Saturday, 4 April 2020

Broadcasting in the Seventies

From today's perspective the furore over Broadcasting in the Seventies seems like a storm in a teacup. But at the time it threatened the corporation with industrial action,  the withdrawal of labour by the Musician's Union and letters from the great and good describing it as a threat to "the unique role the BBC has played in the cultural and intellectual life of the country".

It was fifty years ago this week that a number of BBC national radio programme changes came occurred brought about by the implementation of the policy document Broadcasting in the Seventies. Essentially the plan was to redefine the characteristics of each of the four radio networks: Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 and move away from the existing mixed programming - a style of programming that had existed since Reith's day. We're now used to tightly formatted radio output but at the time this was both novel and controversial. But, if listeners expected an overnight shift in the sound of the favourite station this didn't really happen and it took years for it to pan out - the result of insufficient funds and insufficient wavelengths.

There were several factors that convinced the BBC to act and shake-up its radio services. Financially the Government was tightening the purse strings and refusing any licence fee increases, whilst at the time the BBC had ambitions to expand their services and to adopt  new technology (the roll-out of colour TV and VHF stereo for instance).  Radio listening figures, particularly those in the evening, had started to fall. There was also a notion to hive off the new Open University programmes, as well as existing schools programmes, onto a separate VHF network paid for by government - something which never happened and continued to lead to AM/FM splits and headaches for schedulers for another couple of decades. The BBC had been forced to start a new pop service in 1967 with the launch of the pirate-replacement Radio 1. And finally, with a view to what might happen, and did arrive four years later, there was the threat of commercial radio competition.

The document, published in July 1969, was part of a process that had started over a year before with a wealth of consultation and working parties during which the Corporation had, for the first time but by no means the last, used independent management consultants, in this case McKinsey and Co.

On streamlining network radio the report had this to say:
"Traditionally, broadcasting has been based on the principle of mixed programming. On a single channel, the public is offered the whole range: news, documentaries, plays, music, light entertainment, serials, sport - all types of programmes, covering all interests and all 'brow' levels.

But experience, both in this country and abroad, suggests that many listeners now expect radio to be based more on a different principle - that of the specialised network, offering a continuous stream of one particular type of programme, meeting one particular interest. One channel might offer pop, another serious music, another talk programmes, and so on". 

When the document was released on Thursday 10 July 1969 the Corporation held staff briefings, press conferences and published a special edition of the staff magazine Ariel. The proposals were discussed on air including an hour long Q&A session on the Third Programme the following Tuesday. This is how that evening's Radio Newsreel covered the news with the summary: "Radio 1 strictly pop. Radio 2 carrying light music from Sinatra to Lehar. Radio 3, perhaps only on VHF, with more classical music and Radio 4 with mostly talk".  The newsreader is Peter Barker and the reports from Brian Curtois and Jim Biddulph.

In 1969 Radio 1 and Radio 2 shared a great deal of programming but, to quote the report, "to their respective fans, Emperor Rosko and Eric Robinson barely inhabit the same planet let alone the same air waves". So Radio 1 was to be an "all-pop network". No surprises here but at the time it still carried some jazz shows. Radio 2 was to play "light music" and to shed some of its speech elements. So Any Questions? and Midweek Theatre moved over to Radio 4, and Woman's Hour would follow two years later. News Time with Derek Cooper was dropped and Your Hundred Best Tunes transferred over to Radio 2 from Radio 4. Another programme, still running to this day as part of the Radio 2 breakfast show, also started with the religious slot Pause for Thought replacing Five to Ten.       

It was the changes to the Third Programme that caused the most uproar, not unlike the protests over the 1957 cut in hours and the introduction of Network Three. Now it was such luminaries as Sir Adrian Boult, James Cameron, George Melly, Jonathan Miller and Henry Moore who supported the Campaign for Better Broadcasting and fired off letters to The Times.

Since the network shake-up in September 1967 the Third Programme title had been retained for the evening schedule of music, drama, arts and talks - the same highbrow mix that had defined the station since its launch in 1946. In addition the wavelengths carried a daytime schedule of classical music as the Music Programme, on weekday evenings there was a Study hour of further education programmes and on Saturday afternoons the Sports Service.

Under Broadcasting in the Seventies the proposal was to re-badge the whole lot as Radio 3 and to continue the music programming into the evening. The Sports Service was dropped and moved over to Radio 2 to become Sport on 2. Sport wasn't totally lost on Radio 3 however as it still carried Test Match Special.  Meanwhile some speech programming would move over to Radio 4. In addition the idea of having Radio 3 as a VHF only service was floated, with the medium wave frequencies used to supplement local radio expansion. (Radio 3 did finally become FM only in February 1992).    

What also caused upset was the decision to axe the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the London Studio Players, the BBC Chorus, the BBC Training Orchestra and, heard only on Radio 2, the Northern Dance Orchestra. Earlier proposals from the internal Policy Study group had also put the Concert and the Northern Ireland Orchestras in the frame. In the event there was a reprieve, at least in the short-term. Writing in The Listener Director-General Charles Curran admitted that the Government basically said "You have too many orchestras but we want you to continue to employ them because somebody has to. They are needed nationally".

The Scottish SO continues to this day, the London Studio Players stayed playing until 1984, the BBC Chorus went back to its original name of the BBC Singers in 1972, the Training Orchestra was finally wound up in 1977, the Northern Ireland Orchestra was subsumed into the Ulster Orchestra in 1981 and the NDO became the Northern Radio Orchestra in 1975 but was disbanded in 1980.  

The longer lasting changes were seen on Radio 4 this week in 1970. As well as inheriting some speech programmes from Radios 2 and 3 the proposals saw an increase in news and current affairs coverage and plans to "develop the four main news and magazine periods - breakfast time, lunch time, early evening, and late evening". Today with Jack de Manio and The World at One with William Hardcastle already existed but new to the schedules were the teatime PM "the news magazine that sums up your day and starts off your evening." Replacing Home This Afternoon (a magazine show aimed a older listeners)  and produced by the WATO team, PM was presented by William Hardcastle to cover the hard news and either Derek Cooper or Steve Race (who also regularly hosted Home This Afternoon), who would look after the lighter elements.

There was another half-hour news programme at 7 pm, News Desk with former US correspondent Gerald Priestland and newsreader Meryl O'Keeffe. Priestland describing the programme as "news with a human voice". Finally, taking a more serious tone and a more international outlook was The World Tonight with Douglas Stuart, which replaced Ten O'Clock. Though News Desk was dropped in 1976 - replaced by The World in Focus which itself ended in July 1977 when the Six O'Clock News was extended from 15 to 30 minutes - PM and The World Tonight remain key programmes.

Elsewhere on Radio 4 some other equally long-lasting programmes were launched: Week Ending (1970-98), Start the Week with Richard Baker and Analysis with Ian McIntyre who said of the programme that "our business was to get behind the news and dig and illuminate and go a bit further." You and Yours would follow in October 1970. Music shows didn't completely disappear, there was Steve Race's daily Invitation to Music for instance and occasional classical concerts. 

The report also covered local radio and expected the network to expand to 40 stations, though financial restrictions saw this stall at 20 until 1980. On regional production the idea was the phase out the opt-outs from Radio 4, apart from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and to restructure the BBC English regional map around eight production centres rather than the old Regional and Home Service ones determined by transmitter range.

In the lead-up to the on-air changes for the week commencing 4 April 1970 the Radio Times printed a series of Q&As with BBC management. Here's the final set with Ian Trethowan, MD Radio and Gerard Mansell, Director of Programmes, Radio.

The magazine also published this example weekday schedule to summarise to give listeners an idea of what to expect. 

So did Broadcasting in the Seventies make a difference. It's an unequivocal yes. Station controllers had inherited  mishmash schedules from the old Home, Light and Third. Listening habits had changed; there was TV to divert you, particularly in the evening, more folk listened in the car and on their transistor radios. No longer would the family sit round the wireless to enjoy an evening of mixed entertainment. In the era of increasing consumer choice radio schedulers had to make it easier for listeners to find what they wanted. Having said that the sound of the networks didn't totally change overnight, it was more of a gradual shift. As Trethowan admitted " the changes were not nearly as dramatic as we made out in public." There was still music on Radio 4, drama serials on Radio2 and current affairs on Radio 3.

But the real issue was financial. Although the final report put such considerations well down the list it still talked of predicted annual deficit in the radio budget of £4.5 million by 1974. The figure in the earlier McKinsey report was worse with an £8m deficit forecast by 1972. The Corporation had been frustrated in its attempts to get an increase in the licence fee by Wilson's government which was too embroiled in devaluation issues and cabinet in-fighting. At a Downing Street meeting in 1966 the PM had told the BBC  "drastically to prune its expenditure".    

Typically the BBC fudged and delayed any economies but by the time of the 3-day week and the oil crisis it was squeezed even further and broadcasting hours were trimmed back and programme sharing invoked between Radios 1 and 2 and between Radios 3 and 4.    

I'll leave the final word on this to listener Frederick Chamberlain who sent in his A Listeners Prayer to the BBC in 1968:

Were I in charge of the BBC,
The Radio Programmes - they would be-
Channel 1 - Pop all day; low brow sounds, to some quite gay.
Channel 2- that would go-harmonic music for the medium brow.
Channel 3-Symphonic noise, for the high brow girls and boys, Prose and Poetry, Opera too, not for the many but just for the few.
Channel 4-Would surely be -talks-religion-plays and views-odds and ends and of course the News.
And so-all-would be satisfied-
Not one listener ere denied.

The full document and an article on the evolution of BBC radio post 1967 by Dr Alban Webb is on the History of the BBC website.

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