Ipswich Icons: Radio played a big part in the music revolution of the 1960s

The Electric House

The Electric House - Credit: Archant

The world, as we knew it, changed in the 1960s, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Radio Orwell bus

Radio Orwell bus - Credit: Archant

Wartime austerity gave way to relative prosperity, respect for authority slipped as the individual learnt to take control of their own destiny, albeit only on a daily basis.

Nowhere was this cultural shift more obvious than in popular music. The old crooners, the housewive’s favourites and MOR (Middle of the Road) music slipped away leaving rock & roll to top the charts. The how and where we engaged with popular music also changed.

The BBC Light Programme had restricted pop music to a couple of hours per week. But the young population demanded more, the baby boomers were now teenagers with time on their hands. Radio Luxembourg went some way to filling the void, broadcasting in English, with British and American popular records. Because the signal travelled better after dark, teenagers listened under their bedclothes in the secrecy of their own rooms which somehow made 208 even more fashionable.

But Luxembourg was dominated by the big record companies, EMI, Decca, Pye, Phillips, new groups recording on smaller independent labels couldn’t get onto the playlist. One such artist was Georgie Fame and his record promoter, Ronan O’Rahilly, decided to do something about this.

Inspired by the pirate radio stations off the coast of Holland he launched Radio Caroline which first broadcast to the nation at the end of March 1964. The young people of south east England were ready and waiting, eager to be part of a major music revolution. But it wasn’t to last – Harold Wilson’s government didn’t like not being in control of the media and the Marine Broadcasting Bill of 1967 effectively put the pirates out of action to be replaced by a revamped and updated BBC.

A brand new station, Radio 1 broadcast on 247 medium wave, strived to be a copy of the pirates (Radio London), other BBC stations were also renamed: the light programme became Radio 2, the Third Programme Radio 3 and the Home Service Radio 4

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What the BBC couldn’t provide however was a local service, a radio station broadcasting to a single town, with local news and announcements about the local community. The demise of the pirates in 1967 was probably a substantial reason why Labour lost the next election and Ted Heath was able to form a Government.

The new minister for post and telecommunications, Christopher Chattaway, introduced a new bill allowing the establishment of onshore commercial radio in the United Kingdom. Licences were obviously going to be issued to London (LBC, Capital); Birmingham (BRMB); and Glasgow (Radio Clyde) but locally former Fleet Air Arm Commander, turned farmer, John Jacob decided that Ipswich stood as much chance as any of getting one of the additional 15 licences. If Ipswich was to have a commercial radio station they wanted to run it.

In 1972 the Government announced that Ipswich was indeed to have a local radio station and in 1975 Radio Orwell won the contract. The first and only radio station in East Anglia. It leased the ground floor and basement of Electric House from Eastern Electricity, an inspired choice.

Somehow ‘Electric House’ was an appropriate and established name for their headquarters, and its prominent position alongside the bus station and main vehicle route through the town centre acted as a constant reminder to all who passed by. Every Ipswich bus coming into town had Electric House on its destination board, a reoccurring advert that cost Orwell nothing!

It had taken five years but in October 1975 Radio Orwell first broadcast on the medium wavelength at 257m. The late 1970s were heady days for commercial radio, vinyl records were collected ‘off the shelf’ from the record library, and presenters used spinning turntables (record decks) and reel to reel tape edited by cutting and splicing.

News bulletins were written on manual typewriters before being taken in to the studio to be read and traffic reports were telephone calls to Suffolk Police.

Radio Orwell was incredibly popular; considerably more than was envisaged by John Jacob and his financial backers. It was taken over by Norfolk’s Broadland Radio in 1990, becoming SGR FM in 1992, GWR in 1996 and Global Radio (Heart) in 2009.

However, this increasing nationalisation of radio broadcasting created a gap in the market, filled ironically by the BBC with local radio stations, including BBC Radio Suffolk in 1990. The similarity between the original Radio Orwell and BBC Radio Suffolk is uncanny, but many of the established Orwell presenters moved to the BBC to uphold the tradition of “local” radio.

See more from The Ipwich Society here

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