The evolution of non-mainstream radio in the UK
Community radio continues to be undervalued in the UK in comparison to mainstream media. Those who do not appreciate the benefit for people who feel marginalized sneer at the perceived amateurishness. To academics, the British version can seem mundane and banal in relation to the international sphere where helping to educate people in Africa about Ebola or reconstructing a sense of normality after conflict in places such as Palestine are a testament to the power of citizen-run radio when used as a force for good. However, COVID-19 brought into sharp relief the practical ways in which community radio stations in the UK could be relied upon in a crisis to deliver on their social gain remit. The ways in which this was achieved will be described in the following chapters, but first 1 present a brief history of how the sector acquired the role of primary, licensed broadcast provider of localized and special interest content. The British community radio movement seems to have diverged from its activist roots to operate according to relatively strict regulations laid out by national government and Ofcom. In order to appreciate how this came to pass, it is useful to trace the development of radio in the country from its humble beginnings in the hands of engineers and hobbyists.
Regulating the great British airwaves
Licensing for entertainment broadcasting commenced under the auspices of the Postmaster-General on behalf of the British government in 1922. The aim was to control use of the wireless spectrum to avoid frequency interference with aircraft communications and other official
Framing community radio research 23 usage (Street, 2002, p. 19). The first licences went to the Marconi company’s experimental station in Writtie, Essex, for Tuesday evenings and its other station on The Strand, London, for Tuesday and Thursday evenings (ibid., p. 21). However, the unfolding chaos on the airwaves in the USA where, by the end of 1922, there were 219 registered commercial stations, prompted a rethink. To ensure that larger wireless technology and manufacturing firms like Marconi could not achieve a market monopoly, the UK government introduced regulations so that radio broadcasting would be “for the benefit of the general public but not for the benefit of individuals” (Street, 2002, p. 27).
After some complicated wrangling between government officials, advisers and corporate representatives, the British Broadcasting Company was established to run a single broadcasting licence and produce programmes, seed funded by the larger wireless firms. Further income was to be earned from royalties on sales of authenticated wireless sets. Listeners had to register and pay to own an approved wireless set. As families across the country began to invest in the new pastime of listening to the radio, consumer demand became unmanageable. Although enthusiasts were still building their own receivers, the Post Office could not keep up with the backlog of wireless set registrations. It is not the place here to provide a detailed account of how exactly this company evolved into the BBC. Suffice to say, by 1925 a government committee decreed that listeners could buy a single licence “giving them the legal right to listen to BBC programmes” on any device (Street, 2002, p. 30). Then from 1927, having been awarded its charter from the Crown as public service broadcasting gatekeeper, the BBC took complete control, for the benefit of the listeners, over what content was produced and transmitted, with the power to determine which voices and which interests could be aired.
As the BBC grew, the preferred structure was a national system, relaying centrally made programmes across the country, with some regionalized content. From an engineering point of view, there was the capacity for localized transmissions and therefore to air more artistically and socioculturally diverse “minority” voices from different parts of the UK. Former chief engineer Peter Eckersley expressed his frustration that this did not happen in an autobiographical account of his short career with the corporation (Eckersley, 1941). He felt strongly that people from distinctive geographical regions and cultural backgrounds were not being represented. The delivery of such locally targeted programming did not happen until two decades after his departure.
This undercurrent of demand for more local representation and determination in broadcasting persisted in academia too. Sociologists at
Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies published a report, Possibilities for local radio in the mid-1960s (Powell, 1965). This advocated what the editors called “creative amateurism”, lying somewhere between “parish-pumpery” and professionalism (ibid., p. 1). Rachel Powell criticized what she regarded as looseness and overgenerality in the approach of companies who were registering interest in and lobbying for local independent radio licences. She emphasized the need for a “strong basis of local news and features of community interest” (ibid., p. 3), recommending “local-interest programmes produced locally for the locality” (ibid., p. 5).
Plans were afoot in the BBC to move with the times and restructure programming; meanwhile, competition for the airwaves continued with independent and commercially driven music radio stations on the continent such as Radio Luxembourg. Younger listeners from the UK were also drawn to Radio Caroline, which launched at sea in 1964: another threat to the BBC’s control over broadcasting standards, tone, style and cultural content. These pioneering broadcasters in the English Channel were “stealing” bandwidth and profiting from playing the varieties of chart music presented by the kind of US-styled disc jockeys (DJs) denied to audiences on the BBC’s terrestrial stations (Goddard, 2011). The UK government’s response was heartily supported by the incumbent licensed broadcaster, especially as more pirates were emerging. A series of iterations of the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949 were enacted, rendering broadcasting to the country without a licence illegal. In this bid to police the airwaves, ship-based broadcasting was criminalized by the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967.
A month later, the BBC’s national entertainment and music-based Light Programme was split into Radio 2 and the popular music station BBC Radio 1, which launched with many former pirate DJs on the schedules, including Tony Blackburn and Kenny Everett, who went on to become household names. The corporation had also assigned executive Frank Gillard to explore setting up operations in every sizeable town, by installing newly developed VHF/FM transmitters and creating extra frequency space for local stations within the existing BBC network. In November 1967, the BBC launched its first local station in Leicester. Ultimately though, the number of stations was limited due to the enormous set-up costs involved (Linfoot, 2011); today there are still only 39 across England. Five years later, proponents of commercial broadcasting were rewarded with the licensing of independent local radio (1LR) stations. The Sound Broadcasting Act in 1972 outlined a public service remit in a way that was “curiously Reithian” (Street, 2002, p. 118). These operators soon found that niche local shows
Framing community radio research 25 featuring “meaningful speech”, folk music and other cultural content were not as popular with audiences as pop music (Starkey and Crisell, 2009, p. 9). Dependent as they were on building audience figures to maximize their income from both the sale of commercial airtime and Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) funding, this obligation was progressively relaxed over the years (Starkey and Crisell, 2009, pp. 17-18: Stoller, 2010). Ofcom's current “localness guidelines” pertaining to 1LR oblige commercial operators to provide local content, conveying a sense of localness through such items as: news, travel and weather, what’s-ons, interviews and phone-ins.