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50 years of Independent Radio (aka commercial radio)

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  • 50 years of Independent Radio (aka commercial radio)

    It had to be called Independent Radio back than as commercial radio was regarded as far too vulgar, especially as radio listeners were so used to the BBC and Listen With Mother. At 6.00 am BST on Tuesday 8th October 1973, a new British radio phenomenon was launched in London at least; the London Broadcasting Company or LBC went on the air in time for breakfast. It wasn't Leading Britain's Conversation for a few years yet, but it was basically Radio 4 with adverts to begin with unlike the Radio 5 Live clone which it became in the mid 1990s onwards. David Jessel, who had the opportunity of being the first presenter on air, was so nervous on Day One that he was reported to have vomited into a wastepaper basket, so anxious about things going according to plan. It became the Associated-Rediffusion of radio stations (i.e. the first one on the air), and Captain Birds Eye even had a helping hand for his brand of fish fingers became the first advertisement on legalised commercial radio (pirate radio excepted). Even the VHF (not FM in those days) frequency bore resemblance to the year of foundation: 97.3 in 1973. We heard Jeremy Beadle on Sunday nights before we saw him on Saturday evenings; and we heard Tommy Boyd when he succeeded a sacked Beadle in 1980. Even Bel Mooney, author of the Kitty books (named after one of her daughters) and is husband of Jonathan Dimbleby, had long running programmes on LBC as well.

    For those who wanted music, Capital Radio was just six days away, and just 1.5 MHz away on VHF, settling in at 95.8. In the days when Chris Tarrant was mostly a reporter on ATV Today and not doing Capital's breakfast shows just like 20 years later, Capital's familiar foray of presenters included Michael Aspel doing a "Simon Bates" in the mid-morning slot; Kenny Everett also working for the station; retiring to Capital Gold after his final TV series in 1988; and a host of other Thames TV stars. The Capital Radio format (for which many radio stations use the name "Capital" these days) was copied as a music station format in many towns and cities outside London. In Birmingham, BRMB (which I thought meant Birmingham Radio Music Broadcasting), launched a few weeks later. Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool also got Independent Radio stations in that first wave. The Heath government were all for the idea; while Wilson's opposition were dead against it.

    It was less than two years later when Nottingham had finally recieved official permission from the Independent Broadcasting Authority (previously the Independent Television Authority, which had only just amended its name to include the fact that they didn't just regulate commercial television anymore) for the city to have commercial radio for the first time. Two bids went for the first station in the country to be on 96.2 MHz: Robin Hood Radio lost and Radio Trent won; the latter went on the air at 6.00 am BST on Thursday 3rd July 1975. "We've got the sound, the sound of this town [sic]; spread it around, sweet music; Trent is the place, 301 (metres) is the place" went the opening jingle (and a reel-to-reel recording proves it as well). John Peters, a 25 year old alumnus of the United Biscuits factory in-house tannoy system, playing sub-Workers' Playtime records, became the first presenter to be heard on the air, and right up until the Medium Wave counterpart, Gem AM (Great East Midlands) launched, Peters presented the Breakfast Show, and subsequently became Britain's longest serving breakfast presenter on any radio station. David "Kid" Jensen was poached from Radio Luxembourg to do the afternoon show, that was until Radio 1 had poached him a year later. The late Dale Winton (also from the United Biscuit factory tannoy, and later observing the public putting biscuits in their trolleys without paying for them) was a mid-morning presenter in the early 1980s; he looked rather like Benny out of Crossroads back then (although being radio, one wouldn't have known that for obvious reasons). He had no campness about him - no, that didn't arrive until Supermarket Sweep did in 1993. By the mid 1980s, Winton moved to Beacon Radio down in Wolverhampton, leaving David Lloyd (not David Lloyd-George, may I add) in the same slot.

    The first song played on Trent was the very-little heard these days "July" by Billy Paul (of Me and Mrs Jones fame) in order to match the month of launch, and Jeff's (which had many branches of clothing shops in Nottingham back then, and mostly sold flared jeans as a specialty) became the first on-air advertisement; Jeff's went bust in around 1980. The mid to late 1980s on Radio Trent were the years that I remember; Andy Miller was replaced by Rob Wagstaff doing the Night Life show between 9.00 pm and 11.00 pm weekdays circa 1987; Steve Merike (a stage name as we know now which he had used for his radio work since 1970 - Michael Willis, his real name, had been a Liberal Democrat candidate in Loughborough and had also been found guilty of various unsavory crimes in recent years); Anne-Marie Minhall, a local newsreader made good ended up nationally on Classic FM; and John Shaw (Trent's answer to John Peel of Radio 1 fame) passed away many years ago at a relatively young age. They all presented Talkback; a phone-in programme which ran from 1986 to 1988. The Kid made a welcome return to Trent presenting the Network Chart Show along with most other radio stations, becoming the Bullseye of radio programmes - almost a Sunday teatime institution, and an alternative for Songs of Praise. Mind you, John Peters also did his Top 30 on Sunday lunchtimes, prompting a listener to phone into Talkback and complain: "I don't mind a chart show, but three of them?" referring to Paul Gambo's show on Saturday nights as well as the other two back then.

    Tuesday 4th October 1988 meant that the Medium Wave frequencies would be split in order to launch Gem AM; The Beatles with All You Need is Love became the first song played on air, and it allowed Trent, now called Trent FM to focus on modern pop music. The 999 KHz frequency for Gem wasn't the best, but the range of music played certainly upheld interest to those who wanted to listen. The jingles were so divine, and there were so many of them as well; listening to the old Gem radio station during the night time when one couldn't sleep, or during the earlier dark evenings in the winter months of the early 1990s were such a treat to listen to. Other radio stations in the East Midlands came on air in the 1990s and 2000s such as Smooth and Heart, but it has to be said that one disadvantage to commercial radio is the repeated jingles during the ad breaks, mostly for window companies and local businesses. It felt like a novelty thing to hear a national commercial on local radio as it is to see a local one on ITV or even Channel 4 in the days when regional advertising was made possible. Capital East Midlands is on 96.2 these days and Gold is on 999 KHz; despite being able to receive Gold locally, I still listen to the national channel of that station on DAB radios, aka GOLD UK.

    Talk Radio as it was then, transmitted an hour long programme marking 25 years of commercial radio in 1998, presented by the late Bob Holness, who himself was a former LBC presenter, many years before students asked him for a P from a hexagonal grid. We heard the archive clips of station launches from LBC (in which the then Prime Minister Edward Heath wished the staff luck from Number 10); Capital Radio; BRMB; Radio Clyde; Radio City in Liverpool; and others, but Radio Trent in Nottingham was not one of them. We have reached half a century with commercial radio in Great Britain, but it has to be said that 90% of them seem to be a bit "samey" and are clones of each other, and I am not really referring to the stations which have been in recent years, gobbled up by the sharks and have carried identical content, save for commercials, breakfast and drivetime shows - I am basically making a point that pop music seems to be string focus of most of these radio stations. No wonder that when the Radio Authority came into existance on New Year's Day 1991 to oversee commercial radio, the first national radio station was not allowed to be a pop music one - Classic FM, which originally dropped out of the running, but reentered before the end, had won, and had got on the air on Monday 7th September 1992. Virgin Radio, later Absolute Radio (which was a pop station) was next, and Talk Radio UK, a Radio 5 clone came on the air on Valentine's Day in 1995, although Cesar the Geezer did smuggle in one of his shows a few hours before the official launch. I strongly agree with the "variety is the spice of life" philosophy, but nine times out of ten, it is mostly BBC radio that I still listen to. At least DAB has been kind to Independent Radio expanding in recent years - I wonder whether it was still exist in another 50 years?
    I've everything I need to keep me satisfied
    There's nothing you can do to make me change my mind
    I'm having so much fun
    My lucky number's one
    Ah! Oh! Ah! Oh!