Monday, 27 October 2014


It's April 14, 1976, and Metro Radio's James Whale presents the station's late night phone-in programme, Night Owls. Metro Radio was one of the first nineteen commercial radio stations to gain an IBA licence following the demise of the North Sea pirate station in the late sixties. It's on air date was July 15, 1974.
ANDY FLEMING analyses how over the past thirty years freedom of speech, innovation, personality, choice and imagination have been sacrificed within Commercial Radio, in favour of maximising company shareholder value and franchise revenue streams for the government. And politicians are once again the culprits! Our airwaves have been sold to the highest bidder without a thought for local public service or quality content.

Do you have a long memory? Do you remember how after her General Election victory in May, 1979, Margaret Thatcher 'transformed' the economic landscape of Britain with her 'resolute approach'? It was a defining moment in the social, political and economic history of our country. Because until that date all previous governments whether Conservative or Labour subscribed to the so-called social democratic consensus. In other words the British economy would not be comprehensively exposed to the vagaries of the free market, and neither at the same time would it be a full blown command economy as per the Eastern Bloc with all the limitations in terms of individual freedom such collectivisation would entail. Capitalism was to be the economic system rather than socialism, but the worst excesses of the free market would be excluded by a collectively provided welfare state.
So the UK was dragged into the modern world with a National Health Service, a free education system for all, benefits for the elderly, disabled and those unfortunate enough to be unemployed, a properly integrated public transport system and of course, 'homes for those returning heroes' from fighting Nazi Germany. Britain was going to be a more pleasant, fairer society where opportunities were going to be accessible to everyone without the exploitation and poverty of the inter war years. The Gold Standard was dropped and this new social democratic consensus was to be underpinned with Keynesian economics. The government would regulate capitalism by stimulating the economy in a recession with capital projects and would restrict the money supply when the economy overheated in one capitalism's cyclical booms. That was the theory at least, and until the late sixties and an ever increasing balance of payments deficit the mixed economy model seemed to be a practical compromise.

Regulation seemed to work, whether it was in employment, unemployment, housing, transport, and telecommunications or as especially applicable here, the media. However with the devaluation of sterling crisis in 1967 and then a major world oil price shock in October 1973 as a direct result of an Arab-Israeli war western economies had been hit by an economic tsunami. And it was one from which Keynesianism was not to recover sparking as it did political and industrial strife including three day weeks and Winters of Discontent. With another oil shock in 1979 as a result of the Iranian revolution, the last government of the old social democratic order and the last true Labour government led by Jim Callaghan was swept away by a new Conservative Party in government led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her government was totally different to those of the preceding four decades, espousing as it did, a return to 'monetarism' to reduce inflation (restricting the money supply) as propounded by her economic guru Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek before him.

Thatcher's policies were socially brutal and divisive. Whole state industries were to be privatised and closed if not profitable irrespective of the country's strategic needs, or if the result led to mass unemployment. Inflation was to be reduced at all costs as was taxation; but just income tax and mainly the rates for top earners. VAT was doubled, and from the outset there was a re-distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Benefits were slashed in an effort to cut state spending and regulations across business, including in the media were cut to maximise profits. State 'red tape' to protect the consumer was apparently strangling private enterprise. Infact, Thatcher's whole philosophy could be summed up succinctly as state equals bad; private equals good. Period. But what would the effect of these gargantuan economic changes be on the media, and radio in particular?

I suppose commercial radio in the United Kingdom can be traced back in a cheating fashion to the thirties, ironically (due to government censorship) with a radio station broadcasting from outside our country. To Britons, this was the only commercial radio station available, the high power Radio Luxembourg broadcast from the Grand Duchy in order to circumvent the UK-wide ban on any broadcast radio apart from the BBC thus preserving its total monopoly, and preventing any criticism of the government.

The popular music, news, views and jingles of The Station of the Stars or Luxy 208 broadcast back then, were fresh and new to the UK population, masses of whom tuned in and tolerated the fading night time AM medium wave signal in order to gain at least some choice from the monotony of BBC and establishment propaganda being broadcast by the ‘Home Service’ and later the ‘Light Programme’.

By the sixties high power radio stations broadcasting from ships in international waters were taking on the BBC. This offshore competition also had catchy names and call signs such as Radio Caroline, Wonderful Radio London, Radio Jackie, Swinging Radio England, and Radio 390; the list of illegal, unlicensed and unregulated offerings went on and on.  With American sounding jingles and output (indeed there were many US disc jockeys presenting on the pirate ships), over fifty per cent of the UK population tuned in, listenership of the state broadcaster started to haemorrhage, as the population voted with their radio dials.

Indeed, the output of these stations to the UK government and the BBC was regarded as an unholy concoction of unimportant working class popular music, vulgar commercials with heretical anti-establishment news and views thrown in. They were almost inciting an insurrection amongst the young with their dissident content.

Iconic broadcasting memories of the sixties. Radio Caroline publicity (left) and Radio London's transmitter ship and studio broadcasting in the North Sea outside British territorial waters, MV Amigo.

The music, of course was shifting more 45 RPM vinyl than ever before; you know the bands; small outfits such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and The Animals – the list of ‘unimportant music’ was pretty endless!  Harold Wilson’s government of the sixties was ideologically tormented by these pirate broadcasting upstarts who made no attempt to hide their philosophy that the airwaves were for the people, not the government. In other words they wanted nothing less than freedom of the airwaves and an end to the BBC monopoly
on broadcasting. What’s more, these North Sea stations weren’t just playing pop music as a hobby or for the fun of it; they were big money-making concerns and were immensely profitable.

Politicians want to control and legislate for everything and have never really liked the idea of private organisations and individuals having access to the airwaves, or freedom of speech. It means relinquishing control of the drip-feed of manufactured news that is allowed, with the prospect of somewhere on the wavebands criticism of both their shenanigans and the bent system they prop being broadcast. That’s the real reason as to why the media is so important to them and strict control is vital. In its extreme, censorship brainwashes, wins hearts and minds and is in essence what Marxian sociologists call the ideological state apparatus. The pirates were of course, also commercial in nature, another reason why in the post war social democratic consensus world that the Labour Party in particular hated them. All of a sudden, media studies doesn’t sound quite so irrelevant does it?

In the words of sociologist A H Halsey, Britain was changing, and massively so. Women were becoming more liberated and freer, and students were protesting against and challenging the old ways of doing things. The rebellious nature of the pirate stations reflected this and hence they were particularly attractive to young people who were finding a collective voice across the western world in opposition to the nuclear arms race, the Vietnam War, environmental degradation and corruption and sleaze in politics and society generally. Young people also enjoyed more disposable income than ever.
This, after all was the era of the consumer boom of the sixties and with only fledgling Independent Television (ITV) and crusty conservative-minded newspapers as the only forms of advertising mediums on the UK mainland, the pirate stations were not stifled by competition in their targeted demographic.

It was only a matter of time before Wilson’s government acted to protect the BBC monopoly and the state propaganda machine with a two-pronged approach, the launch of Radio 1 as a dedicated national pop channel in 1967, and Anthony Wedgewood Benn’s (actually enacted by Edward Short) Marine etc Broadcasting (Offences) Act of 1967 that outlawed the supply and advertising revenue of the North Sea pirates from UK businesses. Fledgling music radio for young people was thus effectively nationalised.

However, you can’t legislate against an idea or uninvent pirate radio stations, and the principle of less government censorship and freedom of the airwaves was clearly not something that Radio 1 was going to appease. After lobbying from the pirates, advertisers and listeners alike Ted Heath’s Conservative government of 1970 politically capitalised the youth vote on the demands for the introduction of independent radio, free from BBC control. The Postmaster General, Christopher Chattaway brought forward the Sound Broadcasting Act of 1972, which gave the Independent Television Authority (ITA) new responsibilities and powers to oversee a proposed initial network of nineteen local commercial radio stations.
Tory Postmaster General and former athlete Christopher Chataway (left) whose 1972 legislation enabled independent radio and Tony Benn (right), whose 1967 Act effectively closed pirate radio broadcasting aimed at the UK from international waters.

In broadcasting, as in most other aspects of life the expression that you can’t please all of the people all of the time holds especially true. Many were hugely disappointed by the new medium that was still tightly regulated by the government through the newly formed
Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) with its strict control of programme output. These local stations had to be all things to all people, and in any case, to their detractors they were not the national pop stations that they had
expected. Infact the first commercial stations to open in October 1973 were both in the capital and were nothing like pirate radio at all.

They were the London Broadcasting Company (LBC) a London rolling news station and Capital Radio 194, a general entertainment service. Even the latter was a very different format to that pioneered by the pirates.

LBC and Independent Radio News' presenters Douglas Cameron (left) and Bob Holness (right) interviewing guests on their highly popular AM programme for London in the summer of 1976.

 Unlike the BBC whose main revenue stream is, and always has been the licence fee, commercial radio by its very name and nature has never received any state funding. In its early years the official name of the medium didn't even mention the word commercial at all. In the Sound Broadcasting Act, 1972, it was simply referred to as Independent Local Radio (ILR). The IBA provided the signal carriage infrastructure from the studios, provided and maintained the transmitters and advertised the official government approved franchise service areas. It was also responsible for ensuring that the output of each ILR station met strict government regulation in terms of content, commercials and technical quality.

The diversity of the first tranche of ILR stations by April, 1976. There were nineteen programme contractors providing radio services for the IBA. All staunchly independent, locally owned and each providing a comprehensive local news, information and entertainment service for their respective communities. Compare that to 2014; thanks to over-deregulation ILR effectively no longer exists, just a couple of quasi-national networks owned by three international media corporations. No localness or public service obligations. Choice for the listener? What choice?

The successful programme contractors who became the franchisees in each of the nineteen areas in the first phase of the introduction of ILR were thus commercial enterprises with shareholders and boards of directors. The boards also included IBA representatives and members of the listening public, often high profile local personalities or business entrepreneurs. The programme contractors, of which here in the north east the Metropolitan Broadcasting Company (MBC/Metro Radio) and Sound Broadcasting (Teesside) Limited (Radio Tees 257) were two of the first examples in the country, had as their main revenue stream income from on-air advertisements plus other business revenue from other ventures such as merchandise sales, magazines and radio station annuals and special publications.

Pioneering times on July 15, 1974 and the start of broadcasting at the north east's new Independent Local Radio (ILR) station, Metropolitan Broadcasting Company (MBC)/Metro Radio. Founding presenters, (left to right) Don Dwyer, Giles Squire, Len Groat and the late Harry Rowell, a news editor at Tyne Tees Television.

The IBA's Code of Advertising Standards and Practice strictly controlled the content, amount and frequency of the advertisements and when they were broadcast, and monitored the output of each station closely to ensure all inappropriate commercials were excluded from each channel. Sponsorship of programmes in the seventies was not allowed and advertising had to constitute a maximum of nine minutes' output in each 'clock hour'.

Coupled with a programme contractor's strict IBA franchise agreements and restrictions on 'needle time', technical quality, speech, drama and specialist programming, in retrospect regulation was overly heavy handed and it was going to be years before any of the fledgling ILR companies would make any return on the shareholders' capital investments. If all of this seemed daunting there were even more economic challenges for the fledgling stations in competing with the BBC. Life was particularly difficult for the new independent stations in areas where there was a pre-existing BBC local radio station.

There was intense competition in the advertising market too, namely from local and national newspapers, many of whose titles pre-dated the launch of ILR by more than a century, and of course Independent Television (ITV), many of whose stations by the mid-seventies had become well established and had become thriving companies in their own right. Despite an enthusiastic embrace by local advertisers of the new medium across the ILR network, of particular concern to the programme contractors that were located outside of the huge cosmopolitan conurbations was the relative lack of interest in their services by national advertisers. This was in no small part due to the structure of the ILR which at the very best could only be described nationally as a loose, fragmented conglomeration of largely unrelated services.

And yet, paradoxically it was also a key strength of seventies ILR stations: independent, distinctive, locally owned, and engaging all members of their communities. Commercially however, it was to be its real Achilles Heel. Yes, there was a newly formed national federation of programme contractors, but it had little experience as a lobby group and would need time to develop if large well-known brands such as Coca Cola, Nescafe and Ford were to advertise across the network. National advertising was after all where the big money lay.

All forms of advertising are highly susceptible to local and national economic conditions and yet again this would have another negative effect on ILR stations, particularly stations such as MBC/Metro Radio here in the north east whose opening coincided with coal and power strikes and oil price shocks complete with recessions and three day working weeks.

Breakfast Show presenter Mike Baker opens Beacon Radio 303, ILR for Wolverhampton and the West Midlands on April 12, 1976. This brought to an end the development of the first phase of commercial radio in the UK.

By April 1976 and with the opening of Beacon Radio 303 in Wolverhampton and the WestMidlands, the first phase of the introduction of ILR in the UK was prematurely brought to an end. As outlined above, the Labour Party had always disliked the idea of independent or commercial radio, a philosophy that dated back to the sixties pirates and Callaghan’s government instigated the Annan Committee on the Future of Broadcasting which would not produce its report until 1980. It could have been much worse: many of the initial tranche of programme contractors had expected Labour to abolish the fledgling commercial stations all together.

With the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and an overly sympathetic government towards the programme contractors, the scene was set for a rapid expansion of ILR and by the end of the eighties decade there were nearly one hundred ILR stations in all major conurbations. However, the growth of the network coincided with the deepest recession since the Second World War with mass unemployment being accepted as a
price worth paying. Inevitably some programme contractors such as Centre Radio, Gwent Broadcasting and Radio West in Bristol were bankrupted and ceased broadcasting. In the north east, the ailing Radio Tees 257 (Sound Broadcasting (Teesside) Ltd.), had cut its broadcasting hours and shared off-peak output with Metro Radio, and was eventually bought out by them. By the mid-eighties the IBA was having to lighten regulations as it realised many ILR stations were simply not going to survive at all under the changed economic climate.

Fast forward to 2014, and both the broadcasting and economic landscapes are now unrecognisable compared to the seventies and early eighties, and in many ways are much, much worse.  The radio industry from a listener’s point of view has been subject to the same havoc as wreaked by right wing ideologies in many other state and privatised industries. And that of course is excessive deregulation. Just as in transport, housing, health and education, the same failed laissez faire ideology taken to extreme has destroyed a once imaginative, creative and locally based industry. Even worse than that it hasn’t provided the much vaunted choice for the listener espoused by every government since 1979 either. Have a flick through your radio dial. On FM you will hear the same artists and music tracks being repeatedly played in a so called better mix of music or your favourite music or whatever the catch phrase is. The advertisements are identical on each station, infact the only difference is in the liners. However, the voices reading them are identikit. And just as in all those other wrecked industries these balmy ideologies were not just embraced, but actively accelerated under the last so-called Labour government.

Firstly, the IBA was abolished by the Thatcher government in 1990, to be replaced by light touch regulation from the Radio Authority. Technical standards dropped, frequency allocation became haphazard, and by the mid-nineties computer automation led to recorded voice links with fewer live programmes, while tight playlists led to the heavy rotation and repetition of songs.

Secondly, further listener choice and programme quality was reduced and had been predicted by many media analysts when in 2001 the “Labour” government’s Queen's Speech contained proposals to abolish the Radio Authority, and replace it with a quango that would be even deeper into the pockets of the politicians and the big media groups. OFCOM, this new body, would replace several existing authorities, and was conceived as a "super-regulator" to oversee media channels that were rapidly converging through digital transmission.

In this task it is not fit for purpose and it has singularly failed to protect the viewer, listener or consumer in all parts of its remit whether these are areas formerly under the control of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, the Office of Telecommunications (Oftel), the Radio Authority, and the Radio communications Agency. Its lack of effectiveness for the consumer has led to further programme contractor buy-outs which in turn have conspired to virtually annihilate distinctive local companies, presenters and programmes that have been replaced with syndicated shows.  Specialist programmes have been dropped, meaningful speech content has been decimated and local output in many cases now consists of a local breakfast peak drive time show only.

From diversity of tens, if not hundreds of local programme contractors in the eighties providing meaningful speech output, locally-orientated programmes, local ownership and a full local news and information service courtesy of fully staffed local newsrooms with professional reporters, commercial radio has deteriorated into a couple of quasi-national networks, owned by a handful of yes, you guessed it, multinational corporations. And it all sounds the same wherever in the country you are. It's pasteurised, homogenised and generally sterile, all presented at breakfast by the same sounding Emmas and Waynes in every location. Sounds familiar? It should do, because I could just as easily be talking about the supermarket sector, fast food outlets, furniture stores or the petrochemical and oil industry.

The largest private operator in the UK radio market is Global Radio which bought the former media group, Gcap Media. Its acquisitions include Classic FM and London's most popular commercial station, the once proudly local Capital Radio. Other owners are Bauer Radio (German) and UTV Radio, which mainly own stations that broadcast in highly populated city areas. Even Independent Radio News (IRN), the once wholly-owned subsidiary of the London Broadcasting Company (LBC) (itself now owned by Global Radio) has been replaced by guess what? Yep, that’s right Sky News.

Consciousness-raising is all about making those connections. And we’ve made plenty in this post. There’s plenty for you to explore in what is a fascinating area of society, and that’s the media and the radio industry, and the methods by which politicians and regulators have conspired to destroy it over the last thirty years. The same sad story has been repeated with local newspapers and Independent Television.

And yet, despite all of the homogenisation and lack of choice, I don’t blame the few remaining huge corporations who are raking it in and using our airwaves as the proverbial cash cow. Blame lies once again solely in the hands of generations of bent and corrupt politicians who have regarded OFCOM and the Radio Authority before it as just government revenue generating streams providing lucrative franchise payments from automated jukeboxes. Which is absolutely tragic for what should be one of the most personal of mediums.

The government and OFCOM have no interest whatsoever in the output being transmitted on the nation’s radio waves, as long as it is in accordance with their propaganda. They are certainly not bothered about the interests of the listener whether it be in choice, quality, localness or any other expected criteria. Their only interest is financial. How different from those lofty social democratic ideals for Independent Local Radio at its inception in 1973.

As a child I lived in Stockton-on-Tees and often used to walk into the town centre from my home down Dovecot Street. That was where the Radio Tees 257 studios were located. Outside would be a large number of reporters' cars and promotional vehicles, all emblazoned with the station’s logo and strapline. What most people didn’t see were those stickers on the back windows, so prevalent on the windows of private companies in the seventies. The sticker read “Stop strangling businesses with red tape and regulation. Free private enterprise…”

The lesson of Independent Local Radio is that a certain amount of freedom whether in speech or in regulation is great. Throw in too much freedom with insufficient regulation however and the companies are handed enough rope to hang themselves with aggressive and anti-competitive mergers, buy outs, syndication and cartels. And that is the antithesis of freedom at any level; it certainly doesn't constitute a free market. Once again: does it remind you of supermarkets, public transport, telecoms etc.? There are those connections again!
ANDY FLEMING also publishes two other websites: Andromeda Child astronomy for everyone, and Metro Radio 261MW 97VHF: The North East SoundTribute Website that incorporates a fascinating history to the development of commercial radio in the north east of England.


Halsey, H. A. Change in British Society. Based on the 1978 BBC Reith Lectures.

Nothing Local About it: London's Local Radio, 1983, London Radio Workshop.

IBA Yearbook: Radio and Television 1976, Independent Broadcasting Authority.

Stoller, T, Sounds of Your Life: A History of Independent Radio in the UK, 2010, John Libbey Publishing Ltd.

Hayek, F., The Road to Serfdom, 1944, Routledge.


Groat, L., Radio Like it Used to Be from one of Metro Radio's original presenters.

Lister, B., Brian Lister's Radio Blog from Metro Radio's Head of Technical Operations

No comments:

Post a Comment