Revolution at the BBC 

3 October 2007

It is probably the baby boomers and media historians who feel most the significance of the radio anniversaries that we are celebrating this month. In an era of ‘media plenty’ it is hard to imagine an age in which there was no internet, and there were no mobile phones or iPods, no DVD players or even Sony Walkmans , few cassette players, no proper colour television, no local radio (commercial or public service) and in which the national radio services played no sustained or lengthy batches of vinyl records.

British citizens were perhaps more collectivist and less individualistic people in the mid-1960s than they are now, but the McDonalds-style homogenisation of the high street and the dominance of the consumer that we take for granted today had barely begun when ‘more choice’ first raised its head above the parapet, in media and more specifically radio terms.

The big changes that the BBC introduced to their radio networks in 1967 came, of course, on the back of something else. The BBC was not such a weathervane of society that it was able to divine and define the needed change of its own accord. The so-called ‘youth revolution’ of the sixties – commercial pop records, Beatlemania, the beginnings of a new consumerism – had their origins in the post-war generation’s desire to live a wider, deeper and fuller cultural life and a more ‘experience-filled’ existence than had their parents generation; though it could fairly be said that the Second World War was about as much experience of ‘events’ as anyone would need for a lifetime.

For the first time, the sixties youth generation had disposable income of their own, whether though jobs (school leaving age was fifteen in the early sixties) or for the younger ones, more generous ‘pocket money’ arrangements than would have been normal some few years earlier.

Music was high on the agenda of young people and the ‘record buying public’ was dominated by these younger citizens.

For some years the BBC Radio channels of the day had failed to meet the needs and expectations of this particular group of listeners, as much by virtue of restrictions imposed by the Musician’s Union as by the BBC itself. To ensure the continued employment of a large number of in-house BBC orchestras, for light as well as classical music output, the union had limited the amount of records that the BBC could play on air each week – by so called ‘needle time’ restrictions. ‘Needle Time’ was an old metaphor which alluded to the groove chasing stylus on the record players of the day, the colloquial term ‘needle’ having survived from earlier designs of gramophones.

‘Record Fans’ (a term widely in use at the time) had increasingly survived by listening to Radio Luxembourg, which had been broadcasting to Britain from the Grand Duchy since 1933 (except during the war years), had arrangements with UK record companies to promote their products on a commercial basis. Radio Luxembourg was thus allowed to play up to eight hours of current and new British releases each day. The station was wildly popular and had audience ratings in the tens of millions, but its output was restricted to the evening hours (6pm to 2am GMT) and so it could not satisfy the nation’s outstanding musical need during the day time.

A group of offshore radio stations had sprung up from 1964 onwards, some based on ships anchored outside the three mile limit of ‘territorial waters’ and thus exempt from British laws for both copyright and broadcast licensing; others broadcasting from former World War II forts in the Thames Estuary, with a rather more cloudy legal position. This enabled them to broadcast a daytime service of pop records which the population lapped up. Several offshore stations closed in the early evening, partially due to interference from overseas transmitters which severely limited their night-time audibility, but also to allow Radio Luxembourg to retain its’ territory – an unusual and rare piece of sentiment in capitalism.

Audience ratings in millions became the norm, and for almost four years this selection of offshore stations, known as ‘the pirates’, became a much-loved force in the land – beloved that is of all except the ideologically-driven government of the day, opposed to commercial radio in principle and determined to drive it off air in practice. This was not presented to the public as an act of potential state censorship so much as a ‘protection’ of copyright holders and a ‘proper governance’ of the broadcast frequency spectrum. It is interesting to note however, that in the former instance the record companies knew which side their bread was buttered and continued to deliver free copies of new records to the London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Scarborough offices of the offshore stations and in the latter matter, the reports of ‘interference’ to official radio frequencies turned out on investigation to be largely mythical and heavily driven by The Post Office, then a Government Ministry with the Postmaster General a member of Cabinet.

The pirates were eventually driven off air by circuitous legislative means and all but one, Radio Caroline, left the air by mid-August 1967. The cultural ‘youth revolution’ threatened to become a mass force for ‘disenchantment with the establishment’ on the part of the young first-time voters of the day, and with an election due within three years or so, the government instructed the BBC to create an alternative service to quell the discontent. The minimum voting age was about to drop from 21 to 18 and the government feared that a disenchanted youth vote might hand the election to their opponents.

The government gave the orders but did not will the means, and the Musician’s Union restrictions continued – thus blunting the edge of the new ‘state sponsored’ national pop channel when it first arrived six weeks after the pirate closures.

The BBC took the opportunity to revamp their entire radio network portfolio and to rename their three existing stations at the same time as the launch of the fourth.

We tell that story in this Special Edition here today.

Forty years on, the anniversary of the new station and the renaming of the old may seem a dusty footnote in broadcasting history. To many of us now in our fifties however, it remains a massive culture shift in our youth and a marker of the point at which the post war generation finally asserted itself on the cultural stage and changed the media environment forever.

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