Only clear channel along the whole of the coast. The On-Air Studio would beam via a low powered FM radio link up to the transmitter, but that didn't prove to be as easy as we'd thought

Studio being assembled

Studio equipment from Twickenham supplemented by new Sonifex Cart' Machines

To claim 104.1 we needed to act fast, in this part of the world, radio operators jumped on clear channels at the drop of a record needle. With much trepidation, I ordered a crystal cut to the frequency from the UK. Once a crystal has been cut to a certain frequency, it can't be altered, so if another radio operator on the Riviera realised the potential of 104.1 we'd be stuffed. There was no turning back at this point & during the weeks that followed, I prayed that no one else would grab the earmarked channel

About one week before the crystal was due to be delivered, I was called with the devastating news that someone had jumped on our frequency. To add insult to injury; it was a bloody English language station, the local 'God Station’ Radio Kost. There was nothing for it but to go & knock on their door and ask if we could have our frequency back, pretty please. In a rather un-Christian-like manner, I was threatening to cut their aerial mast down & stick it up the arse of whoever answered the door. Good god, no, but was I ready for a fight. Everything we’d worked towards, plus £120,000 equating to double that in today’s money could go down the drain

Competed Studio

Plus a Stereo version, the 828s Alice Desk, note UK 13amp sockets

Pete intervened & could see that I was in an aggressive state; he also realised that if things got ugly, we’d both end up in a Italian jail. Whilst I was assure that violence was not going to help, I screamed “Not going to help, I’ll tell you what, I don’t care if Garner f'ing’ Ted Armstrong himself answers the door; I’m gonna kick him in the goolies!” Ready for the worst, I clenched my fists & as the door opened weighed up the guy who greeted us. Rather unsurprisingly, it actually wasn’t Mr Armstrong but a smallish, well-dressed Yank. “Hey you guys, how ya doing?” I figured that one punch between his darting eyes should do the trick quite nicely

Tactfully explaining that we had earmarked 104.1 for our new station, Greg has he was known invited us in for tea, all very English, asked whether they would kindly vacate the frequency. Greg was surprised at our request. “We don’t broadcast on 104.1” he claimed. I felt my fists clench again. “Lying bastard” I thought. I was ready to leap out of my chair & sock the blighter. Greg reached for a radio receiver & tuned into 104.1. “Strange” he muttered, it must be a spurious signal from our transmitter” he grinned. “I’ll get our engineer onto it immediately.” To the uninitiated, transmitters can sometimes go out of tune slightly & send out a secondary signal, sometimes called a ‘harmonic’ on another unintended frequency. This can happen without warning & sometimes without the station owner’s knowledge

Oscar plumbs in TX feed

Oscar Porfirio plumbs in the electrical feed from the site owners villa to the transmitter cabin

Of all the crazy things to have happen, we had to see the funny side of it. Not being religious, I wasn’t quite sure what to say as we left, so I promised Greg I’d go to church & say three Hail Mary’s. Greg raised his eyebrows & looked at me in askance. No matter, we had got our frequency back

In the months that followed, we'd become allies, Greg often lent us bits of wireless equipment to keep us on the air. I always felt rather guilty that I had nearly murdered such a lovely guy. However, Greg wasn’t the only person I nearly murdered. Soon there was going to be a real death and it was going to be my fault, or so I thought

Kitchen to be the News Studio

Don't laugh the old kitchen destined to become the news studio

A couple of days later, our crystal arrived. We couldn’t wait to plug it in to our new transmitter which we’d installed on top of a mountain with clear line-of-sight all the way to St Tropez. The base for our mast had been constructed next to our transmitter shed. Set into reinforced concrete, four huge bolts pointed skywards waiting for the ‘stuck-in-Customs’ mast to be affixed. We also had much Italian red-tape to contend with. Registering our new company meant we needed the services of someone who spoke fluent English & Italian. Joan Porfirio was the perfect person, she was English but married to an Italian so I employed her to help with our book keeping. She'd found a good accountant in San Remo, a man called Dr Meiga, he taught me the first important rule in filing tax returns for an Italian company. “You keep-a two books, one-a book you keepa under your-a bed, the other you show-a to the taxa peoples.” Dr Meiga laughed. I was a bit worried about this at first but it’s actually how every self respecting Italian company files its tax returns. I was beginning to like Italy

Jury rigged News Studio

Improvised decorators table & tea chests in the hurriedly assembled News Studio

Finally, our mast was released, Joan’s husband, Oscar, was a fantastic help not only in helping to get our mast released from the Custom’s shed but also in constructing its base. With very high winds lashing the exposed peninsular we were prevented from hauling the mast up. Foiled yet again & it was no laughing matter, the borrowed money was fast running out & still we were not on air. Abnormal gales continued for days, the mast couldn't be raised, even if things calmed a little there was a fear that it might buckle as rigged

It’s worth pointing out that during the set-up period for Sovereign International, the guys at Radio Nova had obviously got wind of our project. Their programming output increased & became very much better. One jock, Mark Dezzani, was particularly good. In the months that followed, I poached him. I temporarily took on Ian Hurrian, Ian was Nova’s engineer. For a handful of Liras, he helped with many of the technical prenuptial's

John Kenning cleans the studio window

Not a Peeping Tom, its John Kenning cleaning the studio windows in readiness for opening

John Kenning can also be seen in Big L 1997

Finally, the gales subsided, the mast went up & our antennas connected to the new Elpro. I flew out a radio engineer called Dave Bowman, a lovely guy whom I’d met during Sovereign UK days, he spent the next week fine-tuning everything until we were able to put out a glorious tone on 104.1. Jilly, Pete, Dave, Grant & I piled into my Mini Mayfair to drive to St. Tropez. The car radio was glued to 104.1, Jilly couldn’t quite comprehend how four grown men could listen to a monotonous tone for the four hour duration of the journey. It might have been a monotonous tone, but it was music to my ears! A couple of days later we put on a pre-recorded tape of music. At every thirty minute interval, the following announcement was heard

“This is a Test Transmission for a brand new radio station on the Riviera. Radio Sovereign International will shortly commence broadcasting on 104 FM. Remember, this is just a test … the best is yet to come”


Antenna mast with its 3 matching dipoles is carefully raised

The stipulation was for a maximum height of 15 metres but the antenna was surreptitiously raised to its full 20 metres

The site owners twigged & the antenna would be lowered again, but within a matter of days the height was slowly raised, after another warning the process of raising & lowering that antenna was repeated

Sovereign FM TX

A new 2Kw Elpro Transmitter was purchased & transported to Bordighera from Milan

The anntenna was fed by heavy duty 10kW coax

In Italy with the three Yagi antennas & 2kW transmitter power in theory about 20kW erp could be obtained. We're told that Elpro brought with them from Milan a high quality, heavy duty coaxial cable & that as reputable transmitter manufacturers the build quality of the transmitter & antennas was high, so its quite possible that an erp in the region of 20 kW was achieved - Dave Porter G4OYX ex BBC Transmitter Engineer

Tears welled up in my eyes as we once again drove to St. Tropez to see how our signal was getting out. That night, we took the decision to “go live” the next morning. Dave Bowman warned me that testing was not fully completed. But we were already so far behind schedule that in my opinion, it was “now or never”. I should have listened to Dave. On the evening of the 4th May 1984, Jilly set our alarm for 5.55 am. Pete was due to present the breakfast show on our first day of broadcasting. Radio Sovereign International was about to become reality, or was it?

TX Switch panel

The switch is thrown & Radio Sovereign 104.1 FM Italy comes to life

The antenna was directed along the Cote D'Azur giving coverage along the French & Italian Rivera's from San Remo to San Tropez

I hardly slept that night & I was still awake when the alarm went off. In the half-light, the digital readout of 104.1 glowed like a beacon on my radio. I turned up the volume. Nothing but static. Peeping out from the curtains, it was going to be another fabulous day. One minute to go. We counted down the seconds

Suddenly, the radio blasted out across the room, Pete had fired one of our new Sonifex studio cartridge machines on cue, our call-sign boomed out with Bill Mitchell’s deep throaty voice. We had commissioned him to record it one month earlier. Over vibrant drum beats and signature music, the following ident will always remain engraved in my memory


English broadcasts to the French & Itailian Rivera's from TX perched on the Peninsula of Bordighera

Jilly & Dave

Jilly Nicholson & Dave Bowman during test transmissions, the big hammer behind Jilly testifies the state of play

Our news jingle followed; then Pete’s dulcet tones announced. “Good morning, this IS Radio Sovereign International. Dateline 5th May 1984. It’s six o’clock with news on the hour ...” For the second time, I ended up in Jilly’s arms crying like a kid, the relief was incredible but we’d done it. Something impossible to put into words, how it feels like to hear your own radio station take to the air. Complete elation only half sums it up. The day went well, we took enquiries from possible advertisers. We'd no idea how many people were listening, but word had spread like wildfire throughout the community that we were on the air. Requests, dedications & messages poured in as soon as we gave out our phone number. We might not be firmly on the map yet but it was a great start

Press Picture 1

Launch Press Pictures with Tony Whale, Mark Dazzani, Kevin Turner Oscar Porfirio & Jilly Nicholson

Studio close-up

Studio close-up (Tony Christian Archive)

Studio close-up 2

Studio close-up (Tony Christian Archive)

In the early months you might also have heard Tony Christian, Stuart Clark, & Steve Silby

Tony Christian in studio 1984

Tony Christian in Studio (Tony Christian Archive)

Tony Christian Programme and a little reminiscing

The day before Radio Sovereign 104.1 FM launched in May 1984, Radio Nova 101.5 FM went off the air as a financial crisis hit their operation

Opening Programme Schedule:

06.00 - 10.30 Kevin Turner

10.30 - 15.00 Mark Dezzani

15.00 - 1930 John Kenning

19.30 - 24.00 Tony Whale

Tony Whale

Tony Whale who appeared briefly on Caroline 319, remembered for the emphasis he put on WHale

Press Picture 2

Dave Bowman, John Kenning, Kevin Turner & Oscar Porfirio

The English speaking audience along the Cote D'Azur were quick to embrace the newcomer

More powerful than Radio Nova, Sovereigns transmitter site at Bordighera Alta was 150m above sea level & benefited from being on a peninsular jutting out into the Mediterranean

Producing a superb signal to the commercially important City of Nice

In June 1984 a 1Kw 107.5FM transmitter was introduced to cover San Remo, coincidentally home of John Kenning & Jilly Nicholson

The continues in Radio Sovereign - Part 4

7/11/06 Thanks for your website - it just gets better & better. I'm actually signed off work long term & finding reading sites like yours on the www really helpful as magazines & newspapers become the same after a while, so reading your site is a great therapy. Just read the Radio Soveriegn story, love your photos too - geez - if only radio now was like that?! Cheers and all the best - Leigh Preece - Stoke on Trent

30/10/06 Enjoyed the new Scrapbook "Sovereign" feature and the new Scrapbook INDEX page is a real treat to use, easier on the eyes & it looks good too. Cheers Dave Roberts

31/10/06 Just a quick note to say, your emails to check your fantastic site are still the highlight every month. Yours is one of the few websites that I bother to read "cover to cover", keep up the great work. Gordy -

7/4/07 - I've been following your report on Radio Soveriegn with interest. I have a couple of cassettes recorded when Iwas out in Italy tranfered them to CD to put together a little feature for TNI Radio. I also have Stuart Clark & Mark Dezzani shows from Soveriegn on cassettes somewhere & have included a pic of me in the Soveriegn studio while on air in 84', not a pretty sight - Tony Christian

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