Thursday 21 February 2013

Commercial Radio. How it might have been.

Robin Day adjusted his bow tie and wheezed.

Across a black and white TV studio, the Swingometer nudged a touch into the red in the dark hours of night. His sweaty Conservative front-bencher guest shifted uncomfortably in his leathern seat as the UK prepared to wake up to another Labour morning.

It was March 1966. Good old Harold had called a quick General Election to fix his small majority. Young Ted Heath had barely sailed his way around the Opposition leadership. He lost. Labour was returned to Number 10.

What might have happened had the swing been the other way? It could so easily have been.

A fresh Conservative government would have quietly been just as eager to sideline the pirate chappies broadcasting from the North Sea, as the 70s were to prove. It would, though, have been more sympathetic to the prospect of legitimate commercial radio.  And less at ease with the prospect of the BBC spreading its wings at all, let alone into pop and local radio.  History suggests that BBC Local Radio's eventual arrival turned out to be touch and go: it dawned,  thanks in no small part to the persuasive case from the great Frank Gillard. And Auntie's foray into pop music radio certainly had its critics within and outwith its own camp.

A smug, new 1966 Conservative Culture Secretary who smiled to camera as he walked across Downing Street in that March sunshine would have had a number of exciting ideas in his head.  What would he do with the huge swathe of unused FM spectrum?  Although FM radios were few and far between, the likelihood was that they would catch on.  Maybe an F-Love ad campaign or something similar might have helped.  So, nothing to be lost.  Give the private sector a bash. Charge them for spectrum usage and see what happens. 

Local or national? Well, there was no proven track record of local radio; and, we know for sure, plenty of voices suggesting that it would amount to but "triviality and mediocrity...even if the parish pump could be kept would have no listeners" (The Times, Feb 1962).  So, to get maybe a little more Treasury trove for that spectrum than maybe the 2013 Government got for 4G, probably a few national radio licences would have been prepared for the rubber stamp.

Roll on February 1967.  Test transmissions crackle through the ether for the new national commercial Radio Elizabeth.

It wouldn’t have been very good. 

History suggests that some early commercial blood clearly understood competitive format radio, programming slick stations some way ahead of their time. Other early commercial operators were more comfortable with stentorian Lost Dog radio.  The record shows that many led the charge against, not for, large regional and national commercial stations. 

Ironically, the eventual architect of BBC Radio 1, Robin Scott, would probably have made a decent fist of programming the commercial Radio Elizabeth in 1967, had he sat in the PD chair with his pile of ¼ inch tapes of the pirate Radio London.  'Stand-by for switching.  Radio Elizabeth. Go!"  He would have been wisely complemented by one of the more rational and commercially-astute pirate chaps in the office next door as Sales Director/MD; and a miserable FD to remind him not to hire every single DJ off the pirate ships.  And Tony Blackburn would still have been first on.  Woof woof. 

Its audience success, however, would probably have depended just how free the regulatory codes were.  Would these foolscap pages have permitted a national station which sounded like an early brash and colourful Trent or Beacon; or would the regulator have insisted on something more akin to a nascent, more reserved Hallam or BRMB?  One imagines a brave Tory Culture Secretary would have been less inclined to deposit radio’s regulatory duties down Brompton Road  with the IBA; and invent a new, more liberal radio regulator.  Not least because the latter might be more likely to offer him some Brits tickets, so he could take his mistress to see the Rolling Stones.

It would have sorted itself out.  As would the next commercial national.  They would have been sold on a few times; and settled. No station would have been made to do speech, so TalkSPORT would never have been born. Similarly, the management of Radio Elizabeth would not have been inclined to nod through an Xcel spreadsheet about a format change to Classical music.
Seeing the glint of cash, the regulator would have shoved the police messages off 105-108 MHz by the end of the 60s, and made way for a limited network of local commercial radio in major cities.  

Then, as the 1966 Tory Government was pushed aside in a hasty 1970 Election, the BBC would be able to make headway and persuade an excited re-elected Harold Wilson that BBC Local Radio was the only way communities of under 300,000 were going to get a local radio service at all.

Where would we be by 2013?  Brand-led national commercial radio would be a generation ahead of where it is now; and advertisers would have been able to grasp the medium and buy it with ease.  Without Radio 1, commercial radio would be delivering the lion’s share of listening and a share of advertising a few % ahead of where it now sits.  Brand integration would never have been banned, let alone un-banned.  Powerful national pop-brands would be complemented by successful and proud big-city radio; and the BBC would be better-funded to do more of exactly what it does best in top quality speech, smaller markets, minority formats, and older demographics.

As it has turned out, we are wisely engineering much of the above backwards, with some necessary pain along the way, probably to a slightly less satisfactory conclusion.  We’ve had little choice.  The last 40 years have been a tough journey with huge frustrations.  Its idiosyncrasies though have provided a fund of some truly great memories and rich learnings.  Radio will never be quite like it again.


  1. And then Mr Wilson gave the vote to 18-year-olds, and closed their pirate radio stations down. And then ordered a secret Royal Naval establishment to jam A Swiss-owned pirate radio station in 1970. And lost the 1970 election after Radio Caroline owner Ronan O'Rahilly got his revenge on Wilson by re-launching Radio Caroline to campaign against the Labour government.

    Probably the only person shocked by this turn of events was Mr Wilson.

  2. Not sure I buy this as a plausible scenario *in itself* and *in isolation*; what I mean by that is that the shift of broadcasting policy is the result and product of a much greater shift across the whole of British politics, and for these changes to happen at that time would, I think, require a much greater reversal of the Tory party's acceptance of the Attlee reforms and the much greater role the state then acquired. Something a) much stronger than what Heath actually put forward from 1970-72, and b) that he'd have had the will to stick with rather than abandon when the going got tough (as he had in fact done by the time ILR came into being). So while I'm not denying that this in many ways *should* have happened - it would have been more logical and made more sense than a lot of what we ended up with - I think it would have required *everything else* to have changed first, and that couldn't have happened overnight in 1967. Things like the requirement for the INR FM franchise to play music "other than pop music", or the absence of any full reorganisation of the FM band, were the result, in large part, of the feudalism and class divisions built into the British state and its inability to completely remake itself through never having been invaded, or gone fascist or communist, and therefore never having had the absolute need for a Year Zero to cleanse itself of such things. If even the Thatcher government left a lot of that stuff in place, what chance would a much less ideological Tory government have had of throwing them on the fire in a state like this? Never underestimate how many Tories, even today, don't *really* like capitalism (some of them, fascinatingly, like it less than a lot of Marxists do). Also, while it is perfectly true that many younger Tories hung out in pop-cultural worlds back then (a major factor in the enthusiasm so many had for offshore radio), the Brit Awards didn't yet exist in the 1960s, and I don't think any such event in which pop culture seamlessly takes its place in the establishment - and vice versa - could have done so. That shared desire for control is very much a post-Thatcher phenomenon.

    Still a fascinating scenario, though, and an interesting imagination of the world we've lived in being subtly, quietly different, many of the same changes but parallel, differently-directed forces driving them - my favourite kind of alternative history, much better than old chestnuts of a fascist or communist Britain which our very national temperament would never have allowed to happen. Although without pop radio in the public sector, what would happen to John Peel? For how long could stations sustained by the market, rather than idealism that could only be so idealist because it knew it wouldn't be allowed to last, have room for something like the Perfumed Garden or punk equivalents? (I appreciate I am biased here, and would welcome opposing views on this matter.)

  3. Also, without pop radio would the BBC have necessarily been "better-funded" to do the more traditionally PSB stuff? Might it not have been that the money now spent on Radio 1 or BBC London was spent making the Asian Network or Radio Cornwall or Radio 4 side projects better, but more that a section of the audience resented paying the licence fee on the grounds that it was "elitist" (assuming the same broader political shifts still happen) and thus caused its reduction or a shift to subscription?

    Please don't think I'm picking holes - I just wonder how it would all have panned out. I can't help it; I'm an alternative history freak and therefore notice these things where others might not ...

  4. Interesting stuff, Robin. Feel free to pick holes! It was very much a think-piece: wild conjecture, assembled on a foundation of some facts.

  5. I know the Brit Awards was not around in the 60s, by the way! It was intended as but a sniff of topical humour in the week of writing!


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