Strange though it may seem, there was a time in the history of radio in Britain when you couldn’t hear pop music on the BBC. Actually, that’s not quite true: you could hear the latest banging, kicking, in-your-face (forgive the cliches) tunes on the Beeb, but they were typically performed by paid orchestras, rather than by the bands or artists themselves. If you wanted to hear the latest singles by the Rolling Stones, Dylan, the Beach Boys or Motown acts on the radio in the UK, you had to turn the dial to any of the pirate stations, anchored on ships in the North Sea or English Channel. This seemed, from the point of view of the DJs concerned, the easiest way of dodging the prying ears of the law at the time – a phenomenon satirized in the 2009 Richard Curtis movie The Boat That Rocked (starring, among others, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Not until 1967 would the broadcasting authorities eventually wake up to the realization that banning pop music from Auntie’s airwaves wasn’t going to make it go away, and so, on 30 September of that year, four new national radio stations were launched. Replacing the BBC’s Light Programme was Radio 1 (for pop and rock music) and Radio 2 (for more middle-of-the-road and easy-listening music), while the Third Programme was renamed Radio 3 (for classic music), and the Home Service became Radio 4 (for news, documentaries and drama).
Tony Blackburn fronted Radio 1’s very first Breakfast Show that morning, and the first record he played was Flowers In The Rain by the Birmingham band The Move. The changes at the Beeb proved to be very popular, with Radio 1 before long claiming an audience of 10 million. So enduring did its music and presentational formulae become, that the station continued on its merry way essentially unchanged over the next twenty years, meaning that the listeners ended up, literally, growing old along with the presenters. The result was that the Nation’s Favourite (as the writer Simon Garfield sarcastically named it in his 1998 book) became an easy target for comedians, with Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield parodying the aging DJs brilliantly with their characters “Smashie and Nicey” (though some of the DJs themselves were able to laugh at the joke, with Blackburn actually entitling his own autobiography Poptastic).
Nonetheless, four new national stations had been established, and though their fortunes and ratings would wax and wane over the coming decades there were few voices in the commentariat calling for them to be shut down or privatized. In 1990 they were joined by a fifth national station, unimaginatively named BBC Radio 5 (renamed 5 Live in 1993). Later, with the advent of digital radio in the 2000s, there would be new stations, new challenges and new controversies. Whatever happens, each and every one of us will turn on the radio for whatever reason at least once a day in our lives, so the medium’s audience seems to be holding up well in spite of the fierce competition offered by the internet and other media. It is, after all, one of the most personal media there is, and Steve Wright of Radio 2 is one of a number of broadcasters who recall, among their most memorable anecdotes, messages from listeners who have told them how turning on the radio was just about the only thing that helped them out in distressing times.