March 16, 2021
The struggle of Sunny G
Back then it was considered quite a scoop when Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, shared with her audience that even she occasionally suffered from imposter syndrome. The audience was mainly on her constituency doorstep, Govan, and she was talking over the airwaves broadcast by Sunny Govan, one Scotland’s best known and oldest community radio stations. This is much more than a radio station. Sunny G has delivered multiple benefits to Govan since winning its first licence in 2007. But like many community enterprises affected by the pandemic, Sunny G is now fighting for its life.
In the shop front window of Sunny Govan community radio station there is a carefully painted heart, held between two abstract palms.
But for now, the shutters of this 20-year-old charity – based right in the centre of one of Scotland’s most historically significant urban working class communities – are pulled down.
That doesn’t look out-of-place on Govan Road where almost all the shop fronts are closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. But in recent months it has emerged that the future of this iconic community station hangs in the balance.
It was already struggling financially before the pandemic hit. But over the last year, income – from training, fundraisers, from sponsorship and ads – has dried-up. Last December auditors served station managers with a warning. Unless a deficit of £30k could be cleared it would be declared insolvent.
It was time to raise the alarm.
Sunny Govan was set-up in 2001 with the aim of reframing the tired narrative about the neighbourhood that said this former shipbuilding area was a deprived and failing one. Instead, it would shine a spotlight on the culture and identity of Govan, and highlight the good work being done in the area.
But its significance carries much further.
This was one of the first community radio stations in the UK to get its licence. Almost 15 years later, its often rough-around-the-edges output is no less eclectic. Gems like Katie’s Musical Cookbook have offered recipes for soup as a side dish to a heavy metal playlist.
Talk shows sit cheek by jowel with hip-hop, dance and reggae, and well as local musicians, DJs and activists there’s also a solid helping of politics.
It was on a Sunny G slot that Nicola Sturgeon revealed being First Minister of Scotland did not offer immunity from imposter syndrome.
“I don’t think there is a woman alive, particularly working-class women, who don’t experience that at some point in their lives, and probably quite regularly,” Sturgeon told show host Anne Hughes. Her comments were reported across Scotland and beyond.
But ask around and what people who know Sunny G talk about is what lies beneath.
It might look like a broadcasting organisation to the untrained eye, says station manager Steven Gilfoyle, aka hip hip producer and recording artist, Steg G. But spinning records is just the eighth of the iceberg sticking out of the water. The seven-eighths of support and community work lie underneath.
Before the pandemic that meant an open door policy – everyone was welcomed, the kettle had always just boiled and the phone was free if you needed to call the job centre but had no credit left. If you needed something to eat, there was a food bank, if wanted a show, you got training to help you go on air.
And then Covid-19 hit and in March – as happened everywhere – the studio closed and though many presenters skilled up and broadcast from their bedrooms, the community lost an essential hub.
By January this year Gilfoyle was forced to go public on the news that Sunny Govan’s future was under-threat.
If the community wanted the shutters to be rolled back up after Covid-19 restrictions were over, immediate action was needed.
By the time it came out, he’d known Sunny G was in trouble for months. “When I took over last April as project manager there was £56 in the bank,” he admits.
“But this was a project worth saving,” he says. “You know – some projects come and go. I get that. Some things just have their time. But this isn’t Sunny Govan’s time.”
And so once again Sunny Govan is flipping the story – setting out not to lament the station’s demise, but to talk up its rise back to health.
For Gilfoyle, part of this fight is personal. He left school with no qualifications after his dad died and had completed a music course as an adult learner when Sunny Govan first crossed his path.
He was volunteering in a recording studio in Govan Workspace in 2001 when Heather McMillan, the former studio manager and founder, knocked the door and asked if he wanted to see her new community radio station. She’d managed to get a two-week temporary licence to cover the Christmas period.
“We had very little signal coverage, so we barely reached Govan,” remembers Gilfoyle. “But [after the broadcast] we were getting people coming up with their Bob Marley records. There were script writers and poets and community activists. Very quickly we had grown into this mad team of colourful local people who wanted to make something happen.”
When the licence ended the station went online. “But we didn’t have any listeners at this point,” he laughs. “In 2002 the internet in Govan was a new thing. It wasn’t until 2007 that Ofcom decided to open up licences for community stations.”
The team was invited to an intimidatingly corporate event in Manchester and immediately felt out-of-place.
“The guy from Ofcom came on to talk about these new licences,” says Gilfoyle. “He said: “To get one, you need to be grassroots.” And we were like: “That’s us.” And they said: “You need to be a charity.” And that was us too but we could see other people in the room losing the will.
“And the third thing is you need to be experienced.” And we were that as well. So we were really chuffed thinking: “We ticked every one of those boxes”.
“What we didn’t realise till later was applying for a licence cost £600 and we didn’t have it.” They got the cans out and got shaking.
“It was a gamble for us. And it was hard work. But we did it and we were rewarded with the third community licence in the UK.”
So in 2007 Sunny Govan’s FM signal was switched on. “We wanted to be really professional so all the men wore their suits for the first three weeks,” says Gilfoyle. “We wanted to put on that air of doing our best for the community.
The image makes Donna Boyle, the presenter of the Making Recovery Visible show, laugh. But, she says, it makes sense. Sunny Govan always did its best for her.
She’s telling her story regularly now – on and off air – to show just how much the radio station has given her.
She had a happy childhood on the west coast of Scotland, until her grandfather started abusing her at just eight or nine.
As she got older she used alcohol and drugs to cope. And then when she was 17, a cousin disclosed it was also happening to her and it all came spilling out. The abuse, it emerged, had also happened to her mum and her aunt when they were kids.
Donna’s life morphed into a series of spells in chronic addiction, in prison, in mental health wards.
“That was just life until I was 24 my boyfriend overdosed,” she says. “After that my warped thinking at the time was that if I got pregnant then I would get clean. So after he died that’s what I did.”
She stopped taking drugs altogether and stayed substance free for a couple of months after the birth of her son. But then there was the infidelity of her new partner and domestic abuse. She fled and was rehoused in Glasgow.
It was when her son was still a toddler she discovered Sunny Govan – she felt welcomed when she popped in for a cup of tea, her wee boy allowed to run around without comment.
It also re-ignited an old love she’d grown up with –music. Her parents listened to Leonard Cohen, the Beatles and John Lennon, while her childhood was dominated by Madonna and Culture Club before nineties rave and the party scene took over.
But now Gilfoyle started introducing her to hip hop – giving her releases by local artists “rapping about stuff I could relate to”.
The music and the acceptance helped, though it wasn’t enough to turn her life around. She lost custody of her son to her parents (though she always continued to see him) and another ten years passed.
Aged 40 she attempted suicide – “a cry for help”, she says. The support worker who visited her in hospital got her on to a methadone programme, and into supported housing. From there she was introduced to a 12-step fellowship programme and went to her first meeting.
“I heard from people like me, who had lost their children and were living drug free,” she says. “People were living life and it gave me some hope.”
After a detox, she kept going to the meetings. At the same time her interest in the music that Gilfoyle had introduced her to back at Sunny G – that had kept her going through the bad times – started to explode.
She got a camera and started taking photographs at hip hop gigs, sharing on social media under the banner Homegrown Always Best. That led to promoting and organising other gigs, alcohol free events and festivals.
A radio production course at Sunny G followed “and then Steg and the others said what about doing a show?”
“So it started once a month and since September it’s been weekly,” she says. “I was four years clean at Christmas – my confidence is still quite low so the show has been great for building that up.”
Next week Donna starts work at the Scottish Recovery Consortium, as a social events co-ordinator. She’s 45 and it’s her first job.
And meanwhile she’s fighting to save Sunny G. “I think I would have still found my way into recovery,” she says. “But it has enriched my life so much. If it hadn’t have been there I wouldn’t have had the music and some of the friends that are in my life. So anything I can do, I will. It’s more than just radio to me.”
Matthew Ward presents the Rave Ward, a two-hour show on Saturday nights on Sunny Govan
It is, says volunteer Helen Ward, a place that epitomises the truism that everyone has a story. She is no exception. She first accompanied her blind son Matthew to the station eight years ago, when he was doing work experience.
While he – a talented musician, composer and DJ with a great radio voice “and a mad personality to go with it” – impressed in the studio, she made herself busy, cleaning the kitchen and moping the floors.
And then somehow she found herself coaxed into having a show too. “I got 10 minutes training and then was thrown into a live studio,” she laughs. “It was sink or swim.”
So while Matthew went from strength-to-strength with the Rave Ward show – two hours of underground dance music with a therapeutic edge on a Saturday night – another show on a Thursday and a breakfast slot, Helen also started carving out a niche for herself.
She learned how to work the desk so she could help produce shows for Matthew and other presenters with additional needs and built-up a following for her show Hels Bels rock.
“When I first arrived I introduced myself as Matthew’s mum,” she says. “I didn’t even think of saying that my name was Helen. I thought of myself as being in the background. Now I’m Hels Bels. One of the listeners sent me a bell and if it was a song I really liked I’d ring it. It was just a we gimmick but it was good fun.”
“When I first arrived I introduced myself as Matthew’s mum,” says Sunny Govan volunteer Helen Ward. “Now I’m Hels Bels.”
And in the background she was also there to welcome others to the space, offering a listening ear over a cuppa, a lift across town to pick-up prescriptions or whatever else was needed.
“I had a man once in tears because he had absolutely nothing. He had been put on to zero hour contract hours, hadn’t worked for three weeks and his family were starving,” she says. “So I just packed up bags of food from the local collections we’d done and you’d have thought I’d given him a million pound.”
Sometimes it’s the people that come in for help that end-up encouraging someone else they know sign up for the courses they offer – from short qualifications in fuel poverty to SQAs in production or access courses to community development. Or even to get involved in the radio’s output.
“It would be devastating if it closed,” says Ward. “It’s a hub of the community, a large family that just keeps on growing – it’s a really special place.”
“We have presenters on Sunny G at the moment who are going through the criminal justice system and presenters who are lawyers,” he says. “But nobody can see the difference. In radio you can be who you want to me.
“We simply provide a place where people can express their culture and identity, where they can talk about the issues that affect them from mental health to fuel poverty and everything in-between. There’s a confidence that comes from being heard on these issues.”
And he feels that that as a result Sunny Govan itself is being heard in its time for need. When we speak he’s just had an email from Unite, offering to donate £200.
If I hadn’t pressed it then, come April or May we were in serious trouble. Last week a listener – “and he’s not a guy with serious money” – offered £1000 to the appeal. In return the station played all 23 minutes of Pink Floyd’s Echoes.
Others are donating through paypal – the online crowdfunder has raised £11k out of the £30k target. And there’s an upsurge in companies buying sponsorship or advertising, claims Gilfoyle
Local politicians have offered help with identifying funding streams, and he says he’s “humbled” by the kind words that have come his way. “I do wake up most mornings panicking and overwhelmed, I can’t lie about that,” he adds.
“And yes, it is make or break time. But I have to be optimistic and I genuinely feel there’s hope. I couldn’t ask for a tenner here and a twenty there if I didn’t think there was.”
And so as the sun glints on the station front’s windows, he says he’s determined that despite all the struggles, it’s going to have a future. “I can see light at the end of the tunnel now,” he says.