Frank Gillard on BBC Local Radio, 1968
BBC radio began on a local model. If only because getting the signal from transmitters in neighbouring cities was a challenge. By the late twenties, as technology advanced and the Post Office became less worried about how its lines were being used, we’d moved regional and national. The BBC local story, thankfully, was to start a new chapter.
The 1951 Beveridge report recommended local radio experiments on the new VHF (FM) frequencies; and Frank Gillard, later to be the architect of BBC Local made investigative visits to small American stations. Those trips left a deep impression on this former war correspondent. It’s true that others in the BBC had yet to be persuaded.
By the late 50s, extensive full-service trials were mooted, although as plans advanced by 1960, the Post Office stood in the way. A network of 70 stations was originally envisaged, using around 15 staff; and advertiser-funded models were even considered.
When significant BBC investment was denied, Gillard pressed for a bargain bundle of experimental programmes, from which excerpts were considered by the Pilkington Commitee in 1961. Whilst these lively conversations continued in oak-panelled BBC offices, hundreds of commercial radio companies were being established too. But for a different turn of the dice; or in the absence of Gillard’s tenacity, commercial local radio could have preceded its BBC counterparts. He had risen from Director of the BBC Western Region to the post of Director of Sound Broadcasting.
A nine-station experiment was eventually agreed; and it was impressively but a year after the relevant White Paper that the first were launched.
The early model would appear puzzling to contemporary eyes. It was envisaged that news would be supplied by the local press; and local councils would provide much funding. Indeed, BBC Manchester was destined to be the first BBC Local station after its local authority volunteered a council-funded model in the early 60s. Gillard, however, was reluctant at that stage, owing to the risks to impartiality. Nevertheless, for the early stations, an element of council-funding was to be the eventual model. This was also the reason for Manchester's eventual tardiness: a change of council control meant that the funding fell into doubt.
In March 1967, the locations for the first stations were announced in Parliament. Leicester was to be first, not least because its council had originally volunteered not only to fund the running costs, but also the capital investment.
In this 1968 audio, Frank Gillard, by then Managing Director of Radio, considers the challenge ahead, as the experimental stations approach their critical review.