Your station of the stars 1 

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The station of the stars, Radio Luxembourg

Although Luxembourg had been broadcasting to Britain since the thirties, it was not until around 1960 that it began to aim itself squarely at the youth market. At a time when the amount of pop music on British radio was small, Luxembourg quickly established itself as having the ‘alternative’ status in comparison to the BBC, that Channel 4 was to cultivate over twenty years later.

Radio Luxembourg was transmitted, as the name suggests, from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg – sandwiched between France and Germany, in Northern Europe.

Radio Luxembourg's transmitter
The transmitter which served the UK was 30 miles from the studio and only 2 miles from the German border

At a time when the U.K. had no commercial radio, the Luxembourg authorities made a profitable ‘invisible export’ by supplying advertising lead radio entertainment to countries without such services at home.

What's on 208?
A typical 1966 evening schedule

The English service was on the air in the evenings, when medium wave was at its most effective for long distance reception. A daytime station over such distances would not have been possible to receive in the North of Britain. There was also a shortwave transmitter for listeners in the USA, but this was a courtesy, not being regarded as a source of income.

By today’s standards, the format of Radio Luxembourg’s English service seems strange. Variety of personality were the watchwords, with the whole of the evening broken down into a series of 15 and 30 minute segments, each with different presenters. The programmes were sponsored, which gave the advertising a quite different feel to what was familiar on ITV at the time.

The very phrase “the next programme is brought to you by the makers of…” seemed almost subversive, compared to the strict separation of adverts and programmes on ITV. Interestingly a number of Associated-Rediffusion announcers also worked for Radio Luxembourg at weekends, with Howard Williams and Muriel Young having their own programmes.

Indeed ITV was very much seen as Radio Luxembourg’s main competitor – rather than the BBC. Both ‘Luxy’ as teenagers called it, and ITV were on the air in the evening, and both competed for the same cash income from advertisers.

There were certain products that Radio Luxembourg advertising seemed to specialise in. Cosmetics, Confectionery, Beverages, Shampoo, Wines and Spirits, Petrol and bizarrely, patent plans for football pool ‘win formulas’. The latter, banned from television, were a staple of Luxembourg advertising for years, with the famous “Infra-Draw method” of the Pools millionaire Horace Batchelor. There can hardly be a member of the sixties generation who is unaware that Keynsham is a suburb of Bristol, where Horace had his “world headquarters”, nor indeed how to spell it!

The number of presenters required by these shows was so vast, that the company would have been faced with the prospect of flying planeloads of personalities over to Luxembourg on a weekly basis. This problem was solved by pre-recording around 80% of the output on tape in London, and flying a crate of open reel tapes out to the Grand Duchy each week. The company had a special express freight contract with British Eagle airlines for the purpose.

For many years the company had tried to secure live land line facilities from London to Luxembourg – but these were consistently denied by the GPO on instructions of the Postmaster General. It had been British government policy for over thirty years to prohibit commercial radio in the UK, and providing a means for live commercial broadcasts from London was seen at governmental level as being contrary to that policy.

Barry Alldis
Barry Alldis, Chief announcer, British Department

About 20% of the Luxembourg output was produced live, in the Grand Duchy, where a team of 5 “resident announcers” would live for a month at a time, before having a weeks leave back in the UK It was a hard life for these ex-pat broadcasters, at a time when Luxembourg itself was not a sophisticated city in which to live. Famous names, such as Pete Murray, Keith Fordyce, and Teddy Johnson all started their careers as ‘resident announcers’.

The live programmes were mainly the early and late evening fare which relied on ‘spot advertising’. The sponsors were more interested in the mid-evening shows, when audiences were at their highest.

Personalities such as Alan Freeman, Jack Jackson, David Jacobs and Jimmy Savile, all had regular shows on the station.

This happy mixture of live and pre-recorded shows was so well blended, with continuity announcers between each segment doing station idents and spot ads, that most listeners assumed the whole output to be live. The London studios were assumed to have a landline to the foreign transmitters, though this was always a subtle hoax as far as the management were concerned.

Listener loyalty was so great, that no one seemed to mind.

Daily record request shows were produced live, so that postcards bearing dedication to loved ones could be read out on the day they arrived. The daily request show at 7pm in the Winter, but 8 pm in the Summer, ran for over thirty years, a staple of the eight hours per day that the station was on air.

One odd strand that Luxembourg kept up, was imported Christian evangelical rants from the USA. These were relayed for the sponsorship income alone, and the management always found them an embarrassment. They were tucked away after midnight until the early sixties, when they were moved to the very start of transmission at 6pm, to clear the decks for more music after twelve. They were embarrassing almost to the point of parody.

At half an hour a day, they represented a valuable income for the station. The presenters of one show “The World Tomorrow” , became satirised personalities in their own right, when the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, lead by Vivian Stanshall, parodied them in their LP track “The Intro and the Outro”.

The names “Herbert W. Armstrong” and his son “Garner Ted Armstrong” could never be taken seriously again by the teenagers of the time.

So many products became associated with Radio Luxembourg. “Clearasil”, “Gordon Moore’s cosmetic toothpaste”, “Sunsilk Shampoo” and “Fry’s Crunchie” particularly stood out as stalwarts of the Luxembourg range.

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The whole operation came across as extremely professional, with many well known TV and Radio stars appearing once a week, for a fifteen minute slot, as guest disc jockeys. Continuity announcers separated the segments and the whole thing felt like ITV without the pictures. The music policy, “Middle of the Road” in the early sixties, became more “Top 40″ as the decade wore on, and competition from pirate radio appeared.

Europe's greatest commercial radio station

In a remarkable tribute to Luxembourg as brand leader, most of the pirate ships that arrived after 1964, curtailed their evening transmissions between 9 pm and midnight, so as to protect Luxembourg’s prime time income. As the manager of Radio London, Philip Birch said “They are the flagship of the commercial radio movement – we respect them for the time they stood alone”

The biggest source of income for the station was record shows sponsored by the record companies themselves. The latest new releases were given an airing, and though years later the practice became frowned upon and regarded as unacceptable, no one at the time seemed to think it wrong for record companies to flog their new releases in this way.

In a world of extraordinary radio choice, it is difficult thinking back to those pre-pirates and pre Radio One days, to the joy and satisfaction that Radio Luxembourg brought to the younger generation of the early sixties.

 

Kif Bowden-Smith

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