Which radio station do you tune into? Is it Heart in the UK, or BBC Radio something or other? Is it Z100 in New York, or KIIS FM in Los Angeles? (I had to Google those.) Or, is it Truckers.FM?
I know what you're thinking: 'There's a whole radio station for truckers?!' But it's even stranger than that. It's actually a station devoted to virtual truckers, who tune-in via virtual cab radios while thundering down Truck Simulator roads.
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In your ear, Truckers.FM sounds like the real thing. It has regular presenters with scheduled shows running right around the clock. There are adverts, just like on the real radio - there are even traffic reports! There are interviews, competitions, shout-outs - all the things you'd expect. Even jingles.
You know the kind: staccato sentences, punchy music, overlapping voices. They remind you which station you're listening to, make it sound all flash. "This. Is. TruckersFM," or, "More music variety coming your way. This is your station for driving: TruckersFM." The DJs even have their own idents. The one I heard this morning was, "DJ Sharkie, with your tea before the coffee." They sound rather good.
But there's no big company behind Truckers.FM. This was a radio station cooked up by two British brothers while on holiday in Spain, four years ago, hotel-bound as it rained and rained outside. Alex Blackman was 22 years old, Josh Blackman 16.
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They'd started playing the Truck Simulator games a year earlier. Josh installed it as a joke - he and his friends were messing around making YouTube videos about bizarre games. But something struck a chord and he stuck with it, and soon Alex was playing as well. They competed to see who could make the biggest trucking empire, but what what really pulled them in was multiplayer modification TruckersMP.
TruckersMP enables thousands of players to truck together online, and it's popular - there were 1600 people trucking at 8am this morning (there's a TruckersMP website which tracks it all). It brings a community together. Players organise themselves into guilds of sorts - Virtual Trading Companies - and devise rosters and driver responsibilities in the name of assembling the greatest fleets.
When community events come around, great convoys assemble. "You'll have maybe one-hundred-plus, sometimes even five-hundred-plus truckers," Alex Blackman tells me over the phone, "all along one road - which you can imagine can be very slow, and there can be quite a few virtual accidents.
"That showed us another side of it," he goes on. "It was more about driving with friends. It became a relaxing thing to do after work. A lot of people call the game a zen-like experience. It's a time for me where I can sit down with a few friends on Discord, or by myself, and just chill."
Fast forward to rainy Spain and it's this TruckersMP community the brothers were talking about. They wanted to give something back to it, but what? Then, it clicked: a radio station! Not like the real-world stations you could tune into while playing the game. This would be something dedicated to the community they belonged to.
But setting it up wasn't as easy as they thought. They roped in a friend to help, but even then, all three of them were either in full-time education or work, and the work they needed to do swamped them. "Radio is a complicated thing to set up," Blackman assures me. "It's not just making a website and playing music: there's radio servers, radio licensing ... we have to send in quarterly reports."
Cutting corners wasn't an option. "We wanted to do everything by the book," he says. "We didn't want to just get shut down. It almost turned into a second full-time job."
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When it launched, the Truck Simulator community was sceptical. There were so few dedicated radio stations out there at the time - only one other, according to Blackman - people called "copycat!" and accused Truckers.FM of stealing listeners. But gradually people warmed up. They liked being able to advertise their Virtual Trading Companies, and they appreciated how Truckers.FM went about things.
"We try to maintain a really professional standard," Blackman says. "We have rules. For example, we have no swearing on any songs whatsoever because the community age-range is huge." Listeners range from tween right up to retiree, apparently. Some swear words slip through every so often but Blackman and team are tirelessly vigilant, checking presenter output every day. Their workload has gotten heavier, if anything.
What began with five or six DJs, sparing time here or there, has grown into a bulging stable of nearly 40 presenters today. "Right now we are averaging 600-700 listeners during the more peak hours," he says - and at times it has spiked much higher. Truckers.FM has an advertising team, a recruitment team, even a team of people looking after presenters, making sure they're happy. And - and I find this fascinating - Truckers.FM has begun to seep into the real world.
What began as an alternative to listening to real-world radio stations inside a game, has become an alternative to real-world stations out in the real-world. It has transcended. You can listen to Truckers.FM on almost anything, including dedicated iOS and Android apps, and many do - including actual truckers!
"Quite a few people - more than I thought - listen from actual trucks on the road," Blackman tells me. "I've got quite a few pictures of actual truckers listening to our radio while they're driving."
I'm not sure how useful the virtual traffic reports will be to them - god, I hope they don't get confused - but Truckers.FM is pleasantly free of all the news and waffle and ads which bog other radio stations down.
Truckers.FM goes to real trucking events these days. It has been featured on the official Truck Simulator stand. "Sometimes I get a little worried about it," says Blackman, "about people seeing us in real-life and saying, 'Who the heck are these guys?!' But everyone seems really positive. Sometimes you work really, really hard at something and never see the fruits of your [labour] - maybe you only see the bad sides of it. But you get those bliss times when someone says, 'Hey, I really love listening to your station,' or, 'You really helped me with something - you really got me through something,' and that's where you really feel happy with the things you're doing. It makes everything worth it. It always brings a smile to my face."
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That feeling of satisfaction is crucial because no one has, or will, make a penny from the show. "We're completely non-profit in that no-one gets paid," explains Blackman. "I don't receive any money for it and neither do any of the other admins, DJs or volunteers. It all goes into either production or the upkeep of the station, which is always going to be the case for us. We don't ever see ourselves making a job out of it; we think it should always remain a community project."
Which begs the question, why do it? Four years of working evenings and weekends, however much you love something, is a long time. Is passion enough?
Well, on that note, Alex Blackman has a fairytale ending of sorts. He now works at Truck Simulator developer SCS Software, in Prague, Czech Republic. He hasn't been there long, only since October 2018. Know what the first thing SCS said to him was? "You're not going to give up TruckersFM are you? We think it's really great! We want it to still be a part of the way you work, the way you do things."
As if he would. "I wouldn't give it up," he says. "We've got to the point we're really in a good state of how we're running it and people enjoying us. We wouldn't just give up just like that."
So Truckers.FM keeps on trucking, keeps on banging out upbeat chart-topping hits which keep drivers perky as they barrel along. It keeps on getting involved in charity events, which sound admirably frequent in the TruckersMP community, and it keeps shining a light on what groups of virtual truckers do. Of course, there are many other radio stations out there now, nestled in one niche or other. After all, not everyone wants chart-topping hits, do they? It's not very truckery.
Blackman pauses when I mention that. He wasn't planning to say anything so soon but he doesn't mind us knowing, he supposes. "We're looking to open - this year - a brand new station that runs alongside TruckersFM," he reveals. "It's called BigRigFM and is dedicated to the hardcore, American, 18-wheeler stuff - all old country music, 70s, 80s, and CB radio talk."
It'll mean more work - more late nights and weekends - but something tells me Blackman won't mind. It sounds like he's right where he wants to be, in the cab, in the driving seat. He's come a long way from that hotel in rainy Spain.