Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Radio Ga-Ga #1: 1920-1962

Like any thrusting metropolis worth its salt, London has a plethora of excellent radio stations to choose from (and Magic FM). However, for those of you who are new to the capital, or just visiting, or unaccustomed to the joys of the airwaves, or emerging from a lengthy bout of amnesia, or have only just recovered your lost sense of hearing, or hate radios but don't mind reading, I've prepared a little guide to them that details their fascinating, interlinked history.

Be warned. It's a bowel-loosening tale of piracy, spelling, hallucinogens and theft.

The first dedicated London station was the BAKER STREET BROADCASTING CORPORATION, which started operations from an aerial atop Selfridges on Oxford street in 1920. Rather than being a radio station as we understand it, its first purpose was to emulate an innovation popular in the West of the United States, where the plethora of new towns and cities, many of which looked alike, meant that to avoid confusion local radio stations had to constantly identify themselves so people knew where they were. Thus, the first words spoken on the London airwaves were: "Good evening. This is London."

This strategy was never quite abandonned, but over the months the BSBC's remit expanded to including news and some music for four hours a day. The then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, read the traffic reports.

By 1922, transmitter technology had improved to the extent that the BSBC covered most of the country, and since no one else was interested in escaped donkeys on the Metropolitan Line, it was given a new name: The British Broadcasting Corporation. To replace the lost service, the BBC launched BBC RADIO LONDON in 1926. Almost immediately, 26 donkeys were flushed out of the Tube network.

And so things continued until the Second World War, when the Radio London frequency was given over to the Ministry for Propaganda. As part of the War effort, it was necessary to misinform the Nazis as to the whereabouts of the capital city - it was broadcast from a variety of locations including Bristol, Stafford, Hull, Inverness and successfully fooled the Nazis so much that Operation Sea Lion, the projected invasion of Britain, was planned on the basis that the capital was just north of Leeds. Meanwhile, a replacement service called RADIO FREE LINCOLNSHIRE was broadcast in the London area; all its announcers spoke in whispers at all times and every broadcast opened with the now-iconic words: "This isn't London. Ssh!" Because of this policy of hush, Whispering Bob Harris, later of the Old Grey Whistle Test, got his big break at RFL.

After the War, Radio London returned and retained a monopoly over the city airwaves until the 1960s. Tiring of its traditionalist outlook and unwillingness to innovate, a group of young, controversial and undeniably hip DJs including Alan Freeman ("Not 'arf!"), Noel Edmonds ("01 811 8055!"), Iain Duncan Smith ("Oooooh!") and Tony Blackburn ("Hurhurhurhur!") took to a barge in the Thames and changed history ...

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