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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Simon Usborne

‘We’re off in our transit vans after the show’: how Fix Radio built a hit station for builders

The station’s foreman, Louis Timpany.
MC hammer … The station’s foreman, Louis Timpany. Photograph: Tom/Fix Radio

It is cold, dark and deathly quiet at an out-of-town business park in West Sussex. Hours before the car-parts business, the furniture workshop and the trampoline park open, the only noise competing with the hum of the A27 spills out from unit 45.

“We are serving up the ultimate builders’ breakfast!” bellows a jingle playing out just after 7.30am. “The Bald Builders Breakfast … Packed with the good stuff, plenty of sauce and the two biggest clowns on site.”

Brad Hanson and Sam Hughes, who both live nearby, are broadcasting to the country as the stars of Fix Radio, a station for the trades that is making waves as part of a wider boom in niche commercial stations. The builders turned broadcasters face each other across a plywood desk inside their storage unit. Their chipboard-and-timber home on weekday mornings from 6am is perhaps the only national radio studio to have been built by the presenters themselves.

Wearing a cap from the Bald Builders merch range, Hughes, 29, sits at his laptop while Hanson, 39, stays standing throughout, bouncing around his microphone with the kind of energy that would make Gregg Wallace seem flat.

As Britain’s Transit army drives to site and fires up rugged Makitas (other plaster-splattered radios are available), the pair fill a gap on the airwaves. And they appear to be nailing it. Fix Radio now reaches a growing audience of more than 400,000 people a week, with an average weekly listening time of more than 26 hours, according to audio-broadcast ratings company Nielsen.

A week before my visit, the builders interviewed Will Mellor, the actor most recently seen in ITV’s Mr Bates v the Post Office. The breakfast show is filmed for social media and a clip of the conversation, in which Mellor tells a story about the time he accidentally put down the wrong cat, has scored 20m views in four days. Meanwhile, two Fix Radio shows – the Bald Builders Breakfast and the Heating and Plumbing Show – mixed it with the giants of broadcasting last year when they were nominated in the best new show category at the Arias, the “Oscars” of the radio industry.

The builders say they provide a positive platform for trades that they argue are misunderstood. “We’re hairy-arsed builders, ain’t we,” Hanson says during a break for music (at one point he introduces Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling as “plastering the ceiling”). “You know, tattooed, bald, a little bit podgy.” He looks at Hughes and himself with a smile. “But it’s so much more than that.”

On the morning I sit in on the show, between a scattergun mix of upbeat tracks, the Bald Builders discuss the challenges of starting vans on cold mornings and the perils of “mates’ rates” work (“They should be supporting me, not the other way round!” one listener tells the show).

The Fix schedule, which is also broadcast online and via podcasts and social media, includes shows for electricians, plasterers, carpenters, plumbers, decorators, bricklayers and roofers. Most are presented by tradespeople, many of whom arrived with big followings as online influencers.

It’s not all banter and bangers; the station takes on mental health, as well as the big issues the industry faces, from fuel and materials prices to tool theft and London’s controversial Ulez low-emission zone. With a wink and a smile, it sets out to present the trades as professional, aspirational careers.

“When I was at school, I was told, ‘All you’re gonna do is work on a building site,’” says Hanson, a builder’s son from south London who drifted out of the classroom and on to sites aged just 13. “Now I know bricklayers earning £700 a day and I know teachers who aren’t earning that. Who should be up here and who should be down there in that hierarchy?”

Clive Holland, who presents the lunchtime show and last year grilled Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, over the Ulez charge, is most concerned about a looming skills crisis caused by an ageing workforce heading for retirement, the impact of Brexit and a big decline in apprenticeships. “In other countries builders are revered, but here … youngsters aren’t interested and educators aren’t sending the message that there are good careers,” he says.

Fix Radio started with a brainwave 10 years ago, when Louis Timpany, then 22, was temping on building sites near his home in Hampshire while he worked out what to do with a business degree. “I quickly realised what a massive part of the tradesperson’s life the radio is,” he tells me. “I suddenly thought, if we were to start from the ground up, what would a radio station aimed at this community look like?”

Timpany understood how annoying repetitive ads and music can be for all-day audiences. “Three hours plastering a ceiling and I’ve heard the same song four times,” says Hanson, who tended to listen to Heart or Magic on site. Timpany also spied an opportunity; while it might not make business sense for suppliers to the trades to advertise on mainstream radio, could they be drawn to a targeted audience?

After a six-month crash course at Christian Radio, Timpany, who is now 31, pitched his idea to investors, eventually managing to build a shoestring regional London station. Fix Radio, which is now headquartered in studios in south London, hit the air in April 2017. Its first song: Starship’s We Built This City.

It was a slow start as Timpany tried to break listening habits of a lifetime and tempt advertisers to a station run by a guy in his early 20s. In one feat of direct marketing, he sent 30,000 bacon butties to sites across London. Builders soon began to tune in and the advertisers followed; Fix Radio is now sustained largely by hardware stores, tool suppliers and trade insurers, and last year had a turnover of £3.7m.

After expanding from London to Manchester, Timpany set about raising the significant undisclosed funds required to go national. The growing Fix community rewarded him in spades: a crowdfunding appeal raised more than £1m. Fix began broadcasting across the country in May 2022 with the Bald Builders at the helm of a new breakfast show.

The station is riding high in a commercial radio market that now attracts more listeners than the BBC stations do. New web-based broadcasting technology has lowered the barrier to entry decades after DAB smashed open the limited bandwidth that FM and AM had offered. Niche stations with regional or national audiences have bloomed, and include Radio Maria (a Catholic station), Polish Radio London, Gaydio and Boom Radio, which targets the 60-plus demographic.

“You could do a radio station for undertakers and they’d tune in,” says Hanson, whose father worked as an undertaker while also doing building work and weekend shifts as a bouncer. “I think in times to come, the way socials are with so many niche channels, radio’s going to go the same way. It’s already happening with podcasts.”

Hanson met Hughes when the younger builder started dating Hanson’s sister-in-law. When Hanson moved from London to West Sussex, Hughes was working as an electrician. Hanson, who originally trained as a plasterer, later helped set up an online building supplies store and gave Hughes a job. They carried on building on the side and started to document their jobs and pranks on social media.

They built the Bald Builders brand, which has now flourished for more than a decade. The pair already had a big online audience when Fix first invited them on air in 2018. They took some convincing, and then some training, to get ready for radio. “I couldn’t read and write properly and this really took me out of my comfort zone,” Hanson says, pointing at his show notes. He crosses each item out when it’s done. “It was bringing back bad memories from school.”

Then there was the compliance and sensitivity training. “No industry could take builders’ banter and not get offended, so not all of that can go on air,” Hanson says. It’s perhaps wise that they record “as live”, with roughly a 10-minute delay, to ensure everything goes smoothly. Not that they need the buffer; they’re both naturals (“Natural blaggers maybe!” Hanson says when I pay him the compliment.)

Supervising it all remotely are seasoned producers John Isherwood and Jack Edwards, who occasionally get involved on air and present Fix shows of their own. “It was hard at first but I knew that this show was going to be big because we can reach this audience like no other radio station can,” Isherwood says.

Hanson says relatability and a sense of community are what makes Fix a hit. “When we’re done here our listeners know that we’re off in our Transit vans,” he says. Rico Wojtulewicz, head of policy at the National Federation of Builders, says many builders crave recognition. “We usually think about builders from the consumer point of view that they’re terrible,” he says. “It’s really interesting to have something representing and understanding the sector.” Hanson and Hughes’ own audience has continued to grow since they went on air; the Bald Builders now have 1.4m followers on Facebook and their YouTube channel has scored more than 9m views. Their Fix gig came at a good time; a couple of years before the station got in touch, Hanson’s business had hit the skids. He had started again from scratch, living with his wife and four kids in a caravan in his mother-in-law’s garden. He slowly turned things around and last year finished work on a family house and had a fifth child.

On shelves in their studio, Hanson keeps the plastering trowel he’s used since he was 17, along with a framed £20 pound note with the words “break in an emergency” scrawled over it. “That’s to tell myself if I ever go skint again I can start up again because £20 will buy me a bag of plaster,” he says before heading to his van after the breakfast show wraps for another day. “I can plaster a ceiling, earn myself one and a half times that amount, and go again tomorrow.”

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