DJ Deke Duncan’s now infamous Radio 77 studio is in the back of his garage, next to the exceptionally neat semidetached Stockport home he shares with his beloved wife Pamela.
It is heated, carpeted, soundproofed and kitted out with banks of DJ decks, computers, headphones and two enormous microphones.
Inside, 73-year-old Deke is ‘On Air’, ready to ‘put a grin on your chin’ with a non-stop three-hour show of Motown and Northern soul. There are also news bulletins, weather reports and adverts for (fictional) local businesses — all slick, smooth and delivered in his signature transatlantic twang. Pamela’s legendary carrot cake might even get a shout-out. ‘It really is delicious!’
Not that he’d dream of tasting even a morsel in the studio. Heaven forbid that some crumbs went down the wrong way and he ended up with a DJ’s worst nightmare — hiccups! Though (whisper it) would it really matter? Because while Deke has been broadcasting on Radio 77 for nearly half a century, he has only ever had a regular audience of one.
Deke Duncan is a shed-based radio station who has only ever been heard by his wife Pamela
Latterly, that has been his second wife Pamela, a blonde former belly dancer to whom he has been married for 22 years, and who tunes in via wireless speakers in the front room and kitchen so she can listen while she’s dusting or doing the Sunday roast.
Deke’s first wife Teresa, mother to his three children, used to listen from a vast mounted speaker connected by a cable laid under the lawn to his studio in the garden shed of their home in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.
It was back then, for a brief, tantalising moment in 1974, that it seemed Deke might just be on the verge of making it big as a DJ.
Young, darkly moustachioed and with long hair and flares — ‘I had all the gear, I looked the part!’ — he made an appearance on the BBC’s flagship evening current affairs programme, Nationwide.
He declared that his life’s ambition was to broadcast ‘to the whole of Stevenage’ and was filmed doing a show — with the help of friends Clive and Rick, a drummer and mechanic — in his shed.
Teresa, meanwhile, was seen happily humming along as she vacuumed before ruining the audience figures by popping out to the shops.
Deke Duncan, now 73, started playing pop records from his back garden in Stevenage in 1974
You’d think, after that, a job offer might have come Deke’s way. But sadly not.
‘I applied everywhere, but they all said no,’ he says, shaking his head.
So he spent the next four decades working on building sites to pay the bills and dedicating every spare minute to honing his DJ skills and transatlantic patter (he hails from Manchester) in his DIY studio.
But now, 44 years on, Deke’s dreams are finally coming true. Last month, out of the blue, his appearance on Nationwide was re-broadcast as part of the BBC’s On This Day series online. Deke’s daughter sent him a link — ‘Dad, you were on the TV!’
Deke says he went into shock. ‘I couldn’t get over that young, handsome man with a young, handsome voice!’
The brilliant footage (look it up on YouTube, please) sparked a nationwide hunt to find Deke. He was finally tracked down by Justin Dealey of BBC Three Counties Radio to Bredbury, near Stockport in Greater Manchester.
Deke Duncan in his studio in Stevenage, Herfortshire in 1975 – with his wife tuned in
Since then, Deke’s phone has been ringing off the hook, he’s been on BBC Breakfast and is recognised everywhere he goes. Last weekend he co-hosted a radio show with Dealey in Dunstable.
‘It was a riot. Absolutely fabulous. The equipment is a bit more up-to-date than in my studio, which is a bit more touchy-feely,’ he says. ‘But I’ve never been mic-shy!’
Even better, the BBC announced live on air that on New Year’s Eve, Deke — real name Eric Thorp — will host his very own show on Three Counties Radio.
‘It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,’ he says, adding ‘though it would have been even better if it had happened when I was a bit younger.’
DJ Deke Duncan in his garage showing the entrance to his radio studio in the back of his garage
Indeed. Deke’s journey to fulfilment has been long, dedicated, disciplined (some might say obsessive) and full of disappointments. But he never gave up.
Eric was born in Manchester, the youngest of three. His father was a bus driver, his mother a housewife and his childhood was joyfully happy if rather lacking in access to the latest pop sounds.
‘We only had the BBC, so we were starved of music,’ he says.
When he was 12 he changed his name from Eric to Deke after seeing Elvis Presley play a character called Deke in Loving You at the cinema.
‘He was a cool man with a cool name,’ he says. (At home he was still Eric, though, because his family didn’t approve.)
First, he was Deke Dino in his teenage band The Silhouettes, and in later incarnations with various bands, Deke Duncan ‘because it sounded more mature’.
But his rock career was never going to pay the bills, so he became a JCB driver because he’d ‘always loved’ diggers. And he was very happy until 1964, when he tuned into pirate station Radio Caroline and his world started spinning.
‘I thought: “Wow! What is this?” ’ He grew obsessed, listening at home, at work in his JCB cabin, in bed.
Deke Duncan in his studio in Stevenage,Herts., in 1974. He only ever broadcast to his wife
His favourite DJ was a Canadian, Don Allen — ‘I thought: “You’re the boss! I want to be you” — and he started modelling himself on Don.
‘I used to practise on my older brother’s tape recorder, saying all those cool things DJs say and aping Don’s smooth Canadian voice — “an American accent with style”.’
Unfortunately, he practised for a bit too long, so by the time he felt ready to apply for a job on his beloved Caroline in 1967, the station was closing down. ‘I missed my chance,’ he says carefully.
So he opted for second best — Friday nights as a club DJ in a working men’s club in Gorton, Manchester — but presenting the music as if on a radio show, complete with jingles and cool ‘Canadian’ patter.
Deke Duncan,73, (R) with wife Pamela, 73, – a former bellydancer – in their radio studio
‘It was a huge success,’ he says. ‘I had a lot of attention from the ladies. I was 23 and I thought I was arriving!’
But still a job on radio eluded him, despite endless applications. The BBC’s response still rankles. In the late Sixties they wrote: ‘This is a very precarious way to make a living and we suggest you go and get a proper job instead.’
Then, hallelujah! In 1971, he spotted an advert in the New Musical Express for a DJ to work for a pirate radio station at sea — just like Radio Caroline. He sent in his demo tape, they loved it and sent back an air ticket.
It was finally happening! Then in May 1971, weeks before he was due to join North Sea International, came one of the most dramatic events in the history of pirate radio.
MV Mebo II, the vessel from which the station broadcast, was attacked by employees of a rival Dutch outfit who planted explosives in the engine room and started a fire. North Sea International was shut down. Another dead end.
Deke Duncan, DJ whose shed-based radio station has only ever been heard by his wife Pamela, 73, pictured at their home in Stockport, Greater Manchester
Or, as Deke views it, a lucky escape. ‘I suppose I could have been killed if I’d been there,’ he says. ‘Life is about looking at the bright side and moving on, isn’t it?’
So when he was offered the job of Thursday and Friday night DJ at Maxims in the new town of Stevenage, he accepted, taking Northern soul down South and embracing his new life.
‘I got there and thought: “Wow! This is a really, really nice place!” The whole population was young. It was fun, it was wild!’
Or as wild as life gets if, like Deke, you neither drink nor take drugs.
Life went on. By day he drove his digger and listened to his new favourites, Tony Blackburn and Kid Jensen on Radio 1.
By night, he DJ’d but the weekends were dedicated to Radio 77 — named after a jingle used by New York’s 77 WABC Radio that he bought for £20 from the small ads in a music magazine.
Deke had finally decided that if no radio station wanted to hire him, he’d create his own — albeit with neither licence nor listeners.
So every weekend he and his friends Clive and Rick (also big Radio Caroline fans) would hole up in Deke’s rented cottage and broadcast live from two decks and a tape player in a bedroom in three-hour rolling shifts, 24 hours a day, from Friday evening until midnight on Sunday.
‘We’d pretend it was a ship, just like Radio Caroline and if we went outside we’d fall into the sea — it was that real.’
Although, of course, it wasn’t. Nobody ever listened. Didn’t it all seem a bit pointless?
‘No, no, no! The enjoyment was in doing it, not having people listen,’ he says. ‘Even in real radio the audience isn’t really there. You can’t see them. It’s a personal thing between you and the mic.’
When Deke met Teresa and they moved in together, Radio 77 continued. The broadcast was whittled down to just Sundays — 6am to midnight, from a purpose-built shed in the garden.
Clive and Rick now did news reports too, gleaned from the local paper, about vandalised shopping trolleys and the like — and weather updates: ‘We just looked out of the window, or made it up. It wasn’t as if anyone was going to complain!’
Occasionally friends popped round to listen to the giant speaker in the sitting room. And once the police called by when a neighbour complained about the noise and, great excitement, Deke interviewed them on air! Fun though it was, it didn’t satisfy Deke’s yearning.
‘I’d really hoped the Nationwide programme would lead somewhere,’ he says. ‘I was only 29, I wanted a career.’
But by then he also had young children and when he was actually offered a job — the graveyard shift on a station in San Diego, California — he had to turn it down.
‘It was a really cool radio station. I was good enough and I knew I’d move up,’ he says. ‘But we couldn’t survive on the money they paid. You have to get your priorities right.’
DJ Deke Duncan enters his radio studio in the back of his garage in Stockport
More disappointments were to follow. In the late Eighties, Deke somehow lost his entire vinyl collection — hundreds of records — which were lent to a fellow DJ and then mislaid.
Soon after, he and Teresa split. ‘We just drifted apart,’ he says.
He gave up performing in bands and shut down Radio 77. But in 1996, just as he hit rock bottom, he met Pamela, whom he’d known as a teenager in Gorton, and wooed her with compilation CDs.
‘It was a fairy tale for me,’ says Deke. ‘She’s the love of my life.’
They have been together ever since and glow with love for each other.
He raves about her cooking and how she nursed him after his heart attack last year; she shows me his airbrush portraits (of her) and tells me about his novel that was nearly published and his two screenplays, one commissioned by Meridian Television but dropped at the last minute.
Their lives were happy and full, but then Deke started having dreams about Radio 77. ‘They were nice dreams,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to wake up.’
One day, Pamela suggested they look on eBay and buy some equipment, and in 2014 Radio 77 was back on air, broadcasting from their home.
‘He’s ever so good and I’m so, so proud of him,’ she says.
Today, Deke is counting down the days to his first ever real radio programme and insists he won’t be nervous.
‘I’m trying to take it in my stride. I’m a modest kind of guy, not the sort to let fame take over,’ he says. ‘But of course, this isn’t just Stevenage. This is the whole of Beds, Bucks and Herts!’
- Deke Duncan’s one-hour special will air on BBC Three Counties (also available on bbc.co.uk/threecountiesradio) on New Year’s Eve at 6pm. Deke will also do a Boxing Day show with Justin Dealey from 12pm.