A week from today will mark half-a-century since the day the nation’s stations received the most comprehensive facelift in their history; and, lest we forget, fifty years ago we only had three national radio stations. Yes, there were the pirates, though they – bar Caroline – were poised to sail away into the sunset; officially, the country had just the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme. There were no local BBC stations, and the Independent Local Radio network was still six years away. Once the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act sank the pirate ships, listeners were left with Luxembourg and its erratic reception if they sought an alternative to the BBC’s wireless output.
If one is to credit pirate radio with one thing it really should be giving the kiss of life to an ailing medium. From being very much the poor relation before the war, television had gathered pace with the arrival of ITV in 1955 and by the early 60s had usurped radio as the people’s choice. In response, all the BBC’s creative energies were directed towards TV and radio was left to its own devices, with only the Third Programme receiving special treatment courtesy of its high standing in the artistic community. Listening figures were plummeting and it didn’t help that, with Britain the epicentre of a pop revolution conquering the globe, BBC radio’s concession to the revolution was limited to the likes of ‘Saturday Club’ and ‘Pick of the Pops’.
Belated recognition that the BBC needed to reflect the changing climate on the airwaves led to plans being hatched for a new addition to the existing trio of national stations. But it wasn’t simply a case of the Beeb replicating what the pirates had done so successfully since 1964; Musicians Union rules over needle time meant the in-house BBC orchestras that provided so much of the light ‘mood music’ that had soundtracked the daily chores of the housewife for a couple of decades were not going to be disbanded overnight. A BBC idea of a pirate radio station risked being the aural equivalent of a pipe-smoking, cardigan-clad dad dancing around the living room to The Jimi Hendrix Experience or the Light Programme in a kaftan. Live music was going to be as much a staple of what became Radio 1 as spinning discs, though the fact this ruling eventually gave birth to the legendary Peel Sessions was pure serendipity.
With the new law enforcing the illegality of the pirates, the entire staff of DJs that had become household names to anyone under 25 were about to be made redundant; by happy coincidence, a new employer was looking for a workforce with their precise qualifications. So it was that the cream of the pirate crop sat alongside a handful of veteran broadcasting stalwarts to pose for a photo that used to be re-staged every ten years until the participants started dying or ended up in prison. Radio 1 had recruited almost all the pirate DJs, and when the new station went on air with Caroline’s Tony Blackburn on 30 September 1967 – preceded by heavy promotion in the Radio Times and its ‘swinging’ front cover for the week – the pirate model sufficed for the first ninety minutes. The second programme on Radio 1 was ‘Junior Choice’ with Leslie Crowther.
The wavelength sharing between Radio 1 and its new sibling Radio 2 was scattered throughout that opening day and this continued to be the case for more or less the whole first decade of the station. The recurring term ‘As Radio 2’ in the Radio Times listings for Radio 1 was a regular feature that meant any hip ‘n’ groovy listener either had to endure Light Programme leftovers for a couple of hours in the middle of the schedule or simply switch off. Mind you, it’s worth remembering that DJs we all associate with Radio 2 – such as Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young – were part of the Radio 1 line-up in the beginning.
The schizophrenic nature of the station, viewed by many as a pale imitation of the pirates at best and little short of a charlatan at worst, helped prompt 1969’s landmark in-house report, ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, that sought to rectify the problems. By the early 70s, however, a generation too young to remember the pirates had taken to the station as it gradually grew into the familiar form those of us old enough can still recall, and listening figures reflected this.
The ‘star’ DJs such as Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Savile, Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis, Kenny Everett and ‘Emperor’ Rosko were all familiar faces as presenters of ‘Top of the Pops’, and the mutual appreciation society between BBC TV’s leading music show and Radio 1 benefitted both. In the 70s, the Radio 1 DJs were almost as famous as the pop stars whose careers they had the power to make or break – opening supermarkets, judging wet T-shirt contests, and drawing huge crowds when making prats of themselves on stage during the annual summer institution of the Radio 1 Roadshow. This was the heyday of the ‘Smashie and Nicey’ incarnation of Radio 1, though it also spanned the 80s; regardless of personnel changes, the mid-Atlantic accent, the bomber jacket and the cheesy persona had already been established as a mould, whether inhabited by Simon Bates or Bruno Brookes.
By the time of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s painfully accurate parody, the BBC was concerned that a radio station supposedly aimed at an audience in its teens and twenties had retained listeners of a much older age range that hadn’t followed the traditional migratory route to Radio 2. The call went out to Matthew Bannister and what followed was a traumatic period in which Radio 1 didn’t seem to know what it was (or who it was for) anymore. The old school were shown the door, and after the crash-and-burn era of Chris Evans, a semblance of stability returned to the station as it entered the 21st century.
I haven’t listened to Radio 1 for a good decade, so I can’t comment on its current state of health with any authority. Last time I tuned in, Chris Moyles was still the host of the breakfast show and Jo Whiley was still espousing all she regarded as ‘cool’ mid-morning. I stopped listening not necessarily because I found the music being played increasingly irritating, but because I simply couldn’t stand the prattling DJs. At the same time, I recognise this has always been a regular factor for the listener where Radio 1 is concerned, and probably always will be.
Over the next seven days, I intend to profile all four stations that arrived on our dials fifty years ago this week, so stay tuned for Radio 2…
© The Editor