Pirate radio station run by schoolboys 

25 December 2020 tbs.pm/71439

 

Birmingham Post masthead

From the Birmingham Post for 29 June 1966

TWO 15-year-old schoolboys and a 17-year-old former pupil of George Dixon Grammar School, Birmingham, are operating a pirate radio station in Birmingham.

Post Office engineers are expected to try to locate the station this weekend and close it down. They may prosecute.

For about the last month the boys have been operating their station – called Radio Atlanta – from a secret transmitter in Southwest Birmingham. The transmitter and radio equipment is kept in the 17-year-old boy’s bedroom.

The boys broadcast on 237 metres in the medium wave band using a 10-watt homemade transmitter. In the 17-year-old’s back garden is a 38ft. [11.6m] aerial.

Radio Atlanta is on the air, broadcasting pop records, every Sunday between 10 a.m. and 12 noon. The boys test transmit on Fridays between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Warning

In one of their recent broadcasts they invited requests to be sent to a Shard End address — the home of one of the 15-year-old boys. But the boy’s father has told them to stop using the address and warned them that they could be prosecuted.

 

 

The boys are all keen on radio engineering and the eldest one works in a city radio shop. A friend built the transmitter for about £20 [£400 in 2020, allowing for inflation].

One of the 15-year-old boys disclosed that they hope to get a more powerful 100-watt transmitter — if the authorities do not locate them.

The boys have made no secret about their activities and their station has been advertised at George Dixon Grammar School. They have distributed printed cards and the staff room at the school is understood to have had a card, with the wavelength advertised, pinned to the wall.

Pop tunes

Westhill Training College, Birmingham, had a free “plug” on the station advertising its rag week.

One of the boys said: “We are all interested in engineering and we decided to operate the station because it was something to keep us occupied. We know it’s illegal.”

The boys borrow the Top Fifty pop tunes from a Birmingham youth club each week to use for broadcasting.

A BBC spokesman in Birmingham said yesterday that Radio Atlanta was not interfering with their programmes since it was a “good way off” the Midland Home Service on 276 metres.

Penalties

A spokesman said the GPO would close the station down as soon as it was found.

“Since the station broadcasts so seldom, it might take two or three weeks. There is no question of not finding it in the end,” he said.

The GPO would almost certainly prosecute unless there were exceptional circumstances, he said.

The penalties for operating a radio without a licence range from £10 [£200] for the first offence to £100 [£2000] and/or three months imprisonment. A court can decide whether equipment should be confiscated.

 


 

 

❛❛Kif Bowden-Smith writes: Owning a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder became a fad in the early 1960s. Middle class boys (for it was boys, and they were middle class – the hobby was sadly too expensive for most working class kids) clamoured for a tape recorder for Christmas in 1962 and 1963, and hundreds of thousands of them got one – including me.

 

A boy in school uniform with a border collie

Kif in school uniform with Kim the border collie

 

And then in March 1964, a radio station on a boat anchored just over 3 miles from the coast of the UK began. Suddenly, those tape recorders had a point. Rather than just recording your friends playing about and your grandfather snoring and your dog barking and the like, you could now record the top ten off Radio Caroline. And then you could replace their disc jockeys with your own voice. Suddenly, you weren’t just recording any old thing. You were a DJ of your own personal radio station.

My friends and I had been recording bits of television continuity on to tape, with an eye on a future career – we were all about 12 years old – getting into television and making announcements between programmes. This idea was instantly paused: instead, and much more achievable, we could be DJs.

 

The membership book

 

Heroes of the moment like John Benson and John Edmunds quickly mutated into Tony Blackburn and Kenny Everett. The TV announcers were a lot older than us – many of them were in their 30s! – whilst the DJs were all but our age. And we could become them without leaving our bedrooms.

But if we did leave our bedrooms, where next? For many of us, school was the place to take our reel-to-reel tape recorders. And if you didn’t have one, school was the place to get to use one anyway – grammar and private schools invested in such recorders for flexibility with the BBC radio educational programmes but also found a use for them in drama clubs and for the stage staff who produced the end of the year school plays that most schools put on annually.

Soon the audience for your radio show wasn’t just granny or mum and dad. You could exchange tapes with your friends at school, and their friends, until you had an actual audience, albeit of friends-of-friends, hearing your links between records.

But where next?

 

A boy sits in front of a microphone

Kif in the studio in 1964

 

Private and grammar schools usually had a Ministry of Defence-financed Combined Cadet Force (CCF) or Officer Training Corps (OTC), a sort of Boy Scouts with dummy rifles. These groups of boys met up with CCF/OTC groups from other schools for frequent Cadet Camps. As always with these things, socialising was more important than the cod military instruction, and boys from one school would discover that boys from another school were also exchanging tapes. It’s no leap to imagine how quickly they were agreeing to exchange tapes between schools. And doing so was better if the individual programmes were edited together into 2 or 3 hour-blocks, with five or six programmes linked together by one voice.

And now you had both a radio station and a radio network.

Thus did the Birkenhead School CCF meet the King Edwards School Edgbaston OTC in the Brecon Beacons. Both schools had very active tape exchanges. The main elements were the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System of Birkenhead and Electromusications of King Edwards. Together, they created the National Radiotape Network – because exchanging programmes between the two schools was not enough: we wanted the whole country to join in!

To help with this, we added the only female member of Transdiffusion back in the day – Jennifer, still my best friend to this day, who had a particular talent: she had a typewriter, and infinite patience. With her skills, we were quickly perfectly bureaucratised in a way that you can only appreciate if your parents lived through the Second World War.

 

Bureaucracy

 

TBS’s 300 subscribers and EMC’s 200 subscribers made for a big audience for NRN. But we wanted more. We added King’s School Hove and St David’s College in Llandudno. Then we joined the Federation of British Tape Recordists & Clubs, bringing even more organisations to “tape-spond” with. And then we joined World Wide Tapetalk, and suddenly we had listeners in Canada, Rhodesia and Australia. Take that, Radio Caroline! And, of course, we renamed the National Radiotape Network to the International Radiotape Network. Take that, BBC World Service!

NRN’s membership of FBTRC and WWTT (so many initials – it was the thing at the time) put us in contact with St Peters School York, Brighton College and Rossall School in Fleetwood. Their tape clubs joined with ours, contributing programmes as well as distributing the finished tapes. Before we knew it, NRN was vastly larger than TBS/EMC and TBS itself was two stations – the Music Network and the General Network, each with distinct, if sometimes overlapping, listeners.

 

The rules…

 

…and their enforcement

 

Having our roots in television presentation – with its focus on branding – there were many, many production ‘companies’ contributing to TBS and NRN, with groovy names like Sound Source Scotland of Glasgow, Radio London Relay of Palmer’s Green, Sunninghill Productions of Hove, Deeside Radio of Hoylake, Energy Radio Budworth and Radio Wirral of Bidston.

TBS and NRN/IRN continued into the 1970s. But life began to get in the way, as members married and had kids and basically stopped being teenagers. The tape-sponding continued, with more and more repeated output rather than new programming. Eventually, despite plans to the contrary, it petered out altogether in the 1980s, as exchanging tapes was replaced as a hobby by such things as CB radio and video recording.

 

A man

Kif in 1972

 

As a personal aside, TBS merging with EMC led me to my first long-term partner, Mickey, the head of EMC. From his getting us involved with World Wide Tapetalk, I met my second long-term partner, Jonathan. And from Jonathan, who got me connected to the internet, I met my third partner, now my husband, Jamie. An entire happy life from two people – Sean and Martin – meeting in the Brecon Beacons and talking tape.

But that was that for tape-sponding. We never got the radio station we wanted, but still had a bigger audience than the boys in Birmingham managed. We never had to deal with the General Post Office seeking to prosecute us, and never got the fleeting fame that they did. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

 

Staff and engineering details in 1968…

 

…versus staff and subsidiaries in 1969

 

In the 1990s, a new thing came along called “the Internet”, with a capital I. Before it was ubiquitous, our 32kbps connections over an audio telephone line allowed people to join newsgroups and email lists where we could find former members of NRN, FBTRC and WWTT who still wanted to talk tape.

 

A sideline of TBS that became the site you’re reading now: collecting interesting bits of broadcasting on tape from correspondents across the country

 

And they were joined by new people, younger people, who liked the discussion of such mundane seeming matters as to when Associated TeleVision became ATV Network became Associated Communications Corporation became Central Independent Television, as well as stories of how we used to communicate before everything was zeroes and ones on DSL fibre optic lines.

And here you are now, reading this. Our slogan from the late 1960s still applies: in quality, the System dominates.

 

 


 

Tune in!

 

 

NRN outgrows its maker

 

Transdiffusion launched the Music Network and it immediately went ‘viral’, as we’d say today, in an era before domestic commercial radio, never mind the internet! Popular with listeners and contributors and their networks, it soon spread beyond the (Inter-)National Radiotape Network to hospital radio stations and, um, people who were using small transmitters locally.

 

The TBS General Network – less pop, more talk, drama and comedy. Our original radiotape station and popular with hospitals and care homes as well as kids with grandparents at home.

 

The General Network had a loyal audience, which included the parents of TBS members. Here we have a science fiction radioplay, followed by a competition that overwhelmed us with entries despite our doubts, and a pop show recorded for the General Network that just missed the deadline for the launch of the Music Network.

 

 

TBS alone: the early years

 

The launch of the TBS Music Network, aimed at teenagers and their mothers who wanted pop music without the chat, drama and comedy.

 

Despite the overwhelming popularity of the Music Network, out hearts remained wedded to the full-service General Network. When the Music Network launched, we spent a lot more time on a relaunch of the existing full-service network, culminating in this 1968 Grand Opening Ball.

 


 

 

From TBS to Thames

 

In early 1968, Transdiffusion’s Peter Gregory Jones, by then a pupil at Brighton College, told me and TBS’s general manager Roger Kean that he had scored us afternoon tea at the flat of one of his teachers and we should be getting on a train as soon as possible. Oh, and by the way, that teacher was Dr John Edmunds, who taught English and drama on weekdays, but on weekends was the face of ABC in Birmingham.

We got on a train.

Afternoon tea was lovely, as were his behind-the-scenes stories and gossip about ABC in both the Midlands and the North, plus what he knew of plans for the new Capital Television (later Thames) that was opening in July.

 

A teenager in front of the Thames continuity backdrop reading the TVTimes

Transdiffusion’s Roger Kean in the continuity studio at Thames

 

He also suggested that we write to ABC’s head of presentation, who was at that point seconded to Rediffusion, London to scout out the differences the new team of controllers and on-air staff would face switching from two days a week to four and a half. He would, he said, tell him about Transdiffusion and how we were interested in the presentation and branding (not that that word existed then) side of the business, and that he’d probably send a personal reply.

 

A man on the phone at his desk

Geoffrey Lugg, Presentation Manager at ABC and then Thames, in 1971

 

And a personal reply was what we got, once Thames launched, complete with his first of many terrible jokes when he hoped we were enjoying having Granada on weekends. This correspondence soon moved from broadcasting to personal, from letters to tapes, and from acquaintanceship to friendship, drinks and dinners, as this charming man proved why he was so popular with his friends and colleagues. He eventually became Transdiffusion’s honorary President, a role he still holds now, many years after his death.

 

Kif on a visit to the newly opened Thames Television House in Euston

 


 

 

❛❛Russ J Graham adds:

It looks like the boys in the Birmingham Post story went to the newspaper rather than the paper finding them; it also looks like the Post went to the BBC and GPO to report the station to make a bigger story of it. Later articles reveal that the GPO raided the house on 29 June 1966 and confiscated the transmitter. The 17-year-old was prosecuted in the October and fined £15 (£300 in today’s money). The court forfeited the equipment, with an estimated value of £80 (£1600), which included his family’s record player and all their records. One of the 15-year-olds, who acted as the station’s DJ, was fined £10 (£200). It’s unclear what happened to the other one.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Ben Grabham 26 December 2020 at 9:13 pm

First- what a great personal reminiscence.
What amazes me is the level of organisation you had in place – seriously impressive.
Given the range of material, and your previous experience- I’m surprised more of you didn’t end up in Independent Local Radio as it emerged….

Kif Bowden-Smith 27 December 2020 at 8:22 pm

Thanks Ben. The article ended up as perhaps accidentally more autobiographical than I’d planned. The core activists in this project were school stage staff and as spare time activities at these types of schools were casually regulated by teachers there was some input about how we might best organise.

It certainly wasn’t all down to me, but a fairly extensive team effort albeit with me as our intrepid leader! We were also heavily subsidised by my grandmother – several pounds a week – a lot in the sixties… which covered tape and postage costs. The whole thing was not done on the cheap … but the listeners were never charged a penny – save they paid return postage – which was a lot sending copy tapes to hundreds of addresses for 7 days per listener then home and out again. It was all amazingly time consuming but my main point is the teamwork. I may have been intrepid (but a better word might be precocious!) Have you heard our only just breaking voices on the clips?

The point is that it was team work, perhaps of a rather twee type – but we were pretend broadcasters who managed to get as far as actual narrowcasting.
One step more than most bedroom deejays managed.

And here we are now with a big archive and an internet media history network… What goes around comes around…!

Kif. 😊

Edmund Chinnery 4 January 2021 at 11:56 am

One question, about this most interesting article, did any of the original Transdiffusion members, such yourself Kif, get into broadcasting? Even say ‘behind the scenes’ just as say set design and build or journalism. All important, of course.

Kif Bowden-Smith 10 January 2021 at 2:01 am

Yes Edmund, a few did but in those days before BBC local radio or ILR, there were very few vacancies in the industry and it was hard to get into broadcasting, without top Oxbridge degrees. All radio was national or BBC regions and recruitment was a trickle.

By the time BBC local radio expanded and really got off the ground, and by the time ILR started, we had all left school or university and been forced into less cherished occupations – but one or two of our number changed course in their later twenties as opportunities opened up.
We had ex Transdiffusion people “behind the scenes” or “on air” at Metro Radio, BRMB, BBC Radio Birmingham, BBC Radio Merseyside, Southern TV and much later Central TV but we were really too early reaching 18 or 21 to all drift seemlessly into broadcasting.

If we had done the whole thing 5 years later we would have been better placed to enter BBC local radio and ILR on inception. I myself went into railway management (my first love) but I have also headed TBS itself into the internet era, with the help of a very talented Editor in Chief, Russ J Graham.
Time flies, all this was over 50 years ago .. a couple of the old gang have even passed away. I’m lucky to retain their comradely voices on many tapes though – a rare privilege for the bereaved.

I’m just a career railwayman with a foot in broadcasting!!

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