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"The Broadcasting Files"

Alan Thompson is currently a news producer for the BBC and has produced a number of documentaries including "Something is terribly wrong" the story of the Kennedy assassination for Radio 4. Other milestones have included a two-parter on tourism in Egypt, numerous pop documentaries and two on Jazz singing ace Peggy Lee with veteran broadcaster Keith Skues.  It all started in the 1970s when an idea took off - eventually though it took two years to bring the history of independent radio to the airwaves…..

In the late 1970s I set about producing a series for radio under  the heading the "Broadcasting Files" as I felt the industry itself had enough interesting stories to tell. For those who didn't know much about radio - I figured the nostalgic element would trigger memories for most people born on the baby boomer era and before it.

I had first broadcast in the US in 1972 and, indeed, my roots in broadcasting go back to the other side of the Atlantic on New England's WOKW-AM as no-one was particularly interested in me before I ventured stateside. There was a wealth of material that could be plundered and it was during a lunch with Paul Noble - later of Radio 4, now at Millbank - during the summer of 1978 that an idea came to fruition.

I remember my Dad saying that, when the pirates were broadcasting in the 1960s, it wasn't unlike what the continental stations did before the war. I heard him mention Radio Normandy and Poste Parisien . Yet when I went to research the matter I found very little available material. That, I thought, would make an ideal book and radio programme. But where to start? But what a programme it would make as no-one had done it before. 

One of the stalwarts of the commercial radio era was Bob Danvers Walker - probably better known to post war audiences as the voice of Pathe News - the weekly cinema newsreels and the announcer on Associated -Rediffusions TV's  long running radio and network TV quiz show "Take Your Pick" - with your "quiz inquisitor" Michael Miles.

I rang Bob and we agreed to meet for a taped interview at his Oxfordshire home  in early 1979. Bob reeled off anecdote after anecdote of his time as Chief Announcer of Radio Normandy and the IBC network which, at the height of its popularity, ran 10 stations from the continent. Bob was at Normandy when war broke out in 1939 and he had been making a series of "body-blow" announcements against the Nazi propaganda machine head by Josef Gobbels - which had been spilling its bile from any European transmitter it could lay its hand on.

Bob said that when the Gestapo marched into the studios of Radio Normandy in the sleepy fishing village of Fecamp they demanded to know where he was - they had his work permit details, his photograph and recordings of him taking verbal swipes at the Nazi war machine. Fortunately Bob had escaped with his wife on the last train out of the region.

Added Bob: "I'm rather glad we won the war!". There was a downside in that the British engineer who worked there was seized by the Gestapo and placed into a concentration camp - his wife and young daughter too. I do not know whether they ever got out alive.

The idea to broadcast from the continent came from the unlikely figure of Captain Leonard F Plugge - a former engineer  with  the fledgling London Transport. Transmissions started with sponsorship by Kolster Brandes - at that time a manufacturer of wireless equipment. This was in 1929 from Paris. Captain  Plugge had recognised the fact that some programming by the BBC - especially on a Sunday - was rather sombre and formal.

So, he did something about it and rented airtime off continental broadcasters - spearheaded by the aforementioned Radio Normandy, then came Paris, the Spanish circuit and some of the International Broadcasting Company (IBC) programming also went to Radio Luxembourg.

The whole story of the emergence of pre-war and immediately post war commercial radio is told in the two versions of Searching the Ether - a name inspired by Bob Danvers Walker - which has been broadcast by 20 ILR stations. Much of the research matter was also used on the BBC Radios 1 and 4 joint production "Story of Pop Radio" broadcast in 1982 on both networks and repeated a year later on Radio 1. It was produced by Trevor Dann and Brian Thompson.

But it's interesting to see who the continuity announcers and show comperes were from the era - pre-war there were Bob Danvers Walker, Roy Plomley, Stephen Williams and Bernard "Benjy" McNab. Bernard's sister Elizabeth played Nurse Johnston in a 15 minute soap where she once mused "my 'sister' in the series  had these two children who seemed to be permantley constipated - and it was the sponsor's product that made things better!"

Other announcers and comperes after the war on Radio Luxembourg were Geoffrey Everett (later at MAM records), Teddy Johnson, Roger Moffatt, Pete Murray, Hughie Green, Warren Mitchell  (later Alf Garnett in the TV series) and David Jacobs.

Truly the golden era of radio - and I for one am grateful I have met so many of the pioneers of the industry in which I now work.

Alan Thompson
BBC Radio Berkshire/BBC South.


N B The Broadcasting Files idea did come to fruition many years later as a series of featured on the Thompson Saturday morning shows on BBC Wiltshire Sound - all of the tapes used in this series still exist on the Golden Days archive. Some of the material from this facility is archived at:

Museum of Television and Radio, New York
Carol Miller, WAXQ-FM, New York
Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio,
KLIF-570 Radio, Dallas
Sixth Floor (JFK) museum, Dallas
Dick Clark Productions, Los Angeles
Peggy Lee Enterprises, Los Angeles

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