One, Two, Three, Four… 

3 October 2007 tbs.pm/3227

With the aid of personal recollections, Mike Brown tells the story of the coming of Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The Summer of ’67 is usually described as the ‘Summer of Love’ but as someone who turned 12 that year I wasn’t really interested, except that over the previous 3 years or so I had grown to love my little tranny. No sexual overtones I hasten to point out: in those days tranny was simply short for transistor radio, a term invented, as far as anyone remembers, by my childhood hero Kenny Everett. My tranny went everywhere with me and the worst punishment my parents could inflict for any wrong-doing was to take away my tranny. Thus it was that in August of 1967 I couldn’t help seeing the closure of the pirate radio stations as a totally unjust and undeserved punishment inflicted by the government on the children of the entire nation.

Enough has been written – on this site and elsewhere – about the offshore radio stations, so it is to be hoped that readers of all ages will appreciate just how much a part of the nation’s culture these stations had become. They were no low power, local affairs, but clearly audible throughout most of the UK, and they were listened to in preference to any of the BBC’s stations by just about everyone under the age of about 35.

The main reason the stations prospered so well was that the BBC provided virtually no competition. Their three national networks – the Home Service, the Light Programme and the imaginatively named Third Programme – continued quite unconcerned, unaltered and apparently uncaring. It was as if, as far as the BBC and the Establishment were concerned, the pirate stations did not, officially, exist and therefore no reaction to them was possible.

The Home Service was the forerunner of the present Radio 4, providing a menu of mainly news and speech-based programming, leavened by some serious classical music concerts. The Third Programme was still ‘something-and-nothing’ to most people. It was, as yet, nothing like the present Radio 3 but was based around an extremely Reithian evening-time diet of intellectually inspired speech and largely inaccessible classical music. These were preceded by 60 minutes of Study programmes. The network also carried the bulk of the BBC’s sport output including the Saturday afternoon programme and Test Match Special.

The Light Programme broadcast Light Entertainment including comedy and some programmes of records produced by the Gramophone Department. These programmes included Housewive’s Choice, Midday Spin and Children’s Favourites. The morning and early early evening programmes were Breakfast Special and Roundabout (an early, if somewhat circular pre-echo of drive-time!) The network’s main pop music offerings were The Jack Jackson show, Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops (Sundays, 5-7pm) and Saturday Club (10am-12noon), presented by Brian Matthew. Saturday Club was by no means entirely a programme of top 40 singles and album tracks;. the programme also featured live sessions by groups and singers which usually sounded like pale imitations of the records themselves. Unlike the offshore pirate stations the BBC did, after all, have to comply with the so-called ‘needle-time’ agreement it had reached with the powerful Musician’s Union.

It was against this background that the BBC finally had to face up to the fact that an entire generation had grown up feeling that BBC radio was doing nothing for them and that Something Must Be Done. What they did is, of course, well documented. The new pop music network was called Radio 1, with the Light, Third and Home becoming Radios 2, 3 & 4 respectively.

Radio 1 was accommodated on the BBC’s 247m (1214kHz) wavelength which had previously been used to augment the Light Programme’s national service on 1500m (200kHz) Long Wave. Additional transmitters were built but technical limitations and night-time interference from a powerful transmitter in Albania meant that in many areas reception of Radio 1 was worse than that of the illegal pirates it attempted to replace. Why was it, many of us asked, that the pirates sounded OK but the legal, BBC station sounded so bad? Whatever the reasons, it made no sense. (Another point, which became more of an issue as the years went on, was that the other BBC stations were also on interference-free VHF/FM, but Radio 1 was not.)

Wonderful Radio 1 was not entirely a standalone network either. A number of programmes were shared with Radio 2, giving the definite impression that this new station was a half-hearted affair that the BBC was providing somewhat grudgingly. Whether or not this was entirely true, it was certainly the case that the management of the BBC were severely out-of-touch with what was needed. Former pirate DJs Kenny Everett and Tony Blackburn were enlisted to help design the new self-operated studios, the like of which had not existed within Broadcasting House before.

So what of the new programmes themselves? Tony Blackburn hosted the station’s breakfast show – almost certainly the safest and blandest choice the BBC could have made. His jokes were as old and cringeworthy then as they are today and he was not exactly seen as an adequate replacement for Kenny and Cash. Saturdays were little better with Junior Choice being little more than a revamped Children’s Favourites. There was also the brash and totally incomprehensible Emperor Rosko – quite where he had come from I neither knew nor cared. Some of the old Light Programme stalwarts not only remained but were firmly planted across both networks – Midday Spin, Family Favourites and the Top 40 shows, for example.

The BBC didn’t entirely miss the mark as the station soon became a popular choice on the building sites of the land, but those of us who had come to care for radio and and love the pirates were really inconsolable. Personally I tried enthusiastically to like the new Radio 1. When I went back to school after the holidays ‘Wonderful Radio 1 247m’ doodles replaced the ‘Big L 266m’ ones on my Rough Book but at that stage its launch was still some weeks in the future and my sense of anticipation ultimately proved more than a little misplaced! In the end it seemed that one of the best things about the new station was its new theme – George Martin’s excellent Theme One.

Radio 2, on the other hand, seemed to be enhanced by the changes. Depending on which of the the three presenters were on Breakfast Special I would, more often that not, remain tuned to Radio 2 after 7 am for the remainder of the Early Show and then either Ray Moore or John Dunn on Breakfast Special. Of course not all of Radio 2 appealed to my young ears by any means but it did seem to be what the BBC did best.

Radio 4 was essentially the Home Service in all but name; there was a change of emphasis in that all their classical music programming (with the exception of the long-running Choral Evensong) moved to Radio 3 which moved from being a part-time (morning/evening) station to an all-day (though not yet all-night) station.

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