ILR at 40: Paul Easton remembers 40 years
“This is London Broadcasting – the news and information voice of independent radio. Welcome to LBC. It’s 6 o’clock. October 8th. My name’s David Jessel. This is the Morning Show – and here’s the news.”
And so 40 years ago Independent Local Radio was born.
Commercial radio was not, of course, an entirely new concept to British listeners. In the 1930s English language programmes from stations such as Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandie proved to be popular. Radio Luxembourg continued after the War and, during the 1960s, there were the offshore ‘pirates’ as well as Manx Radio.
This, though, was different; for the first time the UK had its own legal, land-based commercial radio stations.
I’ve been involved in one way or another with ILR/commercial radio for almost all of the past 40 years. I started as a Tech Op at LBC/IRN on 1st July 1974 and, while working my way up the career ladder, have seen and experienced so many changes over the years.
I believe it’s not only essential to remain aware of the way radio is changing and developing but also equally important to celebrate its past and to learn from it; but not to live in the past or become a prisoner of it.
Which is why this is not call for a return to what some people consider to have been a “golden age”. Those days are gone, the world has moved on and listeners’ tastes and lifestyles have also changed. Radio, too, has had to evolve in order to keep pace and remain relevant.
This is about the need to understand that, as historians tell us, in order to make sense of the present and the future we have to understand the past, otherwise we learn nothing about ourselves.
‘Independent Local Radio’ was conceived in the early-1970s when the country’s media, social, political, economic and technological landscapes were very different to how they are today.
Much has changed over the past 40 years and radio today is having to operate in a very different, and rather alien, environment to that envisaged in 1971, when the government ‘White Paper’ outlining plans for An Alternative Service of Radio Broadcasting was published.
During that time successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have introduced legislation which has turned the original concept of ‘Independent Local Radio’ into ‘Commercial Radio; and we are now where we are because of it.
I have often suspected that much of the ‘White Paper’ and subsequent 1972 Sound Broadcasting Act was a means of getting the proposals through a conservative (with a small ‘c’) parliament; Postmaster General Christopher Chataway’s way of allaying MPs’ fears that commercial radio would be little more than non-stop pop jukeboxes. That was the argument put forward by those opposed to commercial radio, or who wanted Britain to avoid what they considered to be the “excesses” of commercial radio in the USA.
Under the Act the Independent Broadcasting Authority would own the actual licences and appoint ‘programme contractors (i.e. the stations) to provide local ‘franchises’. The term ‘Independent Local Radio’ was the preferred description of the new service; referring to ‘commercial radio’ was frowned upon. Stations would pay an annual ‘rental’ to the IBA with the more-profitable also being subject to a ‘secondary rental’ levy to be used to help fund specialist programming such as concerts and documentaries, which would also be made available for other stations to broadcast.
With the exception of London, which was to have two stations – one providing ‘General Entertainment’ and the other ‘News’ – there would be just one ILR station serving a particular locality who would be expected to provide a broad range of programming and would be required to provide “a public service disseminating information, education and entertainment”.
This, along with ‘Needletime’ restrictions – no more than 50% of airtime, with a maximum of 9 hours a day, could come from “commercial gramophone records” – ensured that the new ILR stations could not be a straightforward replacement to the 1960s pirate stations by simply playing music.
Even Capital’s original schedule included drama, daily serials (She And Me, Dapple Downs), a weekly arts magazine, classical music (presented by the late Robin Ray – and an early ‘blueprint’ for the future Classic FM) and Brian Rust’s Sunday evening show where he played vintage 78s.
News was considered the most important aspect of programming, even to the extent that the IBA decided how much news a station should carry. There was also a requirement to provide programmes “of an educational, religious, informational, children’s or other specialised nature”.
The IBA also determined a station’s broadcast hours. Although LBC and Capital were 24-hours from the start, many of the other new ILR stations had to close down at Midnight or 2.00am; sometimes even earlier. Radio Orwell in Ipswich, the smallest of the first wave of stations in the 1970s, originally opened at 6.00am and closed at 8.00pm; later being allowed an extension to 10.00pm. In the 80s Severn Sound used to finish at 8.30pm following their daily 30-minute farming programme.
For those whose experience of dealing with the regulator has been either with the ‘light touch’ Radio Authority or the lighter (but ‘evidence-based’) Ofcom, the heavy regulation of the Independent Broadcasting Authority during the 1970s and 1980s will probably come as something of a shock.
As former Radio Authority Chief Executive Tony Stoller describes it in his book Sounds of Your Life: The History of Independent Radio in the UK, the IBA was a very hands-on regulator.
Beyond the annual monitoring exercise, the chief mechanism for keeping ILR companies to their obligations was prior approval of programme schedules. Stations had to submit proposed schedules quarterly, with additional proposals for Christmas, Easter and any other time of significant change from normal output. The detail required was formidable, including regular feature items within each programme; the amount of music normally played within programming; regular competitions and promotion spots; time and duration of news bulletins; non-British content; live music slots; and any networked, syndicated or purchased material. Along with the fully exercised right of the IBA to approve any changes in broadcasting hours, this was highly interventionist regulation, and involved a lot of paperwork. IBA Radio Division staff actually checked all the incoming schedules, and did not infrequently go back to stations to require changes. In practice, though, the relationship was more sympathetic and informal than the apparent rigidity of the system implies.
Included in a Radio Consultative Committee Paper in 1978, in what was for those days a rare flash of lightness, was a supposed “caricature” of a scheduling discussion.
ILR programme controller: “Can I have approval to give the Top 40 show on Sundays to Bill Smith, so that Fred Jones can stand in for Ian Brown doing jazz on Wednesdays?
IBA radio officer: “We don’t mind too much about that, but isn’t it time you included some local education?
That was not so far from reality, as I recall it, revealing the depth of involvement of the regulator in the programming process.
The way we make radio has certainly changed. In 1973 a typical radio studio would have been equipped with record turntables, cartridge machines and reel-to-reel tape machines. All of those have now been replaced by computer playout systems and presenters are no longer required to juggle records, carts and tapes throughout their shows; something a friend of mine once called “the ballet of radio”. Mind you it did keep you on your toes!
Tape editing was done using razor blades and sticky tape, while metal tape spools at high-speed during fast-forward or rewind could be quite dangerous if your fingers got in the way! Can you imagine dealing with the inevitable Health & Safety risk assessment you would need to go through in order to do it like that today? Instead the ‘Undo’ button makes life so much easier and avoids having to rummage through the bits of previously-discarded tape in the rubbish bin to find the one you needed earlier. It could be argued, though, that the old-fashioned method did at least force you think more carefully before making that cut.
The way people listen to radio has also changed, thanks to the emergence of the BBC iPlayer, RadioPlayer, smartphone apps, podcasts, downloads and online streaming, while radio itself faces increasing competition for people’s time from multi-channel TV, the internet, music services such as Spotify and Last.fm as well as gaming; the recent media hype over the release of ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ is proof of the popularity of that particular market. Radio no longer exists in its own little media ‘bubble’ and today’s practitioners ignore that at their peril.
All of this means radio has now grown into being a multi-platform medium which now means, as Clive Dickens (ex-Absolute Radio, now with Southern Cross Austereo) put it “We go where our audience is – online, on demand, on-air, on everywhere.
One common gripe I have with the UK radio industry is that too often it seems unable, or unwilling, to learn from its mistakes. Some newly-promoted managers seem keen to re-invent the wheel simply because they want to make their mark rather than because what they are doing will actually improve their station’s performance. Once they’ve finished sorting out the inevitable mess, they move on (or are moved on) and someone else then comes in and inevitably starts changing everything again.
Wanting to change something just because “it’s always been done that way” isn’t the way to go about it. Obviously a station should continually be evaluating itself, and finding new and better ways of doing things; that’s how you continue to remain relevant to your target audience. It’s when the new methods turn out not to be better, or have not been thought through properly in the first place, that the problems begin. “If it ain’t broke…break it, then bodge it back together again” becomes the new mantra; even though things rarely work as well as they did before.
Similarly, some less-enlightened members of senior radio management have been known to dismiss the past as “irrelevant”, with the result that large quantities of (often valuable) archive recordings have ended up in a skip when a ‘heritage’ ILR has dumped its, er, heritage. I know I’m not alone in having rescued such material in the past and then being asked to lend it back to the same station some years later.
In 2013 Radio faces new challenges, though, and, despite what some people might wish, the way forward is not to turn back the clock to how things were done before. No matter how good something may be, it must move on. We can revisit the past and appreciate how wonderful it was, but we must also find a way to relish the present as radio continues to evolve and develop in order to remain relevant. That is the exciting challenge we face.
To quote Randy Michaels, former CEO of Clear Channel Radio, at a US radio convention a few years ago: “. . . this isn’t the radio I got into the business to do, but it is the radio we have today. Those who can adapt and embrace it will survive.”
Read more from Paul Easton on his blog at pauleaston.co.uk
Control Room 2 at LBC in December 1974 – with TO Paul Easton and Producer Philip Bacon.
Photo: © Martin Stevens 1974