Radio Ga Ga

My brother and I with the Radiogram, c.1965

My brother and me, with the Radiogram, c.1965

The photo above was taken by my father. It shows me at about the age of 5 (on the left), with my younger brother, apparently enthusiastically listening to a record being played on my grandfather’s radiogram.

If you’re not familiar with the term “radiogram”, that’s not surprising. It’s an obsolete British term for an item of furniture combining a record player and a radio receiver. These massive, wooden-crated units were popular until transistor electronics began to replace valve (tube) technology, after which they were replaced by smaller “hi-fi music centres”.

My grandfather’s pride-and-joy was his Bush SRG 100 model (British-made, of course). Other than the fact that it was a Bush, I’d forgotten many details of it until I found an example being offered online, in this post. The photos in the post provide a good indication of the sheer size of that device!

When the photo above was taken, I had no inkling of the role that that particular radiogram was to play in my future life. My grandfather died in 1967, and I ultimately inherited his Bush radiogram. During the 1970s, the enormous object resided in my bedroom at our house in West Street, Scarborough. I rarely played records on it, but I did spend innumerable hours listening to a wide variety of radio broadcasts.

Given that most people these days think of radio as being merely a source of music, mostly-mindless opinions, and perhaps traffic news, the quality and breadth of broadcasts in those days seems remarkable. The apparent decline in the quality of radio is appropriately lamented in Queen’s 1984 song, Radio Ga Ga.

For example, British radio comedy was a very creative field, partly because new programming ideas could be tested much more cheaply on radio than on TV. The radio comedies of the 1950s and 60s, from the Goon Show, through Round the Horne and eventually I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, eventually led to the TV “breakthrough” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Radio Monopoly

The landscape of British radio broadcasting during the 1960s was so different that it seems in retrospect as though I must have been living in some alien nation.

Essentially the BBC had a monopoly on legal radio broadcasting. Until 1967, there were only 3 BBC radio stations: the Home Service, the Light Programme, and the imaginatively-named Third Programme. Although it’s not visible in the photo above, the VHF tuning display of the Bush radiogram showed only those 3 selections! Except for the military, “ham” operators and emergency services, nobody else was allowed to establish a broadcast radio station in the UK!

Strange as it may seem from the perspective of history, most people didn’t seem to object to the BBC’s monopoly on broadcasting. However, a problem developed during the 1960s, because the BBC refused to play rock-and-roll music on the Light Programme.

Due to tremendous demand from young people to hear pop music, various “pirate” radio stations came into being. These evaded UK law by broadcasting from foreign countries, or even from ships at sea. In a typically absurd way, although the broadcasts were legal, listening to the “pirate” broadcasts in the UK was illegal!

Our School Governor is a Pirate!

Probably the most famous of the music stations broadcasting to Britain (although not technically a “pirate” station) was Radio Luxembourg. In 1966, the owner of our local supermarket in Newby, Wilf Proudfoot, became the proprietor of a pirate station, Radio 270, which broadcast from a ship in international waters in the North Sea.

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

Proudfoot was also a governor of our school—Newby County Primary. It was hardly inspiring when our headmaster introduced him at “Assembly” time as a local businessman, who was publicly breaking the law! Of course, compared to the criminal behavior and corruption that has been unearthed in Scarborough since then, Proudfoot’s actions now seem quite benign.

In 1967, the structure of BBC radio broadcasting changed, with the introduction of Radio 1 as the official pop music station. The Light Programme, Third Programme and Home Service were rebranded as Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4 respectively. At the same time, the law was changed to close various loopholes, which put Proudfoot’s Radio 270 and similar stations out of business.

Waiting for the Sky Wave

It always seemed odd to me that, during my lifetime at least, my parents never listened to the radio. They certainly watched plenty of TV, though. It was as though they’d decided that television had made radio obsolete, so that was the end of that.

As a teenager, therefore, radio became the doorway to my private world, in which my parents simply took no interest. Nowadays I suppose I’d be spending my time on the internet, but that wasn’t even imagined back then.

Typically, I’d switch on Radio 2 at 6am, to catch the start of Terry Wogan’s show, and then be listening to one or other of the BBC channels for most of the day. After twilight, things began to get more interesting, when skywave reflections allowed me to pick up (temporarily) stations from further afield. Those gave me new perspectives on the world that simply weren’t available in my small-town environment. I was also learning French and German at school, so listening to European stations gave me a study incentive.

It was a gateway to a wider world that I was eager to get out and explore, and, eventually, that was exactly what I did.

3 thoughts on “Radio Ga Ga

  1. You can browse and search the historical BBC radio and tv listings through the Radio Times Archive – it makes interesting reading: https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/
    The stations, by the way, were called the Light Programme and the Third Programme (which for part of the day was called Network Three) rather than ‘Service’. although, yes, the other was the Home Service.
    Also being from Yorkshire I used to listen to Radio 270 too, although I believe that Radio Caroline, another pirate station, began a couple of years earlier.

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    1. Thanks for the naming correction; post has been updated. I became a BBC employee decades later, but by that time there seemed to be no evidence of the old station names at any of the studios I visited.

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