The gradual death of AM radio takes with it a curious part of Britain’s psyche

Illustration of a night-time scene. A radio transmitter sits on a hilltop, next to a clock tower displaying the time 12:15. A red star is in the sky, and a blue boat is sailing on the sea.

1215 AM. Not quarter past midnight, but a radio frequency familiar to generations (although perhaps not any of the younger ones). 1215 AM (or MW), currently licensed to Bauer Media, has closed down.

While it sounded like business as usual to digital listeners, programming on MW ended last night with a sincere tribute to the entire history of the frequency.

It brings to an end a wavelength that has been used since the 1950s. First it broadcast the BBC Light Programme. Then it hosted BBC Radio 1 on its 1967 launch, before being used by BBC Radio 3 between 1978 and 1992.

In 1993, deregulation saw the BBC relinquish many of its frequencies to commercial operators. 1215 MW was awarded to Virgin Radio — today known as Absolute Radio, and nothing to do with the current Virgin Radio.

Despite 1215 MW’s history, it’s impressive that it has lasted so long. Back in 2006, Virgin Radio expected to end AM broadcasting by 2010 due to its poor commercial viability. Deals with transmitter operator Arqiva seem to have extended its life by more than a decade.

AM: anti music

AM (incorporating medium wave and long wave frequencies) is an antiquated way to listen to the radio. Even in the 1990s it was a byword for poor quality reception. AM had been usurped by higher-quality FM signals even before digital radio existed.

So it was perhaps odd that Virgin Radio bid for the license for 1215 MW, and used it to operate a pop and rock music station. They invested heavily in the transmitter network to improve reception. Yet still it sounded dreadful, particularly at night.

But at the time, Virgin Radio plugged a gap that was left by BBC Radio 1’s radical changes designed to appeal younger audiences. Virgin Radio catered for those who felt too old for Radio 1, but too young for Radio 2. It helped that Virgin Radio recruited some familiar voices from Radio 1’s past, such as Tommy Vance.

My parents were among those Radio 1 refugees, and often chose to listen to Virgin Radio in the car. I spent countless hours listening to Virgin Radio through weekend day trips and sweaty summer car journeys.

Upon its launch, Chris Morris cast his acerbic ear over Virgin Radio, castigating both its audio quality (“anti music”) and programming (“aural mogadon”).

Changes driven from outside the UK

The 1990s were a time of change for radio in the UK. This was partly down to government policy, which gradually loosened the BBC’s radio monopoly. Commercial broadcasters were able to operate nationally for the first time.

But like much of UK radio’s history, the industry’s hand was forced by activities beyond the UK’s shores.

The creation of BBC Radio 1 in 1967 was driven by a fear of losing younger audiences forever to pirate radio stations. But the BBC wasn’t just competing with just plucky upstarts in boats.

Radio frequencies don’t respect international borders. So in the 1930s, engineers in Luxembourg created a powerful transmitter aimed directly at British and Irish audiences. Radio Luxembourg’s broadcasts are said to have reached up to half of all Brits.

Despite the government’s disapproval, many British companies took the opportunity to advertise on Radio Luxembourg. This exposed Brits to commercial broadcasting — decades before it was legal.

During the second world war, it was used to broadcast Nazi propaganda.

In peacetime, it had another commercial peak in the 1960s, when it targeted younger audiences. But as the BBC sharpened up its act, and when commercial broadcasters were allowed to operate locally, Radio Luxembourg’s popularity diminished.

It formally ceased targeting British audiences in 1992, just before the launch of Virgin Radio. (Incidentally, Radio Luxembourg’s original frequency also closed down earlier this month.)

However, Radio Luxembourg’s owners RTL had already started a joint venture with Ireland’s RTÉ. Together they operated a powerful long wave transmitter in the Republic of Ireland that was aimed at UK audiences. The transmitter was so powerful that it is said the signal was once received in Brazil.

The station was called Atlantic 252. It had a head-start on Virgin Radio by a few years, so it got a significant foothold in the UK. Some online sources suggest up to 4 million people listened. I also remember spending hours listening to Atlantic 252 in the car.

A notable feature of Atlantic 252, apart from the poor audio quality of the long wave transmission, was the fact that they sped up all of the music. This was allegedly so that they could fit more adverts in. But it did make the music sound noticeably strange.

As UK radio deregulation accelerated, the relevance of Atlantic 252 receded. The station finally closed down in 2002. The frequency is now used to broadcast RTÉ Radio 1, but has long been slated for closure.

Long wave legacy

The history of 1215 MW leaves another legacy: BBC Radio 4 Long Wave.

When BBC Radio 3 used the 1215 MW frequency, it was the home of Test Match Special. After the BBC gave up the frequency, cricket broadcasts moved to Radio 4’s long wave frequency. There are few other differences between Radio 4 LW and the main Radio 4 service.

Notably, the long wave frequency broadcasts additional shipping forecasts, as it can be received more easily at sea than FM. But apart from the romantic value of the shipping forecast and its resultant place in the British psyche, it is redundant because seafarers now use on-board electronic equipment to obtain highly accurate forecasts.

But Radio 4 LW occupies an additional space in British folklore. Legend has it that one way British submarine commanders ensure that British civilisation has not collapsed is by establishing if Radio 4 is still broadcasting — presumably by tuning into the long wave signal.

Radio 4 LW is therefore often cited (only half-jokingly) as a lynchpin of British civilisation. Yet as with the shipping forecast, submariners will have far more sophisticated means of determining the end of the world than tuning into the Archers.

Perhaps more problematic is the fact that the same frequency is used to control millions of electricity meters using off-peak tariffs like Economy 7.

Long wave, high maintenance

Radio 4’s long wave frequency has been under threat for over a decade. For years, the BBC has warned that a global shortage of specialist valves means that once the existing transmitters break down, the service will cease. Some engineers posting online disagree that there is such a shortage.

But it is cost that will lead to these transmitters closing down. According to Adam Bowie, running a national AM network costs six figures. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport says that AM accounts for just 2% of all radio listening, but 35% of transmission costs.

The end of AM

The UK is undoubtedly in crisis. Perhaps one sign is that the BBC has confirmed that Radio 4 Long Wave will finally cease transmission within a matter of years (along with other once-prominent medium wave frequencies).

The BBC are not blaming valves this time. They’re just doing it.

Don’t worry. Test Match Special can be heard on digital radio. Sailors have their own means of getting weather data.

And for those who still want to listen to the shipping forecast to help them drift off, a podcast called the Sleeping Forecast intersperses snippets of it with soothing music. You could even choose to listen to it at 12:15am, which you could check by using the time signal broadcast from Cumbria.


Comments

2 responses to “The gradual death of AM radio takes with it a curious part of Britain’s psyche”

  1. Frisky avatar

    It’s licence, not license unless you mean the verb, i.e. it’s a driving licence not a driving license.

    However, in the USA , they spell it with an “s”, so you must have been in the USA for too long!

  2. There’s many places in the U.K. where AM is the only way to listen to radio. Even in the Lake District FM is patchy, DAB often non existent and no mobile signal for streaming.
    Same in the Highlands of Scotland and parts of Wales.
    It seems to me that the air are talking themselves into the end of AM because they don’t want to pay for it. Gone are the days when it was a public service operated by the BBC. Hard luck to those who can’t listen on DAB or stream.
    Best read a book instead

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