Monday, 9 November 2020

Down Your Local - 50 Years of BBC WM

Local radio arrived in Birmingham on 9 November 1970 with the opening of BBC Radio Birmingham broadcasting from the newly opened broadcasting centre at Pebble Mill.

Radio services had first started from the city some 48 years earlier when station 5IT began transmitting. It became the base for the Midlands regional service (post-war the Midlands Home Service) in 1927 and moved into new studios at 282 Broad Street. In the mid-50s additional studios and offices were acquired at 52 Carpenter Road, Edgbaston. Pebble Mill housed the television studios, with the foyer famously used for Pebble Mill at One, and radio studios for Radio Birmingham and network programmes. The station also had a shop and information centre at 80 New Street

Radio Birmingham became BBC WM is November 1981 to better reflect its coverage area and in the summer of 2004 moved into city centre Mailbox development.    

When it launched the station was managed by Jack Johnston a  "fiercesome Glaswegian" who'd worked in the Broad Street newsroom, and his deputy, the programme organiser, Brian Harris. Jack was succeeded by John Pickles in 1981 (ex Radio Durham, Radio Oxford and Radio Scotland) and by Tony Inchley in 1987 (ex Radios Stoke, Manchester and Leicester).   

Like many of the new BBC local stations they employed a mix of experienced and inexperienced hands. But the voice chosen to look after the breakfast show had zero broadcasting experience. He was Peter Powell a 19-year old local club DJ who just happened to live next door the secretary of producer Michael Ford (already a music producer for Birmingham-based shows on the Light Programme he'd go on to produce the Early Show and Charlie Chester's show for Radio 2). To his astonishment Powell passed a couple of auditions and got the job. But by his own admission "I was, quite frankly, useless". He'd left by the following summer but it did lead to a try-out on Radio 1 with some Saturday afternoon shows in late 71/early 72 before Radio Luxembourg beckoned.

In fact Peter wasn't the first voice on air. That honour fell to new born Robert Clifford Joiner who had arrived into the world earlier that morning to proud parents Valerie and Bob. Young Robert would make an appearance each year on the anniversary date as the BBC Radio Birmingham baby.

The person who took over from Peter Powell on the breakfast show, titled On the Move, was Les Ross. He been with the station from the start co-presenting the Saturday morning Ross and Henry Show with John Henry (later Head of Music at Buzz FM). In 1965 Leslie Meakin had already successfully auditioned for a Mecca ballroom DJ gig, beating Johnnie Walker, but after leaving school he secured a day job at IBM on Hagley Road and then as a clerk at Witton Cemetery. He was on Radio Birmingham until the Spring of 1975 by which time he was still hosting the Saturday morning Leslie Ross Show and the weekday mid-morning show.

The launch of commercial rival BRMB in 1974 saw the opening of the transfer window between the two Birmingham stations. Les Ross unsuccessfully applied to BRMB in 1974 but would actually end up at Radio Tees when it started in June 1975. He was encouraged to move by Bob Hopton, a Birmingham-based network music producer, who was to be the first programme controller at Tees. Ross did get to BRMB in March 1976 where he stayed until 2002, including four years on sister station Xtra AM, and where for the majority of the time he presented the breakfast shows. After a spell at Saga he returned to the BBC (2005-2009), had a few months at Big City Radio and these days is on Wolverhampton's community station WCRFM.

In 2015 Les returned to BBC WM for two shows as part of their 45th anniversary Legends Weekend.

In these blog posts I normally include some early Radio Times programme schedules but in the case of Radio Birmingham the first one I have in my collection is for the week commencing 12 April 1975.

The station had an early start at 5 am (earlier indeed than national radio which at this time didn't wake-up until 6 am on Radio 2) with On the Move presented by David Hoare. David had gained his on-air experience aged just 15 with the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation before coming to the UK in 1974 and working at Radio Birmingham. He too moved to Radio Tees just a few weeks after this programme schedule was published. In 1978 he returned to Gibraltar where he continued to work in both radio and TV and was also ordained as a minister of the Church of England. He died in 2016.

The breakfast show was Heart of the Nation with former BFBS Malta presenter John McLeod. Looking after the Thursday edition is Pete Simpkin. Pete came into broadcasting as an engineer at Southern TV, ATV and the BBC in Southampton before joining Radio Birmingham as a station assistant in 1971.     

Les Ross was working out his contract on the mid-morning show. He was followed by the phone-in Morning Call with Chris Smith (Mon), Derek Dingle (Tues-Wed), Jo Abraham (Thurs) and Mike Gandon (Fri).

After joining Radio 4 for The World at One and The Archers (also coming from Pebble Mill of course) the afternoon schedule was a bit of a mixed bag. On Tuesday and Thursday there was 80 New Street which "discussed topics with local experts and passers-by". One of the presenters of the arts magazine Showtime (Friday) is Ken Dudeney. Ken was on the station for over 20 years having previously joined the BBC as a station manager in London.  He presented a country music show Sounds Country (Wed) which later became Town and Country and it was his voice that closed Radio Birmingham and opened BBC WM in 1981.  

The station's drivetime show was given the slightly offbeat title of Home James! All the presenters took a turn on this show, this week it was Pete Simpkin. In the 80s the programme was rebadged as the more prosaic Coming Home and Steve Woodhall was its regular presenter.   

Extract from 1977 BBC booklet Serving Neighbourhood and Nation

The large Asian population of the West Midlands had a dedicated programme East in West with Mohammed Ayyub. Born in Pakistan he moved to the city in 1961. He would co-found the Oriental Star Agencies record label and by the late 60s was volunteering for Birmingham Hospital radio. He worked for the BBC between 1971 and 1995 initially on Radio Birmingham and then for the Asian Network when both BBC WM and Radio Leicester hived off their MW transmitters for part of the time. He then founded the Asian station Radio XL.       

Radio Birmingham's transmission area covered Wolverhampton and there was a programme for that part of the world called Wulfrun Echo. Here it's presented by Chris Phipps. Chris was the full-time Wolverhampton reporter based at their offices in the Grand Theatre. He presented Wulfrun Echo for seven years and on BBC1 in the Midlands was one of the presenters of contemporary music show Look Hear! that was introduced by Toyah Willcox. He moved to Tyne-Tees TV and was one of the producers on The Tube.  

The best known name here must be Jim Rosenthal, for decades a presenter and commentator for ITV Sport. Jim had joined the station in 1972 from the Oxford Mail. Initially a news reporter he was encouraged to cover the sport which for football fans included the Big Six: Birmingham City, Coventry City, Aston Villa, Wolves, West Brom and Walsall. Others on Birmingham's sports team included Roger Moody (later a manager for BBC Sport and then at Sky for 13 years) and Nick Owen (also initially taken on as a news reporter and later, of course, on ATV, TV-am and Good Morning with Anne and Nick). Jim moved to the Radio Sports Unit in 1976 working on Sport on 2 before heading off to ITV in 1980. Earlier this year he spoke to BBC WM's Adrian Goldberg, you can that conversation here.

Presenting Soccer Special is Norman Wheatley. Norman is better known for presenting folk music shows: Gentlefolk (1975-78) on Radio Birmingham, on Mercia Sound in 1980 with Mercia Folk and then a general music show on  BRMB (1981-85).  

Barry Lankester (photo from Paul R. Jackson's
Showreel website)

The most experienced broadcaster on the station  at this time was Barry Lankester. Barry had joined the BBC in the Midlands in 1955 as a studio manager. During the 1960s he was an announcer, presenter and newsreader presenting Midlands Today when it started in 1964, compereing Friday Night is Music Night in the days when they had regional editions and making the 'story so far' announcements at the beginning of The Archers. At Radio Birmingham it's his voice you hear on the opening announcements (with jingles recorded by the Midland Radio Orchestra). Barry would specialise in music programme production hence his involvement here in Music Room and the Birmingham Brass competition.      

The station's first news editor was print journalist Roger Clark but he left to join LBC and three years later on BBC Radio Oxford. Following Roger in the news editor post was Martin Henfield, though this year (1975) he was to make the move up to Manchester initially as deputy manager, becoming the manager for five years in 1988. On television he read the news on Look North and later North West Tonight.

Martin's brother Mike also briefly worked for Radio Birmingham in the Wolverhampton office. A journalist on the Birmingham Post he had a long career in commercial radio as deputy news editor at BRMB in 1974, news editor at Mercia Sound in 1980 and then management positions at Radio Wyvern, Red Rose, GWR and Jazz FM in Manchester.     

Others on the news team around this time included Bob Sinkinson who was the BBC's Midlands Correspondent for many years and Frances Coverdale who moved on to Midlands Today, was a BBC national news reader and then presenter of Radio 4's PM.

When there was nothing on the telly on Saturday mornings the kids could tune into Radio Brum Club  and even send off for their membership badge. The regular presenters were George Parry and Roger Thomas but they encouraged the local children to come into the studio and participate. Two kids that did join the Club were broadcaster Bill Buckley and composer David Lowe. David would end up freelancing at the station and formed the band Cool Fish with Samantha Meah who's had two stints on BBC WM, most recently returning in 2019.      

Like many of the BBC local stations radio Birmingham attempted to cater for all music tastes. Shows included Reggae Reggae with Barry Curtis (later at Beacon Radio), Jazz Club with Mike Johnson, Caribbean Corner presented by Dave Charlesworth and Philip Nanton (now an author and poet resident in Barbados), progressive music with Malcolm Jay in Heavy Pressure which would also feature specially recorded sessions made in Pebble Mill's Studio 2.    

Moving on from the mid-70s here are just a taste of some of the other names that have appeared on Birmingham/WM.

Ed Doolan: Birmingham became Ed's adopted home from 1974 when he joined BRMB, moving to Radio Birmingham six years later. I wrote about Ed following his death in January 2018.

Nicky Steele: another DJ that made the BRMB to BBC leap in the 1980s. Moved on to Xtra AM. Died in 2001 aged 53.

Peter York: a former pirate radio jock (Radio City) and club DJ who was on the station in the late 80s before moving to BBC Radio Oxford.

Malcolm Boyden: print journalist who started broadcasting at Beacon Radio before moving to WM in 1993. Has also worked at BBC CWR and Radio Oxford and can currently he heard on BBC Hereford & Worcester.

Tony Butler: a sports broadcaster who has ping-ponged between BBC and commercial radio in the Midlands for the past half century.

Alastair Yates: spent the greater part of his career as a newsreader on BBC TV, ITV and Sky News but had started in radio at Radio Derby before joining Radio Birmingham in 1978 for a mid-morning show.

Alan Dedicoat: was the breakfast show presenter when Radio Birmingham switched over to BBC WM. Alan had appeared on hospital radio in Birmingham before joining as a station assistant in 1979. In 1983 he went to Radio Devon and four years later was at Radio 2 as an announcer and where he stayed as presenter and newsreader for 28 years.  

Stuart Roper: an ex-press photographer before he moved into radio, initially helping out at Birmingham Hospital Radio and then joining the BBC in the 1970s as a TO. With Viv Ellis he co-presented the mid-morning The 206 Club in the early to mid-80s.   

Viv Ellis: former print journalist she worked at Radio Birmingham/WM on The 206 Club before moving into TV production and direction (e.g. Network East, Top Gear and Pebble Mill at One). From 1990 on working in a number of production roles for various companies.    

Gordon Astley: had two stints at BBC WM in the 90s. His radio career started at BBC Radio Stoke around 1971. Later at Mercia Sound,  Beacon and BBC Southern Counties.

Andrew Peach: was just a teenager when he got to Pebble Mill as often as he could (1987-92), helping out Ed Doolan, making trails etc. After joining Radio Oxford and then Radio Berkshire in 1994 he was back in Birmingham on BBC WM to host the breakfast show (2008-11). A Radio 2 newsreader from 1998, also on the World Service and Radio 4 continuity shifts he currently presents the breakfast show on Radio Berkshire.

Rev Michael Blood: was a religious affairs producer at Birmingham from 1970 and had a Sunday morning 'god slot' for many years called A Word in Advance. Also presented other shows, for example in 1981 he was one of the presenters of the lunchtime Good Company programme. He left the station in 2005.

Carl Chinn: on BBC WM with a weekday daily show from 1994 to 2013. He has written and lectured extensively on local history.

Paul Franks: joined the station in 1979 and in more recent years hosted the drivetime show.

The BBC WM schedule for 
w/c 30 July 1994

Jenny Wilkes: joined from BRMB in 1982 initially presenting a youth-orientated show Fast Forward. Until earlier this year was presenting a Sunday afternoon soul show as well as working as an events manager for the BBC but has recently announced her retirement.

Phil Upton: another ex-BRMB DJ who joined BBC WM in 2006 as the weekday breakfast presenter. Now on BBC CWR.

Joanne Malin: joined from Central News in 2009 to present a mid-morning show. Moved back to TV in late 2012 to read the news for Midlands Today.   

Caroline Martin: joined in 2012. Her radio career started on the offshore Radio Caroline in 1986 and then at Contact 94 and a number of other stations including BRMB and Free.  

Graham Torrington: recently retired from radio, Graham presented his Late Night Graham Torrington show from 2012-2020. His start in radio came at BRMB and he's also appeared on Buzz FM, Kix 96, the GWR/GCap network and BBC Radio Bristol.

[At time of publishing I'm still adding to this list]

BBC WM don't have any special programmes planned to mark their 50 years but back in 2010 Janice Long (who was on the station in the late 2000s) did present this recap of the first 40 years.

With thanks to Tony Worrall

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