When the bongs of Little John rang out on BBC Radio Nottingham on the final day of January 1968, no-one knew what the future would hold for this new BBC local radio service in the City.
Fifty years ago, Auntie was dipping her toe in local radio waters with what she dubbed ‘an experiment’, much to the chagrin of the determined early operators who preferred to call themselves pioneers. There was much to pioneer, given our City council had to offer to chip in half the running costs to pay for the station as a cautious Corporation shut its purse.
The Post reported ‘Nottingham gets a voice of Its own’ and that the station would be informative, controversial and educational “but will not be a stuffed-shirt service and will cater for everyone’s taste”. The Postmaster General made clear programmes should ‘never be dull’.
As the station crept on air on that cold Wednesday evening in January, the lead story on its impeccably-delivered inaugural ‘Nottingham Newsreel’ trumpeted the Ratcliffe on Soar power station pumping its first electricity into the national grid. News, however, was not pumped into the new radio stations with similar energy, indeed the station had no newsroom of its own, instead calling upon local news agencies to bash out the latest happenings in Carlton and Clifton on a Remington and breathlessly deliver carbon-copies on foot - or on the back of a bicycle.
Programme listings in the early days boasted an enviable range of brief local shows hosted by members of the twenty-strong team, under manager Gerald Nethercott, ‘Big G’, an ex-squadron leader. Each programme was iced with a catchy signature tune and clever name - and usually presented with due professionalism. ‘Wednesday Club’, ‘Lunchdate’, the arts show ‘Spectrum’ and ‘Elevenses’ sat alongside ‘Bran Tub’, a request programme hosted by a cheery presenter and two squeaky toy characters ‘Squeq and Syrup’. ‘The Town Crier’ rang his bell and delivered updates on beetle drives in Beeston and barn dances in Bakersfield.
In a ‘timeshare’-type arrangement, the remainder of the programmes were selected from the BBC network offerings, so our local jolliness would be curtailed in favour of a visit to London for ‘The World at One’ with the booming voice of William Hardcastle.
Station identification jingles came courtesy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, most famous for the hypnotic Doctor Who theme tune. With the brief being firmly ‘local’ for each station in the growing network, Sheffield was supplied with a jingle featuring percussion from knives and forks, and Nottingham got Robin Hood’s arrow, or at least the sound effect of one, likely conjured up with a few elastic bands by the clever minds in the tardis of this psychedelic Maida Vale Workshop.
As a young listener, I was enthralled by this remarkable addition to the radio dial. Broadcasting was surely something ‘proper’ which came from London – but to have it coming from a building on Mansfield Road and hearing the words ‘West Bridgford’ through the loudspeaker grille seemed uncanny. Presenter Tony Church shared my childlike enthusiasm for the magic created by this £40,000 of investment as he reflected later: “it was a strange mixture of the feeling that Marconi must have had when he first got the signal across the Atlantic…so there was that technical surprise, as ridiculous as that was in the 60s”.
It’s claimed that Radio Nottingham also mounted the first ever phone-in on UK radio, calling upon listeners to volunteer their annoyance with officialdom in a segment called ‘What are they up to now?’. Even listeners were treading new ground as they debuted on-air, answering: ‘I’m in my house’ when questioned on their whereabouts. As the audience warmed to their involvement, presenter John Holmes recalls that local telephone switchboards were temporarily disarmed by the sheer volume of calls.
Initially, BBC Radio Nottingham was confined to FM - at a time when FM was called ‘VHF’ and suitable receiver sets were rare and expensive. After making good use of one my clever brother had assembled from mail order components, we alighted on a second-hand model from Eddy’s on Alfreton Road, the shop from which anything in our house with a plug was routinely obtained. Whilst the station could also be heard on Rediffusion channel C, the rarity of FM sets made delivering an appreciable audience a challenge, and in due course, an AM frequency was proffered.
No-one of a certain generation eating mushy peas in Victoria Centre market will fail to recall Dennis McCarthy, even more than twenty years after his death. After persuading the station to allow him to present a Cruft’s Dog Show report in 1968, he quickly graduated to ‘The Sunday Show’, where Dennis and his family would turn mundane features to pure entertainment. ‘I’ve got some hardcore and a storage radiator to swap for a three-bar electric fire, Dennis’ a caller would routinely say on ‘Swap Shap’, before his clever probing resulted in a quite unrelated, fascinating moment of radio.
Dennis owned his city – and broke the rules. His programme often included gaps you could drive an NCT bus through. If a caller said she'd seen an unusual bird at the bottom of her garden, he'd invite her to go to see if it was still there. Listeners would hear the click of the latch on her door - and await her return. Dennis felt under no obligation to say anything, often for minutes. The Dennis silence was strangely compelling.
Like many, I took part in a few Dennis shows on a variety of pretexts - not least taking part in an anti-car theft jingle contest organised in conjunction with the local bobbies. I was pleased to hear Dennis announce I'd won - albeit but second prize.
Just as C60 cassettes, CDs and now music streaming have largely replaced vinyl in the home, the studio technology used by broadcasters has grown up too. Interviews which used to be recorded on hefty, allegedly portable, reel-to-reel tape machines can now be grabbed with the recording facility on a mobile phone and despatched to the station within seconds. Editing is now a matter of gazing at a colourful screen rather than hacking off a finger with a razor blade when extracting the relevant comment from a lengthy interview on quarter-inch tape. Records no longer stick - or play at the wrong speed and presenters no longer invite listeners to bang their phone receivers to clear a hissy line as Dennis routinely did. These are digital days.
BBC Radio Nottingham moved from York House to its swish new home on London Road in 1999; and the station’s approach and style has moved with the times too. It leans more nowadays on topical news discussion, holding local decision-makers to account and spreading its wings increasingly into the digital media world. But corners of the weekly programme schedule remain where tales are told and the City’s rich character reflected.
The station has played a proud part in its community. From the ‘Big Night Out’ initiative which encouraged listeners to return to their city to savour its evening atmosphere; to the many big names in music who have made their debut on ‘The Beat’. From Colin Slater’s thousands of beloved Magpies’ commentaries; to the ‘The Big Poppy Knit’ where listeners were invited to knit 11,000 poppies, representing the Nottingham men who died in the Great War. They produced well over 100,000.
Local radio is necessarily expensive, and cuts are frequently mooted as demands on the licence fee grow, but in a surprise announcement in November last year, a chipper Director General announced the latest savings plan lay in the Broadcasting House shredder. Indeed, in a ‘renaissance’, there’ll be more investment, and station managers will be urged to carve out their own unique sound for their city. The future of Radio Nottingham lies in its own hands.
In some ways, the new strategy sounds familiar. An aquamarine pamphlet published by the BBC in 1966 suggested listeners would come to regard their local station as “our station - not as the BBC station in our town”. The BBC stated it would not impose a “central pattern” or “detailed overall control on its local stations”. They would "do much to make listeners proud of their community and willing to take part in its affairs".
I'm hosting a talk at Waterstones in Nottingham on 6th February at 7 p.m: ‘The history of radio in Nottingham from the 1920s to now’. Do join us - tickets available at the store or here.