Friday, 11 October 2013

With an Independent Air

It’s no accident that commercial radio, which is forty years old this week, was referred to as independent local radio. “Commercial” was a dirty word. Excessive profits were frowned on. The White Paper that paved the way for ILR spoke of “public service” and stations being “firmly rooted in their locality”.  

LBC was mainly staffed with ex-newspaper men and women. And well-staffed, indeed over-staffed, too: at the start there were about 150 on the payroll. Its headquarters at Communications House in Gough Square were just off Fleet Street. In the early days it struggled; it was under-capitalised, there were various run-ins with the NUJ and, though it had plenty of newspaper experience, there was little in the way of radio skills, and most of that came from “Antipodean freelancers”.

Capital too had some early issues. The initial music policy with its slant to the more “hippier” stuff was not a success, there were spats with its London neighbour about just how much news coverage it should take and in early 1974 the three-day week hit advertising revenue.

Despite this the stations were a hit with listeners: early audience figures showed LBC had one million and Capital one and a half million. Though the Government’s plans had been to introduce sixty stations they restricted this to just nineteen, at least during the 1970s, with Beacon Radio the last the go on-air on 12 April 1976.

It’s against this background that Ann Leslie wrote this piece, With an Independent Air, for Punch magazine published on 28 April 1976. It offers a somewhat metro-centric view of commercial radio; one suspects she’d not heard anything of the other seventeen stations.  

Elsie of Westminster and I are getting a bit stroppy with each other over the airwaves of LBC’s Nightline phone-in programme, and she’s shouting into my earphones that them coloureds are VICIOUS! VICIOUS” not like us native British what are more placid, not that she’s got anything against black people mind you, there’s good and bad in all of us, granted – but Ann, any spot of bother’ll set the coloureds off fighting an’ that…

And in between shouting back “But Elsie!” I’m coughing and blinking and waving my arms about because I happen to have set the studio on fire.

Behind the glass sits studio engineer Dave, a pleasant, professional lad who nevertheless looks about fifteen and has the somewhat nibbled-looking hair of a typical Bay City Rollers fan. Ciggie stapled to his lip, he gazes on, unmoved, as I flap the air like a fire-dancer with flaming sheets of paper plucked from the melting waster bin.

Had I burnt the Nightline studio down, I’d have cut LBC’s studio-count by half, but oh well, that kind of disaster is just about par for the course for this, the first and most accident-prone of Britain’s nineteen commercial radio stations.

Incidentally, there isn’t an Ann Leslie spot on Nightline. I’d merely wandered down with my notebook that evening into the pokey basement huddled beneath the eighteenth-century elegance of Dr Johnson’s Gough Square and found myself instantly lassooed into ‘guesting’ on the show. Had I been a passing mouse, they’d have doubtless grabbed my tail, shoved a mike in my whiskers and pushed me squeaking onto the air: LBC’s in need of endless free squeaks to fill up the spaces between Alka Seltzer ads. Thanks to phone-freaks like Westminster Elsie, they rarely run short.

Nightline’s host is a nice worthy bearded chap called Nick Page (“yes I’m a practising Christian”) who, every weekday night, dispenses four hours of spiritual Ovaltine in his gentle foody voice to the lonely souls in London’s bedsitter land. (Nightline, he believes, is partly responsible for a decline in suicides in those trackless wastes).

So while I’m beating out the flames, he’s fiddling with his blue cardie and soothing Elsie down with “well, as you say Elsie I think there’s good and bad in everyone and we’ll have to agree to differ on the other pints you’ve made, and now we’ll go down to Putney and say hello to Ray. Roy? Hello Roy? Are you there? Roy? … Well, we’ll come back to Roy in a minute. Over now to Marie in Battersea, hello Marie! Marie? …”

And he and I soldier on into the night with Maggie if Muswell Hill who’s against bingo halls; and Ted of Shoreditch who says Lenin and Jewish bankers are responsible for our “inflammatory money” and the decline-and-fall-of-this-once-great-nation-of-ours; and Charles of St John’s Wood who says there’s too many black faces around and Ann, are you as beautiful as you sound on the phone because if you are, tell Nick to push off as I’m going to put on my pyjamas and come right over…

London has two commercial radio stations – dear, worthy news-and-views LBC and the all-music-all-fun Capital. “Capit-a-al! Capit-a-al” Capit-a-al Radio-o-o!” sings the persistent radio jingle.

Capital has pzazz! Capital has sex-appeal! Capital has MONEY! No apologetic lurking in the basements for them: Capital prances manically about in the glossy splendour of the Euston Tower and Capital has thick carpeting and digital clocks and DJs like Dave Cash-by-name, Cash-by-nature and Capit-a-al! Capit-a-al! is wow! zowie! b-boom!

Easter Saturday morning and Capital is running its marathon radio auction to raise money to “help a London Child” and its huge foyer is full of adenoidal Capital fans gawping at leaping DJs and being frisked by security men and, up in her office, lovely press-lady Sian is being photographed with Cliff Richard’s belt and a Womble blanket and wow! even a Led Zeppelin tee-shirt donated by the luminaries themselves!

And in the studio, Kenny Everett and Roger Scott are howling and shrieking and jamming on records and singing Hello Dolly for a bet and it’s Capit-a-al! Capit-a-al! and thirteen phone lines are blinking and in yet another studio Dave Cash is yelling “Great news! A Mr Crown has just bid £51 for the Garrard record-deck – any more offers on that? – and there’s plenty more wunnerful things coming up for grabs now! A snare-drum from the PINK FLOTD! Twenty tickets to see Emmanuelle! A personal horoscope from Terri King!  And, wait for it, a complete hair-transplant!” Capit-a-al! Capit-a-al! And oops, here come the ads “Try the Big Fresh Flavour of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum!” and oh, wow! I haven’t the faintest idea what it’s all about, it’s just Capit-a-al! Capit-a-al! Capit-a-al! Radi-o-o!

Commercial radio was born at 6 a.m. on the morning of October 8th 1973 with the launch of LBC; Capital took to the air a week later. Originally sixty such stations were planned: the Government has now decided nineteen are enough. Most of the others which have emerged so far have settled for varying combinations of the LBC and Capital styles.

So how do we assess the results of the last thirty months? Professional radio critics, of course, instantly assume the facial expressions of men with knitting needles stuck up their noses when asked to evaluate the wild pot-pourri of Gary Glitter, fish-fingers, crossed-lines, Fred Kites, National Fronters, Zionists, jew-baiters, corner-shop fascists, loonies who’ve lost their parrots and pensioners who’ve lost their teeth, who’ve all come tumbling and gibbering down out of the ether onto this green and garrulous land.

It’s “boring old do-it-yourself radio”, jumble-sale-radio”, radio-wot-fell-off-the-back-of-a-lorry”, and not what we were promised at all! What were we promised? Well, what we were promised makes for merry reading. What’s quite clear in retrospect – and should have been at the time – was that British commercial radio was sired by a typically British marriage of amateurism and hypocrisy.

Amateurism decreed that those with the least experience in running a radio station should, almost on those grounds alone, be selected for the job. Poor little LBC – dubbed Radio Toytown – was expected to outdo the mighty Beeb in world news coverage; soon virtually hysterical staff were collapsing like exhausted flies. The Gough Square basement became radio’s Ekaterinburg, with the mass slaughter of decent misguided programmes, followed by endless Stalinist purges of idealistic Old Bolsheviks who’d taken their brief seriously and died under machine-gun volleys from cadres of ruthless accountants.

Hypocrisy? Well, God knows there was enough of that. Since admitting that you want to sell anything and actually make money is a fearful social gaffe in this country, the commercial radio lobby had to pretend that the last thing they wanted to do was get rich from selling fish-finger eaters to fish-finger makers. Dear me, what a vulgar, gutter-press interpretation of these noble gentlemen’s aims!

For a start, they did wish people wouldn’t talk about “commercial” radio – it was “independent” radio. Independent of what? Of the pointy-headed mandarins of the Establishment Beeb, of course. Commercial – oops, sorry, independent- radio was to be a collection of brave little Davids slinging pebbles on behalf of the wonderful-little-people-of-our-great-democracy against the Goliath of the Corporation.

Since money-making was, like Queen Anne’s legs, not considered a fit subject for polite conversation, the motives of the commercial radio lobby were draped in yards of swishing verbiage about “community needs”, grass-roots feeling”, “ access”, “participation”, “the British People”.

Christopher Chataway, the Tory Minister who legalised commercial radio, assured the Doubting Thomases that “independent” radio was going to spurn the “pop and prattle” of the BBC’s Radio One, and instead provide “a worthwhile service to the community”. And Brian Young, Director-General of the IBA, movingly pledged his belief that it would not all turn out to be “just the round of pop music and plugs which disdainful critics have predicted”.

The IBA issued “guidelines” to hopeful consortia scrambling for contracts. Like a rich but bashful spinster letting on that she’s partial to chocolate fudge, Auntie IBA then lay back and awaited her seducers.

The seducers, having duly studied her tastes, told her what she wanted to hear and then, the minute they’d bedded the contracts, told her to forget the chocolate fudge promises on account of this is a hard world and such romantic twaddle costs too much.

(Take Capital, for example, which promised sweet music, serials, quizzes – all nice, clean, short-back-and sides stuff. Auntie IBA might have liked it but hip young Londoners didn’t, so it went out the window.)

So where are all the shock horror probes into corruption in the local Parks and Cemeteries Committees? And where the searing exposes of small-town sewerage politics? They’re still there – but tucked away in the stations’ “social conscience” slots at dead, unprofitable areas of the day or night when people are either watching telly or are asleep.

As Tommy Vance, a Capital DJ, told me, “Yeah, well, the, ah, incidence of Social Idealism has to be strictly limited in commercial radio: you gotta make a living right? Right!”

But this large gap between stated aims and actual performance is not perhaps the only reason for much of the critical response to commercial radio. Many genuinely believed in such concepts as “grass-roots participation” and “media access” so long as they remained concepts. I suspect that reality has dealt roughly with much woolly-minded Fabian-bookshop sentimentality about The Grass-Roots and The People. To these romantics, The People were symbolised by a kind of myths, cloud-capped Noble Prole, like one of those chunks of socialist statuary celebrating some Soviet Hero of the Best-harvest Norm.

It was assured that once this Noble Prole was allowed “access”, his stout-hearted, rough-hewn common sense and his natural feeling for fair play would emerge and astonish us all.

Did it heck. What happened when this Noble Prole seized hold of the air-waves was that he gabbed on about deporting blacks in banana boats, sending squatters to labour camps and shooting the Arts Council – in short, he turned out to be no more noble or fair-minded than anybody else.

What’s more he actually liked the “trivia and pap” he was expected to scorn. He produced most of it himself: he wanted to know what blighter in Tulse Hill had nicked his Cortina, and whether fin-rot would kill his guppy-fish, and if any OAP in Willesden wanted an old piano, and if Dave or Kenny or Mike would play Diana Ross’s latest waxing for Tracy, the best wife in the world…

Now while I’m a loyal listener, and indeed contributor to, Radio Four, I’m delighted by the sheer serendipity offered by commercial radio. I love the chaos, the mess, the rudeness, the prejudices, the unstructured, unsanitised anarchy.

It’s occasionally very moving: how else can you describe the sudden upsurges of kindness from listeners who, the night I was on LBC for example, rang in desperate to ease the grief of poor Marlees of Lea Green who’d told us of the cot-death of her baby son?

It even produces bizarre flashes of surreal horror: as when a woman rang George Gale on LBC to say she was worried about her nephew who celebrated May 10th every year by buying a couple of parrots, stuffing them down his wellies, and plodging around on them till they’re dead.  And since it clearly hadn’t occurred to her, George’s advice to send the parrot-plodger to a doctor does strike me as a “worthwhile service to the community”, if only to the community’s parrots.

But the basic joy of commercial radio is that it provides a series of scruffy old pubs-of-the-air where all classes unselfconsciously get together to share gossip, misinformation, tell terrible jokes and say they know for a fact that… It’s no more, nor no less, valuable a community service than that.

In the London area, the various mine-hosts include grumpy old buzz-saw Gale, loony little Kenny, sweet ‘n mimsy Joan Shenton, quirky Adrian Love, my very favourite (passed your driving test yet, Adrian?) and that pompous old wind-bag David Bassett.

Which reminds me, David. I’m Ann of Kentish Town and I’m a cat-lover and I’m furious at what you said to that lady on Easter Sunday who wanted to know if her neighbour was allowed to shoot her Siamese cat for trespassing… What? Hello? Are you there, David? Can you hear me? Hello? I’m Ann of Kentish Town and I’m…

Punch finally closed in 2002 with the archives being acquired by the British Library some two years later. Back issues can, no doubt, still be found in dentist’s waiting rooms. All copyrights acknowledged. Cartoons by Mac and Honeysett.

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