Written by Radio

LBC at Forty – Memories

LBC Scores First

Happy Birthday to LBC which is forty years old, and was the first – legal – commercial radio station in the UK, launching on 8th October 1973 just a few days ahead of Capital Radio and Radio Clyde.

I’m not going to write a history about it here, because others will do that, and they’ll be a lot better than anything I could cobble together. LBC’s own site has a nice section here.

But I thought instead that I’d share my early memories of LBC as a listener, because it was probably the first radio station that I adopted as “my own”. We’re talking about a period from perhaps 1982 until 1988 when I headed off to university (And where I very quickly got bored of the “new” GWR that remained “new” for most of my four year degree course! But that’s another blog).

In reality, the first radio I’d have listened to when I was young was Radio 4. That was because it was omnipresent in our kitchen when I was being brought up. And it’s why I still fondly remember theme tunes like Sport on Four’s or Breakaway from Saturday mornings. And why voices like those of Brian Redhead, Libby Purves and Cliff Morgan still resonate with me.

But sometime around the age of 8 or 9 I got a radio – a small Hitachi AM/FM model, that came in a leatherette case with holes punched in it to let the sound come through the speaker grill. And in those days of a single household TV in the living room, and certainly no such thing as the internet, having a radio in your bedroom was probably your first chance to experience your own choice of media. I might have had control of the “remote” (except we didn’t have a remote) between 4.00pm and 5.30pm, but after that we watched what our parents wanted to watch. Otherwise my own media choices were more a question of whether you were going to spend your pocket money on The Beano or Whizzer and Chips.

In London we were theoretically spoilt for choice. But in reality there were relatively few stations that spoke to me as a youngster. Radio 1 was fine, and even had Tony Blackburn doing a Saturday morning kids show – something I now know he loathed doing. But the rest of the BBC was off-limits. This really was the era of Mantovani, and Family Favourites on Radio 2. Radio 4 wasn’t for me at the time, and Radio 3 was another world away. There was no Radio 5 yet, and although I heard the odd Radio London programme, Radio 1 was probably it for me as far as the BBC went.

Then there was Capital Radio which still had Kenny Everett. I could never get into the weirdness of that show, but the station was good for pop. And of course it was massive in London. I once headed out to some distant shopping centre (they weren’t yet “malls”) to collect a free target tuner. Travel half-way across London for a free FM radio? Of course I would!

However, without older brothers and sisters to give me a lead into popular music, and parents who had bailed out sometime around the time of The Beatles, music radio was never going to be the be all and end all for me. Our “music centre” saw more action from “TV Times Record of Your Top TV Themes” by Jack Parnell and his orchestra or “Greatest Science Fiction Hits” by Neil Norman and his Cosmic Orchestra!

Which left LBC. And that’s where, in the end, I found myself. So instead of listening to Mike Read or Graham Dene in the morning, I found myself enjoying the AM Programme with Bob Holness and Douglas Cameron.

It was a very strong breakfast show with proper news, reports and discussions. I don’t even remember it being that London focused, although there tended to be a live broadcast from somewhere around the city each morning. In tone, you have to think of its direct successor today, the 5 Live Breakfast show. Bob and Doug came across as two old friends, but with plenty of gravitas. It was immensely listenable. Philip Eden did the weather, and he always seemed to make a huge point of not being employed by the Met Office as nearly all other weather reporters at the time were. It was essential listening for me.

This was the time of Charles and Diana, so another regular voice was Dickie Arbiter, their royal correspondent. And Tim Crook, the legal correspondent was also omnipresent.

Elsewhere in the schedule you had Steve Allen and Clive Bull, both of whom are somehow still with the station.

I have a particular fondness for the latter of the two because he presented LBC’s Sunday afternoon show – Young London. This was their kids/youth programme, and it seemed to regularly come from shows and events around the capital. Considering that they didn’t really play any music elsewhere in the schedule, they’d still review new records as well as talking about films and books. But perhaps closest to my heart, they were getting into the new technology that was emerging.

With the BBC Micro and the Vic 20 being released in 1981, and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum following in 1982, this was the time of the home computer revolution. Judicious use of savings from an aunt’s bequest meant that I got my hands on a 16k Spectrum soon after it came out. I remember having to travel as far afield as Wood Green Shopping City to find a WH Smith with stock.

Kids everywhere were getting into microcomputers, and Young London began what still seems the strangest thing I can imagine any radio station ever doing – broadcasting computer games over the air. More specifically, they were broadcasting games written by listeners. They just asked that you kept the program to be one minute or less in duration.

To put this in perspective, imagine a radio station broadcasting one minute of this.

Young London would rotate the models of computers they’d broadcast games for. Some weeks, it’d be a Spectrum, but other times it might be a BBC, Vic 20, Dragon or whatever.

And when I say “games” I don’t mean Manic Miner or JetPac. LBC’s listeners weren’t up to that – or if they were, they weren’t giving them away free on air. Invariably they’d be a wordsearch, a quiz, or something simple. There’d be limited amounts of interactivity, and the quality could vary wildly. Indeed my first submission to LBC, which was broadcast, was simply a display of a wordsearch alongside the words you had to find. I forget the entry mechanism, but I suspect that it involved sending a postcard in.

At home you used a radio cassette player (I’d by now upgraded to a double-cassette JVC model, that until very recently still acted as my kitchen radio, and still gives superb sound) and recorded the games off-air from FM. Then you played it back into your computer and you were away.

What’s more LBC sent me a pile of stuff for my trouble. A load of singles I’d never heard of, some books, car sticker, and furry head-phoned bug. Free stuff! I was sold.

In 1983 a program called The Quill was released for the Spectrum. It was really smart. Adventure games were taking off, with releases like The Hobbit and Colossal Adventure. I loved these. They were mostly text, and you simply typed in what you wanted to do and where you wanted to go, with the narrative unfolding like an interactive novel. The programs had text interpreters to try to understand what you’d written. I’d had a bash at writing my own games, but I realised that the language interpreter bit was quite hard for someone of my very limited coding abilities. The Quill removed the need for all that, and allowed you to concentrate on the creative elements of game writing and design. The program handled the language interpreation. Three of us shared the £14.95 cost to buy a copy. And it was to lead to my biggest programming success!

I wrote a locked house mystery in The Quill and sent it into LBC where it seemingly hit the right note with Young London listeners. The following week when a winner was chosen, Clive Bull said on air that it had been the most popular download competition they’d ever run. That was good enough for me! I got another batch of singles and books I’d never heard of and was very satisfied. I’d love to say that I still have a copy – but I don’t. All I remember now was that one room in the game was called “The Greek Room”.

In the wider world, Clive Bull is perhaps more famous as the overnight LBC presenter who took calls from the Norwegian fisherman Sven – aka Peter Cook. While my listening did regularly stretch into the small hours, I’m not sure that I could honestly claim to have heard “Sven” on-air live, although it’s entirely possible. I certainly wasn’t in the know enough to realise it was a comedy legend phoning in. But the overnight phone-in programme certainly had a very clubbish atmosphere with regulars all the time.

Probably the biggest show on LBC at the time was their nightly phone-in from 10pm-1am. The first hour or two would usually be about a specific subject, while the latter part of the show would just see the lines opened up to talk about anything. Most famously there was the sex phone-in with Philip Hodson (who also performed the role of Agony Uncle on Saturday Superstore, and who can currently be seen on Channel 4’s “Sex Box”). All quite illuminating for a young teenager. Then there was the legal phone-in, full of neighbourly disputes about parking and overhanging trees. A friend from school claims it was listening to this that made him choose a career in the Law!

But perhaps my favourite broadcaster was Brian Hayes who had a no-nonsense approach to handling callers. He didn’t have time for fools, and if they made a stupid point, it didn’t bother him one jot to just hang up on them, or cut them off mid-flow. Extraordinary! This wasn’t something I’d ever heard before!

Sometimes, he’d have an “open line” when he promised listeners a chance to use a fixed period of time without interruption to make whatever point they wanted. Oddly enough, even callers seemed to feel uncomfortable if Hayes kept silent while they were talking. They’d lose their thread and go quiet. Tommy Boyd’s and later, Iain Lee’s shows, couldn’t have existed without Hayes leading the way.

LBC tried some different things on occasion too. Tim Crook, their legal reporter, also ran a production company that produced serialised drama. They’d make productions of Sherlock Holmes and Dickens stories. I suspect today that some would find it extraordinary that commercial radio ever did drama – but it did.

Then there were the advertisers. It’s still the case that whenever I hear Diana Ross singing ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, I think of those omnipresent DHL ads that used to fill LBC’s airtime. But I think the most iconic LBC ad for me will always be Currie Motors. I’m pleased to see that they’re still “Nice People To Do Business With.”

And LBC was really the first “breaking news” station we really had in the UK, even if nobody was using that awful term. Indeed, it was probably the only place you could go for live updates outside of scheduled news bulletins, short of the time Radio 4 turned into “Scud FM” during the first Gulf War.

In 1984, the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton where the Conservative Party conference was taking place. The bombing took place at 3am in the morning, and I remember waking in the middle of the night to hear reports on LBC of what was happening (I used to sleep with a radio on). In 1987 when fire took hold in Kings Cross, LBC was again my go-to station to find out what was happening.

And in 1992 I was at home from university and up late at night when I heard a distant, but loud boom. It was another IRA bomb – this time at Staples Corner, probably ten or more miles away. My bedroom at the top of the house actually shook. Again, the first thing I did was switch on the radio and listen to other callers confirming what I’d heard – that a bomb had gone off near Brent Cross. Only a few hours earlier, another bomb had gone off at the Baltic Exchange in the City, so it was a nervous time for IRA attacks.

Today we might switch on Sky News or the BBC News channel to get instant coverage, but even they have to rely on phone calls from the scene for at least a few minutes, and radio can still compete there just as well.

LBC had some tough times of course. As I was living away from London, it was seemingly regularly changing hands, rebranding, and trying different things before sensibly returning to simply calling itself what Londoners have known it as for forty years.

I’m still not really sure what value its rolling news service on AM is, but I imagine it costs minimal amounts to operate, and as long as it delivers listening hours, it’s of value to current owners Global Radio.

I wouldn’t pretend that I listen all that much to LBC these days, although I think they still do most stuff pretty well. Nick Ferrari, Iain Dale (when he’s not brawling at the seaside), and Nick Abbot are all excellent, although I can leave Julia Hartley Brewer to be honest. And of course Clive Bull and Steve Allen are both still there.

I do think Global is missing a trick with LBC though. Surely the UK is crying out for a truly national commercial non-sport speech station, and LBC should be it.

Yes – you and I know that the “L” stands for London, but to be honest most of the programming could be national as well as London. Getting a 64k mono slot on D1 wouldn’t have cost all that much if there was space. Voila! One national commercial speech station that isn’t all about football. It’d give 5 Live a run for its money. Given the addition this week of Capital XTRA on D1, it’ll be interesting to see if Global expands its national digital radio footprint in the future.

Oh, and that poster at the top? Have I really hung on to a Football League wallchart for all those years? Not really. I used it to mount some old photos on the reverse, and found it stuffed in the back of a photo album.

Happy Birthday LBC!