New gospel radio station to hit the airwaves

Chris Benfield TALK about "The Word" and most people will think of a deliberately tasteless Channel 4 exercise in "youth TV" in the early 90s.

But a new radio station in West Yorkshire could change that.

Branch FM thinks there is an unmet market for Christian broadcasting and has been given a licence to try its theories in the Dewsbury area.

Like the Branch Bookshop and the Branch Christian School, the radio station is an offshoot of Dewsbury Gospel Church, which traces its roots back to the temperance movement. There is no single organisation of "gospel churches" but like most with a similar title, Dewsbury's characterises itself as "charismatic and evangelical" – meaning more American than Church of England in style.

And it believes it was sent a "Vision from the Lord" to get into American-style religious broadcasting.

Its prayers were answered yesterday when the Government's Office of Communications (Ofcom) announced it had been awarded one of the new Community Radio licences.

Within nine months, Branch FM expects to be on air 24 hours a day from the studio above its church in the old Temperance Hall on Halifax Road, Dewsbury.

It already broadcasts over the internet and claims up to 5,000 "hits" a week, from all over the world, although it cannot say how many visitors tune in. So-called "webcasting" only gets listeners who are good with computers. The new licence is for a wavelength – still to be chosen – in the spectrum most ordinary radios are tuned to.

The submission to Ofcom claimed that nearly 31,000 people in Dewsbury – 57 per cent of the population – called themselves Christian in the last census, compared with just over 12,000 Muslims (23 per cent) and about 10,000 who said they had no religion or ignored the question.

The existing Branch FM schedule includes a country gospel programme on Mondays, run by the church pastor, Bob Ward, who spent his childhood in Canada; black gospel music on Wednesdays; "Christian dance" on Fridays; and a rock programme on Saturdays.

Policeman Steve Hodgson, a chief superintendent based at Keighley, has been managing the station for 10 years – on-line and sometimes on-air, with temporary licences – while pursuing the full-time licence he thinks God wanted the church to get.

He said yesterday: "We have support from other Christian churches but our long-term aim is to find the sponsorship to make it an independent station. It is an exciting opportunity which we have prayed for for a long long time."

A Christian station called Premier is on-air in the London area and gets some national distribution through cable and satellite and United Christian Broadcasting of Stoke on Trent runs digital radio and TV channels but nothing on air.

Mr Hodgson said he hoped the Dewsbury experiment would lead to more. Branch FM is one of nine stations given the go-ahead at the latest meeting of the Ofcom licensing committee: meaning 93 new stations have been created in 12 months. It is a condition of community radio licences that they are not used to make a profit.

Two experimental Yorkshire stations, Bradford Community Broadcasting (96.7 FM) and Asian Fever in Leeds (87.7 FM), have been made permanent. Sheffield Live, Burngreave Community Radio, Wetherby Community Radio and Phoenix Radio (Halifax) have been approved but are still preparing to launch.