Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Radio 1 at 50 - Part 2 The First Ten Years

If Radio 1 had a golden era it must surely be the first ten years of its existence. For the first five there was little or no commercial opposition and when ILR stations did roll out there were still vast tracts of the UK that had no choice but to tune in to 247 for their (daytime) pop music fix. All the DJs were household names and many popped up on TV too, were mobbed when they opened a local supermarket or filled the dance floor hosting down at the discotheque. 

By 1970 Tony Blackburn's morning show pulled in 4.45 million listeners, the JY Prog on both Radios 1 and 2 5.75m, Radio 1 Club 2.3m, Saturday's Junior Choice 7.9m, Rosko 2.78m, DLT's Sunday show 3.25m and Pick of the Pops 4.65m.

On 30 September 1977 Radio 1 celebrated its 10th anniversary and gained  a Radio Times cover. Inside Ray Connolly spoke to  a number of the DJs. Here are some extracts from those articles.  

Tony Blackburn

His views on popular music and the function of Radio 1 are disarmingly honest. He says: 'To me pop music is just a load of tuneful, memorable music. Every week about 70 new records are released, of which maybe one or two will be hits. You play the hits like mad for six or seven weeks until something else comes along to take their place, and then two or three years later you bring them out again as revived-45s.

I think people take popular music too seriously. At the moment everyone's talking about punk rock. That will probably last for another two weeks and then be replaced by something else. But all the time there are a number of good artists, not affected by the trends, who keep on turning out good records year after year.

I think my job is to be artistic in sound. I think I'm painting a portrait in sound. I'm also trying to entertain the audience. My show is what I call U-rated entertainment ... something which goes into the home and will not offend anyone at all.

If I were in charge of a popular music station I would rotate the same 30 records all day - the way they do at WABC in New York.

Anne Nightingale

Anne Nightingale, as the only woman disc-jockey on national radio, would appear to attract a slightly different kind of audience from her male colleagues. Her programme is all requests and, although she steers well clear of the obvious trap of running a musical problem corner, she does find that many of her requests concern's people's personal lives.

'It's really very difficult not to become involved and distressed sometimes by the letters we get,' she says.  For instance, I got a letter from a girl a couple of years ago who was dying of cancer. She wanted a certain record playing on a certain day because she thought it might be the last day she and her husband would have together. So I played the record, although I didn't explain over the air all the details of the request. Then I subsequently found out from the husband's sister that she has, in fact, died the day after my playing that record for her had made her last day very happy.

Many of Anne's listeners are students ('Leeds University is incredible'), but she feels she has to be careful not to give the programme an elitist style in case the young person from the comprehensive will be deterred from writing to her because of his lack of educational qualifications. (The fact that university students even write in to request programmes must surely illustrate just how far pop music and attitudes have changed in the past 15 years.)

Possibly because she has had a great deal of experience in journalism Anne proved to be the most critical of the disc-jockeys I spoke to of the way in which Radio 1 is organised: 'I feel that because the BBC is in this special position of not having to bother about ratings or attracting revenue from advertising it ought to be able to offer the best popular music radio station in the world. But because of things like finance and needle-time it has to compromise, with the result that it really is two separate stations - a Top 40 station during the day and an FM, more serious rock station late at night and over the weekends. What we need are two distinct stations, one for the teeny-boppers and another for people who want to listen to album tracks.  

Dave Lee Travis

No one can say that it isn't a responsible job, because it is. You can't go on a national radio station and just go off at any old tangent. Occasionally we get people in to talk about careers for young people, and I'm sure that because it's presented on Radio 1 instead of an another station, then we get the kids to take it more seriously.

But basically my function is to enlighten the listeners by guiding them towards new music which they might not have heard otherwise and, like any other disc-jockey or pop star, I'm there to amuse the listeners and be a friend in the home. You can't really do more because it isn't a political thing and it isn't your place to start discussing politics.
He feels that popular music has changed for the better during the last ten years and is sure that Radio 1 must take some of the credit for that.

'Punk rock is exciting and good for the entire business. Eighty per cent of it may be rubbish, but the other 20 per cent might be good. And I'm sure that out of punk rock will come some good, new and exciting bands.

Although he admits to having a very catholic taste in music, his very favourite piece of music is Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

Alan Freeman

Because of his great age (half a century is a great age for someone in the ephemeral world of pop radio!) he has possibly the most objective view of both the public who listen to him and the station itself. He says of his listeners: 'In the past ten years the people who listen to music have grown up very quickly They really listen now. Music isn't just a background thing for them. They listen to it, they eat it, they sleep it and they even dream it. Possibly the music has become too intelligent and it might possibly have lost some of its fun, but there is so much good music around today it's absolutely fascinating.'

His audience is so widespread that he is secretly amazed. Some time ago he went to buy a raincoat and was surprised to hear the shop assistant (a man in his late 50s or early 60s) complimenting him upon his programme. Assuming that he was mistaken for someone else, he smiled and said 'thank you' only to find himself on the end of a very long dissertation on the art of Emmerson, Lake and Palmer. The elderly raincoat salesman was something of an expert on modern. serious rock music.  

Freeman sees Radio 1 as a great success story, but recognises that it will forever be the butt of the critics. 'You see, it was the successor to the pirates and so from its inception it was unglamorous because it wasn't illegal. And some of the disc-jockeys who had been pirates lost a bit of their glamour because they suddenly became legal and respectable.'

Kid Jensen

Radio 1's function is to reflect the trends and tastes in popular music, and to present new sounds. And I think it has done this very successfully over the last few years. A lot of people choose to ignore a lot of the work that Radio 1 has done in giving air-time to new directions in music.'

He is unhappy with the name 'disc-jockey', because he prefers to see himself as 'a broadcaster - a communicator. and perhaps a friend. I like to have a lot of fun on the radio,' he says. 'And often when I go on live gigs I feel rather like a politician, because, like a politician, a disc-jockey obviously has to be liked by people.'

Elsewhere in the same issue of the Radio Times, Wilfred D'Ath caught up with the Radio 1 Roadshow team in Plymouth.

On the Road

Brian Patten, the Roadshow's producer, joins me for drinks in the hotel lounge. he and the Roadshow team - a disc-jockey, a secretary, three sound engineers and a driver - are suffering a little from road-lag, having traversed Sandown, IOW, Bournemouth, Swanage, Weymouth, Exmouth and Torquay in the past seven days, and with St Austell, Falmouth, St Ives, Newquay, Bude, Ilfracombe, Minehead and Weston-super-Mare still ahead. And this is only the south-west leg of the operation.

We are joined by the week's DJ, Paul Burnett, a charming uxorious man (his wife Nicole and two children are travelling with him) in his middle 30s, surprisingly lacking in confidence for a big-time Radio 1 DJ. Unlike some of the other Roadshow jockeys - Dave Lee Travis, Ed Stewart, Kid Jensen, Noel Edmonds ad Tony Blackburn - who pull enormous audiences on the strength of their TV reputations, Burnett, a shy Geordie whose life's ambition it was to spin discs on Radio 1, is having to work against the grain a bit. One likes him all the more for it.

Next morning I wake at 6.30, breakfast early and make my way to the Roadshow site on the Hoe, right under the lighthouse. But the team has beaten me to it. The Radio 1 caravan is already being unpacked.

The Radio 1 Roadshow caravan is a tiny miracle of audio compactness. In a matter of minutes it unfolds itself into studio console, sound stage, control panel, two deafening loudspeakers, storage space for records and props, and, of course, a direct Post Office line to the Radio 1 continuity suite in London. There is even a huge blue bin for the audience's record dedications, which tend to be written on bananas, vodka bottle and teddy bears.  

By 8.30 this miracle has unfolded its brightly painted contents for all to see and a small crowd of (mostly local) teenagers is beginning to gather behind the steel barriers. There is one middle-aged man in a dark suit carrying an enormous transistor radio. A plump girl of 16, wearing a Radio 1 sweatshirt, has followed the show (with her mother!) all the way along the coast from Bournemouth and intends to stay with it till St Ives, at least. It is extremely hard to get her to explain why. She just like the feeling of being at the centre of the channel's ten million or so listeners for the day.

Shortly after ten, Burnett arrives to do his warm-up. he looks distinctly nervous. 'This is the worst part,' he tells me. 'If you don't get them during the warm-up, you don't get them at all.' Patten introduces him on stage and he launches into a routine of discs, corny gags and friendly insults directed at other Radio1 DJs.

The Radio 1 Roadshow slips effortlessly on to the air-waves at 11 am, returning to London at 11.30 am for the national news. Burnett announces this as 1.30 am and spends a little time kicking himself. But it's his worst fluff of the morning. Pop records, pre-selected in London from a short-list of 60, blare out into the sunshine. The audience cheers loudly whenever Plymouth is mentioned. The show comes alive, it seems to me, at 11.15, with a record called Hello Mary Lou by Oakie. there is an eruption of tiny pubescent hands clapping in time to it all over Plymouth Hoe. Everyone looks happy. One feels happy oneself. It is difficult to imagine Radio 1 promoting itself more colourfully.

At the back of the magazine Paul Gambaccini wrote about the changes in pop music over the first ten years.

Some pundits wondered if the neglect by Radio 1's daytime programmes could keep punk rock records out of the Top 20, but this kind of speculation is always ill-informed. The notorious playlist of about 40 records which, thanks to the music press, has become the most famous list since the Papal Index, only influences the programmes heard between 7.0 am and 4.30 pm Monday to Friday. Every other Radio 1 show has its own programming philosophy, and very major New Wave record has been aired, although God Save the Queen was quickly banned. Even this case proved the rule, because just as Je T'aime- Moi Non Plus survived a BBC ban and the renunciation of its own record company to become number one in 1969. The Sex Pistols got to number two in some charts despite the BBC and the big retailers who refused to stock the single.

On the other hand, it is by no means certain the Radio 1 airplay guarantees a Top 20 placing. Although he may run me down one night with a very fast-moving sports car for saying this, well over 50 per cent of the singles Noel Edmonds chooses as his Record of the Week never make the 20. If being played every morning for a week to an audience of several millions can't break a record, nothing can, and, in the case of most stiffs, nothing does. The Radio 1 playlist and the Top 20 are two different compilations. One is assembled by daytime producers who feel they know what their audience wants to hear, the other is tabulated by a bureau that adds up what record buyers have purchased.   

And finally John  Peel wrote about some of the trends in music and, not unexpectedly championed punk.

It is true that no station other than Radio 1 would sanction a programme such as that I introduce each night of the week. On this John Walters, my producer, and I present what we feel to be the very best of rock music, taking in also folk, reggae and whatever else seems relevant. We also play the Yesses and ELPs of this world, although with a disgraceful display of truculence from me, as part of our review function. The commercial stations dependent on wooing the largest (and most prosperous) of audiences have generally restricted their hesitant wanderings outside the Top 40 to picnicking in Framptonland.

John Walters and I, together with the producers responsible for Saturday's Alan Freeman and Kid Jensen programmes, have welcomed punk not only for its vigour and relevance, but because it has emerged as music of character in an increasingly characterless landscape. It does seem however that Radio 1, by generally ignoring even those punk records which have made the BBC charts, has missed a heaven-sent opportunity to re-establish credibility with a considerable potential audience which is growing up to believe that radio has little or no part in its life.

Although the current and undeniable force of punk may soon be blunted by exploitation and misunderstanding, media hostility and misrepresentation, the youthful punk audience believes, as we believed in 1967, that no real divide exists - nor will ever exist - between the musicians and their audience. Given the history of underground music over the past decade they should perhaps be a trifle less optimistic, as success must corrupt their heroes as surely as it corrupted the heroes of the past. In the meantime, it is enough to enjoy the music, reflecting that being condemned in the Sun and The Times alike will serve to strengthen rather than weaken their cause. 

To mark the station's decade on air Alan Freeman presented the documentary Radio 1 - The First Ten Years. Written by David Rider - he also wrote an accompanying book - it was broadcast on Sunday 2 October 1977. This is the most complete version I have of that programme splicing together my one off-air recording plus another widely available copy. Even so it runs about six minutes short. (I edited this together back in the Spring. A week or so I found out that BBC Radio 4 Extra are repeating the programme this coming Saturday so I'll upload a full version later though no doubt the repeat will be edited to remove certain DJs) 

In the next Radio 1 at 50 blog post the fun-filled 1980s. 

Monday, 25 September 2017

Radio 1 at 50 - Part 1 The New Popular Music Service

From 'Radio 1 is wonderful' to 'listen, watch, share' BBC Radio 1 is the one national network that has had to constantly evolve to address its young audience. Now in its middle age the station, understandably, rarely reflects back on its long history. After all if you remember the launch in 1967 chances are you're aged 60+.  But this month its celebrating its heritage in real style with the pop-up station Radio 1 Vintage, oldies played each weekend on Radio 1's Greatest Hits and a series of  Live Lounge specials.

In this, the first of four blog posts, I dip into the history of the station that once declared itself to be "the nation's favourite".

It's interesting, if ultimately fruitless, to speculate whether Radio 1 would have come about if not for the arrival of the offshore pirates. Before Radio Caroline burst onto the scene at Easter 1964 the old Light Programme offered little to the pop enthusiast; a smattering of current hits across the week, if you were lucky, on Housewives' Choice or Midday Spin and rather better catered for on Saturday Club, Easy Beat and Pick of the Pops.  

Both the BBC and the Government's attitude to popular music was equivocal. Those ex-military types who ended up as BBC producers were presumably immune to the delights of rock 'n' roll. In any case the opportunity to even expand the amount of records aired was always stymied by the restrictive 'needletime' limits, just 28 hours a week across the national services of the Home, Light and Third in the early 60s (though agreement was reached to increase it to 75 hours in 1965).

By the time the pirates came along the first response was to stop them rather than seek an official alternative. As early as October 1964 there was pressure from the BBC and the European Broadcasting Union for the British Government to intervene, although the then Postmaster-General, Tony Benn, found he made slow progress.

It wasn't until February 1966 that we see the first suggestions of a new 'pop music network', though it would be "separately organised from the BBC and incorporating advertisements." A few months later it was floated that the BBC's 247-metre medium wavelength be used. The Corporation itself was of the mind to provide an alternative service, planning it as "a partial substitute for the programmes offered by the pirate broadcasters." The Labour government was, by late 66, more wedded to a long-term commercial hybrid, with the BBC running a new pop service in the short term pending the creation of a new radio corporation partly financed by advertising. However, when the White Paper on broadcasting policy was issued on 20 December 1966 the BBC had won the argument and was authorised to start a 'new popular music programme' on 247 metres "at an early date".

Part of the Corporation's lobbying had included a Q&A in the 8 October 1966 issue of the Radio Times titled Why No Continuous Pop?

Not surprisingly the BBC's response immediately hit back on the issue of needletime, or lack of it. It explained that it wasn't just a case of money. More time could simply not be bought. The bogey men were, it suggested, the gramophone companies who "are in the business to sell records. They are convinced that if they are broadcast too often - especially pop records - their sales will fall off". Apparently the companies claimed to have already lost sales "because of the way the pirates are using pop records". 

The article then went on to partly lay the blame at the door of the Musicians' Union who believed an extension of needletime "would put their members out of jobs. It thinks there would be less work for them in broadcasting because fewer musicians would be used in broadcast or public concerts."

It's hard to believe that the record companies lost sales in the pirate radio era, though I've yet to find any evidence on total sales. Undoubtedly the Musicians' Union argument did hold water, particularly in the broadcast of orchestral music. One casualty of the end of the Light Programme was the loss of Music While You Work for example, though specially recorded and live broadcasts by bands and orchestras continued to be a feature of both Radio 1 and Radio 2 well into the 1970s, even though audiences wanted to hear 'the real thing'. Mind you the BBC didn't exactly endear itself to the MU when it started using American produced PAMS jingles for its new service.

Back to Why No Continuous Pop? and the Corporation was quick to defend itself. "The BBC isn't stuffy about pop. But pop is not the only kind of music". Nor, should it be forgotten, did all the pirate stations play non-stop pop: Radio 390 favoured a 'sweet music' format (plus a little bit of classical and country) and Britain Radio was firmly middle of the road.

Hints were then dropped as to what might happen. "In the short term, if the Government were to ask the BBC to provide an extra service of popular music it would do its best to do so." But then it would say that, wouldn't it.

What the Radio Times didn't say was that the BBC had already started to plan the new station. Robin Scott would, a few months later, be appointed to mastermind the operation - initially he was to become the Controller of the Light Programme but was already lined-up as de facto head of the new service. By now the BBC had successfully negotiated another two hours per day of extra needletime. Scott was given an additional £200,000 budget to carve out the two new networks from the remains of the Light Programme. He spent the early part of 1967 "listening, planning playing back audition tapes, drafting and redrafting schedules, taping the pirate stations' output, calculating and recalculating the allocation of the sparse needletime to the DJ shows which the new network would feature."

Publically the Corporation was suggesting it wouldn't be non-stop pop: "Now, there is to be only this one network of continuous popular music, and it is obvious that no single taste can be met in it at the same time. So what we are aiming at is a good, lively mixture, with special times of the day regularly earmarked for particular attention to such well-defined sections of the audience as the pop-lovers". In the event it wasn't all pop, at least not initially, as flicking through back issues of the Radio Times  shows the evenings were given over to folk, country, jazz and easy listening in programmes shared with Radio 2.

At the end of June 1967 the Postmaster General, by now Edward Short (who'd replaced Benn after the 1966 General Election and the aftermath of the Reg Calvert shooting), announced that "Radio 247" (as it was referred to at that point, a name initially favoured by Robin Scott) would launch on 30 September and that it would be "a robust music service" Whatever that means? The following day in Parliament he used the name "Radio 1" "as I understand it is to be called." (For some of the other suggested names see Standby for Switching.)

The next month the Director of Radio, Frank Gillard, made public the plans to 'kill off' the Home, Light and Third and replace it with radio by numbers. Gillard was very much behind the new naming system, he thought the name Home Service "ludicrous" Taking his cue from the BBC1 and BBC2 television service Radio 247 would be Radio 1. Because they would share programming the Light would be Radio 2. Carrying echoes of the Third Programme name that group of services - it included the Music Programme, the Sports Service and the Study Session - was branded Radio 3, meaning the Home became Radio 4.

At the beginning of September Robin Scott introduced the names of the DJs that would grace Radio 1, and many of them would pose for that famous photo on the steps of All Souls in Langham Place. There were about 30 names on the list, about half ex-pirates, the remainder existing BBC staff or contracted broadcasters. Most were on a try-out with many contracts offered for eight weeks rather than the usual thirteen. The station required a large number of jocks partly because it retained the old Light Programme system of having different presenters each day for some shows such as Midday Spin and Late Night Extra.

Former pirates: Tony Blackburn, Pete Brady, Dave Cash, Chris Denning, Kenny Everett, Duncan Johnson, Mike Lennox, John Peel, Keith Skues, Ed Stewart, Mike Ahern, Emperor Rosko, Simon Dee, Mike Raven and Stuart Henry.

Non-pirates: Barry Alldis, Keith Fordyce, Alan Freeman, Tony Hall (presented The Joe Loss Show), Bob Holness, Jack Jackson, Ray Moore, Johnny Moran, Don Moss, Pete Murray, Pete Myers, Denny Piercey, David Rider, David Symonds, Miranda Ward (worked as a reporter on Scene and Heard but never had her own show), Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young.

The bulk of the stripped weekday shows would be looked after by just four DJs: Tony Blackburn at breakfast, Jimmy Young mid-mornings, Pete Brady early afternoons and David Symonds the teatime slot.   

In the 16 September 1967 issue of the Radio Times, Robin Scott outlined his plans for Radio 1 and Radio 2.

Meanwhile on the Light Programme Kenny Everett was helping to promote the new service.

So how did it all sound? Well thankfully some off-air recordings exist of the start of both Radio 1 and Radio 2. Staff announcer Paul Hollingdale - having been selected by Robin Scott as "the natural choice" ahead of the usual Saturday morning announcer Bruce Wyndham - kicked things off at 5.30 a.m. for Radio 2. Just before 7 a.m. that subsequently much-played clip of Scott introducing the new service, George Martin's specially commissioned Theme One and then Tony's "and welcome to the exciting new sound of Radio 1" launched Radio 1. This particular edit was put together by Stuart Busby.

Now you're probably thinking that the BBC Sound Archive kept a copy of the full day's output, but you'd be mistaken. Retained are Roger Moffat's closing announcement for the Light Programme, Paul Hollingdale's Radio 2 opening, all of Tony with his Daily Disc Delivery, the start and some extracts from Leslie Crowther on Junior Choice (clip below), all of Rosko's Midday Spin and the afternoon music magazine show Scene and Heard.

Keith Skues took over Saturday Club from Brian Matthew on Day 1 but all that exists of it is a clip from a home recording (below) as someone obviously started their tape recorder ready for Rosko's show. Keith told me that he'd asked his parents to record his first Radio 1 broadcast but that "they became totally confused at 10 o'clock when Max Jaffa kicked in" (over on Radio 2)  so he never did get his recording. He continued: "They could not discover Radio One until I visited them a few weeks later. I think they preferred Max Jaffa to the kind of music I was playing!"

How was the new station received by listeners? It was mixed. "It isn't as good as Radio London or Caroline because the DJs don't sound so spontaneous". "Radio 1 is a pale imitation of the happy-go-lucky independent programmes". "I won't miss the pirates. I think I will go along with Radio 1." "I was very surprised it was so groovy". 

As for the press it was a similarly mixed picture. "Good in parts" (NME) "Auntie has lifted her skirt at last - and revealed a pair of amazing adolescent knees." (Daily Express) "The effect is of a waxwork, absolutely lifelike but clearly lifeless." (George Melly in The Observer) "Radio 1 resembled a poor Big L played at half speed." (Disc and Music Echo). "As a network churning out non-stop pop, Radio 1 is bound to be a huge success. After all, the rivals have been, or are about to be, killed off." (The Sunday Times).

In the next Radio 1 at 50 blog post - the tenth anniversary celebrations. 

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Radio 4: This is Your Life

Apparently Radio 4 shops at Waitrose in the tiny village of Middle England and began life as a pirate station on a punt in Henley-on-Thames. So runs the premise of this bit of fun that dates from the network's 40th anniversary in 2007. Stephen Fry springs the big red book on Radio 4 played by Matt Lucas.

The performers are Michael Fenton-Stevens, Dave Lamb, Sue Perkins and Richie Webb. Its written, with obvious affection and care, by Bill Dare, Jon Holmes, John Finnemore, Nev Fountain and Tom Jamieson.

From the Radio Times issue starting 29 September 2007

Popping up in the course of proceedings are Radio 4 names Roger Bolton, Paul Lewis, Jonathan Dimbleby, Corrie Corfield, Peter White, Rabbi Lionel Blue, Sue Lawley, Jenni Murray, James Naughtie, Sarah Montague, John Humphries, Martin Jarvis, Charlotte Green, Rosaline Adams, Edward Kelsey, Carole Boyd, Barry Cryer and Nicholas Parsons.

Radio 4: This is Your Life was broadcast on Sunday 30 September 2007.

From earlier that same evening comes this rather more serious review of the station's history presented by Eddie Mair, 4 at 40, in which he searches for the 'soul' of Radio 4. There's a reminder of the battle over Broadcasting in the Seventies, the arguments over a rolling news service, an Archers primer for those that missed the previous five decades, its middle classness, the thoughts of Jeremy Hardy, the programmes that some would rather forget: Citizens, Rollercoaster and Anderson Country and how technology will change how we consume radio.    

Joining Eddie in the studio are Liz Forgan, Chris Smith, Miranda Sawyer, Sarfraz Manzoor and Sean Street. We also hear from network controllers Monica Sims, Michael Green, James Boyle and Mark Damazer. 

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Whatever Happened to Radio 2?

It's sad how, in the last couple of years, some of the links in the chain that tether Radio 2 to its old Light Programme counterpart have finally broken. Sir Terry Wogan, Sir Jimmy Young, Desmond Carrington and Brian Matthew all no longer with us.

Only Friday Night is Music Night remains the last true bastion of that post-war service, bringing "music for everyone" for the last 60-odd years. Programmes like Listen to the Band and The Organist Entertains sound like they should have been on the Light but are mere striplings of forty-ish years of age.  

In this documentary from BBC Four's Time Shift series Whatever Happened to Radio 2?  concentrates on those specialist music shows which serve the old Light Programme audience. The programme looks at Radio 2 from the audience perspective and includes the inevitable contribution from Gillian Reynolds. There's an emotional Desmond Carrington in his studio "at home in Scotland" talking about the bond with his listeners, the theatre organ enthusiasts flocking to see Nigel Ogden and the continued support for brass band music with Frank Renton and folk music with Mike Harding. There's a typically humorous performance from Humphrey Lyttelton and it closes with a coach load of pensioners attending a live performance of Friday Night is Music Night

Whatever Happened to Radio 2? was first broadcast on 5 October 2007.    

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Custodian of Our Network

As successive controllers of BBC Radio 4 can testify, when tinkering with the programme schedule you do so at your own peril. It's almost as if the schedule has been passed down on tablets of stone from John Reith himself. As a listener once wrote to former network controller Michael Green: "You are simply the custodian of our network."

From April 1970 the main news and current affairs were Today with Jack de Manio , The World at One, with
William Hardcastle,  the newly introduced PM, again with Hardcastle, News Desk  with
Gerald Priestland (dropped in 1976) and The World Tonight  with Douglas Stuart
Tony Whitby (controller 1969 until his untimely death in 1975) was tasked with re-shaping the network in response to the Broadcasting in the Seventies policy. The schedule inherited from the Home Service was a bit of a dog's dinner: cross-network repeats (with both Radio 2 and Radio 3), schools programmes blocking out huge chunks of the mid-morning and mid-afternoon in term-time, music programmes and concerts (in 1968 these accounted for 21% of Radio 4's output), talks, bits of sports coverage and loads of regional variations. From April 1970 news and current affairs was to be the backbone of the revised Radio 4 schedule. The far-reaching Broadcasting in the Seventies policy naturally enough caused a public outcry, letters to The Times, questions in Parliament and union unrest within the BBC. But the result, at least as far as Radio 4 was concerned, provided a number of significant and long-lasting programmes: Start the Week, Week Ending, PM and Analysis. During Whitby's tenure we also got You and Yours, Sunday, It's Your Line, Stop the Week, Kaleidoscope, Checkpoint and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.   

Ian McIntyre (controller 1976-78) wasn't happy with the way current affairs was serving Radio 4 so in May 1977 he took an axe to it, chopping Today in two and, later that same year, hacking 15 minutes off PM thus earning himself the sobriquet 'Mac the Knife'. Today was now prefaced and separated by two sequences called Up to the Hour that offered the news headlines, sport, weather, paper reviews and Thought for the Day mixed with programme previews plus bits of comedy and music all linked by a staff announcer. The Today production team were unimpressed, "absolute crap, the floor-sweepings" according to editor Mike Chaney, who didn't mince his words. The announcers were not happy, with Peter Donaldson earning a slap on the wrists for introducing one edition as 'Donald Peterson' sending you "round the dial to Radio 3" and "if you're staying, you're very brave, and welcome to Up to the Hour". The full-length Today was re-instated in July 1978.   

The Radio Times billing for the first edition
of Rollercoaster 5 April 1984
Steeped in BBC history as he was, David Hatch (controller 1983-86) a former radio producer, Head of Light Entertainment and Controller of Radio 2, felt he had to tackle the problem zone of the mid-morning dip, i.e. between Today and You and Yours, when listening figures fell off. In April 1984 he introduced, for just one morning a week, Rollercoaster, a programme sequence linked by that safe pair of hands, Richard Baker, and built up of programme fragments such as news, chat, topical phone-ins, traffic reports, features, a cut-down Daily Service, a Morning Story read by Peter Adamson, a radio strip-cartoon called Able Seagull Herring and link-ups with local radio stations. This looser style of scheduling actually pulled in respectable audience figures but was a critical failure and after the six-month experiment it was pulled, never to be repeated.      

When James Boyle was appointed controller in 1997 he was determined to avoid the station becoming a "museum piece" and sought a root and branch review of the programme schedule. He took a more scientific approach by travelling around the country speaking to listeners and by analysing every bit of data he could lay his hands on about listeners habits. A laudable approach but one that was criticised as putting Radio 4 in thrall of "ratings or computer-driven commissioning, more interested in form than in content, neglectful of intuition or serendipity."

The Guardian covers the Radio 4 changes  in the Media supplement
16 March 1998

When the broadsheets got wind of Boyle's "strategic scheduling" they whipped up a storm. "Favourites face axe in revamp of Radio 4." MPs got involved when it was floated that Yesterday in Parliament was to be dropped - it wasn't.  

Boyle's revamped schedule was introduced in April 1998. Out went Kaleidoscope (replaced by Front Row), Week Ending, The Afternoon Shift, Science Now, Medicine Now, Sport on 4, Mediumwave, Breakaway and Does He Take Sugar? Today and You and Yours were extended, Woman's Hour and The Archers retimed but with an extra visit to Ambridge added on Sunday evening. The World at One was docked by 10 minutes and a series of daily lunchtime quizzes introduced, some old (Round Britain Quiz) some new (Full Orchestra). The afternoon dramas, a mixture of new plays and in-week repeats of varying running times, were tidied up. It was a shock to the system and one which the listeners - and Radio 4 listeners love their routine - found hard to take as initially audience figures dipped with Boyle admitting they were "very disappointing".

The 1998 changes at Radio 4 are the subject of this BBC2 documentary from the Close-Up series. A more typical bunch of middle-class listeners you couldn't hope to find: a PR agent, a retired civil servant, an Open University lecturer and an office administrator plus the musings of Daily Telegraph radio critic Gillian Reynolds. James Boyle talks about the schedule shake-up to Feedback's Chris Dunkley. Added to this are some fascinating glimpses behind the scenes at Broadcasting House and look out for an in-vision appearance from chief announcer Peter Donaldson.

Close-Up: Radio Heads was first broadcast on BBC2 on 14 October 1998. Incidentally does anyone know what happened to Douglas Bolger and his tape collection?

As any gardener will tell up a good hard pruning will rejuvenate a plant and so it was with 1998 changes. Listening figures eventually bounced back and although some of the new shows did inevitably fall by the wayside the legacy included Home Truths, Broadcasting House, Saturday Review  and The Archive Hour and most of the timeslots remain pretty much unchanged to this day.

I can't leave the subject without mentioning the furore surrounding the decision of Mark Damazer (controller 2004-2010) to drop the UK Theme. Cue letters from irate listeners, a national petition and an early Day Motion "that this House deplores the decision by the BBC to axe the UK Theme which signals the switchover from the World Service to Radio 4 and symbolises the unity of the UK; and calls on the BBC to reinstate it." After 28 years it got its last play on 23 April 2006. I have a forlorn hope that Radio 4 will give it one last airing on the occasion of their 50th birthday. Heaven help the controller that drops Sailing By.    

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Radio 3 at 50 - Part 2

Radio 3 enjoyed a classical music monopoly for the first quarter of a century of its existence until the arrival of Classic FM in 1992.

You could, of course, hear drama and talks over on Radio 4. Radio 3 even covered current affairs on programmes such as Six Continents (1979-87). There was a smattering of classical music elsewhere on the dial on Radio 2 and Radio 4 on These You Have Loved, Baker's Dozen and Melodies for You. Even some of the new ILR stations got in on the act - Capital sponsored the Wren Orchestra of London - but it amounted to no more than an hour or so a week. So when Classic FM came along Radio 3 had to up is game.    

Ahead of Classic FM's September 1992 launch, in June the BBC announced 'BBC Radio 3 FM's New Look' with controller Nicholas Kenyon explaining he wanted to create "access points" for new listeners, whatever that meant. They appointed Saatchi and Saatchi as advertising agents and in the Autumn launched the glossy BBC Music Magazine.

The morning sequence of records linked by a staff announcer, Morning Concert, was dropped in favour of On Air, while the teatime Mainly for Pleasure would become In Tune. The BBC described the new programmes as "two weekday programmes with named presenters, of mostly popular classical music with new headlines, weather, traffic information, previews, news of the music world". The main loss for listeners was a reduction in drama on the station. "Music Plus" was the strapline, but one critic described this as a euphemism for "Drama Less".

This is how On Air sounded when its first edition was heard on the morning of Monday 13 July 1992. Piers Burton-Page, a music presenter and producer and previously a continuity announcer and newsreader on both Radio 3 and Radio 4.

Those news headlines that Piers reads every 20 minutes were an unwelcome addition with Kenyon later admitting "our presenters talked too much" Adding "I now tell them to be economical with words. I also accept that perhaps we went slightly too far and threw out too many well-known programme labels." 

In 1993 the BBC produced this glossy 24-page booklet promoting Radio 3's wares. The quote on the back cover from composer Harrison Birtwistle hints that this was the BBC firing its big guns at Classic FM: "Radio 3 is in danger of becoming the last refuge of the serious music-lover. In times when concert programmes show a remarkable similarity, and classical music through the popular media is reduced to a mere cosmetic continuum to our lives, its excellence is increasingly more important". 

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