Your Station of the Stars 2 

15 August 2001 tbs.pm/3177

The Luxembourg Broadcasting Company, set up in 1930, first broadcast to Britain in 1933. As mentioned earlier in this series, the purpose of the organisation was to take advantage of “gaps in the market” to provide commercial broadcasting services “from without” aimed at those countries where the principal broadcasting services were predominantly state owned, or non commercial.

After the post war wavelength allocation conference at Copenhagen in 1948, Luxembourg emerged with a “stronger hand” than its size really merited. There was some recognition by the international authorities that the station had provided a service before the war to those countries who’s broadcasting systems had what was euphemistically called “cultural gaps”.

For the wavelength “era” beginning in May 1950, the organisation was allocated one high power long wave frequency, one high power medium wave frequency, one high power short wave frequency, and one low power short wave frequency. This was supplemented after the 1958 Stockholm conference by several VHF frequencies, one high power, and two more at low power. The low power ones were to provide a purely local service in the Luxembourgois dialect, a direct cross between French and German, spoken nowhere else.

This allocation was enough for the services that Luxembourg wished to broadcast at the time, although they knew that future expansion would be restricted, and that some sharing of wavelengths would be necessary.

Medium wave transmission has far greater reach after the hours of darkness, though conversely it is more prone to co-channel interference from other stations also ‘reaching further’. In the case of Radio Luxembourg, an English service on Medium Wave in the evening, during the Winter nights at least could be heard as far north as Scotland and Ireland, from a single transmitter in mainland Europe.

Summer nights were more of a problem, but the signal reception in Southern England at the start of transmission, crept Northwards during the evening, and matched the Winter reach by Sunset. This weakness in the transmission pattern was recognised in the advertising rate card, which marked down the prices for early evening spot ads in the Summer months.

The most profitable part of the Radio Luxembourg empire always was, and still remains the French service. Though it initially started with the same political restraints as the British service, the French authorities gave in more quickly to the evident popularity of the station, and allowed a landline arrangement from Paris to the transmitter in Luxembourg in the seventies, and consequently some programmes on the Radio Luxembourg French service come live from Paris today.

The French service was allocated the long wave frequency after May 1950. This reflected the desire to run the station from morning till night, and to cover as much of France, a very large country, as possible. Although long wave extends its reach marginally at night, the difference in daylight and darkness propagation qualities is less pronounced than on medium wave.

May 1950 essentially saw a swap of the company priorities as between the profitability of the French and English services. Prior to that date, the English service had shared long wave, and the French service was part long wave and part medium wave. The growing dominance of the French department within the company was reflected in the French service being given use of the ‘plum’ wavelength. In the longer run, the French service went ’24 hour’ , an opportunity never available to the British department.

The German audience of Radio Luxembourg, being geographically close to Luxembourg itself, was now given a timeshare of the medium wave transmission.

The whole of Western Germany and part of the East, could be easily reached on medium wave, even during daylight hours, and so the medium wave timeshare was an ideal placing.

This left the Dutch service, with programmes in Flemish. The service provided here was the “junior of the four language services” , and brought in less income that the French, English or German output. The main listeners in Holland and Flanders (part of Belgium) seemed to be housewives, and morning drivetime commuters in cars. Car radios were a growing novelty in the fifties, and the company wished to capitalise on that phenomenon,

without losing the housewives. Commuting by car was a growing habit in Holland in the fifties.

Thus the ideal solution for the medium wave timeshare was obvious. French would go 24 hours on long wave, while Dutch, German and English would have roughly a one third timeshare each of the 24 hours on the Medium Wave frequency.

From May 1950 the wavelength timeshare proposal would be:

  • Dutch service in the mornings, closing at twelve noon.
  • German service from noon,
  • English service in the Evenings from 7pm Central European Time (6pm GMT) for eight hours until the early morning.

In practice the Dutch service found it more profitable to take up only five hours of their allocation, as early morning audiences were initially small.

The final hours were therefore:

  • Dutch from 7am till Noon
  • German from Noon till 7pm
  • English from 7pm till 3am – all Central European Time.

The unused part of the Dutch allocation, from 5 to 7 am was used for religious programmes, usually in German.

This 24 hour timeshare arrangement perfectly caught the Dutch and Flemish morning commuters, and the housewives of Holland and Belgium. It provided light entertainment for the Germans in the afternoon, when German TV was not on the air, and caught the lucrative German car radio audience in the early evening. The British had the slot they coveted, using the onset of darkness to bounce the signal further.

It was agreed that the British service would be given the evening hours so that the propagation qualities of medium wave could be exploited to the full.

With the addition of VHF transmission in the late fifties, the German service could be heard morning and evening on the FM frequencies. These transmissions had a smaller coverage than medium wave, only serving Rhineland and Saarland from the Luxembourg transmitters.

This left only shortwave. It was agreed that the French service would be replicated for Canada on the lower power shortwave frequency, while on the higher power shortwave transmitter, the medium wave timeshare would be replicated for the United States, and also for German speakers in the western Soviet Union and Poland.

These plans were implemented in May 1950, and were an immediate success, with audience figures increasing dramatically for all services, compared to the previous arrangements.

Radio Luxembourg had set out its stall, and now stood on the threshold of a golden age – twenty years in which it would become the most powerful and successful commercial radio station in the world.

In future articles, we will look at the programmes, the personalities, and the on air presentation of “the station of the stars”.

The English Service of Radio Luxembourg, which broadcast for eight hours each day, from the early evening to the small hours of the morning, was but one part of a broadcasting empire that embraced other languages and companies.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Kif Bowden-Smith Contact More by me

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