Thursday 31 December 2015

Farewell Medium Wave

Farewell, dear friend.

AM has fallen silent across a chunk of Europe as engineers in France, Germany and Luxembourg flicked the switches and turned off their Medium Wave signals at midnight on New Year's Eve. Au revoir.

Amongst others, Deutschlandradio closed down its seven Medium Wave transmitters; and Radio France, France Info, France Blue RCFM and France Blue Elsass all went dark. RTL also finally turned off the famous 1440 (208m) Luxembourg apparatus which had carried our 'Luxy' service until 1991.

In the UK, the BBC has quietly begun to shut down some of its power-hungry BBC local radio AM transmitters, using the cunning plan of turning them off for a ‘trial‘ and seeing if anyone notices. Many though still battle on. Commercial radio’s local AM business is in peril too, with many frequencies kept breathing by leaning on parallel brands and sharing business overheads.  If the little chicks had to feed themselves, most would likely perish.

BBC 5 Live still delivers appreciable audiences on AM as do Talksport and Absolute. The national scale of those stations adds bulk to the UK AM total listening hours figure, but one imagines that the costs of transmission and the Ofcom licence fees mean that the owners, UTV and Bauer, can see the day when they wouldn’t trouble to contest their AM licences. DAB alone would work better for them.

Radio 4 boasts a clutch of Medium Wave transmitters, but its prize possession remains its powerful 198 Long Wave transmitter, beaming out from an antenna slung from the 700' high masts at Droitwich. The closure of that would be for the BBC what the poll tax was for Maggie.  Don’t mess with Middle England. Woman's Hour sounds best with the warm rounded AM sound booming out a Hacker.  It may be apocryphal, but it is suggested that this dusty transmitter relies on valves which can no longer be replaced. Like much of the ageing AM transmission infrastructure, it’s long past its best. Mind you, in the words of Stephen Butt (@KibworthStephen), this transmitter is 'the most resilient part of the BBC's radio system - with copper wire feeds'!

It’s all to be expected. When a superior option exists, the market moves elsewhere. FM easily took the AM territory, although it took a little time, dictated by FM radio set availability. The DAB parallel is clear.

From 1967, the BBC launched local stations solely on FM albeit a little prematurely for the new band's usefulness. They were subsequently afforded Medium Wave back-up to help their audiences thrive.  Without that support, they might have suffered the digital death of One Word or Core.

By the early seventies, it was seen as the other way round for commercial radio, broadcasting proudly in stereo on FM, with Medium Wave as support. Having said that, the audience remained largely AM in those early days owing to set availability – hence the wavelengths forming part of those familiar early stations idents: ‘2-fifty- sevunnn – Swansea Sound’; ‘Capital – 194’; and the luscious ‘Beacon – 303’.

I recall rusty Cortinas only had Medium Wave sets. Actually, our Vauxhall Victor didn’t even have that – we used to bung a red tranny on the parcel shelf at the back when returning from Skegness.

It did have its magic. But – let’s be honest - it's pretty foul to listen to.  AM has had its day. The burring when you switched on your cake mixer; the overseas stations marching to our shores overnight; the Doctor Who noises as you drove under electricity cables; and that curious 'Luxembourg effect' on 208 when it sounded like poor Bob Stewart and his Stuyvesant fags ads were being turned inside out.  

'In every hearse that goes by, there's an AM listener', quotes @_DavidHarber.

So, the end must be nigh for our beloved AM after around a century of use.  It's done us proud.  BBC 5 Live (1994), Atlantic 252 (1989) and Laser 558 (1984) were likely the last UK AM stations  to launch with sufficient scale to disrupt.  Its death, however, is evidently likely to be slower here than other parts of Europe, where 'the old is giving way to the new'. Both DAB and FM sound much better – even though maybe they don’t quite sound like ‘radio’.

And - when it is all over - at least we won't still get those intense letters from Norway proclaiming they have heard our stations and demanding a QSL reception acknowledgement. Yes, it was indeed us. But surely you have your own stations to listen to? Or some gardening or something to do?

Grab a copy of my book 'How to Make Great Radio' from Amazon today!

Wednesday 16 December 2015

In Praise of the Tape Cassette

Kenny was unbelievably excited as a kid when he was given his second tape recorder as a gift.  Radio anoraks will understand how enjoyment was amplified manifold with a second machine. One machine meant you could record and play; two enabled you to copy and mix.

These were simple times. The Radio Times was printed on toilet paper; Morecambe and Wise ruled on the black and white telly; and Ed Stewart broadcast on Christmas mornings on medium wave from a magic carpet.  But most importantly, yes, these were the days of audio tape cassettes.  A devilishly clever transparent plastic box housing a plastic gubbins laced with mucky brown tape.

The sight of an audio cassette excites a generation even now. Would it be a C60, C90 or C120? The latter could accommodate an entire edition of the BBC's Top 20 chart show, but it was frail and could die without warning. Would it be a bargain ASDA version, or a more resilient TDK, Agfa or Philips one. An old colleague reminds me he once interviewed the BASF Chairman, who was a little perturbed to find that his company, the largest chemical producer in the World, seemed best known for its cassettes.

The pause button on the cassette machine was a boon. It allowed we anoraks to record the bits in between records almost seamlessly, so we could assemble hours of 'bits of radio'. A clip here, a favourite presenter there, spiced with a great jingle with the beginning cut off. 

Playing through those cassettes now, it’s annoying to find the promise of a priceless piece of radio begin before it’s chopped off in its prime in favour of a jingle you’d already heard a million times.

Mind you, direct recording with an actual wire lead was a significant advance from the analogue method of simply holding the mic next to the radio speaker. Treasured recordings were accompanied by Mother yelling you down for tea, your brother squealing or the dog barking.

We’d assemble playlists of our favourite songs on cassettes.  Before the days of ‘shuffle’ the song order would be imprinted on our minds. Whenever one familiar melody cropped up on the radio, you’d be inexplicably surprised when a different one followed.

Cassette boxes were an artform.  Some teenagers would neatly design them with Valerie Singleton enthusiasm using a rainbow of felt tip pens.  Others would just label illegibly, next to a second scribbled-out note of the tape's previous contents.

Many cassette machines were battery-powered.  Record something with an ailing battery and it'd play back at double speed when you'd saved up enough pocket money for four new Ever Ready U2s.  I recall one listener once phoning up the music library at Trent asking deliciously tetchy librarian Jane to identify a song he'd recorded thus. Hilarity ensued.

Theoretically, one could splice on a tape cassette, but alas, the survival rate was low. You'd only do it usually if the alternative was cassette-death.  Such an operation was conducted with forensic care, using a special kit from Woolworths comprising an editing block with two metal levers, a razor blade, a baby screwdriver and some magical white sticky tape. Sellotape did work, but the prognosis was diminished further. A pencil was deployed to twiddle round in the hole to rein in escaping tape.

Those treasured old cassettes, secreted in boxes or crinkly old carrier bags, still just about play, provided a cassette player can be found.  As the tape disintegrates, however, much of the oxide is left on the tape heads and our fond childhood recordings sound as if played through a sock. I'm aware that 'the oven trick' can be used to restore reel-to-reel tape, although I fear cassettes may just melt.

With vinyl making a comeback, and even CDs enjoying a resurgence as people crave some physicality and audio 'ownership', maybe it's time to hail the official revival of the C60. May I suggest Adele release her next album on cassette only? And may I have a triple pack of blanks in my stocking?

Radio is not just for Christmas, it's for life.  Please buy my book for a friend this Yule. Proceeds to the Radio Academy

Saturday 5 December 2015

The 2015 Radiomoments Clips of the Year

No year-end is complete without a gratuitous chart or two. 

My Radiomoments Audioboom channel, now replete with over a thousand choice cuts from 1922 to the present day, and amassing over two thirds of a million listens, has had a decent year. 

But which clips reaped the most plays in 2015 from the UK’s radio lovers? This chart is built on exact AudioBoom stats, although, I confess, not audited to the BBC's exacting compliance standards.

5. At Number Five – an old favourite from 1991.  Johnners gets his leg over with, as the Radio Times might say, hilarious results.  When commentating for BBC Radio 3’s Test Match Special at the Oval, Jonathan Agnew mischievously suggested that Ian Botham had failed to "get his leg over"; and a classic radio corpse ensues.  You know what it's like.  You laugh at the wrong moment. The more you try to stop laughing; the more you laugh. And then just as you recover, your mind drifts back to why you were laughing in the first place; and off you go again. 

This clip proves that laughter is indeed infectious and that radio loves authenticity. Bar Morecambe & Wise, are there many short moments of laugh-out-loud television which endure quite like this?

4. Number Four – means a lot to a generation.  In this labour of love, attracting over 11,000 plays overall, hear the first breaths of the pioneering UK commercial radio stations. Marvel at their early spirit and ambition, the merry launch imaging, and the voices of jolly just-awakened chairmen. Witness the changes in presentation styles, music and talk policy and jingles as the years flow by from 1973 to 1988. I can never quite recall how I had time to edit and mix this.

3. At Number Three, a new entry as Chris Moyles debuts on the new Radio X. The clip, and the station, prove yet again that radio can still make front page news after a hundred years. Arguably, bar Evans, few presenters have managed to take their audiences with them from one station to another, not least after a lull. It’s a puzzle how loyal listeners appear to be to a frequency, even if if its brand, presenters and music policy change.  Time will tell whether Moyles will carry off the feat and climb, in time, to his Radio 1 heights. I reckon X will boast a very respectable performance.

2. Number Two brings another familiar moment. Alice Arnold, accomplished Radio 4  announcer bids farewell. Her listeners grew to know her simply through the sheer presentation quality.  Her valedictory appearance shows a rare moment of emotion as she utters her last careful vowels with typical beauty. There's just a glimpse of pure, raw, honest radio peeking through the professionalism, rendered all the more powerful owing to its rarity.  Listeners and radio anoraks alike loved it.

1. At Number 1, a fitting new entry from an old friend. 2015 saw the death of the the much-loved Peter Donaldson. 'The Voice of Radio 4'.  The final words of this chief announcer were aired on 1st January 2013.  Upon his death, the national press reached out and embedded this clip, taking it soaring to Number One by some margin. His many fans on-air and his many adoring colleagues across the BBC will smile fondly to see Peter here as, deservedly, the most played radio clip across the UK in 2015.

Many thanks to all Radiomoments Twitter followers, and listeners to the weekly RadioToday podcast in which the weekly review is included (also found on my Boom channel).  

Thanks too to the many people who treasure and share audio: from the every helpful and impressive Andy Walmsley to; from the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting; to lovely Stephanie Hirst, and the expert on chart audio Richard White. Also to the many folk who simply email me random MP3s, post off bundles of cassettes or upload audio to my channel.  All such souvenirs are hugely welcome. If you have some 'tapes upstairs in a box', do let me know. I promise to take them off your hands and save your other half moaning at you.

As stations change ownership, premises and staff, alas too much material is lost. Without your efforts, some of the history of the greatest medium of all might too easily be forgotten. Happy New Year.

Grab my book for Christmas, on Amazon now! Proceeds to the Radio Academy

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