Border Country 

1 November 2004

In the first of a two-part series on broadcasting in Northern England, Glenn Aylett looks around at broadcasting in Cumbria

While hardly the best known broadcasting location in Britain, you will be surprised at how much of a broadcasting infrastructure exists in my home county of Cumbria. Despite its small population, Cumbria is the smallest county in Britain to have its own ITV station – Border. It also has BBC Radio Cumbria, which broadcasts from four sites, and commercial station CFM. (The Furness peninsula is also covered by The Bay FM, broadcasting from Morecambe, but as this is based in Morecambe, it doesn’t count.) Although we lack the countless ILR stations and the huge studio facilities like Television Centre that London has, my county does have a significant infrastructure of studios and transmitters long due for documenting.

Border Television

Border Television has been the local ITV contractor for Cumbria and Southern Scotland since September 1st 1961. Often dismissed as a lightweight in the days of the old regional ITV, Border lacked the resources and advertising revenue to be a big player: the station was best known nationally in the Seventies for the husband and wife quiz Mr and Mrs, hosted by Border’s director of programmes Derek Batey. (One thing with Border being so small was that presenters often had two jobs: I really can’t imagine Lew Grade hosting The Golden Shot!)

However, at a local level, the station’s Lookaround news bulletin was for decades the most successful local news programme in Britain, and its host Eric Wallace was the most recognised face in Cumbria. After his retirement in 1998, Wallace still kept making guest appearances on the station, while his recent funeral in Carlisle attracted hundreds of mourners.

Even now, with regional ITV losing its identity – the famous Border DY ident having been replaced by the awful ITV1 blue and yellow – over 60 per cent of viewers in the Border region still tune in to the station’s various news bulletins.

I visited Border’s studios in Carlisle in November 1985 to take part in some sixth form political programme called Politics Forum. This show is my main claim to fame in life, as I appeared on camera for thirty seconds to ask the panel a question about gas privatisation – my family still has the video of this thirty seconds of fame. The show itself was broadcast at 10.35 pm on a Friday night and would probably have attracted the friends and families of the audience at most. It did not make exciting viewing and was hardly a rival for Question Time.

However, the main reason for attending this programme was to see round the Border studios. I imagined the studios would be tiny and the building no bigger than the rival BBC facilities I visited in Newcastle seven months earlier. I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at the reception, the Eastern Way studios appeared to be almost as big as my grammar school. Of course, going back 19 years, regional ITV was far bigger than the limited version we have now, which has reduced Border to the level of BBC North East. Even though Border was the smallest of the mainland ITV regions, it still produced four hours a week of regional programming and had autonomy in its scheduling during afternoons and late at night. This meant the station held a considerable archive of films and imported shows, and was in 1985 trying to make itself a force in low budget youth programming on Channel 4 and ITV.

When I visited the studios, I noticed a temporary studio called The Shed had been erected for a Muriel Gray-hosted Tube type pop show called Bliss on Channel 4, featuring B-list acts like Spear of Destiny and King Kurt. While the groups the show featured were hardly Wembley Stadium fillers, at least Border was trying to raise its profile: the show was created by Janet Street-Porter. Border also became the last station to produce a show for The Krankies – a huge photograph of Jimmy Krankie greeted you in the reception – and had cashed in on the BMX craze by hosting a tournament called BMX Beat.

All of this required a fair-sized studio complex. While one of my colleagues chose to indulge with a Tory in one of the tedious “I’m right, you’re wrong”, Left/Right political arguments that blighted the eighties, and another favoured discussing how to become an MP with the Liberal MP Alan Beith, I preferred to discuss the studio facilities with the show’s presenter, Christian Diamond, over a can of lager. He told me that Border had two main studios, one of which was used for audience participation programmes like Politics Forum, the other for Lookaround and local sport. Two smaller studios were used for in-vision continuity and short news bulletins, and the other presentation studio for out-of-vision continuity. Added to these four studios were The Shed, the newsroom, the restaurant, the green room, the programme archive and technical and office accommodation. Border required 250 staff to operate all these facilities, plus a sales office in London.

Certainly the walk from the green room to Studio One seemed to take forever, as we passed reception and went along a darkened corridor and into a studio that resembled a school theatre. Any cynicism I felt about Border’s facilities being second-rate were dispelled, as the building was modern and the staff totally professional.

The Border studios still remain, as they have done since 1961, on Eastern Way in Carlisle. However, the massive reduction in regional programming and an end to regional variations in programming over the past ten years cannot bode well for this surprisingly large studio centre. I can imagine in the great scheme of things at ITV that Border will move to a much smaller site before long. Already Central has closed its studios in Nottingham, and Meridian is to move to a smaller studio centre in Fareham, so the future for Eastern Way does not look good – Border is a much smaller station than either of the others.

BBC Radio Cumbria

Radio Cumbria is the county’s main radio station, covering the whole county on three AM and three FM frequencies. (CFM, the commercial rival, has more listeners, but only covers the northern half of the county.) Until May 1982 Radio Cumbria was known as Radio Carlisle, but the opening of a relay to serve Southern Cumbria made the station county-wide and the station name was changed to reflect this. Cumbria broadcasts from Annetwell St in Carlisle, and has smaller studios in Barrow, Whitehaven and Kendal, so is quite a large station in local terms. And compared with Radio Carlisle, which only broadcast between 7 am and 7pm on weekdays (weekend broadcasting hours were even more limited), with The World at One and the Six O’ Clock News taken from Radio 4, Radio Cumbria by comparison now broadcasts 19 hours a day.

Originally Radio Cumbria/Carlisle broadcast from the first floor of an office block in Hilltop Heights in the south of Carlisle. I visited the old studios in 1985 and 1991, shortly before they closed, and they were typical of many BBC local stations of the time, broadcasting from inadequate and under-funded facilities. Hilltop Heights was basic. The facilities consisted of two studios containing 1973-vintage mixing desks, a newsroom which was too small, a manager’s office, the apparatus room, and a jammed record and CD library. On my second visit the office had been converted into a television studio, which was driven from BBC Manchester – Cumbria switched from BBC Newcastle to Manchester from October 1986 to September 1991 – and from which a five minute news bulletin was delivered every lunchtime for Cumbria as a sop to the thousands of viewers who had complained that Manchester was neglecting the county. I was not surprised to discover, on my second visit to Radio Cumbria, that the station had been given the go-ahead to build a new studio centre. Hilltop Heights was too small and the equipment dated, although the staff seemed to cope very well in awful conditions.

Radio Cumbria moved to purpose-built studios in Annetwell Street, opposite Carlisle Castle, in April 1993. The new studios are a huge improvement on Hilltop Heights. Just in terms of public access, the new studios are more friendly. Hilltop Heights was only accessible by an intercom, where a disembodied voice asked you your name and the nature of your visit, which meant no public access without a prior appointment, but Annetwell St has a reception where a friendly receptionist called Sue sells Radio Cumbria merchandise, will offer you a cup of tea, and will answer queries about the station.

Annetwell St is a two storey building. The ground floor consists of two main studios, which are totally digital (although a facility does exist to play records), and light years ahead of the ‘hospital radio’ feel of the old studios. A production studio allows presenters to prepare for their shows and record material. As Radio Cumbria is part of the large BBC North East region, the Look North Cumbrian correspondent Judy Ingham is based at Radio Cumbria and has access to a television studio, driven from Newcastle, where she can edit and present material or interview guests. In common with other BBC local stations, a fair part of the station’s output involves phone-ins and a ‘Phone In Area’ has been set up for phone-ins and e-mails to programmes. The area is referred to by presenters as “behind the glass”, as the Phone In Area can be viewed from a glass partition by the two main studios.

On the first floor the newsroom, the hub of Radio Cumbria and especially our answer to Today, Good Morning Cumbria, is found with the news studio. The newsroom is responsible for the two- hour news, weather and sport marathon that is Good Morning Cumbria and is totally digital, the tape recorders of earlier times being replaced by PCs and digital editing devices. The newsroom also updates and maintains the Cumbria pages of Also found on the first floor are the music library, office and apparatus room. All very impressive compared with the facilities the station relied on in the first 20 years of its existence.

Radio Cumbria’s second studio centre is based in Hartington St in Barrow. From 1982 until 1996 Radio Furness operated as an opt-out to the Carlisle breakfast programme with its own offering, but economies saw the service end. However, Barrow has not been downgraded or abandoned after Radio Furness was closed down. The Hartington St studios are also fully digital and have a permanent reporter, Neil Smith, plus three other presenters based there to cover stories and events from the Furness area. As Barrow has a Rugby League team and a non-League football team that plays nationally, the studios are quite important to the BBC, and the two studios formerly employed by Radio Furness remain in full use today.

In Whitehaven, Radio Cumbria maintains a fully-staffed studio above the Post Office in Lowther St, refurbished in 1985 at a cost of £ 100,000. For a time in the eighties, the afternoon show was broadcast from Whitehaven – strictly speaking, the presentation was done from there, but the records played from Carlisle – and the studio had quite a high profile after its refit, but the inevitable BBC cutbacks saw the show abandoned in 1988 in favour of a regional afternoon show from Liverpool. Nowadays the Whitehaven studio is used for news reports – the West Cumbria reporter at the time of writing is Steph Lloyd – and occasional interviews, and still uses tape technology rather than digital. A similar set up exists in Kendal, where a single studio and a reporter are based. Radio Cumbria also has studios in Keswick and Ambleside but these are only used when required and are often unstaffed.

Commercial Radio

The commercial rival to Radio Cumbria in the north of the county is CFM, which opened in April 1993 and extended its transmission area to include West Cumbria in September 1995. (Cumbria was the last county to receive ILR.) CFM – the C standing for Carlisle, but the name Carlisle FM was not used to avoid confusion with the old BBC Radio Carlisle – was set up in a partnership between Border and Cumbrian Newspapers and broadcasts from prefabricated buildings on an industrial estate adjoining Border Television. A small sales and promotion office in Workington is also used. CFM tends to be a more pop-based alternative to Radio Cumbria and has far less local news and information coverage.

CFM uses two studios and has a newsroom which prepares local news bulletins, sports reports and updates to the station’s website.The station is fully digital and stores its music collection on hard disk, although a music library does still exist in case of computer failure. Unlike Radio Cumbria, which has 20 journalists and sports commentators, most of the staff employed at CFM are DJs in the Radio 1/2 mould and news staff total three, as the station is mainly concerned with playing pop music, and its news bulletins last a maximum of five minutes. Sports coverage is mostly limited to reports during a Saturday afternoon pop show and majors on Carlisle United, CFM leaving Rugby League to the BBC. Compared with Radio Cumbria, CFM was less forthcoming about studio information and as it does less than Cumbria, has less space devoted to it here.

Transmission Sites

All of Cumbria’s stations broadcast from a main transmitter site at Caldbeck – famous from the Authority announcement during Border’s start up sequence – and Sandale on the northern edge of the Cumbrian Mountains. The 1000 foot high Calbeck transmitter broadcasts the four main terrestrial television stations (Channel 5 still comes from Cambret Hill in Scotland, and reception tends to be patchy on analogue in Cumbria) plus CFM on 96.4 FM for North Cumbria, and digital television and radio. This massive site was built in 1961 for the opening of Border Television, and later expanded for BBC1 and 2 on UHF, while BBC1 VHF continued to come from nearby Sandale.

The smaller Sandale transmitter, standing at approximately 500 feet high and bearing the BBC crest and opening date of 1957 – though the transmitter is now owned by Crown Castle – broadcasts BBC Scotland as well as BBC Radio and Classic FM to northern Cumbria. While it might sound odd that a transmitter in England broadcasts to Scotland only, Sandale faces Scotland across the Solway Firth and its positioning on the fells makes it ideal to broadcast Scottish programmes. Sandale has in fact broadcast BBC Scotland on both VHF and UHF since 1957, and was the BBC North transmitter for VHF until February 1985, when VHF was finally phased out. Sandale houses the main Radio Cumbria transmitter, broadcasting on 96.4FM, although poor reception in West Cumbria led to the introduction of a new frequency of 104.1FM in 1997 from the Whitehaven FM transmitter.

Currently there are no plans to expand or launch any further stations and infrastructure in Cumbria: the small population level makes opening more ILR stations unlikely. However, for a county with a population less than that of Edinburgh, we do have quite a lot of studios and infrastructure even if some of these would fit neatly into a cupboard at Broadcasting House.

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