Music In The Air - History Of Music Radio


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Paul Gambaccini presents a six-part history of music radio in the UK and USA.

The opening programme of the series reveals that the first piece of music ever played on radio was Handel's Largo - the aria Ombra Mai Fu from the opera Xerxes. Reginald Fessenden featured a recording of this music during a broadcast from the coast of Massachusetts on Christmas Eve 1906. And Paul traces the developments made by the early radio pioneers from this moment, to the end of the Second World War.

Daily transmissions by the British Broadcasting Company began 90 years ago on 14 November 1922. Pete Murray and David Jacobs recall the broadcasts of dance bands from the Savoy Hotel and the programmes of the country's first DJ Christopher Stone. American historian Craig Havighurst, meanwhile, recounts the origins of country music station WSM in Nashville and Grand Ole Opry, the longest-running live music show in the world. We also look at the network sponsored shows broadcast in the States during this era, when the most successful radio star was Bing Crosby, who presented the Kraft Music Hall for ten years.

Before the war, the BBC was seriously challenged by commercial stations such as Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg beaming entertainment shows to millions of British listeners. The outbreak of war in September 1939 led to the BBC playing a vital role throughout the conflict. As radio critic Gillian Reynolds recalls, popular music became more available on the newly established Forces Programme. And Vera Lynn remembers the success of her request show Sincerely Yours. A livelier American presentation of music was heard following the launch of the Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme on 7 June 1944 and, although aimed at troops in Europe, it was also heard in the UK.

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Paul Gambaccini continues his six-part history of music radio in the UK and USA.

The second programme traces developments from the end of the Second World War, to the early 60s. The war had demonstrated the central role of radio in the lives of listeners. And in post-war America, large companies wished to remain part of that relationship with sponsored network shows.

Philco Radio Time with Bing Crosby introduced a revolutionary technical innovation. The edition broadcast on 1 October 1947 was the first American show to be recorded on tape.

In the 1950s American radio was changed forever when minority music such as country and rhythm and blues began to spread through the airwaves. Alan Freed was a pioneer rhythm and blues DJ, first heard in Cleveland, and then on WINS in New York. Hunter Hancock played a similar role in Los Angeles. And 'Jumpin' George Oxford was a ground breaker in San Francisco.

It was impossible to hear rhythm and blues on the BBC in the mid-50s. Even shows featuring gramophone records were still rare on the BBC Light Programme. Family Favourites and Housewives' Choice were two record request shows attracting huge audiences.

The most innovative BBC DJ of the late 40s and 1950s was Jack Jackson. He was also heard on Radio Luxembourg, which had resumed its broadcasts to the UK in 1946. The station offered an alternative to both the presentation style and music policy of the BBC. One of its innovations was a Top Twenty chart show.

The BBC eventually responded - seven years later - with its own show of best-sellers called Pick Of The Pops! After a long run on the programme, David Jacobs was replaced by a broadcaster with experience of a more dynamic style of presentation - Australian DJ Alan Freeman. When asked what he thought of British radio, he replied, "It's a bit dull, love, isn't it?".

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Paul Gambaccini continues his six-part history of music radio in the UK and USA. The third programme traces the developments that led to the start of the BBC's first dedicated channel for pop music - Radio 1 - in September 1967.

In the early 1960s, pop music on BBC radio was severely rationed. Its only show to play the week's best-selling records was Pick Of The Pops, presented by Alan Freeman. Pop was dominating the world, but it was hardly heard on UK radio. The public demanded a change. The change came, but it didn't come from the BBC. A form of popular music radio developed that was deeply influenced by recent changes in the United States. Writer Ben Fong-Torres explains the rise of the US radio format called Top 40 and we hear from New York veteran DJs Cousin Brucie, Harry Harrison and Dan Ingram.

In 1964, UK listeners had a choice other than the BBC and Radio Luxembourg for the first time since the Second World

War. Stations on ships anchored outside the UK's three-mile territorial limit were outside the law of the country, so they began broadcasting as many records and commercials as they liked. First on the air at Easter was Radio Caroline. By Christmas 1964, independent commercial radio took a great leap forward with the arrival of 'Big L' Radio London. It had American financial backing and introduced the Top 40 format to the UK.

Tony Blackburn, Dave Cash and Johnnie Walker recall how their careers were launched on boats in the North Sea and how the pirate era led to the birth of Radio 1.

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Paul Gambaccini continues his six-part history of music radio in the UK and USA.

The fourth programme traces developments in the UK from the start of BBC Radio 1 in September 1967, to the late 1970s. In America, a new style of music presentation was heard on FM radio.

The new national pop network Radio 1 quickly found a huge audience. It was a brave new world for the BBC that had such people in it as Tony Blackburn, Kenny Everett and Emperor Rosko.

However, there was still the challenge posed by "needle time" - the number of hours the music industry allowed the BBC to play discs. As Terry Wogan recalls, for large parts of the schedule Radios 1 and 2 joined together and orchestras covered current pop hits. The necessity to record sessions due to needle time restrictions was viewed as a creative opportunity by some BBC DJs - most notably John Peel.

While in America, he had discovered a new kind of radio. Spearheaded by DJ Tom Donahue on the West Coast, a mellow style of presentation with a blend of album tracks by 'underground' artists was heard on FM stations. Through the discovery of new talent for his show, Peel became the most important person in popular music in the world.

Radio 1's main rivals in this era came from two directions. A rejuvenated Radio Luxembourg had a line-up of DJs broadcasting live from the Grand Duchy. Secondly, from 1973, local commercial music stations opened across the UK.

The first was Capital Radio in London. Despite this new competition, Noel Edmonds attracted a large audience for the Radio 1 breakfast show from 1973 to 1978. After 20 years at the BBC, Alan Freeman hung up his headphones in 1978 with the phrase that gives this episode its title.

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Paul Gambaccini continues his six-part history of music radio in the UK and USA. The fifth programme traces developments from the late 70s to the beginning of the 90s.

Pirate radio, which had not been an important factor in British music radio in over a decade, once again became the talk of the streets. Broadcast from a ship in the North Sea Laser 558, like its 60s' predecessors, had an AM signal with a large geographical coverage. But illegal stations in the 80s often originated on land and transmitted locally using the FM band. Trevor Nelson recalls his pirate days with Kiss FM - a station that provided a distinctive black music mix not heard on legal radio. Kiss eventually won a licence to be a dance music service for London.

In America, a new format was pioneered by DJs Scott Shannon on Z-100 in New York and Rick Dees on KIIS-FM in Los Angeles. As Rick Dees recalls, he was one of the first DJs to be on FM "and treat it like AM". With a cast of characters, the lively and irreverent style was known as a zoo format and was in stark contrast to the previous mellow style of FM radio in the US. Steve Wright In The Afternoon was the phenomenally successful Radio 1 programme that popularized the zoo format in Britain with characters such as Mr. Angry and Dave Doubledecks.

In 1984, the syndicated Network Chart show with David Jensen was launched by the independent sector to challenge the BBC's biggest audience of the week for the Sunday afternoon Top 40 programme. Richard Park - the key programming figure in the history of UK commercial radio - arrived in London from Radio Clyde in 1987. Impressed by technical and editorial aspects of American radio, he took Capital Radio to number one in the ratings by creating the concept of the Station Sound.

In an increasingly competitive market, which had seen a proliferation of commercial stations on FM and Radio 1 broadcasting 24 hours a day for the first time, there was a clear signal of how much the music radio landscape had changed. At the end of December 1991, the early pop pioneer Radio Luxembourg ceased its transmissions in English on its 208 metres wavelength.

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Paul Gambaccini concludes his six-part history of music radio in the UK and USA. The final programme traces developments from the early 90s to now.

Classic FM - the UK's first national commercial station - started broadcasting in September 1992. The network's first Programme Controller, the late Michael Bukht, was interviewed for our series in 2010 and is heard describing the philosophy upon which Classic FM was based. The station confounded expectations by hitting an audience peak of close to seven million listeners. Radio 3 Controller Roger Wright also discusses his network's evolution and its continuing significance as a patron of live music.

In April 1993, the UK's other national commercial music radio network began life as the rock station Virgin Radio. Its main BBC competitor Radio 1 underwent a revolution in the mid-90s. In a drive to attract a younger audience, most of its established stars were dismissed, leading to many millions tuning away. There are comments from members of the successive generation of Radio 1 DJs: Pete Tong, Trevor Nelson, Jo Whiley and Zane Lowe.

Meanwhile, Radio 2 was revamped by Controller Jim Moir with signings of some of the ex-Radio 1 DJs including Bob Harris, Steve Wright and Johnnie Walker. And Wake Up To Wogan consistently won the breakfast ratings battle. Chris Evans recalls his tempestuous career, which included a brief spell on the Radio 1 breakfast show, before he made his return to the BBC with Radio 2 in 2005. Since then he has proved his popularity by successfully taking over the breakfast slot from Terry Wogan in January 2010.

In America, the consolidation of radio ownership has led to a homogenized and conservative approach to music programming. And Talk radio has usurped music radio's previous prominence with US listeners.

Paul considers what the future hold for music radio, on both sides of the Atlantic, as new ways to listen continue to proliferate.