RW + WR = GWR 

15 August 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

Independent Local Radio came to Bristol on 27-Oct-1981 with the opening of Radio West. The Bristol franchise battle had been hard fought and two groups, Radio Avonside and Bristol Channel, came together to form the winning consortium. The choice of on-air name presented few challenges, as the BBC had provided two years of free publicity courtesy of Eddie Shoestring.

The station launched with high hopes and appeared to generate a great deal of positive reaction, but cracks soon started to show. Breakfast show presenter Nino Firetto was moved to weekends within six weeks, and the lack of focus to the music policy meant enormous gear-changes within the daytime schedule as presenters indulged their personal musical tastes. In summer 1982 the first JICRAR figures gave the station a reach of 30% and a share of 13.2%, excellent by today’s standards but behind both Radio One and the long-established BBC Radio Bristol.

Meanwhile, Wiltshire gained its own station on 12-Oct-1982. Wiltshire Radio launched with a very different station sound to Radio West, continuing the news-based breakfast and drive-time shows pioneered at Hereward Radio by programme controller Ralph Bernard. With no local BBC competition, and indifferent reception of the BBC national networks in its coverage area, Wiltshire Radio found it easy to capture the No.1 slot locally, achieving an enormous reach in its Swindon heartland, and began to make money.

Back in Bristol a host of star names came and went as Radio West’s situation went from bad to worse. Enormous cutbacks in broadcasting hours were made in October 1983 and, although these were restored in September 1984, the station never really found its financial feet, although the programming output had become far more polished and consistent. In May 1985 an approach was made to the directors of Radio West by Wiltshire Radio, and the stations planned a “merger” which would take place on 1 October 1985.

Although subtle hints were dropped and a couple of presenters said their final goodbyes a few weeks early, programming plans for the new station were kept under wraps until Radio West’s last week on air, when it became clear that what was planned for Bristol was an opt-out from the main Wiltshire service, which would retain the current Wiltshire Radio schedule. Only breakfast, mid-morning up to 11 a.m., one hour in the afternoon and drive-time would be separate, with the breakfast and drive-time shows being news-based. All of West’s specialist programmes, including the award-nominated classical music programme and the pioneering computer programme Datarama, were to be dropped.

So four minutes into Monday 9-Sep-1985 programme organiser Mark Seaman made the final announcements and Radio West closed down for the last time, after a “Final Hour” retrospective presented by Trevor Fry. The next few weeks saw Bristol treated to test transmissions for the new station, with continuous music interspersed with news bulletins, promotions for the new programmes and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s finest jingles. Then at 6 a.m. on 1-Oct-1985, listeners heard GWR for the first time, with three separate GWR-AM breakfast shows for Swindon, West Wiltshire and Bristol. The Bristol presenters were Steve Orchard and Richard Evans.

Separate programming for Bristol continued with Trevor Fry’s mid-morning show until 11 a.m., although Swindon and West Wiltshire combined for Dave Bowen’s show. Then Johnnie Walker introduced the first totally networked show, which went out initially, in Bristol at least, on one stereo channel only. At 2 p.m. Johnnie made way for that staple of 80s local radio, Telephone Exchange, a Tradio-type programme that had a separate Bristol edition presented by Mark Seaman. Dave Barrett was networked from 3 to 5, when all three stations had separate drive-time programmes. Called GWR-PM, the Bristol edition was presented by Steve Egginton, Radio West’s Head of News. Networked evening and overnight programmes were presented by Mark Baddeley, Bob Harrison and Paul Phear, who had been Radio West’s afternoon presenter.

From the point of view of Wiltshire listeners, little had changed, apart from 24-hour broadcasting, the introduction of the West Wiltshire opt-out (which mysteriously disappeared after a few weeks, due to “poor reception”) and the appearance of a “G” before “WR” in the station jingles. In Bristol everything was completely different, not least the technical hitches that often occurred within networked programmes when news bulletins and commercials for the separate areas were broadcast. There was little change in the music policy – in fact, comparatively little music was broadcast during the daytime, with the bulk of the nine-hour needletime allowance being channeled into the evening and late-night shows. The overall effect was to move the station much closer to BBC Radio Bristol in sound, and the expected improvement in audience figures did not really come about, with the first JICRAR reach in the combined area being 31%.

Over the next three years, the sound gradually evolved into a much more music-led station, with the news-based programmes reduced in length, then relegated to the AM-only Brunel Radio, then disappearing altogether. Finally in 1992 GWR-FM relaunched as “The New GWR”, rapidly mushrooming into the vast FM network we know – and love – today.

Since this article was published, Mr Nino Firetto has contacted us to demand his name be removed from it or he will take legal action against us. We have declined to remove the reference.

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