Don’t you just love the smell of old books. That whiff of history.
‘Local Radio in the Public Interest’ was a delicious aquamarine pamphlet, published proudly by the BBC in February 1966 as it laid claim to local radio. If there were to be a local radio network once more, the BBC should bloody well provide it, argues this vintage stapled document.
In just 15 musty pages, Auntie sets out her stall for the next phase of broadcasting in the white heat of the Harold Wilson era. Amidst the BBC Trust's 2015 local radio review it makes interesting reflective reading.
BBC Local stations would "devote themselves to local issues and interests, to provide a service which would effectively enlarge the range of broadcasting in Britain". Fearing the sceptical reader’s harrumph, the following paragraph explains: "it would be a mistake to assume that all this would make dull broadcasting. People like to have their radios talking to them, especially when the talking is done by friendly and familiar people about matters which touch them directly".
There’s an insistence on truly local stations, not made-up regions. "Long experience of regional and area broadcasting has convinced the Corporation that a station addressing a plurality of local groupings is continually at a disadvantage – as its listeners can never be sure that what it is saying is really meant for them, rather than for the people in another town".
Such stations cost £30-35k to set up, including transmitters, studios and ‘office appliances’. I'm unsure just how many office appliances existed back then. A guillotine maybe? An overhead projector? Or the station manager’s legendary Friday afternoon cocktail cabinet.
Premises would be 'inexpensively rented'.
At the outset, VHF (FM) alone was thought to be sufficient for transmission. FM set penetration was, at that time, approaching the same level as DAB is now.
"15 men and women" would be poised to operate the station, with running costs overall at about £1,000 a week. “The station must be on air right through the day. Unless there is consistency, listeners will never remember when it is available and when it is not.” At the end of local broadcasts, station managers were trusted to "switch over" to whichever BBC network they liked for however long they liked.
The prospect of non-BBC local radio was derided. Auntie conceded, however, that commercial ‘jukebox’ stations could be on-air quicker, not least because ‘their staff would mainly be disc jockeys, and they could be imported readily enough from overseas”. Gosh.
Whilst a network of 80 stations was outlined, not least if 5 shillings could be added to the licence fee, the Beeb did suggest it could manage a modest nine at no extra cost. The latter plan came to pass.
Far from the ‘monolithic’ BBC image, it argued that responsibility for local radio would be delegated: “The aim would be that listeners would come to regard their local station as our station not as the BBC station in our town. The BBC would not try to impose a central pattern or any form of 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".
Station managers would be "of the best possible quality…expected to participate in local affairs". They would be "close to their listeners" and decent means of keeping in touch with their views would be established.
The pamphlet then lists a managers’ charter, under which I suspect most gifted Man Eds would like to work today.
For those seeking a 21st Century blueprint for BBC local radio, these fifteen pages make a decent start. Back to basics: genuinely local; sensible staffing; listener-driven; managers allowed to manage; staff steeped in their areas; operated at a bargain basement budget; inexpensive premises; transmitted only on the right platforms; no 'made-up regions'; ‘friendly and familiar people on-air’.
The fact that the entire local radio philosophy could be outlined in 1966 at a length equivalent to a modern-day compliance memo speaks volumes.
If ever the BBC invite me to present formally my detailed blueprint for local radio away from its crazy BBC News landlord – and I hope they will one day – I shall hand out this fusty 15 page pamphlet over coffee first; before I outline how we would take advantage of the most modern technology, radio thinking and contemporary audience insight to deliver on the 1966 principles - at a price sustainable for the next generation.
My book: 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques & tips for today's broadcasters and producers, published by Biteback