City Talk 

9 April 2007

Remembering the glory days of Liverpool’s Radio City

It featured as a small story on Granada Reports. The Liverpool Echo showed some interest, mainly because some of the share holders would be locals, Gerry Marsden and Ken Dodd. Little was know at the time, and the IBA had some minor coverage on their engineering broadcasts, but finally, word was out: Independent Local Radio was about to hit Liverpool.

Test transmissions authorized by the IBA were broadcast, gaining momentum, and then it happened: on October 21st 1974, Radio City (Sounds of Merseyside) Ltd opened at 6.00am on ‘194 metres medium wave and 96.7 VHF stereo’ as the frequencies were then known.

“One nine four, Radio C I T YYYYYYYYYYY…” was the unforgettable jingle on the hour, every hour, as the stations news arrived – the jingle sung by the lead singer of Blue Mink.

Under the 1972 Television Act, the ITA became the IBA to take additional responsibility for commercial ‘sound broadcasting’. ILR and commercials hit the airwaves. LBC, and then Capital in London opened first; then BRMB in Birmingham and Piccadilly Radio in Manchester; but it was Radio City in Liverpool that went straight into the history books as the first station outside London to broadcast 24 hours a day, with the most advanced news room in Europe and the only station to broadcast news on the hour, every hour, 24 hours a day. Whether it was 3.00am on a Saturday morning or dusk to dawn Sunday, a quality 5-minute, entertaining news bulletin was on top of the hour no matter what time of day, and quality newsreaders took their turn on the graveyard shift to ensure that quality remained. Many of them went on to further their careers: Paul Davies OBE as an ITN reporter and Nick Pollard; Carolyn Brown (Radio 4 continuity and News); and Paul Rowley (BBC political unit).

Gillian Reynolds was the brilliant programme controller, whose style of programming, format and music ensured that Radio City spread like wild fire across Greater Merseyside to become the number one radio station in Liverpool within months of its launch. A unique jingle package helped make the station’s sound fresh and bright, but also relaxed and stylish – not like some of the over-the-top Radio One jingles and sounds.

And it was not all pop: Radio City took the gamble to play middle of the road, contemporary album tracks that gave the station a sophisticated sound that was often unlike any other ILR format.

When ‘City’, as it was known to the locals, settled down after a massive marketing campaign which saw every car in Liverpool with a sticker in its window, every bedroom with giant Radio City posters in them, and everyone wearing the T-shirts, the station became an institution in Liverpool very, very quickly. Even the BBC TV show The Liverbirds had one of the stars wearing a Radio City T shirt in the show, while the BBC comedy Bread featured the Bosworths’ vehicles with Radio City stickers in the windows, such was the impact the station had made in the North West.

Initially the late Roger Blythe presented a relaxed breakfast show, a presenter who was so laid back, he almost did not suit breakfast, but was still a pleasure to listen to. Norman Thomas, a household name on Merseyside for 30 years, did the venue show 10-2.00pm with his style of wit and charm, and was by far the most listened to show on City. A 21-year-old Dave Lincoln did the afternoon 2-6pm slot with phone-ins and competitions, and at 6.00pm City At Six was a half hour news bulletin around the city. Phil Easton’s Great Eastern Express took to the airwaves 6.30 until 9.00pm, and it was these four, unknowns at the time, who were to become household names on Merseyside for years to come. All laid back, never over the top, entertainers in their own right. The most popular radio broadcaster on Merseyside at the time, BBC Radio Merseyside’s Billy Butler, heard the call and moved to Radio City.

So why was Radio City a success from the start? Was it the newness of ILR? It was certainly due in part to the on-air team, the staff and the management, and Gillian Reynolds’ brilliance as a programme controller. But like ITV in its heyday, Radio City was local, a neighbour in your street, whether the story was that a lorry had overturned on Queens Drive, or that Bill Shankly, then manager of Liverpool, had just named the squad for the game against Everton on Saturday; or perhaps it was a Sunday evening live broadcast by The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra that would maintain the local identity. Local comedians like Alan Bleasdale’s Scully character would add comedy and character every week.

At 9.00pm, Monday to Friday, City presented a one-hour special show: whether it was blues, country, folk or classical, that hour was a specialist hour. 10pm – 2.00am saw Downtown, relaxed evening music in sa style of its own before Nightowl 2-6am.

Weekends on Merseyside could mean only one thing: sport, live sport and after the Saturday morning Rob Jones Breakfast and the Radio City Top 30, afternoon broadcasts from Anfield or Goodison Park were vital to this station, and football commentators Elton Welsby and Clyde Tildsley went on to become ITV broadcasters.

With a fleet of radio news cars and several outside broadcast caravans, Radio City covered the Greater Merseyside area. So important was the localness of the station, (something ITV still has to re-learn), the IBA of the day renewed its contract for a further five years ahead of time. Stanley Street in the heart of Liverpool housed the 5-studio complex, which featured two live radio studios, a production studio, a studio for live bands and an audience,a news booth and the most complex up-to-date, state-of-the-art newsroom in Europe. Such pride in Liverpool for a station to do so well. The Independent Local Radio service in Liverpool was unique in itself and was to dominate the North West for a few decades more.

In the early eighties the IBA agreed to a split service on FM and MW, MW now changed to kHz, the 194 call sign changed to 1548kHz. Around the country, the splitting of AM and FM services saw FM broadcasts as pop and current top 40 formats, and AM broadcasts as Gold stations, but Radio City had a different idea. ‘City FM’ played the Top 40, but on AM Radio City launched ‘City Talk’, designed to stimulate and enhance debate on Merseyside. Some of the original presenters returned to City Talk.

Radio City was a Merseyside institution, but all that was about to all change. Terry Smith, the Managing Director of Radio City, sold the station to EMAP and the great radio buyouts and takeovers around the country began. The generic sounds across the country began networking during the evening and small hours of the morning in earnest, all to save on costs. The AM service of Radio City, gone forever overnight, relaunched as Magic 1548, the Magic brand name spreading around the country: the local identity was not to survive.The ratings also saw listeners leave in their thousands too – something from which every radio and ITV executive could learn. City FM, a mere shadow of its former self and whilst technically local, sounded all too similar to Piccadilly FM, Capital FM, BRMB FM and all the others – victims, one might say, of corporate greed.

Radio City’s former glory days, now archived in its building at the Beacon Tower in Liverpool, carry an important aspect of local entertainment, history and fun locked away with them.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Sam Collings 21 September 2015 at 10:11 pm

My dad worked for Radio City in 1981-1982 as a sound engineer. They had a brand new (then) X registered Range Rover with a huge roof aerial for OB that sometimes he’d park outside of the house overnight. People would bang on the door asking for stickers, and, as a 6 year old I got a few tours of the building and the obligatory t-shirt.

Thing that sticks out in my mind was the crazy orange and brown hexagon seventies carpet in the building. It had by that time gone “threadbare” apparently!

Pete Singleton 17 August 2021 at 11:21 pm

James Barrington really captures the unique place City had in the hearts of Liverpudlians. I was lucky enough to visit the Stanley Street state of the art studios in the latter half of the 70s during the late Phil Easton’s ‘The Great Easton Express’. He was very kind and we were made welcome. Somewhere I have a piece of teleprinter paper referring to a story at the time from Kuala Lumpur which I was given as a newsroom souvenir.

Must mention too the excellent Roger Wilkes’ 1971 documentary ‘Who Killed Julia Wallace?’. City was not just about music and sport.

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