The wonderment of wireless connection

1965? IT WAS STILL “wireless”, and my generation – God help us – had
been reared on Billy Cotton, The Goon Show and Radio Luxembourg.

I was still wet behind the ears, on the Batley News, dreaming about the Bradford Telegraph & Argus.

But only four years later I was part of the radio revolution – and remained so for the next 25 years.

The
first BBC station, Leicester, opened in 1967 and the first commercial
stations, LBC and Capital, were just over the horizon (yes children, it
was only 30 years ago).

Numbers now? About 40 BBC (depending on how you count ’em) and more than 300 commercial.

I made the move because newspapers were doomed – all their advertising income to be siphoned off by noisy, brash newcomers.

For
me it was a fresh kind of journalism: no subs, more deadlines, more
freedom, learning a new trade in a wonderful, flexible, medium, free
from the pressures of advertising – and battling to be recognised as
grass-roots news gatherer for the BBC.

At that stage most GNS
(BBC central newsroom)n hacks preferred to wait until it appeared in
the following day’s Telegraph before they believed a story they could
have had 18 hours earlier.

But prison riots and missing trawlers,
and the day the windows of my house rattled when Flixborough blew up 40
miles away, proved the new stations were doing the business.

The rule was: the further away from London and the ears of BBC executives you were, the better.

They never understood the relationship a local radio station had with its own community.

I
once had a telephone shouting match with a London editor demanding the
crew casualty list of the bulk carrier, the Derbyshire, which had gone
down off South Africa. I had it. He wanted to run with it on national
news. I knew the Port Missioner in Hull was still telling families
their men were dead and I had the list on the understanding he did his
job first.

They were all stepping stones in the continuing revolution.

Other
barricades were falling: the early offshore pirate stations had made
their point (and later fought to become legit) and in ’67 came
“Onederful” Radio 1 and the others, structures that still dominate the
sector.

Fascination with radio can also be judged by the number
of modern pirate stations, which cause more problems today than they
did in the ’60’s.

In the ’90’s I had a deal with the Radio
Communications Agency to take confiscated pirate equipment to
universities in Kyrgyzstan and Estonia to build training facilities for
budding radio journalists. Those were the days.

Radio revolution You have to give credit to radio for flourishing, given the barriers that were strewn in its path.

The coming of FM and DAB and new national stations were opportunities rather than barriers, though they added complications.

Successive
governments blew hot and cold, there were wholesale frequency changes
and reallocations, (we just escaped another one in ’04,) the expansion
of TV, more politics, free-market reports and campaigns, new control
and regulation policies – even the weather played a leading role.

Many today won’t remember the winter of 1972, power cuts, school closures and the three-day working week.

Not
even radio was exempt from cuts. There we were, crouched in coats,
round a single mic, under a single light bulb, solemnly reading out
lists of the next districts to be cut off and schools to be closed,
powered by a line of car batteries, hastily purchased from Halfords, at
the back of the studio.

Turned out to be a triumph. A complete justification for more radio expansion. Who’d have thought?

In
spite of that (perhaps because), the government still expected us to
have a formal role in times of war. I once asked the alleged MI5 man at
the BBC what would happen if I refused to go underground with the rest
of the bloody bureaucrats in the Regional Seat of Government when war
broke out – he said a lorry with an armed party would call at my home!
I don’t think he was joking. It probably earned me one of the infamous
Christmas trees on my file.

Given all this expansion, there were
legitimate questions about where all the new journalists were to come
from – the new stations and expansion of TV were stripping the regional
press of its best talent.

In the late ’70’s the NUJ and the then
Deputy Director General of the BBC, Gerard Mansell, conceived of a
joint organisation of broadcasters and trainers to set standards of
training in radio journalism, inspect courses and stamp them with a
seal of approval.

They came up with a catchy title: the Joint
Advisory Council for the Training of Radio Journalists. JACTRAJ. Simply
rolls off the tongue.

It eventually became the BJTC, the
Broadcast Journalism Training Council, bringing together virtually the
whole UK broadcasting industry and 30 training courses at 19 colleges
and universities, and creating a system of industrial accreditation now
being adopted by many other occupational sectors.

It was on radio
that Andrew Gilligan made his claim that Downing Street had sexed up
its justification for invading Iraq, and those few seconds have had a
deeper impact on approaches to broadcast journalism and its training
than almost anything else in the recent past.

Consolidation Ofcom
have just launched their Broadcast Training and Skills Regulator, the
BBC has its new college, the base of broadcast journalism training’s
getting wider and deeper.

Pause for a short aside on the commercial sector.

Recent
trends have been away from small individual commercial radio stations
into hefty groups – EMAP and GCap Media among others.

The
perceived lack of interest in news by the commercial sector just
doesn’t stand up, though many of them might have only two- or
three-person newsrooms.

GCap Media, for instance, have done their
market research. They know the value their listeners place on news, and
they’re investing in it.

A couple of years ago, though not a
natural commercial radio listener, I judged the CRCA news awards and
came away impressed by the sheer quality of journalism on offer.

It
was old-fashioned steam radio news: good stories, well told, good radio
– and hard-hitting community campaigns, spot-on to target audiences.

It’s been 40 years of substantial change, and inevitably more is on the way. If anything the pace is accelerating.

Simple, pure radio has been a huge success story.

How do you think mobile phones and the internet work?

And
it’s forecast that the very range of applications may bring the
eventual downfall of what we regard as traditional radio: national and
local analogue mainstream broadcasting.

You’ve all heard the
litany… multi-channel digital transmission, additional information
displays through DAB, on-demand delivery via broadband, mobile
platforms, multi-platforms, pod-casting, convergence, blogs, citizen
journalists.

Well, God save us from recent events in Birmingham.
Call me old-fashioned, but if any justification were needed for
regulated, traditional radio and quality training for broadcast
journalists – in fact for anyone doing live broadcasting – that pirate
radio station proved the point.

Hey Press Gazette, mark me down for the 50th if I’m still around.

Jim Latham is secretary of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council

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