Cam FM at 40

Students in the Cam FM studio

David Clouter describes stopping at the Cambridge University Broadcasting Society (CUBS) stall at the 1978 societies fair as his sliding doors moment: the point at which the entire trajectory of his life was altered. ‘If I’d gone down the end of the next aisle, or if I’d arrived ten minutes later when there was somebody else on the stall, my life would have been completely different’, he says.

The CUBS stall, David recalls, was peculiarly Spartan. Manned by two people with a single clipboard between them, it was a far-cry from the merchandise-heavy set-up favoured by the other societies. But chatting with the two students soon piqued his interest.

They introduced themselves as Simon Cooper and Ellie Buchanan (now known as Woodstock Taylor) and talked about their desire to establish the University’s first radio station. David remembers being impressed by their enthusiasm­—‘they showed a passion; there was a glint in their eyes’ he says. He jotted his name on the clipboard and they planned to meet in the coming weeks.

David didn’t know it at the time, but this encounter with the sparky Simon and Woodstock was the start of a long and successful career in radio. ‘I’ve been involved in all kinds of fabulous projects since but CUR (Cambridge University Radio) was where it all started’ he says.

Talking to those involved with CUR (later Cam FM) through the ages, it becomes apparent that David’s experience is not uncommon. An early indication that CUR occupies a place more significant than nostalgia in many alumni’s hearts was the sheer volume of responses I received when sending out my initial requests for interviews. Anyone who has written stories like this before will understand how difficult it can be to get enough people willing to talk to you. For the present piece, however, I had to turn down interviews.

The Cam FM studio

The Cam FM studio today

The Cam FM studio today

If you haven’t heard Cam FM before, I recommend listening to a show on their online catch-up system. It is a surprisingly professional operation. The polished presenters outnumber the clumsy, although there is still more than a dash of that quintessential rawness that makes student radio so charming.

The programming is diverse although music shows make up the bulk of the schedule. The full spectrum of human taste is represented, including the offbeat (a show playing only Elvis songs), the obscure (unsigned experimental dance) and the downright niche (a show dedicated to Belgian guitar music). There’s a smattering of talk shows— politics, current affairs and comedy— though it’s through Cam FM’s unrivalled sports coverage that most students first touch base with the station. The highlight of the station’s calendar is their coverage of the May Bumps, which they broadcast directly from the banks of the river.

Several alumni are still involved with Cam FM. David, who now lives back in the Cambridge area, presents his own weekly rock show; others provide regular consultancy. There is even an alumnus on the committee. The station they work on today, however, is a world apart from the one David and his friends hashed together in the CUBS meetings following the 1978 societies’ fair.

The early days

One of the first problems they encountered was the discontinuous geography of the collegiate university—something which later students, living in more technologically-blessed times, would also have to grapple with. Most universities can usually rely on one centrally placed aerial to broadcast to students on campus. But Cambridge is collegiate and therefore occupies a far larger, more dispersed area. Your average small-fry aerial just wouldn’t cut it.

Even if they could get an aerial that was powerful enough, obtaining a license that would allow a student radio station to broadcast over such a large area—potentially interfering with other local radio stations—would be very difficult.

Being an enterprising bunch, David and the gang were not discouraged, although they did reassess their plans. After some discussion, they decided to broadcast to just one college: Churchill, where several committee members lived.

Getting everything prepared was very much a DIY affair. They earmarked the basement of a nearby graduate house to serve as the studio and David spent an afternoon taping egg boxes to the walls in a makeshift attempt at soundproofing. The societies’ technical whizz Tony Johnson, who later went on to work with Tim Berners-Lee, designed and built the original transmission system. They had to install a difficult aerial that had to be threaded underneath walkways and paths across the college grounds. David remembers Tony crawling about all these hard-to-reach places and sorting through a plethora of intricate cables.

Photos of the original committee and BBC's Paul Gambaccini at CUR's inaugural broadcast

Photos of the original committee and BBC's Paul Gambaccini at CUR's inaugural broadcast

Switching on the transmitter was a more glamourous occasion. Their inaugural broadcast was attended by a handful of radio celebrities (notably Paul Gambaccini) who wanted to give their blessing to the nascent station. David’s was the first voice on air. ‘We talked a bit about Cambridge and our hopes for the future of the station’ he says.

CUR remained small and limited in its first few decades, largely a symptom of primitive seventies technology. Nowadays Cam FM broadcasts 24/7 but the original schedule was more intermittent. ‘Today broadcasts can be automated when there is nobody in the studio but that would have been very sophisticated and expensive back then,’ David explains. They could only broadcast when there were people available to man the station, meaning programmes were term-time only. Shows tended to go out in the mornings before lectures, and again in the late afternoon and evenings when people had finished their studies.

Outside broadcasts, while now ubiquitous at the station, would have been a practical impossibility in David’s day. Today, students regularly broadcast from outside the Cam FM studio. These range from the local—May Bumps or Fresher’s Fair—to the further afield, such as the Varsity Rugby at Twickenham. They’ve even presented a show from the decidedly more far-flung Tignes, France for the annual Oxford-Cambridge ski-trip.

Back in 1979, however, the station didn’t have the technology to broadcast from Trinity’s Great Court let alone France. Instead, David remembers traipsing around the college ball circuit during May Week armed with ‘an enormous tape recorder about the size of a briefcase’ to capture interviews and snippets to play on air later. ‘Everything back then was bulky and cumbersome and much more difficult to do’ he says.

The 'quiet' years

The radio station continued to broadcast through the eighties and nineties, although the output never quite matched the volume nor the variety of its first few years. Broadcasts became even more sporadic and, by the end of the eighties, CUR had almost disappeared.

In 1992 the station was revived, and returned once again to a consistent, term-time schedule. They were granted a licence that allowed students in New Hall and Churchill colleges to listen to CUR on their AM radios, resulting in a small but stable listenership. This type of localised transmission depended on ‘induction loop’ technology, meaning that a physical wire was installed in areas frequented by students. The technology was not without its pitfalls. Unsuspecting maintenance workers snipped the wrong wire on more than one occasion, resulting in the already small audience suddenly become a whole lot smaller!

Kevin Greening with a decanter

Kevin Greening celebrating his inauguration as a fellow of the Radio Academy

Kevin Greening celebrating his inauguration as a fellow of the Radio Academy

Low listening numbers and a restricted broadcasting area didn’t stop CUR attracting talented would-be broadcasters, many of whom went on to have their own successful careers in radio. Former Radio 1 presenter Kevin Greening started out on CUR and once joked that the station had saved him from a life as a chemical engineer. Matthew Price, now chief correspondent on Radio 4’s Today programme, also began his broadcasting career in the same dank basement studio.

Richard Straffon is another one of CUR’s success stories. Now a radio presenter with over 25 years’ experience at local stations across the UK, he speaks about CUR with less nostalgia than others I talked to. This seems to stem not from a place of indifference but from his experience of student radio as a functional, utilitarian pursuit.

Richard knew he wanted to be on the radio from an early age. He was obsessed with it as a child. The way he tells it, much of his childhood was spent pretending to present radio shows and making tapes for his friends, before taking to the airwaves for real on hospital radio when he turned 16.

When he came to apply to university, he knew that wherever he went had to have a functioning radio station. His choice of Churchill College was influenced, in part, by the fact it was home to the CUR studio and he freely admits that radio took priority over his degree. ‘There isn’t a course you can do at Cambridge that tells you how to play two records together or how to give away a cash prize to a delighted caller’ he explains. ‘My degree was a safety net, what mattered was getting as much experience under my belt as a radio presenter.’

Student radio will never be known for attracting large audiences. Kevin Greening used to joke that he could double his listeners by propping the studio door open. But for Richard, the dismal listener numbers were a blessing in disguise.

CUR was a place for students to practice broadcasting for real, a process he compares to trainee pilots logging their flight hours. ‘The longer you can practice talking live whilst operating complicated equipment—perhaps saying something stupid and then having to get yourself out of it-- the better’ he says. ‘Everyone makes mistakes in their first thousand hours on the radio and it’s better to make these on student radio than on a giant station in Manchester.’

The move to AM

While Richard saw the advantages in the lack of listeners, other students took a different stance. Kate Arkless Grey was one them. Softly spoken and inexperienced, she explains that she wasn’t the obvious choice when elected Station Manager in 2001. ‘I caused a bit of upset as the newcomer who came in when everybody else thought this more experienced guy was going to get it’ she says. The committee, however, were soon won over by her pioneering plan to increase the listenership of the station by applying for a more comprehensive licence.

Radio licences, as I swiftly come to realise while researching this story, are complex and various. There are hundreds of types, all intended for different contexts, audiences and geographies. The one that Kate had her eye on was the LPAM (Low Power AM), a licence intended for small service areas such as hospitals, military barracks or campus-based universities.

Sam Holloway, former Station Manager and current committee member; Neil Gardner from the Radio Authority; and Kate

Sam Holloway, former Station Manager and current committee member; Neil Gardner from the Radio Authority; and Kate

Sam Holloway, former Station Manager and current committee member; Neil Gardner from the Radio Authority; and Kate

Unfortunately for Kate, Cambridge’s unique geography posed a big problem. As there was no contiguous area considered to be ‘the University’, she was worried the license application would be turned down. ‘Because we’re collegiate and there’s bits of other land around it, people outside the University would be able to listen to it and that’s not what the LPAM licenses were designed for’ she says.

This seemingly insurmountable issue would be enough to put most students off, but Kate was too determined for that. She sat down with her committee and an Ordnance Survey map, trying to work out the bits of land and roads owned by each college and where it all joined up, drawing a big blob around all contiguous university property. The aim, she says, was to persuade the radio authority that Cambridge was no different from a campus-based university, at least in terms of adjacent land owned.

And it worked. Kate attended the national student radio conference, armed with her map and ambushed a member of the Radio Authority who was presenting that evening. They sat down over a few pints and hammered out a plan to erect the aerial and get the station broadcasting over AM.

CUR relaunched in 2001 as CUR1350: the frequency was chosen by Kate as a deliberate nod to Trinity Hall (1350 was the year it was founded). The ‘official’ broadcast area was restricted to the contiguous blob of university-owned land Kate had drawn up, but the signal could be picked up over a much larger radius, and students from Homerton to Girton were able to listen to the station for the first time.

Kate and committee members wearing yellow sashes

When the station moved to AM, Kate and the committee became the 'Tuner Squad', visiting colleges to show students how to tune their radio to AM

When the station moved to AM, Kate and the committee became the 'Tuner Squad', visiting colleges to show students how to tune their radio to AM

New beginnings

The move to AM shifted the emphasis of CUR. As Richard Straffon explained, CUR had previously functioned as a place for students to practice broadcasting. It was a station for the presenters and producers first and for listeners second. The programming schedule, for example, was decided on a first-come, first-served basis at the Fresher’s Fair: whoever arrived there earliest got their pick of time slots. With no thought given to optimal timings, audience preference or generic continuity, the result, more often than not, was a jarring listening experience. It was not unusual for a cheesy pop show to be followed by death metal show before leading into a classical music show.

But for the first time in the history of the station, the potential listener base was huge. No longer restricted to the student populations of New Hall and Churchill, all students across the collegiate university became prospective CUR listeners. The station’s priorities had to change­– CUR had to become more professional and, crucially, more audience-centric.

The refurbished story

The refurbished studio

The refurbished studio

The quest to convert potential listeners to actual listeners necessitated the rapid development and expansion of the station. Luckily, the various committees were more than willing to invest time and money into doing just that. The years 2004-2007 saw some major changes. The studio equipment was upgraded, and CUR was soon being broadcast across the University in glorious stereo sound. Students also worked to improve the online listening experience, developing an online web player with listen-again capability, one of the first student radio stations to provide this.

The schedule was also overhauled. Attracting talented broadcasters to the station had never been a problem for CUR; the University provided a constant pool of skilled and eager students. The problem was ensuring they were producing programmes their audience wanted to hear. Students at the station researched the listening habits and musical preferences of Cambridge University: the first pieces of market research CUR had undertaken.

Unsurprisingly, the current laissez-faire approach to scheduling wasn’t cutting it with their student base, who preferred indie hits and general entertainment during the day and more specialist programming at night.

They also discovered that Cambridge students had a ferocious appetite for various niche musical genres, and increased the time dedicated to specialist musical programming accordingly. For the first time, the station had a coherent schedule that reflected the tastes of the student population.

Val Mellon accepting her award at the 2004 Student Radio Awards

Val Mellon accepting her award at the 2004 Student Radio Awards

Val Mellon accepting her award at the 2004 Student Radio Awards

The efforts of those at CUR did not go unnoticed by the Student Radio Awards (SRA). CUR1350 was nominated for– and won– a record number of awards between 2004 and 2007, culminating in being named the ‘Best Student Radio Station’ in 2007.

Val Mellon was one of the SRA darlings, winning awards for Best Female and Best Entertainment Programming in 2004. Her flagship show, and winner of the entertainment prize, was called Mellon Til’ Midnight­– a lighter, cheekier rehashing of Graham Torrington’s hard-hitting advice show Late Night Love. She now works as a TV Producer, specialising in science and engineering programmes, following stints at various radio stations. She hasn’t lost her aptitude for winning awards— her TV programmes have earned her two Scottish BAFTAs. During our phone call, she is emphatic that her career success would not have been possible without CUR.

When she came to Cambridge as a graduate student, Val was planning a career in science. ‘I hadn’t even considered radio or media as an option before’ she says. She originally joined CUR because she ‘liked listening to the radio’ and thought it sounded an interesting way to meet people. On the latter, she was spot on (she met her current boyfriend at the station and a bunch of lifelong friends) but an unexpected side effect was the development of a deep passion for radio. ‘I got very into it very quickly’ she says.

A group of students meet Phil Jupitas

Val and CUR members meet Phil Jupitus

Val and CUR members meet Phil Jupitus

She began to think about the ways she could marry her scientific interests with radio and TV. ‘From the outside it seemed like an impossible thing to break into but then suddenly I was part of that world, meeting DJs like Phil Jupitus and Steve Lemacq’ she explains. ‘It made me believe it was possible.’

Anglia Ruskin and the birth of Cam FM

Around the same time Val entered the studio for the first time, another group of people became involved with CUR135: Anglia Ruskin students. The move to AM had set the wheels into motion for cross-collaboration with Anglia Ruskin (then known as Anglia Polytechnic) as the signal could now be picked up in the Petersfield neighbourhood. Keen to get more people involved, the CUR committee voted to open up membership to Anglia Ruskin students.

Today, Cam FM explicitly markets itself as a station for both student populations. Although the station is still skewed towards the University of Cambridge— there’s about a 90-10 split between CU and ARU— Anglia Ruskin students have been an integral, albeit small, presence at the station for 15 years.

Martin Steers sat in the Cam FM studio

Martin Steers in the studio

Martin Steers in the studio

‘Cam FM wouldn’t be what it was today if it wasn’t for Anglia Ruskin students’ says Martin Steers, the first ARU student to become Station Manager. ‘They provide a different dynamic as you’ve got more people studying music technology and audio engineering’ he explains. Unlike the University of Cambridge, ARU has a dedicated Media Studies degree and actively encourages students to get involved with Cam FM as part of their coursework.

Martin was a Communication Studies student himself and joined the station in 2006. Like Richard Straffon before him, Martin knew he wanted a career in radio and had contacted the station the summer before he arrived at university to register his interest. He quickly became friends with the then-Station Manager Michael Brooks and worked on the news team, before being appointed Station Manager himself in 2008.

While ARU students are fully integrated within the station today, Martin says it wasn’t always so harmonious. ‘My appointment as Station Manager ruffled a few feathers’ he says. ‘I heard of people quitting and cancelling their membership to the station.’ He remained defiant in the face of the snobbery, choosing instead to view the situation as an opportunity to build an environment that would bring the two universities together.

In a story that should now be familiar, he set his sights on increasing the listenership. The move to AM had greatly extended the geographical reach of the station but its effect on audience numbers had been less spectacular. The reason for this, Martin explains, was two-fold: most students didn’t have an AM radio and, even if they did, the sound quality was ‘as scratchy as anything’.

Ten years ago, FM was king, still unscathed by the rise of DAB and internet radio. Martin was convinced that getting an FM licence was the key to expanding their audience, allowing them to produce what he considered more ‘meaningful content’, including more interviews, sport coverage and arts and culture programming. ‘That kind of programming takes a lot of effort and to justify that effort– and to attract the number of people needed to produce it– you need to have a much bigger, broader audience’ he says.

Having an FM licence is a great privilege, and getting approved for one is not easy. There are all kinds of rules and stipulations you have to adhere to get the licence in the first place. The standards are far too vigorous for the majority of student stations, with only a handful broadcasting over FM across the UK. Despite this, Martin felt that with the ‘Best Student Radio Station’ award under their belt CUR had a decent shot.  

He applied for a student community FM licence, a sort of hybrid licence that blends elements from both community and student radio. For example, it would allowed the CUR to broadcast on FM across the whole of Cambridge, but the station had to be explicitly aimed at students and people affiliated with the two universities (staff, alumni and, at a push, sixth formers).

Martin and CUR members at the Radio 1 studio

Martin and CUR members take over Radio 1

Martin and CUR members take over Radio 1

‘You had to send everything to Ofcom by email and if they didn’t get it by the deadline, tough’ says Martin. He remembers being so concerned that the files and attachments wouldn’t send correctly that he instead sent his partner down on the train to deliver the application to Ofcom by hand.

His neurosis paid off, and the station was awarded the licence in March 2009. Of course, as Martin points out, getting the licence was only the beginning. ‘You’ve got to work out how you’re actually going to get on FM; you need to buy the transmitters and masts’ he says.

The move to FM was also seen as the perfect opportunity for a comprehensive rebrand, especially as the new licence rendered it inappropriate to have a name that only referenced the University of Cambridge. After months of consultations and market research, they landed on the more inclusive (and snappier) Cam FM.

'Proudly a work-in-progress'

Cam FM launched in October 2010 and is now one of the most popular student radio stations in the UK. It should come as no surprise to learn that the move to FM did little to curtail the station’s orientation towards progress and expansion. Listener numbers have continued to increase, and they are entirely self-funded through advert sales. Today, the station outputs over 100 hours a week of live broadcasts during term-time, an impressive feat considering the station is essentially an extra-curricular activity.

It also remains one of the few societies in Cambridge that encourages and facilitates collaboration with ARU students. They built a second studio on the Anglia Ruskin Campus in 2012 and now split their time equally covering events at both universities. There is always at least one Anglia Ruskin student on the committee, and the current Station Manager Oliver Harris has said he is keen to boost the ARU numbers further.

The current Cam FM committee (2019)

The current Cam FM committee (2019)

The current Cam FM committee (2019)

The future of Cam FM promises to be exciting. Forty years of passionate and driven students have poured themselves into the project, shaping and reshaping it at any given opportunity. While the exact direction the station will take next is still unwritten, their work has ensured the station has remained a proud work in progress. History suggests this won’t be changing anytime soon.

If you were involved in CUR/Cam FM, the current committee would love to hear from you. Please drop them an email at