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13 November 2014

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You are in: Wiltshire > History > Local History > A history of the BBC in Wiltshire

A history of the BBC in Wiltshire

The BBC's first radio station in Wiltshire began broadcasting nearly 20 years ago on Tuesday 4th April 1989. Take a look back at all that has happened since that historic day.

The station team back in 1989

The station team back in 1989

It was the eighties and local commercial radio had already made its mark on this particular area. 

In 1982, Wiltshire Radio, based at nearby Wootton Bassett, had hit the airwaves with an alternative type of broadcasting to that of the BBC's network offerings. Suddenly people were hearing themselves and the place in which they lived, spoken about on the radio.

But it was to be another seven years before the BBC responded with the opening of yet another of its local stations, this time covering the entire county of Wiltshire.

Originally, Salisbury had been earmarked as the base for this new station.  But, Swindon, being one of the fastest-growing towns, close to the M4, and on the mainline between Paddington and the West Country, was the chosen location.

The station building under renovation in 1989

The station building under renovation in 1989

After much searching, a building at the top of Victoria Road in Old Town was purchased by the BBC and converted from it’s original use as an administration block called AMI House.

In 1987, people living in and around Prospect Place saw activity at the building after a long period when it had stood empty. A large portakabin was delivered and put in place in what was to become the station’s car park.  

For several months it would be home to the newly appointed Manager Tony Talmage, his assistant Caroline May, news editor David Bennett, Senior Engineer Ian Anderson and programme organiser Alan Thompson, who had himself been a freelance broadcaster on Wiltshire Radio, and whose knowledge of the general area had prompted the BBC to appoint him.  It was also in the portakabin that many of the key members of staff would be appointed.

The former AMI House was gutted and a reception, gramophone library and garage was built on the ground floor. Administration offices and large newsroom on the middle floor and the on-air studios, phone-in gallery, kitchen and engineering department on the top floor.  Much as it is to this day.

The new Broadcasting House took shape, and by the end of 1988 was ready to become home to the new BBC Radio Wiltshire. Unfortunately, that name wasn't to be.  

GWR FM, as Wiltshire Radio had earlier become, owned the copyright of 'Wiltshire' and 'Radio' in whatever form. So for the time being, the local BBC had to content themselves with BBC Wiltshire Sound.

Paul Chantler

The first ever presenter, Paul Chantler.

It was Tuesday 4th April 1989 when the first record, 'We've Only Just Begun' by The Carpenters opened the first-ever breakfast show broadcasting to the whole of Wiltshire. Larger-than-life Paul Chantler was the presenter.  

Three days later on Friday 7th April the station was officially opened by the-then Home Secretary and Wiltshire man Douglas Hurd. He unveiled a plaque that was carved by local stonemason John Lloyd from Great Bedwyn.

For many years, people passing the building will have noticed that in keeping with the rest of Swindon – there was a large mural on the end wall painted by local schoolchildren. 

It depicted the station with its radio car, studios – the Wiltshire countryside and 'Chalkie' the white horse emblem adopted by the new station, and was based on the famous hillside chalk horses that Wiltshire is famous for. 

Swindon had many murals around the town once but most of them - the BBC Wiltshire Sound one included - have now disappeared.
Swindon may have been the station’s main home – but there were two satellite studios.  One at Trowbridge, based as it still is at West Wiltshire District Council’s offices, and a small two-roomed annexe at Salisbury District Council in Bourne Hill became the South-Wiltshire HQ with a studio and an office. 

Both studios were manned by journalists who specialised in their patch of the county. The Salisbury studio, which also produced split breakfast and afternoon shows for South Wiltshire only was far from adequate.

Eventually a new studio at Beckett House on the city's Bridge Street was opened by Salisbury resident and former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath. The new south Wiltshire studio, had an on-air studio, newsroom, preparation studio and a kitchen.

Just before the station came on air, a looped recording of announcements and programme trails were broadcast to tell listeners about the new station and what they could hear and when it would be starting. 

Many of these were voiced by the late Bob Danvers-Walker, a familiar voice of the Pathe newsreels, a veteran Radio Normandie presenter, and announcer of ITV's Take Your Pick quiz show in the 1960s.

Chris Highton, Graham Seaman, James Harrison and John Kay

Four early presenters, including Graham Seaman

Family Favourites – a programme that had originally been broadcast by the BBC on Radio Two and the The Light Programme before that, was resurrected by the new station and was well-received by the county’s military folk who could get requests and messages played for their loved ones abroad, especially during the first Iraq War.

Saturday afternoons were billed as 'an alternative to sport' as audience research had shown that listeners were fed up with sport and would be attracted to this alternative. 

As the early nineties progressed, it became clear that the leisure and DIY style of show that Chris Highton was presenting in that slot was not quite as popular as a sport show might be. 

Sport won the day and has been the mainstay of Saturday afternoon broadcasting ever since, eventually winning BBC Wiltshire Sound the reputation as being the premier local station for all the latest news on Swindon Town Football Club.

It was also a chance for local radio enthusiasts to make their name. At Your Request was a Sunday programme designed to broadcast local hospital radio stations to a county-wide audience and a rotation of presenters from Salisbury, Chippenham, Devizes and Swindon hospital radio services got the chance to present their shows with requests on the new BBC station. 

The show also had its very own specially composed theme song performed by one of its presenters. Her name was Sue Davies, who impressed the management so much she became one of BBC Wiltshire Sound’s leading and most popular presenters, as she is to this day!

From day one the station made itself seen out and about in the county and attended events such as fetes and carnivals very nearly every weekend in the summer months, and one of its biggest attractions was 'Trannie The Trailer'. 

This was a giant stereo radio made from plywood and placed on a trailer that could be towed to events by the radio car. It was also kitted out with loudspeakers so that the station’s broadcasts would echo out across many a showground. 

On one very unfortunate occasion it was being towed back from an event in Salisbury and the poor driver of the car looked in the mirror to see Trannie flying off the back of the trailer, narrowly missing the car behind and ending up in a ditch on the side of the road near Tilshead!  

The Bristol TV Props department who had built it had only fixed it to the trailer with angle brackets. On the day of the incident a Wilts and Dorset bus driver drove his double-decker past very slowly. The look on his face was a picture when he saw this giant transistor radio laying on the side of the road in the mud!

Presenter Mark Franklin

Presenter Mark Franklin

One of the station's youngest presenters suddenly found himself launched into a great career. Mark Franklin, who at the tender age of 17 - not only presented the only youth programme on Wiltshire Sound - but landed a presenter's job on Top Of The Pops, alternating fortnightly with Tony Dortie. Mark is now a commercial radio executive.

Steve Brodie was Wiltshire Sound News Editor for a while, until he moved on to BBC West in Bristol where to this day he is a leading correspondent often seen on television.

And from GWR FM came Shaun Hodgetts as Sports Producer and who is now the station’s Assistant Editor. Sandy Martin, the former Brunel Rooms DJ and GWR Broadcaster also brought with him his own style of broadcasting and a succession of  specials such as the An Audience With… series of programmes.

These featured stars as diverse as Charlie Landsborough, Justin Hayward, Rosemary Squires and Jamie Cullum - who all performed special concerts in and around the town exclusively for broadcast by the station. 

Graham Rogers, the current mid-morning show and Sunday morning presenter, was the familiar voice of ITV1 as one of its main continuity announcers.

Salisbury resident and singer Rosemary Squires also presented a series of Sunday afternoon programmes from the Salisbury studio which featured some of her own favourite music. 

Star presenters, The Hamiltons!

Star presenters, The Hamiltons!

And more recently, Neil and Christine Hamilton who had just relocated to Wiltshire, came on board and presented a series of programmes each Sunday and a Christmas special.

Original station manager Tony Talmage was succeeded by John Lilley, now head of network centre at BBC Devon. 

Then, for several years, former Points West Editor Sandy Milne was the station's Managing Editor before going on to head a new BBC Department known as Project England which took him around the country refurbishing BBC radio stations as the digital age began to take a hold. 

Former BBC Radio Gloucestershire presenter Vernon Harwood took the reins for just one year and was then succeeded by a new Tony. This time it was Tony Worgan who would oversee several major changes to BBC Wiltshire Sound as the early 21st century brought with it a new dawn and lots of exciting changes.

As the nineties faded away, with them went long-running station programmes such as Down Wiltshire Way, in which its presenter Gerry Hughes travelled the county, meeting characters in villages and towns, hearing about their lives and their stories.  

In 2000, what must have been the most quirky of all BBC Wiltshire Sound’s programmes ever - Acrebury, also a Gerry Hughes creation - finally came to an end.

It enjoyed a six-year run - clocking up 1,558 episodes and a Guinness World Record for the Longest-Running One Man Radio Soap Opera, and was often referred to as a kind of 'Wiltshire Archers'. 

Gerry Hughes

Gerry Hughes and the unearthed Archers tapes

Gerry's Acrebury programme may have been described as a 'Wiltshire Archers' but the Archers connection doesn't end there. In 2005, Gerry unearthed some tapes of missing episodes of the famous Radio 4 soap dating back to 1977. 

It all came to light after the radio station's gramophone library had a clear out of old tapes and Gerry discovered some dusty old tapes donated by a listener in Swindon. 

She was the late Dr. Barbara Carter who had recorded episodes of The Archers  Sunday Omnibus editions so that her elderly mother wouldn't miss the show. 

Gerry immediately alerted Vanessa Whitburn, editor of The Archers, and excitement ensued. 

Much local, national and international publicity ensued, which included a BFBS radio interview, a Points West TV feature and a mention on Radio 4's 'PM' programme, as well as a documentary presented and produced by Gerry himself.

Broadcasting House found itself sharing the limelight alongside Lime Kiln Studios in Wootton Bassett – former home of GWR FM.  

Dave Barrett

BBC Radio and TV presenter Dave Barrett

This was on a Living TV show called The Why Files. The presenter was Dave Barrett – himself a former GWR and BBC Wiltshire Sound presenter before going on to BBC Radio Bristol. Both studios featured prominently on the show due to unexplained ghostly activity. 

The Lime Kiln is well known in the area for being extremely haunted. But it seems BBC Wiltshire Sound's Swindon HQ was also displaying some unexplained activities of its own. 

It's said that when the site was a row of terraced houses, one had been the home and premises of a shoe mender whose brother hanged himself due to manic depression. It is thought this was more or less where the gramophone library is located on the ground floor.  

A former station producer saw a hand in the darkness reaching up to some tapes on a shelf which fell to the library floor in front of him, but nobody was there! The roller towel in the gents toilets on the top floor would also be heard to rotate like someone was using it when nobody was there. 

In the small bi-media TV studio next to that toilet a strange sighing sound was recorded onto tape during count-down at the start of a programme trail which the presenter did not hear on headphones whilst recording it. 

CD trays opening and closing on equipment by themselves and car keys disappearing only to reappear in very odd locations were also experienced by different members of staff!  To this day, little incidents still take place now and again.

Mark Seaman and Katherine Jenkins

Presenter Mark Seaman and Katherine Jenkins in '05

Over the two decades, a succession of famous people have crossed the station's threshold. Stars including Barbara Windsor, Paddy Ashdown, Barbara Dickson, Elkie Brooks, Sam Brown, Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson and Howard Jones have all visited the station for live interviews.

And locally-living celebrities like actor George Baker, poet Pam Ayres and Avebury resident Ludovic Kennedy often came in for regular appearances.

In the early days of the station, the newsroom was a very different place to that of today. It was much noisier. The old-fashioned typewriters clattered away writing news copy and programme cues to go on-air. 

A bank of reel-to-reel tape machines were linked to the BBC's GNS (General News Service) in London and would be automatically triggered by a signal to record, 24 hours a day, national and international news stories that would be slotted into the local bulletins. The 'send' would often be alerted by the theme to Captain Scarlet and sometimes the theme to soap opera Crossroads!

Eventually the typewriters were replaced by computer system Basys and then ENPS (Electronic New Production System) which is still in use today.

By 2005, the biggest changes had taken place. Not only had analogue reel-to-reel tape technology and records and CDs been replaced by digital technology and Radio Man a computer play-out system, but the old image of BBC Wiltshire Sound evolved into a new service on Monday 11th November 2002. It finally adopted the originally desired moniker of BBC Radio Wiltshire, and with it came a complimentary output for the town in which it is based - BBC Radio Swindon.

Over the years the station has produced and organised some elaborate and innovative on-air public events. One of the best remembered of these during BBC Wiltshire Sound's life was the amazing Symphony For The Spire concert in aid of Salisbury Cathedral, broadcast live in 1991.

Staff in period costume

Staff in costume for 'Timeline Wiltshire' in '06

And in 2006, Timeline Wiltshire was a notable event that saw numerous BBC Radio Swindon and Wiltshire presenters dressed in period costume from different eras of the past and broadcasting from different period locations, such as Lacock Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral.

As the station celebrates its twentieth birthday in April 2009 there is much to reflect upon. Such as when the installation of the new refurbished Broadcasting House lift made the news.

Two engineers working on it were at the bottom of the shaft when the lift carriage broke free and hurtled down the shaft towards them! Fortunately it lodged itself about three feet above them! 

A loud bang and then some yelling from beneath alerted members of staff that all was not well. The men were trapped. Prospect Place was then the centre of attention as fire engines and ambulances with blue flashing lights assembled outside the building. It's a miracle those guys weren't hurt!

The radio station

The radio station as it stands today

The future approaches, and with it comes many new and exciting projects and changes in broadcasting throughout the world. 

And this station will continue to evolve along with that, not only presenting the news to the county of Wiltshire, but no doubt it will continue to make that news. 

Here's to the next 20 years of the BBC in Wiltshire.

last updated: 11/12/2008 at 10:59
created: 09/12/2008

Have Your Say

If you've been a regular listener over the years, leave your comments below.

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Stanley & Monica Jones
Best wishes to Radio Wiltshire - and here's to the next ten years. As a family we have enjoyed great times listening,and joining in programmes live at home, on the phone and even from time to time at Swindon. It is good to recall names from the past, they have all been part of the large happy family that makes up Radio Wiltshire, and we would not be without you.

Bernie Jones
Good MorningI wonder if I could request a change to your radio format.I am a Swindonian who in years gone by listened to GWR Radio. I got disenchanted with it and when I recently moved back to Swindon with my partner, discovered Brunel FM. It has been with much sadness that I have gone hunting for a new radio station in the mornings, the only reason why being that the company is under receivership and it no longer has a real person in at 05:55 to 06:05 telling the news and weather.I found by chance 105.5 FM a few months ago but now seem unable to pick it up and so have change to you. You do excellent news and your present Chris Warburton has a very pleasant voice. However, the weather you give is the midday average and tells me nothing of the conditions outside when I get up to drive. It is one of the most important things because it keeps people safe e.g. fore warning of icy conditions or whether they will need an umbrella. In his defence, Chris does say that the weather will be told later but since I get up to make my partner breakfast, I turn off the radio and do not hear it. Not only for my sake, but perhaps others in the area, please could you give a local forecast for the weather for that hour rather than midday.I look forward to hearing from youKind regardsMs Bernie

Dave Lemon
The station is great - don't change too much!

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