Hot Topic in Humanities: Hearing History

Emma Wray

Emma Wray is a lecturer in radio studies at Bournemouth University and a freelance broadcaster and producer. She has over fifteen years experience working in the media and is currently undertaking a PhD in the history of UK commercial radio.

Although the BBC’s contribution to the development of radio is well documented, programme output from UK independent, or commercial radio (launched in 1973) can also provide an alternative view of the world at specific points in time. Emma Wray examines how commercial radio – through its phone-ins, news and documentaries – offers a mine of information for the study of the social, cultural and political issues that dominated two pivotal decades in British history.

An interesting and relatively recent development in the field of postgraduate research has been the growing relationship between media and communications studies, and history and archiving. Making archived programme material and searchable databases available online, adds another valuable resource for learning, teaching and research across the humanities curriculum.

The Centre for Broadcasting History Research – based at the Media School at Bournemouth University and under the directorship of the UK’s Professor of Radio, Sean Street – has developed a high-profile reputation for collecting broadcast material. The centre preserves news, current affairs and other genres of commercial radio programming in digital form and creates a searchable archive, placing material within a teaching and research environment where it can be exploited for future knowledge.

Working in collaboration with the British Universities Film and Video Council (BUFVC), which promotes the production, study and use of moving image, sound and related media in learning and research, the Centre is now developing a three-part online audio archive of UK commercial radio, between its genesis in 1973, to 1990, when the Broadcasting Act radically changed radio regulation, thus altering forever the style and nature of future content.

The new act, legislated under the previous Conservative government, was a catalyst for change in the development of UK commercial radio. A new ‘light touch’ regulator – The Radio Authority, a non-government department – was created to replace the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) who had previously regulated both television and radio under similar principles under the jurisdiction of the Home Office.

The Radio Authority’s remit instigated significant changes to the sector. Adopting a market-driven approach, they began awarding radio licences to the highest bidder, extended commercial radio choice with the introduction of station content formats and specific target audiences; and supported new ownership, consolidation and acquisition rules. They also introduced three national commercial radio stations: Classic FM, Virgin and Talk Radio.

Work produced before the 1990 Broadcasting Act illustrates the different approach that commercial radio took to its own role. The change since the period covered by material in these collections is remarkable, not least because truly local stations have since been absorbed by larger radio groups. As the understanding that such independently funded radio could have existed at all begins to fade, it is important that the snapshots of history provided by the surviving programmes stations be preserved, as part of the evolving history of post-war British broadcasting.

The ‘Independent Local Radio Sharing Archive – the Felicity Wells Memorial Collection’ (named after one of the key influencers in radio programming) was launched online in 2008 following funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). By giving modern historians access to broadcast material from a range of local commercial radio stations across the UK, it provides a unique insight into how society, through the medium of commercial radio, responded to challenging issues during what is considered a pivotal decade in social and political change – the 1980s.

Much of the material places the issues and themes surrounding British society in context and demonstrates attitudes and behaviour prevalent at the time. One such programme is a one hour documentary called AIDS – The Facts. Produced by LBC and broadcast in 1987, at a time when the UK death toll from this newly recognised disease was just 300, the programme was made together with a government leaflet campaign entitled Don’t Die of Ignorance, which was sent to every household in the UK. Supporting archive material features politicians, doctors and HIV sufferers answering listeners’ questions and trying to dispel the myth surrounding prevention and infection.

Another programme, Heroin – The Killing of Christopher, is a documentary produced by Mercia Sound, Coventry, broadcast in 1985. The programme tells the story of a young heroin addict, as told by his parents, and discussed the efforts made by police, customs and government to combat the UK’s growing heroin problem.

Other compelling and challenging documentaries include The Boat People – a New Home and a New Life, which discusses the problems facing the Vietnamese Boat People during their resettlement in Newcastle (Metro Radio, 1986); and Kent Miners, (Capital 1984) where coal miners and their wives discuss the social and financial problems of their daily life, during the mass strikes during 1984 (now considered a significant turning point in British industrial history).

Important to journalism, broadcasting and cultural studies, is the investigation and analysis of commercial radio news and current affairs. This is a significant part of broadcasting history, since it provides an alternative source of radio journalism and news and current affairs broadcasts to the BBC’s own output and archive collection.

Access to this material enables researchers to compare and contrast content and production standards used by the BBC and Independent Radio News (IRN). Academics have studied themes such as the development of the phone-in genre, the construction of the soundbite and ‘vox-pop’ – voice of the people – still used widely today in news production; and the use of mobile phone technology (then in its infancy), for live reporting.

In recognition of this, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) awarded the Centre £750,000 to digitise and catalogue one of the most important radio news archives in the UK. The LBC/IRN Digitisation Project is preserving, for academic use, the news and current affairs audio archive owned by LBC Radio Ltd, part of the Global Radio Group. The tapes contain material from the very beginning of commercial radio in Britain and provide an audio witness to some of the most important and powerful national and international news reporting during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s.

It is hard to over-estimate the importance of this project in terms of UK media history,” says Professor Street, who led the successful research bid. “The collection is simply the most important commercial radio archive in the UK, and provides a unique witness to the history of the latter part of the 20th century. This archive includes programmes such as the live reporting of UK election results from five general elections, giving a sense of the political shaping of the country, in particular the Thatcher years; the conduct of the Falklands war; the Northern Ireland conflict; Decision Makers 1974-86 – a weekly 30-minute programme of political and current affairs analysis providing an insight into politics and its reportage within the UK; and material relating to the ending of apartheid in South Africa, including PW Botha’s speech at the opening of the South African parliament in which he announced that the era of apartheid was over.

One of the difficulties of a project of this scale is restoring broadcast material that is over 30 years old. The intervening years have demonstrated that the medium of magnetic audio-tape is time-sensitive in its fragility. Nearly 12,000 hours of radio in total, currently stored on ¼ inch reel-to-reel audio tapes are therefore being converted to a digital format and an online keyword search will complement the website.

The work being undertaken by Bournemouth University’s Centre for Broadcasting History Research has also been endorsed by today’s commercial radio sector: “An online commercial radio sound archive is a fantastic resource that will enable schools, colleges, researchers and broadcasters to easily access and listen to commercial radio programmes,” says Andrew Harrison, Chief Executive of RadioCentre. “These programmes capture the mood of the time and ensure commercial radio has its rightful place in broadcasting history.”

The three collections are appearing via the BUFVC website as an inter-related archive. All students and academics in BUFVC member institutions throughout the UK are eligible to access the archive by visiting www.bufvc.ac.uk/

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