‘Community’, like many words, has changed its meaning somewhat over the last few decades. At one time, community used to be a geographical term, one generally applied to describe the mixed residents of a neighbourhood, town, city or county. By contrast, today it seems every niche interest or lifestyle can lay claim to the word, and everyone who subscribes to an approved social demographic has its own community on the 21st century bus-route. Over-familiar phrases such as ‘The LGBT Community’ or ‘The Muslim Community’ to some appear a tad patronising, assuming anyone who happens to fall into one of these categories is somehow the member of an exclusive tribe; and each tribe appears to regard mere membership itself as the defining characteristic of its members. The proliferation of self-contained groups that refer to themselves as communities may give comfort to those who seek like-minds, but it often feels like the definition of the word has been narrowed in the process.
Forty-five years ago, when community still retained its earlier, far broader meaning, the prevalent distinctions between different parts of the country were perceived to be at risk from the threat of nationwide homogenisation; the Wilson Government had already ring-fenced the Welsh language at a time when it was verging on extinction, and moves were afoot to consciously reinforce regional identity throughout the UK via a revived medium. With the challenge of the pirates still fresh in the ears of listeners, the broadcasting stranglehold of the BBC was belatedly broken in government-sanctioned fashion by the arrival of Independent Local Radio. This was commercial television’s audio offshoot, one that transformed the ITA into the IBA and began to spread like a wireless virus across the country following the 1973 debut of LBC and Capital Radio in London.
BBC local radio had arrived in the aftermath of the network station reorganisation in 1967, but had largely been a rather conservative enterprise, appealing mainly to pensioners and followers of local football teams. Here was a more dynamic, perhaps more American notion of a radio station, however – built around a top 40 playlist peppered with programmes designed with the locality in mind and ads unique to the area covered by the transmitter. As with the individual ITV franchise holders of the era, loyalty to the region in question was fostered with these ILR stations; indeed, it was partly their raison d’être. Their very names reflected the regions they broadcasted to, usually named after a geographical feature, such as a river – Radio Clyde (Glasgow), Radio Orwell (Ipswich), Radio Trent (Nottingham), Radio Tees (Stockton), and Radio Aire (Leeds) being notable examples.
There was a deliberate effort on the part of these new additions to the local landscape to represent the areas they transmitted to with pride, appealing to the community spirit in listeners to keep them from turning to the national BBC stations. At times, the aping of the Radio 1 style with a regional twist could be hopelessly naff; promotional material featuring DJs looking like Tony Blackburn tribute acts were abundant in the pages of the IBA’s annual ‘Television and Radio’ guidebook, and the mid-Atlantic accent often sat uncomfortably alongside regional dialect on the airwaves – a factor that was fictionalised with shrewd accuracy in the shape of Bristol-based Radio West on BBC TV’s ‘Shoestring’. But the ILR operation nonetheless gave every impression of being a success by the sheer number of stations that began to appear.
Between 1974 and 1976, no less than sixteen ILR stations opened; there was then a four-year sabbatical before further expansion from 1980 onwards. Over the next seven years, a staggering 38 more ILR stations were added to the roll-call, so that by the end of the 80s, virtually every old-school ‘community’ was commercially catered for. And then it all came to a shuddering halt with Margaret Thatcher’s final fixing of an unbroken system before the Poll Tax called time on the Thatcherite project, the 1990 Broadcasting Act.
In television terms, the Broadcasting Act enabled the BBC to fall into the fatal hands of John Birt and for ITV to self-destruct into the corporate car-crash that eventually brought us Cowell and Kyle. With radio, the damage was arguably even more profound and was further exacerbated by the deregulation of the Communications Act 13 years later. The dissolution of the IBA and the establishment of a new regulatory body with a remit to issue new licences to the highest bidder were reflective of a different approach to commercial radio. A series of mergers and buyouts and the replacement of specialised regional broadcasting with networked generic programming after-dark altered the ILR template so their stations became less a hallmark of regional identity and more an amateurish alternative to slick new national stations such as Virgin, without being especially distinguishable from them. Indeed, what was the point in tuning-in to the poor relation country-cousin if there was no distinction between a local station and a national one?
The old definition of community was dispensed with as the 20th century drew to a close; it was no longer about where you are, but what you are. The sudden rash of new stations saw a cluttered diversification that effectively created radio ghettos in which community was redesigned along genre lines when it came to the playlist; the fictitious oldies stations often heard playing in the background of Peter Kay’s comedy series such as ‘Car Share’ are uncannily accurate parodies of how unlistenable the real thing can be. Another example was coverage of, and commentary on, local football teams – always a big draw for the ILR stations; in many cases, copyright transferred to the clubs themselves (especially if they dined at the Premier League table); this symbolic shaving-off of key elements of the old-school ILR station has continued so that every community today has its radio voice and preaches solely to the converted.
Now splintered into hundreds of little communities, the fragmented airwaves undoubtedly possess a greater range of that arch-Thatcherite word, ‘choice’, than ever before. But the original aim behind the formation of Independent Local Radio is essentially as dead a concept as the past contrasts between different parts of the country, and Independent Local Radio as a label itself is a complete misnomer today. Have we lost something? Perhaps community as a broader term and this then being mirrored by broadcasters has been a notable casualty. The differences between us have always been abundant, but during the ILR’s heyday, these differences seemed to unite us under one genuinely ‘diverse’ umbrella. The differences now are so myriad that they seem more prone to division – and in some cases, voluntary segregation. But at least, to paraphrase Peter Kay’s Chorley FM, there’s always a radio station ‘coming in your ear’.
© The Editor