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The history and development of radio in the UK

The UK radio market today is a product of over 90 years of radio broadcasting in the UK and 40 years of commercial radio broadcasting.

By James Cridland
Posted 19 October 2015, 7.53am edt
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The UK radio market today is a product of over 90 years of radio broadcasting in the UK and 40 years of commercial radio broadcasting.

The launch of the BBC

The BBC was formed in 1922 as a number of radio manufacturers came together to promote the new medium. The government of the day worried that broadcasting was too important to be left to the market and set up an enquiry. In giving evidence to the 1926 Crawford Committee, John Reith – then Managing Director of the British Broadcasting Company – stated:

Broadcasting must be conducted in the future as it has been in the past, as a Public Service with definite standards. The Service must not be used for entertainment purposes alone. The Broadcasting Service should bring into the greatest possible number of homes in the fullest degree all that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement.

The government accepted the findings of the committee and, in 1927 the BBC became a public corporation under a new Royal Charter, which set out its remit and governance structure.

BBC Radio started as local radio, partly for technical reasons, as it was not at first possible to retransmit the same programme to different areas. The local programmes were appreciated but, by the early 1930s, as the airwaves became more crowded and interference increased, the BBC abandoned local radio and the first national and regional services were born.

This situation continued until 1967, when the three BBC networks – Home (with regional programmes), Light and Third – were renamed Radio 4, Radio 2 and Radio 3 respectively and were joined by the new national Radio 1, designed to counter the loss of listening to the pirate stations, which were taking many listeners away from the BBC. At the same time, the BBC re-started local radio, beginning with BBC Radio Leicester. A further nineteen stations followed over the next six years.

Commercial radio begins

In 1973, some 18 years after the BBC faced its first commercial competition in television, commercial radio launched (then known as Independent Local Radio or ILR). Stations were licensed by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and were local, generally covering cities or counties. There was only one station per area, except in London, where there were two with different remits: Capital, broadcasting entertainment, and LBC, broadcasting news and information. The rest of the commercial local stations around the country offered a broad range of programming – from news and chat, through pop music to classical music and religion - and were all locally owned and run. Localness has, therefore, been an important feature of commercial radio since its inception.

By 1988, there were 69 local commercial stations, each broadcasting on both MW (AM) and VHF (FM) (a situation known as simulcasting). In that year, the Government permitted local commercial stations to offer different services on their MW and VHF frequencies. Following this liberalisation, a number of different formats were experimented with on MW by the commercial radio companies, but by far the most commonly adopted was the ‘Gold’ format, majoring on chart hits from the 1960s and 70s. The overall number of stations increased dramatically as a result.

The 1990 Broadcasting Act decreed that all local VHF and MW services should be individually licensed, replacing the single VHF / MW ‘contract’ that had previously existed under the auspices of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Furthermore, the ‘broadening choice’ criterion contained in Section 105 of the Act meant that any company providing the same programming on both wavebands in the same licence area would be vulnerable to challenges to their licences when they came up for readvertisement. This meant that, by 1995, there was virtually no simulcasting still occurring in UK commercial radio.

In 1990, the IBA began to award licences for stations in areas already served by an existing commercial station. The aim was to increase the range of programming available to listeners. Early examples included Jazz FM and Kiss in London, designed to appeal to a different audience from Capital or LBC.

In 1991, the Radio Authority replaced the IBA as the commercial radio regulator and followed a policy of licensing stations to fill in the gaps in existing coverage, to offer smaller stations in areas already covered by large commercial stations and to offer regional stations, which could extend the range of programming available to audiences.

National commercial radio

National commercial radio began in 1992. Three stations were licensed, and their formats were, to some extent, decreed by Parliament – one had to offer music other than pop music, one had to have at least 50% speech content. These stations were Classic FM, Talk Radio (now talkSPORT) and Virgin Radio (the original company is now operating as Absolute Radio).

The general trend in regulation of commercial radio has been gradually to lessen the regulatory burden on radio stations as the competition for revenues and the choice for listeners increases.

BBC expansion

Meanwhile BBC Radio has continued to expand since 1967: A fifth national network, BBC Radio 5 (now BBC Radio Five Live) was launched and BBC Local Radio continued to expand, together with new stations for each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

DAB Digital Radio

The BBC technically launched DAB digital radio in 1995, and now offers eleven UK-wide digital radio stations (including five only available nationally on digital, and the World Service).

Since then, commercial operators have also made significant investments in digital radio. A national commercial multiplex licence was awarded to Digital One in 1998. Digital One launched its first national commercial services in 1999. Local DAB commercial services are now available from around fifty local DAB digital radio multiplexes around the UK. Digital versions of the relevant BBC Local Radio or nations’ services are also carried on the appropriate local commercial multiplex.

Digital has also allowed some commercial radio stations to become national rather than local - Kiss, LBC and Xfm - relaunching as Radio X - are just some of the formerly local brands now available nationally on digital radio.

James Cridland — James is the Managing Director of media.info, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. His website is at james.cridland.net, where you can subscribe to his weekly newsletter.
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