The dawn of radio

The BBC opened the first regular public broacasting station in the world on 14th November 1922 in London. Stations in Birmingham and Manchester opened the following day, followed by Newcastle on 24th December, Cardiff on the 13th February 1923, Glasgow on the 6th March, Aberdeen on 10th October and Bournemouth on 17th October. These stations all broadcast at 1.5 kW, though London was increased to 3 kW in Match 1925 when the transmitter was moved to Selfridges. This is a relatively low power by modern standards, so many cities were left with poor reception. So, from November 1923 to December 1924, 100 W relays were introduced for Bradford, Dundee, Edinburgh, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, Plymouth, Sheffield, Stoke and Swansea, together with a 1.5 kW transmitter for Belfast. At that time, the medium wave band extended only from 600 to 1000 kHz and each station was on a different frequency.

In October 1926, a 25 kW long wave station was opened at Daventry on 187.5 kHz (1600 metres). This filled in most of the coverage gaps in Central and Southern England, bringing a radio service to Norwich for the first time and improving reception in places like Oxford, Leicester, Cambridge and Ipswich. However, listeners would have had to buy a new radio. In August 1927, the first high power medium wave transmitter was opened, also at Daventry, replacing Birmingham and Nottingham and extending coverage to much of East Anglia.

On 14th November 1926, the first of many international re-plans of the medium wave band was made, extending it up to 1200 kHz and implementing 10 kHz channel spacing. Following this, some of the BBCs relays in different parts of the country shared a common frequency. Two further re-plans were made on 13th January and 30th June 1929, extending the medium wave band to 1500 kHz and abandoning the 10 kHz channel spacing. In this plan, frequencies were allocated to countries instead of to individual transmitting stations.

The National and Regional Programmes

Through the 1930s, the BBC gradually replaced its transmitter network with new high power stations located outside the cities, broadcasting at powers between 40 and 100 kW. The next station to be opened after Daventry was Brookmans Park in Hertfordshire on 21st October 1929, serving London, the South East and parts of East Anglia, and replacing the 3 kW transmitter at Selfridges. On the opening of a second high power transmitter at Brookmans Park on 9th March 1930, a second programme was introduced for the London and Midland regions. At Daventry, the National Programme was carried on long wave, extending to parts of the south and some northern cities, while the Regional Programme was carried on medium wave. At Brookmans Park, both programmes were transmitted on medium wave, with the lower frequency, giving higher coverage, allocated to the Regional Programme.

The next high power transmitter opened was Moorside Edge on the Pennines, replacing the main station at Manchester and the relays at Bradford, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and Stoke. The Regional Programme opened on the 17th May 1931, with the National Programme following on 12th July. This was followed by Westerglen in Central Scotland, replacing Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, which opened with both programmes on 12 June 1932. The next year, the Washford transmitter by the Somerset coast was opened, replacing Cardiff and Swansea and also covering much of Western England. The Welsh Regional Programme opened on 28th May 1933, with the National Programme following on 17th July and using the same frequency as that programme from Brookmans Park.

On the 15th January 1934, another international frequency plan was implemented, resulting in more changes to the BBC frequencies, including the long wave transmitter moving to 200 kHz. This plan was to last until 1950. In October of 1924, a new 150 kW long wave transmitter for the National Programme was opened at Droitwich, south of Birmingham, replacing the 25 kW station at Daventry and covering most of England and Wales. The Regional Programme moved to Droitwich on 17th January 1935, which was accompanied by many of the BBCs transmitters exchanging frequencies, including the National Programme at Moorside Edge joining Brookmans Park and Washford on 1149 kHz.

In 1936 and 1937, high power transmitters opened at Lisnargarvey for Northern Ireland, Stagshaw for the North East and Cumbria and Burghead for Northern Scotland, each carrying the Regional Programme only. A smaller 5 kW transmitter was opened at Penmon to bring the Welsh Regional Programme to North Wales and Aberdeen was replaced by a 5 kW transmitter at Redmoss. With the National Programme now available on long wave, the transmitter at Washford was re-allocated to provide a Western Regional Programme, supplemented by the old transmitters at Bournemouth and Plymouth. In June of 1939, the Western Regional transmitters were replaced by a 100 kW transmitter at Start Point in Devon and a 20 kW transmitter at Clevedon, near Bristol, enabling the last of the original transmitting stations to be closed.

In the 1930s, the BBC was subjected to competition for the first time. From 1931, French station Radio Normandie began broadcasting in English after its local programmes had finished. In 1933, Radio Luxembourg opened a 200 kW long wave transmitter, broadcasting in English from the Grand Duchy in the afternoons and evenings.

The war years

When war broke out, enemy bombers using radio transmitters for navigation became a potential problem. To combat this, the long wave transmitter was closed and the medium wave transmitters grouped into three synchronous groups of four on the same frequency. Initially, two frequencies were used to broadcast the Home Service, which replaced the National and Regional Programmes, to northern and southern Britain, whilst a third frequency was used to broadcast the European Programme at night. By October 1941, Start Point had been converted to horizontal polarisation to prevent its use for direction finding and the Droitwich long wave transmitter converted to a high power medium wave station. These took over the broadcasting of the European Programme, freeing up transmitters for a new Forces Programme.

The synchronous transmitters not only interfered with each other in areas where the signal strengths were similar, but had to be switched off during air raids. To improve reception of the Home Service, a synchronous network of 61 low power transmitters, known as Matrix H, was constructed on 1474 kHz. More details are given in an article on
MB21. As the war progessed, further transmitters were opened to boost reception of all three services, including extra European Programme transmitters at Crowborough in Sussex and Ottringham, East Yorkshire.

The dawn of radio
National and Regional
The war years
Home, Light and Third
The birth of FM
The pirates
Radios 1-4 & Local Radio
Splits & AM re-shuffles
Improving FM
Commercial radio expands
Going digital

R1 transmission history
Classic Radio 1 Schedules
Virgin Radio launch
Eduational Radio
Home, Light and Third

The BBC returned to peacetime broadcasting a few weeks after the war. The Home Service was split into 7 regions, taking over most of the old Regional Programme frequencies. The former North East and Cumbria frequency, however was allocated to the European service, so this region had to share a frequency with Northern Ireland, broadcasting a common programme until the start of 1963. New transmitters at Londonderry, Norwich and Bartley (for Southampton, Portsmouth and Bournemouth), opened during the war, were added. The Forces Programme became the Light Programme, taking over the old National Programme long and medium wave frequencies, but with 9 rather than 3 medium wave transmitters, giving full national coverage. For a few years, the UK operated a second long wave service, broadcasting the European Programme from Ottringham.

In October 1946, a new classical music and cultural service, the Third Programme was added, broadcasting from 8 to 11 in the evenings. Initially 583 kHz was used from Droitwich, but, as this was not an internationally cleared frequency, coverage was limited. Therefore, 22 of the old Matrix H transmitters were brought back into service to supplement coverage outside the Midlands.

In March 1950, a new international frequency plan was implemented, with the band extending from 530 to 1600 kHz. The UK was formally allocated a frequency for the Third Programme and an additional frequency for the European Programme (now part of the World Service). The frequencies that were used are within 1 or 2 kHz of the UK's current high power allocations. Radio Luxembourg's Emglish service moved to medium wave, broadcasting only in the evening and subject to fading. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a number of low power transmitters were opened to improve Home Service reception, particularly in coastal areas. On its new frequency, the Third could be broadcast at the full 150 kW, with further improvements in coverage when the transmitter was moved to Daventry at the beginning of 1952. However, this transmitter did not give national coverage, so some of the low power fillers had to be retained. In 1957, the BBC launched Network 3, broadcasting educational programmes in the early evening on the Third Programme transmitters, plus Saturday afternoon sport and test cricket. On 30th August 1964, they were joined by the Music Programme, broadcasting classical music during the daytime.

The birth of FM

By the middle of the 1950s, television was becoming popular and it was becoming noticeable that the sound quality was better than that offered by AM radio. Increasing the bandwidth on AM was not an option because of interference to and from foreign stations. There were also a number of places that didn't receive good reception of the BBC's radio stations, though AM reception was much better then than it is now as there much fewer stations. Therefore, the BBC invested in a new radio transmission system in the very high frequency (VHF) region of the spectrum, using frequency modulation (FM). The system was originally designed for use with a roof or loft aerial and VHF radios were commonly built into TV sets until the UK switched over to the 625 line TV system on UHF at the end of the 1960s.

The BBC's first FM radio station opened on 2nd May 1955 at Wrotham in Kent, broadcasting all three networks to London and the South East of England. Pontop Pike for the North East and Wenvoe for South Wales and the West of England followed on the 20th December. Development of the FM radio network was relatively quick as most of the transmitters shared masts with BBC television. Seven transmitters opened in 1956: Divis for most of Northern Ireland, Meldrum for the Grampian region of Scotland, North Hessary Tor for Devon and East Cornwall, Blaenplwyf for West Wales, Holme Moss for North West England and Yorkshire, Sutton Coldfield for the Midlands and Tacolneston for East Anglia. Rowridge for Central Southern England and Kirk o'Shotts for Central Scotland were opened in 1957. By 1961, there were 27 VHF-FM transmitters on air and extra regional programmes were carried on FM only for the North East, East Anglia and South West regions. With a few exceptions, the Home Service broadcast on the frequencies currently used by Radio 4, the Light Programme on those used by Radio 3 and the Third Programme on the current Radio 3 frequencies.

Stereo was first tested in January 1958 using the current pilot tone system, with a permanent service opening on the Third programme in the South East the following year. Stereo was rolled out slowly, initially only on the Third/ Radio 3, with Radios 2 and 4 following over the 1970s. The original 20 BBC local radio stations were not converted to stereo until the 1980s.

The pirates

At Easter 1964, UK radio was revolutionised by the opening of Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta. These commercial stations broadcast American style Top 40 radio from ships in the North Sea off the Essex coast, exploiting a loophole in the law. As they broadcast from ships, they quickly became known as the pirates, a term applied to unlicensed radio stations ever since. In July of 1964, the two stations merged, with Atlanta becoming Radio Caroline North and sailing off to the Irish Sea to broadcast to the North West. They were quickly joined by other stations with as many as 12 different stations broadcasting from ships and offshore forts. Although most stations broadcast Top 40 pop to South East England, Radio 270 broadcast to Yorkshire and the North East, Radio Scotland to Scotland and there was an easy listening station. The early stations used frequencies at the top of the medium wave band. With a shorter wavelength, a shorter mast could be used, but the coverage wasn't as good. Later stations spread throughout the band. Caroline South broadcast on 1520 kHz at 10 kW, while its main competitor, Radio London, broadcast at 50 kW on 1137 kHz, giving much better coverage. Caroline North broadcast at 30 kW on 1187 kHz, whilst Radio 355 and Radio 390 broadcast resepectively on 845 kHz at 55 kW and 773 kHz at 35 kW and would have been listenable in the Midlands.

The offshore pirate era ended on 14th August 1967 when the Marine Offenses Bill became law, outlawing these stations. The two Caroline stations continued, however, with Caroline North lasting until Easter 1968 and Caroline South broadcasting on and off until the early 1990s, using 1187 kHz in the early 1970s and 962/963 in the late 70s and 80s. In the mid 80s, Caroline opened a second transmitter, transferring the main service to 576 kHz, later 558, and broadcasting alternative programmes on 963, including the religious programmes it transmitted in the evenings to fund itself. Other offshore pirates included Radio North Sea International in the early 1970s and Laser 558 in the mid 1980s. Caroline was driven off 558 by licensed station Spectrum (which was temporarily given a second frequency) in 1990 and broadcast for a few months on 819 kHz before closing. Caroline now operates legally as a satellite station run by volunteers.

MDS975 includes a comprehensive set of historical transmitter listings, including frequencies, wavelengths and powers.

Go to part 2

The dawn of radio
National and Regional
The war years
Home, Light and Third
The birth of FM
The pirates
Radios 1-4 & Local Radio
Splits & AM re-shuffles
Improving FM
Commercial radio expands
Going digital

R1 transmission history
Classic Radio 1 Schedules
Virgin Radio launch
Eduational Radio