UK Radio: A Brief History - Part 3
Although the BBC local radio stations had proved to be a success for community radio, there was still a demand from listeners for a form of commercial radio independent from the BBC, represented most strongly by the commercial radio lobby. A change of government occurred in 1970 which saw the passing of Harold Wilson's Labour administration to Edward Heath's Conservative government in 1970 (Edward Heath's government was in power from 1970 until 1974). this Conservative government looked upon the introduction of commercial radio much more favourably. In March 1971 a white paper, 'An Alternative Service Of Radio Broadcasting' was published.
The Sound Broadcasting Bill followed, becoming the Sound Broadcasting Act in 1972. This new act transformed the ITA into the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority) giving it the additional responsibility for sound broadcasting in the UK. The radio only licence was abolished in February 1971, from then on it was necessary to have only a television licence, which would fund both BBC television and radio.
The commercial radio lobby, and possibly the potential listeners, would be disappointed with the government's plans for commercial radio. The potential operators had hoped for a national pop station that would be cheap to run, generate large audiences and therefore make large sums of money from advertising. What they got was as far removed from that scenario as anyone could have possibly imagined. Instead of a station that would have the owners drowning in oceans of easy money, what they got was a system in which they would almost drown in oceans of government and IBA bureaucracy!
It would be a very highly regulated system with tight programming requirements and extremely high technical standards. The IBA was given a plan to introduce nineteen local stations in eighteen areas and began advertising the initial franchises in 1972 anticipating that the first stations would be on air by 1973 and development would continue until 1976. The IBA plan did not refer to commercial radio, instead it was given the title Independent Local Radio (ILR).
The new stations would be required to provide a public service radio funded by advertising, rather than the non-stop pop and 'DJs' that the offshore stations had provided eight years earlier. The stations would have a remit to appeal to all sections of the potential audience - they would be expected to be all things to all people - a resource that anyone could tune in to and find something of interest or pleasure. - So not a difficult task at all then!
Some wavelengths had to be re-organised to accommodate new local BBC and ILR medium wave transmitters, for example Radio Four lost 206m (1457kHz) and 261m (1151 kHz) and Radio Three had to hand over 194 metres (1546 kHz).
BBC local radio initially started life serving small, or tightly defined areas but gradually evolved into more regional or county-wide stations serving larger areas with bigger transmitters. ILR was to start life as BBC local radio had done, as a number of small services serving a main city and its surrounding area often with smaller transmitters than BBC local radio currently used. One particular exception to this rule was the London area which would have two ILR stations, rather than one, and serve the whole of the Greater London area and much of the Home Counties with a wide-ranging signal.
The two franchises for London were a London News and Information service and a London General Entertainment service.
The IRN news service would be funded by the other ILR stations paying subscriptions based on their audience size, turnover and profits, and played an important role in radio journalism and certainly forced BBC radio to rethink methods of radio news gathering, technology and presentation styles.
Eventually, about eighteen months later, a permanent site at Saffron Green, in North London, had been built by the IBA and was ready to to go into service using a directional, high gain four mast aerial array.
The aerial system was specially designed to be highly directional to beam the signals southwards over London with very little power allowed to escape to the north to eliminate any possible interference to other ILR stations on the same frequencies that would soon be in operation. To illustrate the gain of the aerial system, the LBC transmitter on 1151 kHz has an output power of 5.5kW whereas the maximum e.m.r.p. - effective monopole radiated power to the south from Saffron Green's four masts is measured as 23.5 kW, with probably less than hundred Watts allowed to escape to the North.
The medium wave transmitter used for Capital Radio on 1546 kHz (194 metres) had an output of 27.5 kW producing an maximum e.m.r.p. of 97.5kW to the South, which Capital Radio usually conveniently round up to 100kW when quoting powers.
The temporary transmitting station at Lots Road continued broadcasting in parallel with the new permanent frequencies for a number of months after Saffron Green was commissioned.
It is interesting to note that these two temporary channels are now used by current radio stations in the capital; BBC Radio Four uses 417m (720 kHz), originally from Lots Road, but more recently from Crystal Palace once the Lots Road power station was decommissioned. Community station Spectrum Radio uses 539m (558 kHz) also from Crystal Palace and can often be heard easily on a normal transistor radio as far away as Birmingham - Capital Radio possibly enjoyed similar reception in those early days! The Lots Road power station has since been demolished.
The maps above show the individual coverage areas of ILR Birmingham and ILR Wolverhampton. The single BBC local radio station, Radio Birmingham, covered a much wider from a more powerful transmitter area encompassing Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. Beacon and BRMB were quite lucky in ILR terms in that they had reasonably powerful transmitters of 1 and 2 kilowatt respectively. Other smaller stations had to battle with much lower powers, just as the early BBC local stations had done.
The management (namely Bill MacDonald) of Radio Hallam in Sheffield, for example, constantly complained to the IBA about their allocation of a lowly 0.2 kW transmitter at Tapton Hill (a situation that the IBA did not address until the mid 1980's). From the mid 1970's BBC Radio Sheffield had benefited from a 5.2 kW transmitter at the landmark Holme Moss transmission mast in addition to a low power (0.03 kW) fill-in relay at Tapton Hill. This made the IBA's transmitter for Radio Hallam look positively miserly.
I don't know who was more bewildered by the changes, the BBC engineers who had to perform this daunting task overnight (and who were a little late switching back on the London transmitters at Brookmans Park), or the poor listeners?
Radio One listeners must have been happy as now they had a more powerful signal, though not VHF stereo like Radio Two or Independent Local Radio (ILR)!
Continental listeners to Radio Two were extremely unhappy as the long wave reception (and Terry Wogan with it) had been lost to the speech network of Radio Four, the BBC received many letters of complaint from Brits abroad demanding that Mr Wogan be re-instated. The good news was that Radio Scotland and Radio Wales were created as distinct stations on the old Radio Four Scottish and Radio Four Welsh medium wave opt-out frequencies of 810 and 882 kHz respectively. They would be part time initially, broadcasting for only 20 hours per week, still relaying Radio Four at other times, however the groundwork had been laid for the stations to become important, respected full-time services.
More good news arrived in January 1979 as Radio Two became a 24 hour station with a new programme called You The Night And The Music on air in the wee small hours.
The BBC issued a shiny little card measuring 75mm wide by 117mm tall to help confused listeners find their favourite BBC national radio stations:
The colour of the government would change back to blue in 1979. The Conservatives were keen to resume expansion of the ILR stations and therefore the IBA was granted a mandate to further develop the ILR network. The first of seven new stations authorised by the Home Secretary was CBC (Cardiff Broadcasting Company) which came on air on 11th April 1980 quickly followed by Mercia Sound (the twenty first ILR radio station) in Coventry and Warwickshire on 23rd May 1980. Many more ILR franchises were advertised, with most of the stations coming on air during the 1980's as the IBA attempted to fill major gaps in coverage: Leeds, Norfolk, Humberside, Devon, Cambridgeshire, Surrey, Kent, Essex, Bristol, Peterborough, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire, Leicester, Wrexham & Deeside, Gwent, Reigate & Crawley, Inverness, Southampton, Preston & Blackpool, Bury St. Edmunds, Gloucestershire, Stoke on Trent, Derby, Sussex, Tayside, Bournemouth, Ayrshire, Hereford & Worcester all got new ILR services.
An IBA map of the ILR Areas. Solid black arrows represent stations on air by 1984,
the outline arrows represent stations due to be on the air from 1985
BRMB Radio in Birmingham issued a tuning guide to help listeners tune to 1152 kHz medium wave
and 94.8 MHz VHF stereo. The little red triangles are stickers that listeners could stick to their
radio dials to locate the position of BRMB on their radio.
ILR developed quickly, and despite of (or it could be argued because of) the stringent regulation of the IBA, was regarded to be both a programming success which was popular with the audience, although many of the smaller stations were never going to be licences to print money.
In programming terms ILR still had to be all things to all people and most stations met this challenge and gained large and loyal audiences. The 1970's and 1980's, and perhaps the first year or two of the 1990's, was the period when your local ILR station provided the fun at breakfast and was with you on the 'school run', it was the housewife's choice during the day, provided the news, travel, music and the 'chemist rota' in the afternoon and was the specialist music lover's friend in the early evening with programmes of classical, folk, jazz, big band, rock or new-wave being aired. One of the most popular formats on many ILR stations in the '70's and '80's was the night time "phone-in" when controversial presenters had some interesting and often heated discussions with listeners. Names such as James Whale on Radio Aire in Leeds, Andy Lloyd on Mercia Sound in Coventry, Nick Meanwell on BRMB, Simon Potter on Hereward Radio in Cambridgeshire and Alan Beswick on Red Rose Radio in Lancashire immediately spring to mind. ILR was extremely entertaining, and there were many other examples too!
Mercia Sound in Coventry, Warwickshire and South West Leicestershire was an enormous success in the 1980's. The station provided high quality and varied programmes with a first rate news output provided by an excellent team of journalists. The audiences were very high and Mercia Sound made a profit of £250,000 in its first year on air, and became a model for the perfect way to launch a new ILR station. Great radio professionals at Mercia included the late John Warwick, Gordon Astley, Andy Lloyd, Jim Lee (now with Radio Four), Stuart Linnell, Tony Gillham (now with BBC Devon), Mark Keen, Dave Jamieson and Annie Othen (now with BBC Coventry and Warwickshire).
Radio West in Bristol launched with big plans, big names and expensive studios in 1981 which, together with fierce competition from BBC Radio Bristol, proved the undoing of the station. Revenue fell short of predictions and programmes were cut back within two years, the station close-down being at 7pm. By 1984 there had been a slight turn-around and programmes were restored to a 1am close-down, Andy Westgate being a popular evening presenter. Radio West would soon have to seek permission from the IBA to absorbed by neighbouring station Wiltshire Radio (WR), the joint station being renamed GWR. A name that ten years later would change the face of ILR forever with many more take-overs and the ending of truly local, quality full-time output from many Independent Local Radio stations.
Wales' second ILR station, the troubled CBC, would also merge with failing neighbour Gwent Broadcasting (a.k.a. GB Radio) in 1986 to form the joint station renamed Red Dragon Radio. Under the direction of the renowned radio mogul David Maker, Red Dragon Radio became a much more successful venture. Apart from these 'wobbles' the 1980's were generally good days for ILR, programmes were eclectic and were generally of a high standard, most stations enjoyed loyal audiences and kept their heads above water financially, even while the share of the general advertising 'cake' remained stubbornly small in comparison with television advertising revenues.
MORE about Failures, Mergers & Takeovers HERE
WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN BBC RADIO?
In the 1980's Radio One had thrown off the shackles of 1970's BBC cutbacks and had become a solid full time station that could stand on its own two feet without sharing programmes with Radio Two. Radio One did borrow a few hours of Radio Two's FM stereo transmitters in the evenings, on Saturday afternoons, when Radio Two was covering sport on AM, and again on Sunday nights. Anne Nightingale and Paul Gambaccini in stereo - excellent! The BBC was also re-engineering the national FM transmitter network from horizontal polarisation to mixed polarisation (pioneered by local radio) to improve signals for listeners using portable radios, this involved investment in expensive and complex new aerial systems and sometimes new masts to take the extra weight of the new aerials.
Other Media Developments
The 1980's also saw the launch Channel Four in November 1982 and BBC Breakfast Time and TVam in January 1983. Rupert Murdoch bought Satellite TV in 1983 and re-launched it as SKY-TV in 1984. In 1985 BSB was awarded a licence to provide five D-MAC satellite channels, while the DTI took the popular South West London pirate station Radio Jackie off the air after 16 years of broadcasting community programmes. CNN International launched and the BBC expanded into daytime television. MTV Europe arrived in 1987, and in 1988 ITV went 24 hour. In 1989 SKY-TV launched as four channel package on the ASTRA satellite in PAL.
By 1989 it was government policy to make better use of the radio spectrum and all existing stations had to make arrangements to provide different services on AM (medium wave) and FM (v.h.f.), this gave rise to a wave of new 'GOLD' ILR stations playing oldies and classic hits. (Read More about split frequencies HERE) The first of the new separate services was County Sound Gold (later named First Gold Radio) provided by County Sound from Guildford. Others followed such as GEM AM from Radio Trent in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, Capital Gold in London, Brunel Radio in Swindon & Wiltshire provided by GWR Radio, XTRA AM in the Midlands provided by BRMB and Mercia Sound, which had now merged to form the Midlands Radio group, and Ocean Sound split into The Gold AM, Ocean Sound and Power FM. LBC in London offered a new LBC Talkback service on 1152 AM and LBC Crown FM on 97.3. The only ILR station outside London to offer a talk service on AM was Radio City, with a station called City Talk 1548, unfortunately it was unsuccessful and later changed format to become Radio City Gold.
In 1989 and 1990 more new ILR stations were licenced but, in accordance with the new policy, on FM only: FOX FM launched in Oxfordshire; Orchard FM in Somerset; Horizon Radio in Milton Keynes; Radio Borders from Hawick and South West Sound from Dumfries. These were the last ILR stations to be awarded licences by the IBA.
In 1989 the IBA devised a new radio scheme, and advertised for contractors to run 'Incremental' radio stations, an odd phrase, but in essence additional radio services would be introduced into areas already served by an ILR station - a new development for local radio. The new Incremental stations would have to offer output not already available on ILR, such as specialist music or unique programmes for a specific section of the community.
Many of the new Incrementals went on air in 1990 and some endured mixed fortunes. Buzz FM was incremental to BRMB in Birmingham, and was to provide programmes consisting of mainly Soul music. The business plan was over ambitious and executives overpaid and matters were not helped as the station was only allowed a 40 Watt transmitter to cover a large city area (BRMB used 2000 watts). The station got taken over several times and was generally mis-managed, although Chris Carey (an operator of pirate radios in Eire) did introduce some more mainstream and exciting sounding programming and popular DJ's such as Brendan Kearney, BuzzFM eventually lost its licence in January 1995. Others suffered similar cases of "incrementalitis", FTP in Bristol failed, RWL 1368 in West Lothian failed even to get on air while East End Radio in Glasgow had its licence revoked. However Spectrum Radio, Sunrise Radio and Choice FM in London, Isle Of Wight Radio and Centre Sound in Stirling are notable for their success, and are still on the air 16 years later, a tribute to their unique and thoughtful programmes, though some have now been absorbed into larger radio groups.
FAB FM - It's Stereo
Although no strictly speaking a UK story, the 1st September 1989 saw the arrival of a big signal from a small town. Clarkestown in County Meath, Eire would be the home of the powerful long wave transmitter of a new radio station, code named Radio Tara before its launch.
Radio Tara was a joint venture between Eire's state broadcaster RTE and RTL in Luxembourg, the on-air name being Atlantic 252. The station would broadcast non-stop pop music all day long to Ireland and Great Britain from 0600 to 1900 hrs, later extended to 24 hour operation. The studios were located a few miles away from the transmitter site in Mornington House in the town of Trim, County Meath. The long wave transmitter used 252 kHz (1190 metres) from a perpose built 248 metre tall mast at Clarkestown. Power was 500,000 watts during daylight and 100,000 watts at night (to reduce interference to other, distant, radio station on the same frequency).
At its peak, Atlantic 252 attracted a large audience in the British Isles of around 4 million listeners. By the end of the 1990's the audience had dwindled to around 1 million and the end came for the station in January 2002 when 252 kHz went dead. It was replaced - briefly - by a new venture called Team Talk 252, which also transmitted from the powerful transmitter in Clarkestown. Teamtalk 252 was a commercial failure and closed down a few months later in the summer of 2002, the transmitter being handed back to RTE.
After test transmissions from September 2003, RTE started using the Clarkestown transmitter permanently from early 2004 to broadcast its own RTE Radio One service to Ireland and Great Britain on 252 kHz Long Wave.
Find out more about Atlantic 252 at the tribute site: http://www.atlantic252.com
Find out more about RTE here: http://www.rte.ie/about/index.html
BACK TO BBC RADIO......
BBC local and regional radio in 1992
The Radio Authority advertised many new local radio licences during the 1990's filling most of the remaining gaps in coverage. New Regional Licences were offered in several areas, the first in The West Midlands (Heart), Wales and The West (Galaxy), Central Scotland (Scot FM), The North East (Century) and The North West (Jazz FM). Later more regional licences were advertised including; Yorkshire (Kiss 105), The East Midlands (Radio 106), East Anglia (Vibe), The South (Wave), a second North West licence (Century), a second West Midlands licence (Saga). The biggest change was that the Radio Authority was to advertise for three new national broadcasters to operate INR1, INR2 & INR3. No longer would Independent Radio be local 'back-water radio', these new stations would bring nationwide coverage.
Relax - It's Classic FM
INR1 was advertised by The Radio Authority (the regulator at that time) as a non-pop licence, i.e. not the chart music oriented radio station.
Initially it was thought that the licence would be awarded to Showtime Radio, based in Milton Keynes, a consortium offering music from the shows . However it transpired that Showtime Radio was not financially robust enough to sustain such a national radio station. Showtime Radio was dropped and the lINR1 licence was eventually awarded to Classic FM - a consortium backed by GWR in Swindon.
As part of its formation Classic FM instigated some test marketing, this included the running of a special 'RSL' (Restricted Service Licence) station called "Radio 101.6" (Radio One Oh One Point Six) some months before the actual launch of Classic FM. The purpose of "Radio 101.6" was for marketing and to test the 'sound', musical play-list and the content of Classic FM, when it launched.
The programmes of Radio 101.6 were broadcast from a series of low power 'RSL' transmitters dotted around the country, all broadcasting a simulcast of "Radio 101.6" distributed nationally (presumably via satellite from a remote studio - perhaps located at GWR in Swindon but this is not confirmed). The transmitters would all have been low power - perhaps 25 watts - to conform with the RSL restrictions of low power, restricted transmitting aerial height and licence length of a maximum of 28 days. The locations of the transmitters broadcasting the trial station around the country included Coventry and Peterborough.
Classic FM which launched on September 7th 1992 under the stewardship of Michael Bukht (TV Chef Michael Barry) who had previously brought great success to Capital Radio. Classic FM enjoyed immediate success, providing listeners with a quality programme of 'accessible' classical and orchestral music and a comprehensive news service in the 100 - 102 MHz range of the FM band. Classic FM is part of GWR, the group that owns a chain of ILR stations, and in 2003 listenership reach is over 6 million and Classic FM claims to be the largest commercial radio station in the world!
INR2 was allocated the medium wave frequencies occupied by BBC Radio Three (1215 kHz) and INR3 would use the frequencies used by BBC Radio One (1053 and 1089 kHz). The government deemed that the BBC would have to surrender these channels in the interests of spectrum efficiency as both services were available on VHF/FM.
BBC Radio Three closed the 1215 medium wave network in 1991, no real loss to classical or serious music fans, but fans of the sound of leather upon willow had to retune to 198 kHz longwave to hear Test Match Special, which had previously been carried on BBC Radio Three's medium wave transmitters on 1215 kHz (247 meters). 'TMS' was better placed on longwave rather than the Radio Three FM network.
The Richard Branson / TVam collaboration - Independent Music Radio - won the INR2 AM licence and commenced programmes on 30th April 1993 on the old BBC Radio Three frequency of 1215 kHz, with a service of Rock orientated music with the on air name Virgin 1215. Virgin Radio heavily re-engineered the transmitter network, boosting power and adding new transmitters and additional low power filler frequencies (e.g. 1197, 1233 & 1260 kHz) in an attempt to improve the well known reception problems of 1215 am. Former Radio One DJ Richard Skinner was Director of Music and music expert Tommy Vance was also heavily involved.
Radio One gradually closed its network of medium wave transmitters in 1994, once the new national FM network was in place. The Radio Authority awarded the INR3 licence to TALK RADIO UK which started programmes on 14th February 1995 using the 1053 and 1089 frequencies relinquished by Radio One. Talk Radio UK had a bad launch, employing 'shock jocks' such as Caesar The Geezer, which prompted many complaints. Adjustments to the schedule were soon made and as the programming settled down the station produced many good talk programmes which could be both informative and amusing. The format was dominated by 'phone-ins' with presenters including Simon Bates, Sean Bolger, Anna Reaburn, Mike Allen, Paul Ross, Nick Abott (& Carol McGiffin), James Whale and Mike Dickin.
INDEPENDENT LOCAL RADIO - Local Specialist Programmes Dropped - Local Output Reduced
Relaxed ownership and programming rules brought about by Government Act and overseen by the Radio Authority and increased competition from new BBC and many other new commercial stations, encouraged ILR stations to, at first, begin to form into small local groupings. This improved economies of scale which, in theory should have helped smaller stations survive by sharing resources and output. Later, as larger regional groupings gathered pace, local programming became less important; many specialist programmes were dropped and some output began being shared around the networks of stations.
As take-overs and mergers gathered pace several distinct large radio groups evolved, each holding a large portfolio of local licences up and down the UK. Noteworthy radio groups were; Capital Radio plc, the GWR Group plc (both of which merged in 2005 to form GCap plc), The Wireless Group (which was taken over by Ulster Television in 2005 to become UTV Radio) and EMAP - itself later taken over by German group Bauer. Most of the localised AM 'gold' or 'classic hits' stations disappeared and became quasi-national networked stations, such as the Capital Gold and Classic Gold networks and the 'Magic' brand. These networks tended to air a very few (typically three) hours per day of locally originated programmes on the local medium wave transmitters and DAB digital radio outlet while also having nationwide coverage via digital satellite.
Most of the more challenging or 'higher-brow' local programming, such as detailed news features and debate, together with specialist genres of music (eg jazz, classical, country etc) was dropped from most FM stations' schedules and more output was networked across the country, especially in the evenings and at night. Some other smaller groups have formed too, and these groups often tend to be a little more sympathetic to local programming on their groups of stations. Examples are, in particular Scottish Radio Holdings plc. (now absorbed by EMAP by 2006) but also, Radio Investments and UKRD Group ltd, CN Group and Tindle Radio ltd. (While these groups were producing much local programming in 2004, they were susceptible to merger or take-over from one of the larger concerns in an almost unregulated marketplace - as was the case with SRH).
ILR - Declining Audiences - Declining Advertising Revenue - Station Losses and Station Closures
The UK radio market was very fragmented with dozens of smaller stations (particularly low power stations with small population coverage and relatively low audiences) unable to produce enough audience and therefore advertising revenue to make a profit. This was especially problematical in a time (2006) when the share of commercial radio listenership as a whole is falling away (presumably partly due to unimaginative and repetitive programming) and advertising revenue in general is declining.
Times were so hard amongst the small loss making stations that one radio group, UKRD, decided that it could no longer support its loss making station in south Gloucestershire. In September 2006 UKRD decided to hand back its licence to Ofcom (the regulator) for the Stroud and Dursley station "Star 107.9". as years went past more would follow.
As 2008 progressed the general national economic was deteriorating very sharply, along with shrinking audiences and as advertising revenues declined, commercial radio was heading for some rough waters. CN Radio, owner of CFM and Lakeland Radio in Cumbria, Rugby FM and several "Touch Radio" stations in the Midlands, decided to sell or close their Coventry (96.2) and Banbury (107.6) stations. KCR in Liverpool closed and other stations were in trouble.
MORE BBC and INDEPENDENT RADIO TRANSMITTERS ADDED
By the mid 1990's there were no AM or FM frequencies remaining for further large scale UK-wide radio stations to be added, although there was enough space for the Radio Authority to further develop smaller scale Independent Local Radio and for the BBC to expand and improve coverage of BBC Local Radio and FM coverage in Scotland and Wales. Radio Wales, previously heard only on 882 and 657 kHz AM, gained a modest network of FM transmitters that covered much of Wales. Radio Cymru had used the Radio Four space (mainly in the sub-band between 92.4 to 94.6) on FM, so Radio Four also had a national network of transmitters installed across Wales as the BBC made use of space in the 103.6 to 104.9 sub-band.
BBC Radio Scotland had also enjoyed the use of the Radio Four space on FM network since the 1970's and the BBC rectified this situation by installing a network of new transmitters to bring Radio Four FM to all parts of Scotland. In addition to this, since the 1970's Scotland had benefited from a number of Gaelic part time/opt-out radio stations (Radios Nan Eileen; Aberdeen; Solway; Highland; Orkney; Shetland and Tweed) these were consolidated into a single Gaelic radio station, Radio Nan Gaedheal, with additional transmitters and frequencies added to bring coverage to most of Scotland.
'BBC Transmission', the department that built and maintained the masts and transmitters, was privatised in 1996, being sold off to Castle Transmission International and Merlin Communications. Castle would then operate the BBC's of vast network of domestic analogue radio and television transmitters and masts, while Merlin would operate the HF (short wave) facilities used for the BBC World Service. The finances generated by the sale of the BBC transmission network were used by the BBC to concentrate on the development of digital broadcasting technologies.
Chickens and Eggs
For further expansion of the radio market to take place a new broadcasting band and a new technology would have to be introduced. The BBC had been working on the 'Eureka 147' digital radio project with European broadcasting partners and this would result in the "DAB" (Digital Audio Broadcasting) standard being ratified for use by European broadcasters including the BBC and Independent radio in the UK. The DAB radio technology could squeeze in, perhaps, up to a block of ten radio stations into a space on the band that one single analogue FM station might have previously occupied. The block of stations is called a Multiplex, and the government released a small amount of space in VHF Band III (where the old black and white 405 line TV pictures had once been transmitted) between 217.5 & 230 MHz to accommodate seven of these multiplexes. While DAB brings the prospect of many additional stations and services, due to the digital compression technology used, the sound quality really is not as good as FM and certainly no where approaching the sound quality produced by a CD - despite what many misleading promotions may say. See the DAB Radio feature HERE.
The Broadcasting Act of 1996 provided for the expansion of digital broadcasting allowing for the introduction of both DAB (digital radio) and Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) which would allow the BBC and Independent Television to transmit a multitude of digital television channels in the the existing UHF television bands using DTT multiplexes. To squeeze in these additional channels between the existing five TV stations was a compromise giving a limited number channels and rather poor coverage.
The first commercial contractor ON-DIGITAL/ITV DIGITAL offered a pay-to-view service which failed, being unable to compete with the well established SKY-TV that could offer many more pay channels via satellite. The ITC was quick to find a replacement for ITV Digital and in 2002 licensed FREEVIEW, a consortium of BBC, SKY and Crown Castle, to provide a range of free channels, including many radio stations such as the new BBC digital only stations including BBC THREE, BBC FOUR, CBBC, BBC NEWS 24 etc. ITV2, ITV3 and perfect reception of the fifth terrestrial TV channel - FIVE TV.
DAB - Digital Audio Briadcasting
As for digital radio (DAB) , the BBC was allocated one nationwide multiplex to allow coverage of all the existing and some new national radio stations across the UK. The Radio Authority (which governed Independent Radio) was also allocated a national multiplex to allow the three existing national commercial stations, together with new ones, to be carried across the UK. In addition there would be enough space to accommodate at least one local multiplex in most areas and up to three in some places, but with a guarantee that space was reserved for the BBC Local Radio station to be carried on the local commercial multiplex.
The Radio Authority anticipated that the new local commercial multiplexes would be established by existing Independent Radio stations or groups and that any existing analogue station that established a local digital multiplex or was committed to providing one in its area, would have its analogue licence (whether AM or FM) automatically renewed at the time of expiry for a further period of ten years. This would ensure the commitment to the new digital medium that the government is so keen to promote.
The BBC was initially committed to providing 60% coverage of the UK with DAB by 1998 from a chain of transmitters, most at existing FM radio or television masts. Whereas analogue FM and AM broadcasting has to use many different frequencies to cover the country in order to avoid mutual interference, DAB uses just one single frequency for a multiplex right across the country, it is called a Single Frequency Network (SFN) and no re-tuning is required and the whole process is achieved by complex digital encoders in the transmission chain combining all the radio stations into one block which is radiated by all transmitters in the network. The signals received have to be de-coded by a special DAB radio which extracts and separates the stations and can produce the best possible output from a number of nearby transmitters. Where reception of FM or AM would be severely distorted if the radio received two transmitters on the same frequency, DAB can actually benefit from this situation, the reception being reinforced rather than degraded. So no more searching and frantically re-tuning when you go on holiday.
DAB was a classic chicken and egg situation, why should the BBC provide this enormous investment in a new network of transmitters if there was nobody listening, but without the network why would any manufacturer produce a DAB radio or, indeed, any listener buy it? From some years there was virtually no-one listening (apart from BBC engineers and managers, perhaps) as the DAB receivers that initially became available were prohibitively expensive, costing around £2000.
London benefits from the BBC national multiplex, Digital One and Three local commercial multiplexes. The Midlands gets BBC, Digital One and at least two local multiplexes, three are possible in some areas. Due to the limited space released by the government, however, Northern Ireland is in the unlucky position of only being allocated a BBC national multiplex and one regional multiplex - no Digital One and no local multiplex! So even DAB cannot solve all the space problems in some areas of the UK. There are several other 'white areas' around the UK that will have limited DAB choice and only receive the BBC national multiplex and the Digital One multiplex. This is because the government and Ofcom (the regulator) did not yet allocate enough space in vhf band III to accommodate a local multiplex in all areas, this meant that there were initially no local Independent or BBC stations in the affected areas.
The current regulator, OFCOM, considered the matter of allocating extra spectrum for use by DAB, and by the end of 2005 allocated sufficient additional space in VHF Band III to accommodate one additional new national DAB multiplex and enough new local DAB multiplexes to fill in most of the "white areas" that were initially left without local coverage. Even then it is possible that not all of the available space would be used used for public radio services and that some capacity may be used by the commercial broadcasters to carry paid for business data services as it is possible that higher profits may be made in this way - at the expense of true radio services. In fact Digital One has already pleaded with Ofcom to allow it not to carry radio services on some of its capacity and instead is carrying a 'television' service that is delivered to certain mobile phones!! Hardly the spirit of radio!
MORE ABOUT THE MASTS and FREQUENCIES
In June 2004 the UK business interests of Crown Castle, which transmits analogue and digital television and radio, were sold for £1.1 billion to the energy group National Grid Transco. National Grid Transco operate the high tension lines that distribute electricity throughout the UK. The Crown Castle business was integrated with their own Gridcom business.
Gridcom was keen to be involved with the further development of the 'Freeview' digital TV and Radio platform, which was a joint venture between Crown Castle, The BBC, and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB Television. The company also took control of the 750 television masts and towers, together with 3500 mobile 'phone masts adding to it's own portfolio of 1400 sites.
In 2004 the new regulator Ofcom abandoned a review of the vhf / fm spectrum that may have meant a complete re-organisation of station frequencies in order to find some spare frequencies to introduce yet more commercial radio stations. Ofcom believed that the subsequent frequency reorganisation would be too confusing for listeners and that existing commercial stations would be unjustifiably compromised as their frequencies were altered and coverage possibly affected.
Instead Ofcom will continue to licence a limited number of local FM licences until the band is effectively full. They will also concentrate on very small scale, low power, licences for COMMUNITY RADIO which can more easily be accommodated into the vhf / fm band. It is thought that Ofcom will not advertise any new local radio licences after 2006.
There may additionally be a review of the Medium Wave / AM band. Maybe this will see the loss of the frequencies used by networked 'Gold' stations perhaps - as these can surely be no longer be considered as 'local licences'. We shall see. There is also speculation that if some of these local transmitter frequencies are cleared that licences for very large scale, higher power, regional AM / Medium Wave licences may be introduced as these would be more commercially viable. The possibility of introducing digital broadcasting to the Medium Wave band will also be considered.
DRM (Digital Radio Mondial) is a new system that can transmit digital radio, and would be used on the Long Waves, Medium Waves and Short Waves. These newly developed transmitters can transmit the radio station as both ordinary AM radio or the new Digital Radio Mondial service. DRM promises much higher quality than is available on an ordinary AM transmission. Ofcom will no doubt consider whether this form of digital radio could be introduced to the UK. Tests are already being carried out at certain times from the Orfordness transmitter in the UK on 1296KHz and from Luxembourg on 1440 kHz along with other sites in Europe.
In 2005 a consortium of Macquarie Communications Infrastructure Group bought the other main transmissions provider NTL. NTL started life in 1955 as the Independent Television Authority which issued the regional Independent Television (ITV) franchises, regulated the broadcasters and provided the network of masts and transmitters. By act of government the ITA became the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in 1972 to oversee the introduction of commercial Independent Local Radio (ILR) into the UK. In 1990 the government dismantled the IBA, which was spilt up into; the Radio Authority to regulate (very lightly) commercial radio; the Independent Television Commission (ITC) that oversaw commercial television; and National Transcommunications Ltd (NTL) that provided the transmission facilities for commercial broadcasters. So after the buyout in 2005, NTL became ARQIVA.
2006: When the existing commercial Medium Wave (AM) licences come up for re-advertisement and renewal, Ofcom will consider applications for stations to use DRM and / or AM for broadcasting.
2006 - The BBC's Charter Renewal
The BBC's current ten year charter was renewed in 2006 despite politicians of all colours seeming to be determined to trim down the size of the wonderful corporation. There were arguments for reducing revenue from the licence fee and even scrapping the licence fee altogether. Revenues were just over £2bn per annum (only 30 pence per day to you and me from the licence). There did seem to be a political will to reduce annual revenues by at least £500 million and maybe by as much as £1000 million. The BBC had never before faced such a political threat and deserves the support of from the listening and viewing public. In the end the BBC was forced to rationalise and reduce certain activities, such as reducing the scope and content of its online website to save money and reduce the competition with commercially funded websites. Additionally £130 million per annum was witheld from the BBC in order the assist the funding of the forthcoming Digital Switch Over program, whereby all analogue television transmitters (BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel Five) would have to be switched off by 2012 and replaced with a new network of Digital Terrestrial Transmitters. Assistance would also have to be given to the public with information and supply of digital set top boxes for certain qualifying individuals.
[Save The BBC]
During the 1970's and 1980's ILR showed that, given proper regulation, even small commercial radio stations could produce entertainment, news and documentaries of a quality that made even the BBC sit up and take notice. With successive changes to broadcasting laws, programming regulation has all but been removed from independent broadcasters so that there is no longer any will, or regulatory need, to produce wide-ranging quality programming. The new regime under Ofcom allows for further de-regulation and consolidation of ownership. It is expected that within a few years of Ofcom coming into being that there will only be two or three very large 'groups' owning the majority of interest in commercial radio and that this could drive down quality and real choice for the listener even further.Happy listening.
So it is not only the radio station and radio conglomerate managers who are to blame for the falling standards in commercial radio, but also various governments for allowing the regulators (The IBA, then the Radio Authority and subsequently Ofcom), by Acts of Parliament, to licence spiralling numbers of commercial stations and gradually remove the regulations that initially demanded high quality programmes.
With some few exceptions, ILR is now allowed to be a general entertainment and repetitive 'juke box' with the minimum of information programming or listener involvement that initially made ILR such a success. In 2003/2004 some of the smaller stations, Telford FM, KLFM, The Wolf and Rutland Radio were fair examples, still trying hard to produce an entertaining service with local news in a virtually unregulated, fragmented and fiercely competitive market for advertising revenue and audience share. LBC in London, despite several changes of ownership (Chrysalis sold out to Global in 2007 for example) was still providing talk and phone-in shows, news and information on 97.3 VHF (FM) and DAB in certain areas of the UK, together with rolling news on 1152 kHz Medium Wave (AM) which must be considered as somewhat of an achievement for ILR - although many would argue that the quality of LBC is significantly lower and 'dumbed down' compared to its earlier output. Talk Sport had produced some real alternative speech programming, but the variety of truly 'specialist' music stations that were promised by The Radio Authority under a less regulated regime, sadly failed to deliver - a situation that is obviously worse under Ofcom. For example jazz music and country music stations, which did initially attempt to bring some different sounding music to listeners in the form of Jazz FM and Country / Ritz 1035 eventually failed, and other such services were few and far between.
2005 and beyond brought further consolidation of the big radio groups into enormous radio groups. The Capital Radio Group and GWR had already merged to become GCAP, and publisher EMAP swallowed up another radio group SRH (Scottish Radio Holdings) that operated a variety of diverse and extremely high quality radio stations in Scotland. This brought more bad news for local output where the output from Radio Clyde and Radio Forth, for example, appeared to become very much diminished. More local production could be scrapped in favour of further nationally distributed programme feeds, which would beg the question "what is the point of local radio licences if there is minimal local output?" It was no wonder BBC Radio once again gained more ground against commercial radio rivals for by this time, in the main, the BBC were producing some of the the best quality radio - well apart from Radio One perhaps! The BBC had plans to expand some of its Local Radio services, with new stations for the North West, Somerset and Warwickshire, however lack of funds curtailed this excercise, with only the new (reinstated) service for Coventry and Warwickshire coming to fruition.
From the 1990's onwards the Chrysalis owned Heart FM stations provided reasonable quality, middle of the road, music based programmes that have proved very popular and gave Capital Radio and other GCap owned stations (particularly BRMB) some real competition. However much of the output from today's commercial stations is nothing like the real community style "All Things To All People" local radio programming that made ILR so unique and such a programming success in the 1970's and 80's. It has to be said that, while stations owned by groups such as GWR (e.g. Beacon Radio, Radio Trent etc) did not sound anything like they did back in the 1970's and 1980's - with all the specialist shows gone, news and sport trimmed to the bone and feature spots gone - they could be quite entertaining and popular, especially at breakfast time with plenty of pop music, quizzes and fun, but anything too intellectual or brain-challenging was not to be expected.
In the main the market became almost a free-for-all where the relentless drive by successive governments for More stations would certainly mean Less quality. All that was gained in that pioneering decade and a half of ILR was lost - it seems forever.
So that's the brief story of radio in the UK from 1920 to 2006. However here is a brief outline of a few more developments that were to take place in subsequent years.
At The End Of 2005.....
In November 2005 it was feared that the merged GWR and Capital Radio group (GCap) may announce the closure of their AM radio transmitters that carry the Classic Gold / Capital Gold radio stations around the UK. It was thought that there may be an idea is to encourage listeners to buy into the new DAB digital radio services. DAB would be the only place where these stations could then be heard.
There had previously been mutterings from some quarters that there may have been an intention to precipitate the premature closure of the traditional AM and FM broadcasts altogether and force people to switch to the very much inferior DAB digital radio service. The thinking behind such a move was likely not an altruistic one that would benefit the listeners, since in its current form DAB offers much worse sound quality than FM; GCap had major financial interests in the national DAB digital multiplex, Digital One, and many local DAB multiplexes so they could stand to make a lot more money out of their DAB networks from other radio stations that have to pay GCap to be carried on their multiplexes - or eventually effectively force competing stations off the air altogether (?). This move would most certainly be in the interests of the shareholders but definitely not in the listeners interests or even in the interests of other broadcasting organisations who would end up being forced to pay the price come analogue switch off.
[ Meddling Bean Counters 1 - Listening Public 0 (again?!) ]
It is quite unlikely that things will pan out to be quite as bad as that - well let's hope not - but there is always the fear that the all too powerful conglomerates may be able to indulge in so much political 'arm twisting' that eventually politicians and regulators will succumb to their demands.
At The End Of 2006....
The UK, and indeed the world, is now beginning to see the shape of things to come as far as radio and the media in general is concerned.
Ofcom is considering the future of AM radio in the UK, and it looks as if when current radio licences expire (e.g. Virgin Radio, and Talk Sport) groups bidding for the 1053, 1089 and 1215 kHz licenens will be able to bid to use either traditional AM or the new DRM digital transmission technology.
In 2006 through to 2007 both the BBC and commercial operators continue to expand the number of DAB (digital radio) transmitters, to increase the coverage area. The UK presses on with DAB Radio in its current MP2 format despite the dire sound quality (vastly inferior to FM and CD sound quality), though there is talk of the possibility of abandoning MP2 encoding format DAB Radio and using AAC encoding instead, which would provide much higher quality sound at the current bit rates, however this could mean that many, if not most, current DAB radios that are not 'firmware' upgradeable would become obsolete. It has to be borne in mind, however, that some other European countries have completely abandoned DAB in its current (MP2) form due to the extremely poor audio quality.
In 2006 television viewers, broadcasters and transmission companies are gearing up for Digital Switch Over (DSO) that starts in 2008 and runs (ITV area to ITV area) until 2012. While satellite and cable viewers already have digital (and therefore multichannel) television and accompanying radio channels available, the terrestrial analogue television transmitters (BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five) are still on the air. Whilst Digital Terrestrial Televison (DTT) is also being broadcast alongside the terrestrial analogue stations as the FREEVIEW service, it will not be until Digital Switch Over - when analogue is switched off - that DTT (Freeview) will be able to offer the almost universal coverage that is enjoyed by the analogue TV transmission system. Currently (2006) DTT coverage is only around 70 to 80%, but after DSO it will be possible to implement the necessary increases in transmitter powers and switch on the full compliment of over 1100 transmitter sites (currently under 100 in 2006) for BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five multiplexes that will provide around 98.5% population coverage. There will also be additional multiplexes for the commercial sector from around 80 transmission sites giving about 90% population coverage. DTT (Freeview) provides multichannel television and radio services.
All this being said, bigger changes are afoot. DSO may seem like a big deal, but more radical and far-reaching changes are already surfacing; Listeners can already hear radio via traditional analogue means (MW, LW and VHF), together with the digital methods of DAB Radio, via Freeview, digital satellite such as Sky TV, and via cable TV services, but also via the internet in the form of streaming audio and 'podcasts' - downloads of MP3 files. But could the 'juke-box' style radio, that listeners have been used to during the 1990's and 2000's, become irrelevant in time? With the wide availability of MP3 music files from home CD collections and from commercial music downloads being stored on personal computers, many people already consume vast amounts of music via portable MP3 players and directly from PC media players, that boring and repetitive commercial radio stations are in danger of becoming unnecessary.
Perhaps the only radio stations that may prove necessary and popular in the future may be speech and news stations, phone-in and chat stations, local radio stations that provide genuinely useful local information and interaction, and possibly music stations that provide something that really is different.
The way media is being delivered is changing fast, radio is certainly fast and immediate, but we can now download both radio and television programmes on demand via I.P. (the internet) to personal computers and dedicated consumer devices ('boxes') that store programme material. The schedules that are forced on viewers by the TV and radio stations may become irrelevant and frustrating when viewers can download the programme they want when they want! Today's TV and radio companies may cease to exist in their current form and no longer be programme makers and schedulers, but simply programme providers. We shall all see what happens in time.......
Closures and failures in 2006: Radio group UKRD pulled the plug on their Stroud radio station in Gloucestershire and shut down Star 107.9, handing back the licence to Ofcom.
December 2007 saw the print publisher and radio station owner EMAP bought out by German publishing group Bauer. Bauer then owned famous local stations such as Radio City, Key 103, Metro Radio, Radio Aire, TFM, CFM, Downtown Radio, Cool FM, Radio Clyde, Radio Forth, North Sound Radio, MFR, Rock FM, Hallam FM, Tay FM, Radio Borders, South West Sound, Viking FM, Wave 105 and West Sound (Known as the Big City Network). Also included in the radio line up were the Magic, Kiss and Kerrang! brands.
Closures and failures in 2007: Kingdom Radio group closed their radio station in Livingston - 103.4 & 107.7 River FM.
By The End Of 2008
Since the GWR and Capital Radio plc merger, to form GCAP, in 2004, the Labour government and its regulator, Ofcom, continually reduced local programming commitments and relaxed ownership rules.
In April 2008 GCAP was bought for £375 million by Global Radio - owners of the Heart FM and Galaxy brands and other stations such as LBC in London. This formed a massive radio conglomerate including Capital 95.8 in London, the XFM brands, Choice FM, Classic FM, the Gold network and the so-called "Hit Music Network" consisting of BRMB, Beacon, Mercia, Wyvern, Trent FM, Red Dragon, RAM FM and Mercury etc. Other stations included Plymouth, GWR, Hereward, Orchard FM, FOX FM, 2-TEN, Ocean FM, Southern FM, 2CR, Invicta, Chiltern, Horizon, SGR, Gemini FM, Lantern FM, Q103, Coast, Champion, Marcher Sound and Power FM.
However the deal was somewhat too large for the Competition Commission to allow, so they required Global Radio to dispose of a number of stations. To this end in August 2008 Global put BRMB in Birmingham up for sale along with Beacon Radio in Wolverhampon and Shropshire (97.2 & 103.1), Mercia FM in Coventry (97.0 & 102.9), Wyvern FM in Hereford & Worcester (97.6, 96.7 & 102.8), Heart 106 in the East Midlands along with the associated medium wave, AM licences in Birmingham (1152), Coventry (1359), Shrewsbury (1017) and Wolverhampton (990).
Among bidders for these stations were a consortium headed by former BRMB Programme Controller Mike Owen, another group led by former BRMB and Chrysalis Radio executive Phil Riley and another from the German radio and publishing group Bauer - owner of former EMAP owned stations in the north of the UK.
Closures and failures in 2008: In July 2008 UKRD decided enough was enough in Wisbech and closed another one of their stations - the loss making 107.5 Fen Radio, handing back the licence to Ofcom. Fen Radio had been on air since 1999.
Laser Broadcasting - the troubled radio group went bust. Laser had a portfolio of nine stations; Three Sunshine Radio stations in Hereford/Monmouth, Worcester and Ludlow, Bath FM; Brunel FM; two Quay West stations in west Somerset and Bridgwater; 3TR in Warminster and Fresh Radio in the Yorkshire Dales. This left the individual stations in a mess which had to be sorted out by stations being sold to another company or bought out by a local team: The owner of Exeter-based South West Radio Ltd bought Bath FM, Brunel FM, 3TR in Warminster, QuayWest in Bridgewater and QuayWest in Minehead (previously held by Laser Broadcasting South West Ltd). Fresh AM was bought out by a local group - Utopia Broadcasting.
Sunshine Radio in Hereford and Monmouthshire had launched in December 2007 with the newly licenced station on 106.2, 107.0 and 107.8 but closed their pre-existing 954 kHz AM transmitter in Hereford, leaving the 1530 kHz transmitter on the air in Worcestershire as "Sunshine Gold". Sunshine 855 continued in Ludlow.
Global Radio closed their Gold medium wave transmitters in Devon at Beacon Hill (954) and Pearces Hill (666kHz) in August 2008. Those transmitters first went on air for Devon Air radio in 1981.
UTV Radio's loss making Talk 107 in Edinbugh lost its battle for life and the plug was pulled in December 2008 after bearly three years on air. Talk107 first went on air in January 2006.
The Labour government's Digital Report and other industry reports in 2009 are likely to weaken any remaining thread-bare commitments to locally produced programming still further. This, essentially on a promise that the radio companies will expand DAB, digital radio, coverage.
Many so-called local commercial radio stations provide only the bear minimum of four hours per day of local programmes. Stations such as BRMB and Beacon may only have a locally produced breakfast and programme with all other output networked in from London or elsewhere. Many other stations resorted to a technological trick called 'voice-tracking' (VT). In this case the station merely inserts pre-recorded presenter announcements between music tracks and commercials from an automated computer play-out system. Some small stations might sound local upon a casual listen because of the local commercial adverts, but in many cases it most probably isn't actually the case. Even this minimal commitment seems likely to be whittled away still further once the recommendations of the 2009 reports are put into practice.
From the beginning of 2009 Global Radio started a mass re-branding of the so-called 'Hit Music' network with the non-descript "HEART" brand. Famous heritage stations names - so well known since the inception of ILR - started to be killed off: Plymouth Sound, GWR, Hereward, Orchard FM, FOX FM, 2-TEN, Ocean FM, Southern FM, 2CR, Invicta, Chiltern, Horizon, SGR, Gemini FM, Lantern FM, Q103, Coast, Champion, Marcher Sound - all fell under Global Radio's axe to be replaced by the quasi-national Heart network brand. Power FM in Southampton was replaced by the Galaxy network brand.
The further government relaxation of local programming requirments may allow all these essentially local licences to transmit an essentially full-time nationally networked Heart programme, with the only minimal local content, locally inserted advertising and minimal local news.
In mid April 2009 German group Bauer seemed to emerge as the winning buyer of the former GCAP / Global Radio Midlands group of stations - BRMB, Beacon, Mercia, Wyvern, Heart 106FM East Midlands. The original price asked by Global for these stations was thought to be in the region of £40 million, however in mid May 2009 negotiations between Global and Bauer stalled and one of the competing Orion Media consortium headed by Phil Riley and backed by Lloyds TSB venture capital bought the stations. With the UK economy being in recession the final price negotiated was a little less than originally anticipated.
Too much competition, too little and ineffectual regulation as well as massive pressure from the commercial radio lobby helped allow the widespread loss of real local radio. The sad thing is that it was allowed to happen by the audience which was seemingly uninterested in community and local (or even national) news, but accepting of meaningless 'prattle' and narrow, focused and repetitive playlists that are increasingly used by commercial radio.
Closures and failures in 2009: In January 2009 Abbey 107.3 FM in Barrow went bust and was closed down by joint owners CN Radio and The Local Radio Company, it first went on air in September 2006. Huddersfield station Pennine FM (Formerly Home 107.9) went bust in April 2009 after being on air for around ten years. UTV Radio threatened to shut down Valleys Radio in Ebbew Vale. Time Radio 107.3 in Lewisham and Time 106.8 in Greenwich were closed by their owners Sunrise Radio Group in April 2009. Time 107.3 first went on air in 1999 as FLR and Time 106.8 first went on air in 1990 as Radio Thamesmead / RTM.
UTV Radio closed the popular Heads of the Valleys station "Valleys Radio" at the end of April 2009. Perhaps due to mis-management and bad programming decisions, the once extremely popular station, established by Keri Jones, had suffered declining audiences for a few years. UTV wanted to cut costs by closing Valleys Radio's local studios and co-locating the station in Swansea. Ofcom refused and UTV so closed the station in what seemed to listeners as a fit of peak.
Radio industry talk rumoured that up to fifty stations may face going bust or closure between 2009 to 2010. Altough some stations did run into trouble, it didn't happen on such a large scale, but mergers and consolodation did gather pace.
Struggling CN Radio group, based in Cumbria, put their rather glamourless, Midlands based, Touch Radio stations up for sale. In April 2009 they sold five of the stations, based in Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon, Coventry, Rugby and Tamworth, to radio group Quidem. Quidem, a new company headed by former GCap Media executives Orchard and Wendy Pallot, bought Touch Radio for an undisclosed sum with cash coming from a private source.
The Guardian newspaper reported: "Orchard, who quit as GCap Media group operations director in January last year after missing out on the chief executive role, said: 'Quidem has been formed to acquire commercial radio stations. Lord Carter's Digital Britain report creates a number of significant incentives for this sector to innovate and grow, and our company is well placed to benefit from these exciting new opportunities'."
107.6 Touch Radio Banbury was not sold to Quidem as part of the deal. Instead Touch Radio Banbury was sold to a management buyout team led by breakfast presenter and Programme Controller Dale Collins. Collins promised that the station would locally re-focus, with 18 hours per day of locally produced and presented programmes. The station was re-named, in a consultation between management and listeners, "Banbury Sound". There was a commitment to more and better local news and sports coverage, more community involvement and a wider and more varied play-list. The development promised to bring local produced radio back to an area that Fox-FM eventually neglected and which itself was wiped from Oxfordshire's radio dials to be replaced with the sound of quasi-national networked radio in the form of Global Radio's networked Heart 102.6.
Although Banbury Sound did sound like a good radio station and listening figures appeared to improve, the advertising revenue was not sufficient to keep the station afloat - possibly due the the recession and the station's transmission area being too small. The project bearly lasted eighteen months.
Due to contractural problems with the ownership and transfer of their 1530kHz medium wave licence in Worcester, Sunshine Radio was forced to close its service to Worcester and the transmitter at Cotheridge was shut down.
Banbury Sound (formerly part of the Touch Radio grouping), was unable to survive due to the station's continued financial losses - which was a situation symptomatic of so many smaller scale commercial stations. The owners were forced to sell the licence to Quidem, based in Honiley, Warwickshire. In 2009 Quidem had bought the other Touch Radio stations in Warwick, Stratford, Coventry, Tamworth and Rugby, from CN Group.
Radio Maldwyn, The Magic 756, a long standing commumity style ILR station based in Newtown, Mid Wales, established in 1995, went into liquidation in December 2010. Listeners were left with automated non-stop music for some weeks before the licence was bought by two local businessman Thomas Pain and Alistair Tyne. They replaced Radio Maldwyn with a new station called Radio Hafren. Thomas Pain explaned: “We did not want to see another local institution die Radio Maldwyn has serviced the local community for a long time and it has been missed, especially during the terrible weather we have been suffering when people rely on their local radio. Our intention is to have the station up and running as soon as possible in much the same way as it was before with strong local content. We want it to be a radio station that Montgomeryshire can be proud of.”
Capital FM's new computer driven London studios - December 2010
On 1st January 2011 Orion Media re-branded its Heart 106 FM station to its own brand of GEM 106. The licence area covered the East Midlands including Leicester, Derby and Nottingham, from an 8kW transmitter at Copt Oak. Orion Media had previously bought this East Midlands licence from GCap (Global) in 2009 and had used the Heart FM name under licence from Global. However this probably clashed, in business terms, with Global's own Heart 100.7 station in the West Midlands where Orion Media were now in direct competition with Global for audience and advertising - Orion could sell advertising on Heart East Midlands - but not for Heart West Midlands.
On 3th January 2011 Global Radio merged its Galaxy branded stations with its Hit Music stations which saw the demise of its last remaining 'heritage' station names (ILR names from the 1970's and 1980's). This list included:
Red Dragon FM in Wales, Trent FM in Nottingham, Ram FM in Derby and Leicester Sound, all merged with the Galaxy branded stations; Galaxy South Coast (formerly heritage ILR name Ocean FM), Galaxy Birmingham, Galaxy Manchester, Galaxy Yorkshire, Galaxy North East and Galaxy Central Scotland, all joining together with Capital FM in London to produce a quasi-national Capital FM network - 'Capital 95 - 106'.
Global Radio invested in state of the art computerised studios to network all the newly 'Capitalized' stations together, which can be seen in the photograph above, looking more like a space-ship than a traditional ILR self-op studio! The map to the left shows the principal areas in which the new Capital could be heard on FM analogue radio and / or digital DAB radio. The Capital 102.2's station launch in Birmingham on 3rd January 2011 can be heard here>
The creation of a quasi-national Capital FM brand by Global Radio produced a rather interesting situation in Birmingham: The BRMB radio station, by now owned by Phil Riley's Orion Media (backed by venture capitalists Lloyds TSB Development Capital), was previously bought by Capital Radio in the early 1990's and was therefore subsequently owned GCap when Capital merged with GWR, which then became Global Radio when GCap bought Chrysalis: When Galaxy 102.2 Birmingham became Capital 102.2 it meant that a Capital radio station was in direct competition with BRMB.
Capital 102.2 broadcast on FM to Greater Birmingham and across the West Midlands on DAB digital radio including Coventry, Warwickshire, Wolverhampton and Shropshire which, with Golbal Radio's Heart brand, also put it in direct competition with Orion Media's other stations - Mercia (Coventry and Warwickshire) and Beacon (Wolverhampton, Black Country and Shropshire). In the face of such competition and flagging ratings Orion's response was, naturally, to cut back on programming costs; this was by now allowed by Ofcom under its increasingly relaxed and minimal regulatory requirements. Beacon was at one time a dual area providing separate programming for the Wolverhampton area and Shropshire area, but Orion dropped this and merged the two areas - Ofcom did not require separate output. Eventually the greater majority of output from Orion's stations was merged across the midlands regions with BRMB, Beacon, Mercia and Wyvern all sharing about 75% of the output. The once separate and local radio station for Coventry and Warwickshire, Mercia [Sound], was closed. The Hertford Place studios in Coventry were shut and all programming on its 97.0 and 102.9 MHz transmitters was from then on to come from Orion's studios in Birmingham.
[Phil Riley previously worked for Chrysalis Radio (Heart) and Midlands Radio,the former owners of BRMB before its sale to Capital Radio]
Other Stations: January 4th saw the launch of a network of new transmitters for Real Radio Wales covering Mid and North Wales. In December 2008 GMG Radio, owners of Real Radio, had been awarded a new regional radio licence by Ofcom to broadcast a separate service of Real Radio to North and Mid Wales. However relaxation of rules brought about by the Digital Economy Act in 2010 allowed GMG to ask Ofcom if they could abandon the separate service of Real Radio for North and Mid Wales. Ofcom approved this move and rather than provide a new, separate station for North Wales, Real Radio was allowed to use the new transmitters to relay the existing service of Real Radio from South Wales. This ensured that Real radio would become the first national commercial station in Wales and that it would have the largest commercial radio audience of any commercial station in the Principality.
The Digital Economy Act of 2010 also allowed the separate, once locally produced, XFM stations to merge together into one single quasi-national station.
Towards the end of 2012 Midland Newspaper Association had lost patience and interest in its failing collection of small scale stations in Telford (107.4), Shrewsbury (106.5), Oswestry (107.1) and Kidderminster (107.2) by that time known as 'The Severn'. MNA announced that the stations would be closed by the end of the year and the licenses handed back to Ofcom if a buyer could not be found.
GMG Radio (Guardian Media) announce a 33% cutback of its 39 strong news staff at its Smooth Radio and Real Radio stations.
Orion Media calls it a day on heritage radio brands BRMB, Mercia, Wyvern, and Beacon and abandons individual stations names in favour of a one name for all approach across its transmitters. By this time 75% of all output was shared across the stations, so they were virtually one network in all but name. The name chosen was Freeradio which had a soft launch on 26th March 2012 - well known names, such as BRMB, merely faded inauspiciously from the airwaves.
Midland News Association gives its dysfunction stations (The Severn) a stay of execution for a few weeks and eventually concludes a deal in February with UTV Media (owners of The Wolf in Wolverhampton and Signal One in Stoke, amongst other stations) to buy the The Severn stations. The Severn is rapidly closed and its output is replaced with automated promotional transmissions which are broadcast across all of its transmitters for a number of weeks heralding the launch of a new station. In the mean time UTV prepared to launch the new programme service on the transmitters in Kidderminster, Telford, Shrewsbury and Oswestry. The outcome is that UTV will merge these newly acquired licenses with The Wolf, its Wolverhampton station. In effect The Wolf would become a substantially larger station which would be renamed 'Signal 107' with all programming output to come from its existing studios at the top of The Mander Centre in Wolverhampton. Signal 107 launched at midday on 26th March 2012. Hear the launch audio here.
County Sound abandons live programmes on its 1566 kHz AM in favour of a fully automated station.
Struggling station Atlantic FM, covering the county of Cornwall, gives up and sells out to Global Radio which will rebrand it as a Heart station, abandoning all local programming production. All Heart programming output will come from Heart's studio in Exeter (Devon) with only split commercials and news/weather for Cornwall.
Celador Radio continued its expansion through acquisition of failed or failing small scale local stations, picking up the failed 'Total Star' licences at Bridgwater in Somerset (107.4 formerly BCR); Minehead, in west Somerset (100.8 & 102.4 formerly Quay West Radio); Bath in north Somerset (107.9 formerly Bath FM) and Warminster in west Wiltshire (107.5 formerly 3TR). These were all re-branded and re-launched as Celador's 'The Breeze', from studios in Bristol which were also home to Celador's 'The Breeze', Bristol (107.2 formerly Star) and Jack FM (106.5 formerly Original 106). Other purchases were Andover Sound (106.4) and Newbury Sound (105.6 & 107.4 formerly Kick FM) in Berkshire which were re-branded as 'The Breeze' in spring 2012. Celador also acquired Midwest Radio consisting of two licences formed out of a merger between Ivel FM in Yeovil, Sherbourne & Chard (105.6 & 106.6) and Vale FM / Gold Radio in Shaftsbury & Blandford Forum (97.4 & 96.6). This was re-branded as 'The Breeze' in June 2012 with the studios being closed and programme output then produced from Bristol. Celador also purchased the remaining Total Star station in Swindon, by this time re-named as More FM and re-branded it as 107 Jack FM (107.7), together with their Jack FM stations in the Solent (106 & 106.6) and Bristol areas.
In June 2012 Smooth Radio is sold, along with its sister station Real Radio, as Guardian Media throws in the towel on GMG Radio using the sale funds to re-invest into its newspaper publishing arm. The buyer of GMG Radio is the 'Borg' conglomerate Global Radio, paying a reported £70 million. The future of Real Radio and Smooth Radio becomes uncertain, with speculation that Real Radio could be assimilated into the Heart brand and Smooth assimilated into the Gold brand - but that was mere speculation at the time.
The Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt ordered an investigation into the on the grounds of potential competition and plurality issues, ordering Ofcom, the media regulator, investigate the potential media plurality issues raised by combining the largest and third largest radio groups in the UK. However the deal had already been completed, leaving the regulator essentially powerless, Global having already applied for the investigation of the deal fast-tracked by the Competition Commission. Global would become the largest commercial radio operator with half of the market, its neares competitor Bauer having only 25 percent.
The Office of Fair Trading also advised the Culture Secretary Hunt on competition and jurisdictional aspects of the deal. According the The Guardian newspaper "Hunt may be keen to push Global Radio for commitments about retaining, and even expanding, local content such as magazine shows to ensure that UK radio does not become dominated by nationally networked programming and station brands".
90 YEARS OF BBC RADIO BROADCASTING 1922 to 2012 - "Radio Reunited"
On November 14th 2012, in celebration of 90 years of broadcasting, BBC radio transmitted a 'simulcast' across every radio network: BBC Radios One, Two, Three, Four, Five Live, Six Music, 1Xtra, Four Extra, Cymru, Wales, Scotland, Nan Gaidheal, Ulster, Foyle, World Service and all BBC local stations from Berkshire to York all joined together for four minutes. The item chosen for this unique and historic undertaking event was a specially commissioned composition by the very likeable Damon Albarn, front man of the group Blur, entitled Radio Reunited.
I awaited this special feature with enthusiastic anticipation. It was introduced by Simon Mayo of BBC Radio Two from the Science Museum in London, standing next to the original transmitter of 2LO.
While the three minute composition included a few references to the BBC's ninety years such as the original London radio station 2LO, the Greenwich Time Signal and some specially collected recordings, sadly the end result was rather lacklustre and appeared to miss the mark. Very strangely it included Morse code and spy numbers stations, which surely have nothing whatever to do with the content that the BBC has ever broadcast, all this amidst a muddle of indistinct noises, sounds and voices.
Perhaps the commission itself was wrong. While supposedly celebrating ninety years of BBC radio, the work also attempted to look ninety years into the future and included some recently recorded expressions, ideas and comments from members of the listening public, much of which seemed to be blurred into the background amongst the cacophony of other noises.
The numbers spy stations may be a fascinating topic, which continue to be transmitted by the world's shady government security 'spy' agencies on the short wave band, as they have been for decades since the Cold War. But what have they got to do with BBC programming?...and who among the general public knows about them, cares about them or has even heard them?
Indeed, has the BBC ever broadcast its programmes in Morse code?
Apart from its peek into the imagined future of ninety years hence, Radio Reunited did give the slightest of nods towards the BBC's ninety year history. However, rather than wasting time on the irrelevant Morse Code and Spy Stations and other noise, what could surely have been included were a few more clips from the BBC's significant archives; Perhaps BBC Radio in war time, ITMA, The Goons, historic news events, the launch of Radio One and BBC Local Radio, sound broadcasting from the Houses of Parliament, the Falklands or Gulf War coverage?
Everyone at the BBC appeared to be falling over themselves to say how wonderful the piece was, but for me it missed the mark by 200kHz or 1500 metres, which is about a mile. (A little radio wave reference there). Three minutes was perhaps too short a length of time. Four and a half or even five minutes may have been more appropriate, but even with a meager three minutes to spare, the first two minutes or so could have been devoted to a clear reflection on the BBC's history, while the remaining time could have be given over to the listeners' future predictions and concerns - as specially recorded.
As it was, just as Radio Reunited appeared to be getting started with the Greenwich Time Signal 'pips'. . . . . . it finished.
While it may have been oh so very 'modern', all in all it was a rather clueless effort and a really disappointing damp squib, especially given that all the BBC's radio networks were uniquely joined together for the event. Given the resources available almost anyone could have done a much better job. A missed and wasted opportunity.
The world's greatest broadcaster?
Here is 'Radio Reunited'. As you will have realised, I was hoping for so much but ultimately found it very a disappointing mess.
Your mileage may differ! - Radio Reunited - 90 Years of BBC Radio - 14th November 2012
Did the BBC ever broadcast in Morse Code? - Here is an elucidation from Richard Aelwyn:
"I doubt that the BBC ever broadcast Morse Code because the idea of broadcasting in this country (as opposed to the USA) only came about as a by-product of the Marconi company's experiments at Chelmsford which attempted to find a way to by-pass the use of Morse when transmitting to aircraft. The Royal Flying Corps had a need to communicate with its pilots but of course in the single seat fighter planes and in the heat of battle you couldn't have a person decoding Morse and passing on the message to the pilot ! Thus a way was developed to transmit speech and the possibility of civilian, recreational uses of wireless was opened up.
There are only 2 historical instances of broadcasting in Morse that I can think of. In the early 1900s Marconi's wireless transmissions to ships not only included weather and personal messages but also news bulletins. For example, his wireless station at Waterloo on Merseyside had a contract to supply news to the Cunard ships sailing to and from Liverpool and the news from this service would be printed on board ship for the daily ship's newspaper for passengers to read. As Marconi admitted in an interview, there was nothing to stop any ship with the right equipment from picking up and using the information, even without having a contract. So it was a form of unwitting broadcasting, or an early example of the licence fee collection problem.
In 1916 during the Easter Rising, apparently some of the fighters constructed a wireless transmitter from parts obtained from other buildings nearby to the Dublin GPO and made urgent appeals for help to any ships in Dublin harbour that might be able to come to their assistance and this was a broadcast in the sense that it was a message destined to any number of unknown listeners who might be able to hear it. Futile in this case, of course, and the rest, as they say, is history".
But for now . . .
It now remains with the BBC to continue to provide the UK with true Public Service Programming - that is until the politicians attempt take that away from us too.
Let us all think on.
Support quality radio.
Back To: 2 - UK Radio History Part Two 1 - UK Radio History Part One
Why was 1973 the year UK radio changed forever?
With hundreds of radio stations now broadcasting across the country, it is difficult to imagine how uncrowded the airwaves were 40 years ago.
BBC Radio had a domestic monopoly - with no legal commercial competition on UK soil.
Click to view Paul Kerley's excellent presentation covering the inception and development of Independent Radio in the UK
Some of the material is from my own understanding and recollections.
My sincere thanks to Martin Watkins, Roger Sharp, Andrew Rogers, Roger Piper, Kevin Flynn, MB21.co.uk and professor Anthony C Davies for their assistance with some historical facts presented in this feature
Other references also include the BBC, IBA and Radio Authority publications, the book "Pop Went The Pirates" plus marconicalling.com and marconimuseum.org and www.thisisilr.org.uk.
Paul Easton; LBC Ten Years On on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/paul-easton/lbc-10-years-on
There can some discrepancies of dates and fine details between various sources,but I hope that my history is as accurate as possible.
This is only my brief history however and merely a précis of this fascinating subject. If one was to write in detail about broadcasting in the UK I do not doubt that at least several substantial tomes could be written!!
Some Interesting links concerning Droitwich and related subjects:
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