“Do you remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?”
Greetings listeners and fellow readers tuning in to this blog entry on East of the M60 FM. We are about to take you on a trip back to 1980 or thereabouts, back to an era when radio had real personality. Don’t touch that dial…
Over at Chez Vall, the only radio station I listen to in great detail is Tameside Radio. This, as a point of principle in support of the local station. Not least the fact it has a fantastic nostalgia slot from 1pm to 3pm on a Sunday.
Though technology has improved dramatically (no more cartridges or vinyl), this seems to have been at the expense of the listener. Hence asinine and repetitive playlists that give you the impression of music and riveting DJs coming second to the advertisements. The Steve Penks of this world are sidelined.
For me, the mid-1980s was the golden age of Independent Local Radio. By then, the first and second generation ILR licences had been granted by the IBA. Over in my neck of the woods, Piccadilly Radio was the one of the big hitters. Up with Radio Clyde, BRMB, LBC and Capital Radio. The arrival of Red Rose Radio and Viking Radio in 1982 and 1984 completed the picture.
Besides serving their localities, they were a training ground for future national celebrities. Most famously, Timmy Mallett and his former gofer (well, he only presents the breakfast show on BBC Radio Two these days – didn’t amount to much!). Where’s the scope for this in the present climate?
For about 20 minutes or so worth of reading, we shall take you back to those halcyon days. Here are the ten facets of independent local radio, and national radio stations we miss today. In this entry we may include the BBC stations as well as the independent radio stations:
- Differing playlists;
- Local DJs;
- The Radio One Roadshow;
- Listening to the radio station over a telephone line;
- The Golden Hour on BBC Radio One;
- Unique styles from station to station;
- TV/Radio simulcasts;
- Closedowns/winding down for late nights;
- TV Licence tokens dished out as prizes;
- Decent news programming on Independent Local Radio stations.
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1. Differing Playlists: we have technology to thank for this! This clip from Granada Tonight (1990) demonstrates how:
The computerised system, known as Selector, is seen as a saviour. Our fellow from Piccadilly Radio sees no qualms about it so long as it doesn’t take over from the DJ too much. The early days of Piccadilly Gold and Key 103 (since the 1988 split) was pretty good as, even with the technology, it didn’t stop Mike Sweeney or Phil Wood from being themselves. By the late 1990s, machines began to take over with many ILR stations having a regional opt-out and syndicated programming for the rest of the week’s output.
Owing to the machine’s supremacy, The Human League’s dystopian vision of “automatic stations” (WXJL Tonight on their excellent Travelogue album of 1980) became real. Savage Garden’s best known track would be played at 3.42pm each day – with greater consistency than the 346 service has at The Albion Hotel for Ashton.
The system known as Format Radio is anathema to the diverse amount of programming that pioneering ILR stations had. We also have the loss of the IBA to thank for the loss of pluralist programming.
2. Local DJs: the story of the original ILR station’s histories have similar parallels with the loss of regional control to ITV. The face of each ITV franchise was reflected by its personalities as much as its graphics and programming. Likewise with local radio stations – true with today’s community stations albeit on a smaller scale.
If you were to distill Piccadilly Radio in its pomp to just three iconic DJs and presenters, it’ll be James Stannage, Mike Sweeney and Phil Wood. Julius K. Scragg and Dorothy Box, similarly so in West Yorkshire on Pennine Radio; Billy Butler on Radio City 194.
That’s before we mention the many local DJs who went on to bigger and better things. Besides joining the BBC stations, some would edit national newspapers (Martin Kelner, after being on Radio Hallam) or become hypnotists (BRMB’s Paul McKenna). Some of which, like Gary Davies from Piccadilly Radio, would be seen on…
3. The Radio One Roadshow: outside broadcasting is very much a feature of all local and national radio stations. From Anstruther to Zennor, the Radio One Roadshow would take in numerous seaside resorts from 1973 to 1999. The travelling circus’ high point was between 1976 and 1990 when crowds would flock to see Tony Blackburn, Paul Burnett, Simon Bates et al. As well as the station’s own star turns, there would be live performances from popular music acts, with great emphasis on live performance in its last nine years.
Other features of the Radio One Roadshow was ‘Bits and Pieces’, a version of Name That Tune for 10,000 perpendicular contestants using snippets of chart music records. There was also the ‘Smiley Miley Mileage Game’ where our fellows had to guess the amount of miles which the roadshow vehicles had travelled from their previous venue. At the end of the show, they would queue for autographs or – if they got any of the competitions right – their prizes.
Apart from giving the seaside towns a much needed fillup in the summer season, it created a buzz in their localities. The success of which led to Keith Chegwin’s OB links in Multi Coloured Swap Shop and Saturday Superstore.
4.Listening to your local station through a telephone line: today there is more outlets than ever to listen to our favourite stations. As well as FM, AM and DAB, there’s the internet via the station’s websites or mobile apps.
Back in 1980, we could also listen to our favourite local stations on the telephone. All you had to do was dial the station’s frequency number. In my case, “261” to listen to Piccadilly Radio from Chez Vall, or a nearby telephone box in Greater Manchester. The sound was nowhere near as good as AM, let alone crystal clear 103MHz on FM. Given the telephones of that era, the earpiece was never designed for prolonged use. (Thank goodness for Walkpeople then)!
5. The Golden Hour: ever wondered why the average 20 year old doesn’t know their Supertramp from their Princess Supersister? Two words could describe this reason: ‘market repositioning’. Since Radio One changed its image under Matthew Bannister, it became a radio station for younger ears. In spite of this, The Golden Hour and its successors (The Mystery Year or The Classic Years) survived his axe, continuing till 2001.
For many 1980s radio listeners (myself included), it was synonymous with Simon Bates, hence this clip:
Each hour long slot included two mystery years (half an hour per year); listeners had to ring in with the correct years. By the 1990s, there would several versions of The Golden Hour on different stations. The Golden Oldie stations would have up to 24 of them a day. Popular on Key 103, in Greater Manchester, was the similar Top Ten at Ten. Instead of competing with its national rival, listeners could enjoy both The Golden Hour and The Top Ten at Ten. Two hours of mystery years: what is there not to like?
6. Unique styles from station to station: back to my hobby horse (see also my opinions on the single ITV): the joy of telling one area from another by their radio station. Before ILR stations became regional offshoots of media conglomerates, each station had a distinctive sound and look. For me, Radio One was Jam Creative Productions’ jingle packages and the blue ‘1’ logo with ‘Radio 1’ in the Dynamo typeface, highlighted with a red stripe (pretty big in the late 1970s).
Piccadilly Radio, for me, was always the jingles as well as its obvious merits (music and presenters) – either the Alfasound or Sue Manning packages. Also its sense of being as a true local voice as well as the 1970s headphone style logo or the abstract late 1980s one.
One of the greatest things about the pre-single ITV/EMAPification of ILR era came to the fore whilst I was on holiday. Scarborough not only meant Yorkshire Television and Calendar, but another set of wonderful jingles from Yorkshire Coast Radio. Plus another set of presenters different to the ones I knew and loved from Piccadilly Gold or GMR.
7. TV/Radio Simulcasts: thanks to the joys of digital technology, the TV/radio simulcast is a bit of a rare treat. On the BBC stations this is reserved for the Eurovision Song Contest and The Last Night of the Proms. Besides the two events, there used to be a programme called Sight and Sound in Concert. Given that stereo sound on television wasn’t the norm till the 1990s, viewers would tune in to BBC Radio One for the stereo sound. Then, they would watch the attendant programme on BBC Two.
8. Closedowns/winding down for late nights: for younger listeners, it is hard to imagine a time when radio stations – as well as TV stations – used to close down in the smaller hours. Today’s stations often see quieter music after midnight, sometimes promoted under titles like The Quiet Storm (as was Key 103’s late night programme).
Back in the mid-1980s, BBC Radio One used to close down just before 1am. After the presenter’s parting words came the “England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales… National Radio One” jingle. This would be followed by the time signal, with BBC Radio Two taking over till 5.30am.
Before April 1989, its early hours programming slot was occupied by Piccadilly Nightbeat. Instead of the usual chart music, there would be ambient music from unknown musicians. Sometimes performed live as well as from library music sources. One of them was Howard Jones, who would find chart success as a performer in his own right.
9. TV licence tokens as prizes: in an era before cash prizes were king, we were content with our five minutes of fame on the radio. Cars and recorded music have long been the norm, but BBC’s local stations used to give away TV Licence tokens as prizes.
Which, if you were on a tight budget was a Godsend. Especially so if you didn’t have a current account. Before technology and debit cards took over, you could pay for your TV Licence with stamps at the local Post Office using a token sheet. They could be redeemed against a colour or black and white TV licence.
10. Decent news programming on Independent Local Radio stations: for our final point, we go straight to the newsroom. Though today’s first wave of ILR stations have regionalised bulletins, there is one clear omission from today’s transmissions. That of news programming besides hourly bulletins.
If you were to compare the schedules of a typical week on Piccadilly Radio in 1984 with that of its forerunners, the former schedule would see detailed midday, drivetime and Sunday evening bulletins. This was augmented with a Review of the Week, Agenda (which focused on local government issues), and the North West Question Time. The last named programme a Mancunian answer to Sir Robin Day’s programme.
The loss of news programming is symptomatic of changes in media regulation of the last three decades. Most particularly the loss of public service obligations – mainly IBA’s abolition – which saw news programming cut back, and the loss of specialist features. Today, if you want to listen to anything analytical news wise, there’s only BBC Radio Four. Where are today’s local equivalents?
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Are there any other facets of radio listening that you miss? Do you yearn for the jingles which set your station apart from its rivals? Feel free to add to the list of ten or elaborate on the ten.
That was a Not So Perfect Ten entitled “Things I Miss About Radio”. The producer was Stuart Vallantine. The Not So Perfect Ten is an East of the M60 Production, copyright 2015.
S.V., 04 April 2015.