‘We’re good and getting better’ 

9 May 2024 tbs.pm/81219

Independent Local Radio is now almost ten years old. Former journalist John Thompson has been the IBA’s Director of Radio from the beginning. Here, he talks about ILR’s development and his hopes for the future.



Cover of Radio magazine

From ‘Radio’ for February 1983

Ten years has done nothing to blunt the enthusiasm of the man who has helped Independent Local Radio through its birth pangs. Now, John Thompson, architect of the IBA’s sound broadcasting system, looks to the second decade of ILR with pride and bubbly optimism.

He is adamant about the system’s past and future. “We’ve done wonderful things since the first days and will continue to grow from strength to strength,” he said in his office in Brompton Road.

The two major changes he wants to see in ILR after the completion of the present franchise allocation are:

  • More independent stations competing with LBC and Capital in London and competitors for other stations in big cities.
  • National independent radio competing directly with the BBC.

      “I like the idea of a national independent service,” he said, “but we cannot even consider it until the present system of local stations has been completed. This will give us 90 per cent coverage of the United Kingdom. At present, we have achieved 70 per cent.

      “As a matter of principle, there is a great deal to be said for the IBA having a national service. There is no reason why the BBC should have the monopoly on nationwide radio.”

      With a ready smile and an expansive gesture of his hands, the Oxford graduate who nearly became a don vigorously defends ILR.

      “It’s good and getting better,” he declared, punching the air with a clenched fist to enforce his assertion. Then, smiling again, he stroked the side of his nose as if embarrassed by the forcefulness of his comment.

      Showing unrestrained surprise — almost pain — at criticism of ILR, he launched into defence of his offspring.


      John Thompson

      GESTURES: John Thompson is jubilant about the first decade of ILR



      “ILR has achieved its highest level of income,” he said “It is interesting to note that it is one of the few expanding industries in the UK at present.

      “Revenue from local advertising, in particular, has been increasing and advertising turnover has more than kept pace with inflation.

      “ILR has attracted a bigger audience than any individual BBC local or national station. The latest independent survey shows that ILR has achieved its highest audience ever. More than 17 million adults listen each week, representing a reach of 52 per cent.

      “ILR has innovated an informal style of broadcasting that others have copied. So how can anyone say that it is not doing so well?”

      Breakfast television offers the greatest single challenge to local radio. “You can wash, shave, drive or do anything else while listening to radio,” insisted Thompson. “You can’t do these things with television.

      “Experience in other countries has shown that a strong local radio station attracts a bigger audience than breakfast television does.

      “We have the biggest number of stations waiting to come on the air. It is the biggest, historically, we’ve ever had at one time. The initiative is now with the companies to get their shows on the road. There is a lot to be done — it takes a great deal of time and effort getting one station operational.”

      There are 38 stations on-air, with nine waiting. “When we have the East Kent problems sorted out, there will be 48, said Thompson. This is right on target despite the delays we experienced with the Annan Committee.

      “We will be advertising new areas, but the timing for that has not been decided. There are some parts of the country that have not been designated as ILR locations. They include north Devon, the Isle of Wight and parts of Lincolnshire, Scotland and Wales.

      “Whether we get these will depend on negotiations with the Home Office [The Home Office was responsible for broadcasting from 1974 to 1992 – Ed]. This will be discussed through the Home Office Local Radio Working Party, on which the IBA, the BBC and the Home Office are represented.”

      So far, it has cost the IBA more than £12m [£39m in today’s money, allowing for inflation] to set up the ILR system. The average cost of providing each transmitter is £250,000 [£815,000]. This is accounted for in the buying of the land, getting planning permission and establishing the transmitter.


      Three people behind a desk with microphones

      ACCOUNTABILITY: John Thompson at a public meeting with IBA Director-General John Whitney and former D-G Sir Brian Young



      “In the case of East Kent,” Thompson continued, “this can provide us with many problems. Because of its closeness to the Continent, we have to ensure the frequencies chosen are the right ones. We have to look at four VHF sites — one at Ashford — and one medium-wave site.

      “Naturally, this adds a great deal to the setting up cost. In a large city such as London or Manchester the cost could be a lot less.”

      Thompson is proud of the achievements and is quick to say so. His defence of criticism is a blend of embarrassed vigour and boyish enthusiasm.

      For the former Observer Assistant Editor and Editor of the paper’s colour magazine in the 1960s, patience has become an art. He firmly believes in the long-term strategy.

      “Infant stations will take four years to develop both commercially and editorially,” he added thoughtfully. I’m not alarmed by the results some of the newer stations are returning. They need time to grow, time to mature.

      “We’ve just gotta be patient.”


      John Brian Thompson (1928–2017) was director of radio at the IBA from 1972 until 1987. CBE 1980; Radio Academy Fellow 1987.


      From the Nick Taylor collection in the Transdiffusion archives


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