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24 September 2014
BBC Radio Norfolk

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The neighbour who came to stay
Picture: Ian Masters.
Ian Masters

BBC Radio Norfolk has been at the heart of the local community for more than two decades.

Jill Bennett looks back on the pioneering days of when local radio was new.

At the turn of the 1980s, Norfolk was getting used to the idea that the BBC had arrived in their county with an exciting new local service.

BBC Radio Norfolk brought some new friends into people's homes. They included John Mountford, who presented our breakfast show and now has his own commercial studios in Wymondham; Ian Masters, well known to thousands as presenter of Look East on BBC ONE who became the voice of Saturday morning.

Wally Webb, the star of the local disco scene, came to present the Sunday afternoon rock programme and there was David Clayton, now the managing editor of Radio Norfolk, who was soon starting out with a weekend show.

Our programmes had to be devised to make the county the main contributor, giving people all over Norfolk the means to talk with each other, laugh with each other, and argue with each other if they wanted to. And that is exactly what we did. We also spent time getting to grips with the technology.

For Skip and I, new to the radio game, this was not so much a steep learning curve as a cliff face. The mysteries of talkback, tele-balance units, gains and fades were foreign to us — and all the more obvious because everyone else knew about them. We traded our local knowledge for help in the studios when we were really stuck.

Picture: Keith Skipper
Keith Skipper

We would share the secrets of how the county worked and how to pronounce Wymondham, Happisburgh and Costessey.

The summer was spent setting up and getting around. We had to introduce ourselves to local emergency services, councils, sports clubs, companies and the host of organisations operating in Norfolk. The idea of local radio was new to them too.

I can remember one MP greeting our arrival with the announcement that on no account would he appear on any breakfast programme, as it was much too early to give interviews.

For the police and fire services, and Anglian Water as it was then, there was another dimension to our arrival. Local radio is more than just a news service when there is an emergency. It becomes a vital means of letting people know what is going on.

The classic case is when there are severe snowfalls and every club is trying to tell members about cancelled meetings, the police and highways authority want to keep people informed about which roads are blocked, and people want to ring in with their problems. Every family in the county wants to know whether the local school is closed because of problems with transport, heating or frozen pipes.

One family once described it to me as "Radio Norfolk weather" because the kids were glued to the radio hoping for a day off school. We all take this for granted now. In 1980, it was new. It was like describing chocolate to someone who has tasted only meat and two veg.

The Eastern Daily Press, on the day it welcomed our arrival, referred to the "missionary zeal" with which the supporters of BBC Local Radio had argued its case. At least we appeared to have convinced the EDP. Radio Norfolk’s launch was, in the paper’s view, an important local landmark.

"Much store is set by informality, versatility, mutual identification and the helping hand across the airwaves," said the editorial the morning after the launch.

"The development of Radio Norfolk and the organising of newsgathering across a large and often sparsely populated county will be carried out by a team which is not only fewer in number than the average station complement, but also obliged to work within fairly severe financial constraints.

"We do not doubt that Radio Norfolk will rise to the challenges, and quickly establish itself in the life of our county. We wish our new neighbour well."

BBC Radio Norfolk - Your New Neighbour — was the slogan coined that first summer as we began the dummy runs at programmes. The preparations gathered pace.

We had visits from august managers in the BBC — the head of BBC Radio, Aubrey Singer, was one. Michael Barton, the head of BBC Local Radio, was a regular visitor. By September 11, 1980, we couldn’t wait to get going. It was time to open the station.

At 6.3Opm the building was full of people who had come to be at the launch. It was timed to be seen live on Look East; the first bulletin was written, John Mountford was ready in the studio.

Two children who shared our birthday - Duane Trower, 11, from Outwell, and Andrea Hughes, 7, from Hemsby - had been chosen to cut the tape and Ian Masters’ dash across the road from the television studios to be with us was all organised.

The clock ticked around. Duane and Andrea wielded the scissors and we were live on air.

John Mountford’s voice went out across Norfolk and the station came to life. The first record spun was Sheena Easton’s Modern Girl catching the mood of a new decade, a new station, and something to celebrate.

Picture: June Butcher, TerryWogand and Mike Chaney.
June Butcher, Terry Wogan and Mike Chaney in September 1980

That following morning, Terry Wogan presented his Radio Two breakfast show from our studios, as John was broadcasting our first full show.

Mike Chaney had decided that without the funds to be on air full-time, we would broadcast at peak times and let Radio Two take care of the rest.

So when John Mountford came off air at 10am, we read a local news bulletin and then joined the Jimmy Young programme until the lunchtime show at noon. The same happened at 2pm — we went to Radio Two until an extended five o’clock news, weather and sports bulletin.

But at weekends, when everyone was at home, the strategy was to broadcast all day on Saturday and Sunday with programmes getting out and about around Norfolk, reflecting the day’s sport, its arts and entertainment.

The hours expanded with the arrival of new manager Keith Salmon in 1982. He had been with BBC Radio Oxford and set about giving Norfolk an all-day service.

Under his guidance, the Norfolk Airline was born with Neil Walker and David Clayton, bringing a new dimension to the morning’s broadcasting. It was an inspired partnership, crowned in 1986 with a Sony Award for best magazine programme at a glittering awards ceremony in London.

Keith Salmon, Peter Glanville, Neil and David went down knowing they had been nominated but with no idea of the judges’ decision.

"We were on cloud nine-and-a-half" David remembers. "We hadn’t just taken a local radio category award, we had won the national radio award for magazine programmes and were taking it back to BBC Radio Norfolk right under the noses of the big boys, Radio Four and London’s Capital Radio."

Picture: Neil Walker and David Clayton.
Neil Walker and David Clayton present the award winning show Airline

Anybody who was anybody would come to our studios for interviews on Airline.

Showbiz stars, Cabinet ministers, authors and great figures of the day were to be found sifting in reception waiting for their interview.

But it was also the chance for Norfolk to talk with them, put them on the spot or ask them that question, the one they had always wanted an answer to.

Another expansion came with the opening of studios either end of the county. The first, in King’s Lynn, started off in a portakabin behind the town hall. Simon Ellis was the first producer to cover the west of the county. He was succeeded by Trevor Austin, who worked out of a rather more substantial studio in the Tuesday Market Place.

More recently, our West Norfolk studio has been moved out to the North Lynn Business Village, where I'm based with Chris Boxal.

Then it was Great Yarmouth’s turn for a proper studio, and Lindsay Williams was the first producer there to work out of our office in Stonecutter’s Way.

So more than 20 years on, where have we got to? Well, I think the EDP was proved right. BBC Radio Norfolk has become established as part of the life of the county. We have introduced many talented broadcasters to the great medium of radio, which still has a special place in the range of media, even in the internet age.

It can transport you across the world, or open a window on events right on your own doorstep. It can re-unite old friends, take up cudgels on your behalf, or give you a front seat at the biggest sporting fixtures, the summer festivals and even the day the Queen comes to pay an official visit.

You can share the pleasures of the Royal Norfolk Show, the secrets of the stars coming to our theatres, or the memories of those who have known Norfolk in days gone by. To quote Peter Glanville: "The pictures are better on the radio."

BBC Radio Norfolk is still one of the most successful stations in the country. Why is that? Well, perhaps it’s because we believe this is one of the best counties a station could wish for, and we are proud to be here. There are thousands of listeners who feel the same way.

See some snaps from the archive »


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