Sunday, 5 November 2017

The People's Radio

In the spring of 1954 Frank Gillard was on a fact-finding trip across the United States. What he witnessed would change the shape of British broadcasting.

Gillard, at the time the Head of West Regional Programmes, was particularly impressed by station WVPO 'The Voice of Poconos' in Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania. It "spoke to its listeners as a familiar friend and neighbour" and the whole operation was conducted with "the utmost informality"

The role of Frank Gillard as godfather of the BBC's local radio service leading to the launch of the first station, Radio Leicester, fifty years ago, is told today at 12 noon in Friendly Radio, a one hour programme to be broadcast on all the BBC's local stations.

When the BBC had started radio broadcasts in the early 1920s it was on a local basis, aside from 2LO in London other stations launched in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Bournemouth, Sheffield, Plymouth and Belfast. But by the end of the decade these and other relay stations had combined to form the Regional Programme, which continued after the Second World War as the model for the Home Service.  

Hidden in the Beveridge Report on Broadcasting (1949) was a hint of things to come: "Local broadcasting was abandoned in favour of regional broadcasting owing to a lack of wavelengths, and the increased supply of wavelengths promised by VHF or FM transmission makes it possible to revive it".

However, it wasn't until the mid-50s that the Corporation seriously began to think about how it might further develop its radio services beyond the existing Home, Light and Third in the face of the advent of commercial television and the possible threat of commercial radio together with a decline in radio audiences in favour of the gogglebox.

In 1955 Gillard (pictured above) was asked to chair the Sound Co-ordinating Committee. Whilst the Committee didn't specifically look at providing local radio a working paper drafted by Gillard, An Extension of Regional Broadcasting, did hint at the way things would go with a recognition of regional cultures, news-led services and making use of the VHF spectrum.

Little happened on the matter within the BBC until 1960 when it was seeking a number of proposals to put before the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting. It was Gillard that persuaded the management and governors to pursue the idea of local radio, with the support of incoming Director-General Hugh Carleton-Greene. Speaking in November 1960 Greene was already attempting to forestall any commercial radio competition: "we think the time has come for the extension of our existing regional and area services into local broadcasting ... we believe that the public service system would ensure for the local audience a more genuinely local independent programme than could be offered by any commercial arrangement."       

In 1961 and 1962 the BBC undertook sixteen closed-circuit experiments across the UK in order to test the water and to provide audio evidence to the Pilkington Committee. (For the experiences of 'Radio Norwich' see The Network That Never Was). It was believed that this so-called Fourth Service could, in the words of Director of Sound Broadcasting Lindsay Wellington "provide a friendly, companiable, reliable service which is closely in touch with the ordinary pre-occupations of people's lives, informs people about local affairs and discusses impartially the local questions which come close to home."

Early proposals were bold in their ambition with six initial stations followed by a further eighteen by 1964 with each station costing £17,500 to build and £28,000 per annum to run "without seeking an increase in the licence fee".  Pilkington accepted the BBC's proposals in principle but put them on ice - the Corporation would have to wait another four years.

Meanwhile Frank Gillard, by 1963 now promoted to replace Wellington as Director of Sound Broadcasting, was setting out his vision for the new service (though perhaps understating the equipment required to get the stations on air). "The station needs a few tape recorders and a radio-equipped car which would soon become a familiar sight to every citizen". Listeners should "come to regard their local station as 'our station' not as 'the BBC station in our town'".

In December 1966 the White Paper on Broadcasting gave a rather cautious go-ahead to local radio "by way of experiment" with a nine station project in VHF. Each station "would offer a full-scale local service ... and after a year or so of operation should have provided the information on which to found the final solution."

The funding provision didn't wholly depend on the licence fee and would instead seek input from local councils (though not from the general rates), universities, Chambers of Trade, churches and local associations, businesses and the like. "Since the essential purpose of the local station is to give expression to local interests and aspirations, it seems right that its income should derive so far as is possible from local sources and not from a general licence fee".

During the experimental period the BBC stumped up the capital costs averaging £35,000 per station whilst the running costs of about £1,000 a week were paid, for the most part, by community contributions.

The support of local authorities and other interests was important because the new stations were seen not only as vehicles for educating and informing listeners but in directly involving them in extending democratic debate. Access programming was a key aspect of the new stations with volunteers helping to make some programmes and phone-ins soon becoming a staple of the schedule.   

Following the green light for the experiment the BBC wrote to every local authority seeking their input, over eighty responded and a conference was held at Broadcasting House jointly chaired by the Director-General and, on behalf of the Association of Municipal Corporations, Sir Mark Henig. Eight authorities agreed to proceed and it was then up to them to seek out groups and businesses that would stump up the cash. Thus the stations that would come on stream were to be Leicester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Nottingham, Brighton, Stoke, Leeds and Durham. (The ninth station area on the initial list was Manchester but it failed to proceed due t change in political control in the 1967 local elections and so had to wait for the second phase in 1970).   

Though each station manager would have a degree of autonomy as to what programmes went out, what specialist groups they addressed and what network programmes they selected to fill the gaps (in the early days they switched over to Radio 1, 2 and 4) the station's output was overseen by a Local Radio Council comprised of interested lay people appointed by the Postmaster-General, though lists of members in the 1969 BBC Year Book does seem to show a preponderance of Aldermen. 

BBC Radio Leicester was the first of the new stations to launch on 8 November 1967 - initially on 95.05 VHF only, transmissions on medium wave didn't come along until 1972. Leicester Corporation -it's Mayor was the aforementioned Mark Henig - had been particularly enthusiastic and put together a financial package totalling some £104,000 towards the running costs. The "home town radio station" was opened at 12.45 pm by the Postmaster General, Edward Short, and an opening theme based on Post Horn Gallop.  

The initial tranche of stations had, according to the BBC, and number of conditions to meet: "Has the experiment shown that local radio benefits a community? Has it informed and entertained people about the town in which they live? Has it opened their eyes to the defects, achievements and aspirations of their city? The only way of getting 'yes' to these questions is to broadcast news and other programmes of such compelling interest that people cannot afford to miss them". In the event, and before the expiry of the test period, the Government allowed the BBC to extend the network to twenty stations and to fund the expansion from the licence fee.

Reviewing the first two decades of local radio was this Radio 4 programme (which I have posted previously) presented by David Clayton and Neil Walker. The Switched-On Parish Pump includes contributions from Dennis McCarthy, Michael Barton, Allan Shaw, Jim Latham, Mick Wormald, Michael Buerk, Kate Adie, Tom Beesley and Billy Butler.

Clips of those 1961/62 closed-circuit experiments are much in evidence in this edition of Radio 4's The Archive Hour from 2007. Libby Purves celebrates the 40th anniversary of local radio. and we hear the voices  of John Snagge, Matthew Linfoot, Michael Barton, Michael Barrett, David Dimbleby, Lincoln Shaw, Ken Warburton, John Gillmore, Roger McGough, Rex Conway and Herdle White.

In 2007 the BBC Four documentary strand Nation on Film looked at the early days of BBC local radio .One of themes that comes out in this programme is how little the BBC in London paid heed to what the local stations were doing. Most of the media attention seemed to come from  the ITV news programmes, probably because they had half an eye on getting involved in local commercial radio. There are contributions from Des Lynam, Kate Adie, Michael Barton, Gillian Reynolds, Mike Hollingsworth, Tom Beesley, David Blunkett, Tony Cook and Gerald Jackson.

Friendly Radio can be heard on all BBC local radio stations today at 12 noon - some times vary if the station has sports coverage - and is narrated by David Lloyd and produced by Trevor Dann. This recording has some edits for music. 

You can hear Frank Gillard in conversation with Helen Fry talking about the lead-up to the launch of local radio in this recording made for the BBC's Oral History project in 1976.

Coming up this month a dip into the archives with blog posts on Radio Leicester, Radio Sheffield and Radio Merseyside plus the life and career of Frank Gillard. 

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