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The BBC changes its tune to play the sounds of the sixties

Facing fleets of pirate radio stations and teenagers hungry to hear the latest hits, the BBC had to change its tune. In part five of our 13-part series on the history of the BBC, David Hendy explores how it appealed to young new audiences with the launch of Radio 1, and turned their roster of irreverent and finger-on-the-pulse DJs into stars...

The presenters of the recently launched BBC Radio 1 assemble for a group photo outside Broadcasting House, 1967. (Photo by Robert Stiggins/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Published: August 4, 2022 at 8:09 am
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At 7am on Saturday 30 September 1967, in a windowless studio in London, a pop revolution was ignited. Watched by his producer, the 24-year-old disc-jockey Tony Blackburn switched on his microphone, welcomed listeners across Britain to “the exciting new sound of Radio 1” and placed onto his turntable Flowers in the Rain, the latest single from The Move. “It wasn’t one of my favourite records,” Blackburn later confessed, but “I wanted something nice and happy, something that reflected that era.”

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As the “Summer of Love” – a season of flower-power, love-ins and teach-ins – reached its psychedelic close, the BBC unveiled a new radio station dedicated to the latest tunes. The newspapers were agog. The Sunday Telegraph talked of a “gimmick ridden” corporation sending the nation’s teenagers into orbit. The Observer declared it “Auntie’s first freak-out”.

Never had a freak-out been so widely advertised in advance or so meticulously prepared for. Back in 1964, the fleet of unlicensed “pirate” radio ships that suddenly began beaming non-stop chart hits to mainland Britain from just outside its territorial waters had prompted a flurry of activity both within the BBC, understandably anxious about losing millions of listeners, and in the corridors of government, which worried about copyright and its obligation to enforce international laws over wavelengths.

By August 1967, legislation initiated by Tony Benn in his previous role as postmaster general had effectively sunk Radio Caroline, Radio London and the rest, paving the way for the BBC to provide a replacement service.

For months the BBC had been eavesdropping on the pirates, despatching staff on clandestine missions to recruit their best disc jockeys, copying their studio designs and jingles, and conducting dummy-runs of their own new shows. But handing responsibility to the corporation seemed to many observers an unlikely solution to the public’s insatiable desire for more pop music.

When Benn first floated the idea of a new service, the BBC’s chairman is reported to have replied: “You can’t have popular music all the time – it would be like having the pubs open all day.”

Nor, apparently, were such attitudes confined to the BBC’s uppermost ranks. Terry Wogan, who had recently joined from the Irish broadcaster RTE, found a corporation acting like “the British empire under Queen Victoria – incredibly self-confident, indeed probably complacent… entirely convinced of its own rectitude, of its own brilliance, of its own status in the world”. It was a self-confidence that Wogan admired, but it had clearly left Britain’s national broadcaster floundering to keep pace with musical tastes mutating at lightning speed.

The BBC offered listeners to the Light Programme “the best of today’s ‘pop’ entertainment” on shows such as Saturday Club and Pick of the Pops; TV viewers could watch the latest hits on Top of the Pops. Yet as far as the young music journalist Annie Nightingale was concerned, the rest of its output remained “utterly atrocious”, with presenters “talking down” to listeners and playing hours of middle-of-the-road records including Twenty Tiny Fingers, Twenty Tiny Toes or Tulips from Amsterdam.


On the podcast | Historian, author and broadcaster Dominic Sandbrook answers popular search queries and questions about Britain in the 1960s:


There were, however, people inside the corporation desperate to drag it firmly into the sixties. The director-general himself, Hugh Carleton Greene, had called on staff to throw open the windows and clear the place of its “ivory-tower stuffiness”. He had also told producers that “if you don’t upset part of your audience most of the time, you’re not doing your job properly”.

This signal from the top – that not every programme had to please everyone – was hugely liberating. It encouraged a concerted push to recruit younger staff: men and women who were not just in touch with contemporary culture but who enjoyed a healthy irreverence towards authority figures.

Adverts for openings at new television channel BBC Two, for instance, went out of their way to specify the need for “new blood”; talent-spotters from Radio Light Entertainment scurried to Cambridge to dangle BBC contracts under the noses of freshly graduated Footlights performers such as John Cleese and Graeme Garden. By 1967, the old guard of producers – described somewhat cruelly as the “chaps with cravats”– had largely made way for a new generation.

In focus: how John Peel became the DJ who broadened the horizons of generations of listeners

Tony Blackburn might have embodied the cheery, cheesy style of the BBC’s new pop station during the day. But the DJ who did most to establish its reputation for showcasing the esoteric outer reaches of contemporary music at night was John Peel.

He made his debut on Sunday 1 October 1967 co-presenting the free wheeling, three-hour long, rock-focused radio programme Top Gear. Within months, he was a regular on Night Ride. And in the years ahead he would host, among others, Sounds of the Seventies, In Concert, and the eponymous, seemingly everlasting John Peel Show.

The Radio Times billed him rather blandly as the man who would play “the coolest sounds around”. But Peel did more than that.

Having spent his young adult life drifting through dead-end jobs in the United States, browsing the record stores and doing late-night shifts on any radio station that would take him, he had accumulated a vast knowledge of the prog rock, R&B and blues scenes.

His tastes were ever-curious and largely unpredictable. For the show he presented on the pirate station Radio London, he dropped the adverts and weather reports to make way for more of the music that had taken his fancy. It was this languid, hippyish style and uncompromising approach that had convinced Radio 1’s controller that he would attract a huge cult following on the BBC.

Once installed, Peel stuck to his belief that it was his civic duty to introduce listeners to music they had little chance of hearing anywhere else on Britain’s airwaves.

And although it was hard to imagine the corporation’s founding father ever tuning in, these late-night shows were entirely in line with John Reith’s own enduring philosophy: that, in making the strange familiar, the BBC could shape public taste, rather than merely reflecting it.

As John Peel put it in his own inimitable way: “The programmes with which I’m involved are aimed at turning y’all on to some musicks that you might not otherwise investigate.”

Inside Broadcasting House, there had also been much agonised debate about the whole future of radio. For more than a decade, television had soaked up an increasing share of resources, publicity and audiences. A medium that had once held listeners entranced in the nation’s sitting rooms looked as if it would have to settle for “background” status, half-listened to in short bursts.

The pirates merely confirmed what managers already knew: that the BBC needed to provide more continuous music, and give each of its radio networks a more predictable “generic” identity.

This thinking lay behind a reshuffle of programmes in the middle of the decade that saw a clutch of the speech programmes on the Light and Third programmes moving across to the Home Service, and music series heading the opposite way. The overall direction of travel was clear: the Third and the Light programmes would become more akin to music-only services; the Home Service would be the place for talk and debate. Some wondered whether soon all those carefully crafted plays and features would survive at all.

Radio 1 staff marked launch day by wearing shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Death to the Home Service”. It had an ominous ring

The decision by Radio 1 staff to mark launch day by wearing shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Death to the Home Service” was a light-hearted publicity stunt. It also had an ominous ring. In the strictest sense, the Home Service had just died. At the precise hour of Radio 1’s birth, the old triumvirate of Light, Third and Home also disappeared – reborn as Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4 respectively. All the press attention, however, was on the BBC’s new pop station, and those early reviews were far from friendly.

Ludovic Kennedy complained of ignorant DJs mangling the English language. In The Observer George Melly suggested that, despite comprehensively plagiarising the pirates, the BBC had created something “lifeless”.

This was all a little unjust. It was presenter Tony Blackburn who decided to wear a suit and tie in the studio; his producers preferred the latest flowery shirts. “There was nobody who came to me and said: ‘Oh, we’d rather you did it that way or this way,’” he recalled. “They wanted that pirate radio sound, and that’s exactly what we gave them.”

A ship used to broadcast the pirate station Radio Caroline, 1967 (Photo by MSI/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
A ship used to broadcast the pirate station Radio Caroline, 1967 (Photo by MSI/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

If anything held Radio 1 back, it was the music industry’s strict limits on the amount of copyrighted music that could be played on air. The BBC had previously been allocated roughly 30 hours a week for all its networks combined. The arrival of Radio 1 extended this by a measly two hours. The result was a schedule bulked out with royalty-free versions of the latest hits performed by a BBC house orchestra or long stretches of time-filling chat.

The constant ad-libbing was clearly a departure for the BBC – and proved discomfiting to older listeners. But at least it meant, in the words of the station’s controller, that the corporation was finally speaking to its younger listeners in “the language of the mid-60s”. This, he added, was now “the new style of radio… the way to go”.

A carefully managed image as 'boyfriend' substitutes for young female listeners cast the new station’s DJs as real-life pop stars, mobbed everywhere they went

His prediction turned out to be accurate. By the next year UK record sales were up noticeably, Radio 1’s audience ratings were buoyant, and a rota of appearances on Top of the Pops – plus a carefully managed image as “boyfriend” substitutes for young female listeners – had cast the new station’s DJs as real-life pop stars, mobbed everywhere they went.

It all felt a world away from the postwar atmosphere of the Home, Light and Third. But by now even the controller of Radio 4 was telling staff that he wanted less of the “slightly stiff, slightly buttoned-up formats” inherited from the Home, and more of what he called “the raw stuff” of spontaneous talk: his own station’s schedule was now under review.

Whatever the future might bring, a ripple of satisfaction could be felt throughout Broadcasting House. Radio, once deemed old-fashioned, was back in the public eye: a little more spry, a little more confident, reaching tentatively toward a looser, livelier style in tune with the age.

David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)

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This article was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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