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In 2005 there is much talk of the fact that commercial local radio's 'localness' has been greatly diminished over the last decade or more by the constant swallowing of local radio stations into large groups.  Local station identity is often lost and local output reduced.  It is a trend  that is only set to continue as a handful of huge radio groups control the majority of the commercial radio market.

In the 1970's and 1980's most ILR (Independent Local Radio) stations were considered a great success as far as the audience was concerned.  The big six stations - Capital, Clyde, Piccadilly, Metro, City and BRMB were the most profitable and whilst most of the other stations in the ILR network made a profit, times were always quite tough and some only just managed to keep their heads above water.   ILR was not really a licence to print money.  One or two of the ILR stations were disastrous financially, and fell by the wayside and this led to several mergers in the 1980's.  Mergers and take-overs quickly gathered pace in the 1990's and ended up with the very highly profitable radio groups of the 2000's - but all this is at the expense of reral grass-roots local programming - aided by the dramatically relaxed regulatory system.

But where did this all begin?  Some of the first signs were perhaps Centre Radio in Leicester, Radio Aire in Leeds, CBC and Gwent Broadcasting in South Wales and Radio West in Bristol.  RADIO WEST struggled to survive from day one in October 1981, although programmes were ambitious, they were less than coherent and the station struggled to gain an audience in the face of stiff competition from the enduringly popular BBC Radio Bristol and competition from BBC Radio One.

Radio West's cost base was large due to the extravagant studio premises that had been purchased, and the lack of audience made for disastrous advertising revenue and losses of £300,000 by 1983.  John Bradford, who had helped found the extremely successful Mercia Sound in Coventry, joined the station in 1983.  Alongside Dave Cash (ex Capital Radio), big guns Johnnie Walker (ex Caroline, BBC) and Roger Day (ex Caroline, Piccadilly, and latterly BRMB) were wheeled in, but to no avail.  The station still slipped and programmes had to be curtailed in October 1983 and the station closed down each day at 7:30 pm, while the remaining resources were concentrated on daytime output.  After more fine tuning of the station's output Radio West became more mainstream and by late 1984 things were looking more promising and programmes were extended to a 1am closedown.

Radio West was still not the successful operation it should have been and eventually neighbouring station Wiltshire Radio ( WR ) eyed the Bristol franchise area, took control and the merged operation was renamed GWR in May 1985.
Radio West
Radio West Car Sticker
Another station failure was Centre Radio in Leicester which launched an ambitious community style station in 1981 that subsequently proved financially unviable.  The combination of a poor business plan and the huge competition from BBC Radio Leicester, the very first BBC local station which commanded a substantial audience, proved to be the station's downfall.  Centre Radio was forced to cease trading in October 1983 after only two years on air.  There was no station merger here though, but so that Leicester was not to be without a ILR station the IBA allowed the very successful neighbouring station, Radio Trent, to provide a more mainstream sounding service called Leicester Sound the following year.

Centre Radio Closes Down     AUDIO - Centre Radio Ceases Trading and Closes Down

Centre Radio
Sounds Great On 238
and on 97.1 VHF stereo

GB Radio

Gwent Broadcasting, the South Wales commercial radio station based in Newport, went off the air at 11 am on Wednesday 24th April 1985 after playing "Good Days Sunshine" by The Beatles. (It had been reported elsewhere that it was the Welsh National Anthem that closed the station, but Colin Briggs who was actually at the station at the very end corrects this. See below.)

Gwent, founded in June 1983, had been holding merger talks with neighbouring CBC in Cardiff. But after a board meeting on Tuesday 23rd, Gwent's chairman Roy Fox said: 'Simply the company has run out of time and money.'  Gwent's managing director Don Moss said that without radical changes to the rules governing local radio, other small stations would follow Gwent into liquidation.

It  had seemed likely that CBC - whose own future was in doubt -  would be asked to provide a sustaining service on Gwent's transmitters. In the longer run, it had been considered that CBC's franchise could be extended to cover Newport.  Gwent was the second ILR / IBA station to go bust, after. Centre Radio in Leicester, folded in 1983.

Preston's Red Rose Radio, chaired by millionaire estate agent Owen Oyston, bid for the defunct South Wales radio station, which closed down owing debts of £140,000.  In  succeeding to take over Gwent Broadcasting Red Rose radio would also gain control of neighbouring CBC in Cardiff, 86 per cent of whose shareholders had approved a takeover by Gwent before the Newport station went bust. Because Gwent has not appointed a receiver, that offer was still technically alive.  Following the takeover the two stations raised new capital - estimated at over £380,000  from new shareholders.

Red Dragon Radio

Gwent closed after one of the potential new investors, newspaper group Fleet Holdings, dropped out when it became the target of a hostile takeover bid from United Newspapers.  Any new investor prepared to underwrite the planned rights issue would thus gain control of up to half of both CBC and Gwent.

The acquisitive Red Rose Radio, run by managing director David Maker, also took control of ailing radio Aire in Leeds in 1984. 
CBC 221

Red Rose Radio's Chairman, Owen Oyston, operated a core business as Britain's fifth largest estate agency also had interests in cable television.

The joint station for Cardiff and Newport emerged as Red Dragon Radio, although in 2005 it is owned by Capital Radio - or GCap as it is now called after a merger between the GWR Radio Group and Capital Radio plc.

More From Colin Briggs:

As the man who actually shut Gwent Broadcasting down I can assure you I did not play the Welsh National Anthem! Welsh we were, but hardcore we were not. The last tune I played before shutting the station down was the first tune we played when we went on air just under two years previously …. Beatles 'Good Days Sunshine'.

Don Moss was not MD by that time, he'd departed some weeks beforehand. The decision to close was taken at very short notice. Plans to merge with CBC - also struggling financially - were at a critical stage, but GB Radio's backers felt (understandably perhaps) they couldn't take one last great punt.

I was due to come in as News Ed and late news person in the afternoon but received a call from my colleague Charlotte Evans in the newsroom who suggested I come in there and then because "something was up". It was. I met the chairman as I entered the building and he told me the game was up and when would we like to shut down.

I discussed it with Peter Milburn who was on air at the time and took over the studio while he cleared his desk. I made the announcement at 10:30 before playing a further half hour of music and fielding all manner of calls.

One stands out amongst the mayhem. Local MEP Llewellyn Smith called with a simple message "I know you're busy now, but you'll need an office to work out of for a while. Come and use mine." What a great bloke. It gives me a lump in my throat now when I think about it.

I went out smack on 11:00. And if memory serves me completely I managed to cock up the last link into the last record. Professional eh? TV turned up much later and mocked up the programme end with Peter Milburn in the chair, but trust me, that's not how it happened, because I was there.

GB Radio - a great adventure. Enormous fun. Rajar at 42% but eventually no money. QED.

All the best 

Colin Briggs


When ILR stations merge, what happens to their local programming? Chiltern Radio has shown that bigger can mean better at a local level.

After an unsuccessful spell providing programmes to Northampton, the Peterborough based ILR station Hereward Radio pulled out.  In November 1986 The Chiltern Network took over the franchise and began to serve Northampton as well as Luton/Bedford. Chiltern Radio already had studios in Dunstable and Bedford with facilities to broadcast separate programming to each area, but there was no large scale splitting of output at that stage.  When Chiltern took over responsibility for this area from Hereward it recognised that a separate identity would need to be maintained. The question was how to achieve this and at the same time make essential cost savings? Another concern was what effect the expansion into Northampton would have on the service for Luton/Bedford?

The first step was to give the Northampton station its own name - 'NORTHANTS 96' - after the shorthand version of its FM frequency, 96.6 MHz.   Then the Chiltern team examined the news operation and decided that a day-long news presence in Northampton was essential.  However, as music programming sounds the same whether it comes from Dunstable, Bedford or Northampton it was decided to share most of the daytime output with the exception of the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. segment. This is locally originated in the Northampton studios and highlights that 'change of pace' where interviews, features and audience participation come to the fore. The breakfast show is networked but, by utilising a whole range of opt-out points, this has been made into a well rounded programme of local news, views and information.  An umbrella title was introduced for the network - THE HOT FM.

Northants 96 premises
Northants 96 Studios    (IBA)

CHILTERN RADIO realised that what was being done for Northampton could surely be done for Dunstable and Bedford - using the three sets of IBA transmitters to provide separate  information, the three stations could offer editorial coverage much closer to street level. The 'network' programmes had already been structured to allow for opt-outs and split commercial breaks. The point was how quickly could the three stations develop their programme support units to utilise the opt-outs fully?

The first test came at the end of January 1987 with the snow crisis. 'Northants 96' and the two Chiltern stations began opting out of 'network' programmes to provide round-the-clock Snowline information specifically for their own areas. This was a success and the concept was quickly developed to provide individualised sports bulletins, local newspaper reviews and community billboard features.

The two Chiltern stations emulated their Northampton sister by offering separate local news bulletins at specific times. On Sundays all three stations broadcast separate morning shows complete with outside broadcasts and localised audience participation.  In 1987 each station received its own new radio car. The addition of Northampton to the Luton/ Bedford ILR operation has brought many benefits to radio station and listeners alike. Not only has it given added zest to the staff and management but the redistribution of resources, personnel and equipment has created not a remote 'regional' operation but three highly professional local radio stations.

You can hear the launch of NORTHANTS 96 by visiting the audio section of our AIRWAVES page HERE.


The Chiltern Network went on to establish 'Horizon Radio - The Hot FM' - in Milton Keynes on 15th October 1989 and also took over 'Severn Sound' in Goucester around 1990/1991 and continued to employ the networked programme policy at these stations too.  Chiltern also established the golden oldies AM station 'SUPERGOLD' on 15th July 1990 which was carried on the Bedfordshire transmitters, 828 and 792 kHz, as CHILTERN RADIO SUPERGOLD, on 1557 kHz as NORTHANTS RADIO SUPERGOLD, and also on 774 kHz in Gloucestershire as SEVERN SOUND SUPERGOLD.  SUPERGOLD was also carried as an external sustaining service for the AM transmitters of Invicta Radio in Kent after Invicta Radio decided to drop its wholly locally produced COAST AM, which had been opened on 27th March 1989, in favour of this networked programme.  INVICTA SUPERGOLD was broadcast on 1242 kHz and 603 kHz medium wave.  Since Capital Radio have taken over Invicta, the Capital Gold service is carried on those transmitters.

SUPERGOLD and THE HOT FM tag disappeared when The Chiltern Radio group bought by GWR in the mid to late 1990's - GWR itself became merged into Capital Radio in 2005 to form GCAP.

The Chiltern Radio Network also established the first commercial regional station for The Severn Estuary - GALAXY RADIO - on 27th January 1991.  Galaxy was a dance station and after the take over by GWR, Galaxy was disposed  of to Chrysalis Radio Ltd and it became part of a small chain of GALAXY stations. By 1999 the Galaxy chain eventually comprised of GALAXY 102 in Manchester (formerly KISS 102) and GALAXY 105 in Yorkshire (Formerly KISS 105), GALAXY 102.2 in Birmingham (formerly a licence held by Choice FM) and GALAXY 105 - 106 in the North East.  The Severn Estuary licence was then disposed of by Chrysalis when they bought London News Radio (LBC) in September 2002.  VIBE RADIO SERVICES, a GWR and Scottish Radio Holdings venture, which also ran VIBE FM in East Anglia, bought the station and it then broadcast as VIBE 101.  The regional licence was (in part) back in the hands of GWR!  It's a complicated affair in the world of radio industry wheelings and dealings!

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