North East RadioWatch: May 20, 2002

This... is London

by Scott Fybush

It's been a quiet week in NERW-land, so now that we've brought you up to date on what was happening here over the last few weeks, we'll start off with a quick recap of your editor's recent travels (with much more to come on future installments of Tower Site of the Week on!)

Our two weeks in England, Wales and France were officially billed as a pleasure trip, but thanks to the kind cooperation of Mrs. NERW, there were several opportunities to work broadcasting into the schedule, including a most enjoyable dinner our first night in London with Mike Brown, whose pages at cover UK broadcast facilities in even more detail than our own Tower Site pages.

Unlike the US and Canada, broadcasters in the UK don't operate their own transmission facilities, instead leasing them from companies such as Crown Castle (which took over the entire BBC transmission network during a fit of privatization a few years ago) and ntl. (Yet another company, Merlin, took over the BBC World Service international transmission network around the same time.)

As a result, broadcast facilities for any given region tend to be far more centralized than they would be in a comparable part of the US or Canada. All of the broadcast television for London, for instance, comes from the Crown Castle tower at Crystal Palace in South London (except for newcomer Channel 5, which operates instead from the ntl tower nearby in Croydon). Crystal Palace is also home to BBC national and local radio on FM, while Croydon is home to most of London's big commercial FM stations. And a wire running from the side of the Crystal Palace tower transmits Spectrum international radio on 558 kHz, Ritz country radio on 1035 kHz and a BBC Radio 4 relay on 720 kHz. Imagine a single site in the US with as much importance! (We'll accept "Empire State Building" as perhaps the lone example, these days.)

The radio dial in the UK sounds at once familiar and very unusual to a newly-arrived pair of ears from the US. Formatically, commercial stations in London like rhythmic Kiss (100.0), AC Heart (106.2) and oldies Capital Gold (1548) sound like dead ringers for their American counterparts, once you get past the "odd" (or should that be "even") frequencies.

But local commercial radio is just one of the four pieces that make up the British radio dial. The BBC operates five national radio services: Radio 1, which aims for a youth audience with a very rhythmic CHR sound (heard on FM transmitters between 97 and 99 MHz); Radio 2, which aims for a somewhat older audience with AC music, news and some talk (heard on FM transmitters between 88 and 91 MHz); Radio 3, the "serious music" station (heard on FM transmitters between 90 and 93 MHz); Radio 4, the "serious spoken-word" station (heard on 198 kHz longwave and on FM transmitters between 92 and 95 MHz) and Radio 5 Live, with lighter talk and sport (heard on 693 and 909 kHz, the former medium-wave Radio 2 transmitters). In addition to the national networks, the BBC provides about 35 local stations across England, generally heard on FM transmitters in the 94-96 MHz range, with some MW services as well. These usually offer local news, some talk and inoffensive AC music, with overnights (except on the very largest services, such as BBC London at 94.9 MHz) being a 5 Live simulcast. The BBC also operates several "national region" radio services: BBC Ulster in Northern Ireland (with a powerful transmitter at Lisnagarvey on 1341 kHz and several MW/FM relays), BBC Scotland (with powerful transmitters at 810 kHz and several FM relays, some of which provide local opt-out programming) and two services to Wales: BBC Radio Wales in English (using 882 kHz and the 92-95 MHz spectrum used by Radio 4 elsewhere, which pushes Radio 4 on FM to the 104 MHz area across Wales) and BBC Radio Cymru in Welsh (operating at various spots in the 92-95 and 103-104 MHz range).

Confused yet? That's just the BBC services; above 95 MHz and at various spots on the medium-wave dial are two flavors of commercial radio. There are three national commercial stations: CHR Virgin Radio (using the old BBC Radio 3 transmitters at 1215, 1197 and 1242 kHz across Britain, as well as 105.8 FM in London); classical Classic FM (operating at 100-102 FM across Britain) and sports-talk Talksport (using the old BBC Radio 1 transmitters at 1053 and 1089 kHz across Britain). And there's local radio in profusion, usually operating with powers far lower than we're used to over here -- 1000 watts is a lot for a typical local AM station, except for a handful in big cities, while most commercial FMs in Britain would qualify as class A or C3 services over here, running in the 4000-watt range or much lower, down into the tens of watts in some cases.

What's on the local dial? Like the US, a handful of big groups now control most of the commercial radio over there, so the CHR heard on Capital FM (95.8) in London bears a strong family resemblance to the CHR heard on BRMB (96.4) in Birmingham or Invicta (103.1 and other frequencies) in Kent. On the MW dial, "local" outlets of Capital Gold and Classic Gold tend to have their own morning shows, then spend the rest of the day rebroadcasting programming from a national network. Yes, there's even Clear Channel: they own Jazz FM, which operates on 102.2 in London and 100.4 in the Manchester area. There's all-news radio in London, as well, thanks to News Direct on 97.3. And there's ethnic programming in profusion in the big cities: the BBC operates an Asian Network in several English cities, while commercial stations such as Radio XL (1296) in Birmingham and Sunrise (1458) in London run programming for the many foreign-language communities that exist in their listening areas. (There's even programming in "American" for homesick expatriates; London's Spectrum at 558 kHz runs NPR's All Things Considered late at night and an "American Programme" on Saturdays!)

One more unclassifiable broadcaster: at 252 kHz on the longwave dial is "Team Talk," which took over the facility from the late, lamented "Atlantic 252" earlier this year. While its transmitter is in Ireland, 252 targets the UK with its sports-talk format.

And there's pirate radio, especially on the weekends, with a profusion of unlicensed transmitters on the air in London and other big cities to rival Brooklyn and Queens on a summer holiday.

What's more, there's digital terrestrial radio in the UK -- but not in IBOC form. Like most of the rest of the civilized world, Britain is using the Eureka-147 system, with several multiplexes on the air in most sizable cities offering the full bouquet of local radio as well as a new crop of regional and national services (including the wonderful new BBC 6 Music, which we've been enjoying in Webcast form on this side of the Atlantic). Alas, digital radio is having a slow start of things in the UK as well; we didn't see any portable receivers for sale yet, and the few car radios we saw were priced far out of the average listener's reach.

(Even at that, digital radio is doing far better in the UK than digital TV, which suffered a massive public-relations implosion during our stay when the commercial operatior, ITV Digital, went bankrupt and went out of business. More on that in a bit...)

It's a far cry indeed from the scene just 35 years ago, when the only listening choices in most of the UK were three BBC offerings and the now-legendary offshore pirate commercial stations.

So how much of this did we actually see and hear? Our second day in London began with a morning at Bush House, the sprawling warren that's home to the BBC World Service, currently embarked on an ambitious plan to convert all its audio production from the "razor blades and splicing tape" school to a modern digital system, a project you'll read more about in an upcoming issue of Radio World.

The following afternoon, we boarded a double-decker bus to Crystal Palace, where the tower erected by the BBC in the early fifties (to carry a single channel of television) now brings London most of its television and a good chunk of its radio. You'll see Crystal Palace in a future Tower Site, we promise!

The weekend that followed found us renting a car and heading out of London towards Wales. Thanks to the magic of RDS, it's possible to set the radio to, say, "BBC R1" and leave it there for hours of driving, with the radio automatically retuning to stronger BBC transmitters as you exit and enter various coverage areas. (RDS is nearly universal in Western Europe, which made it much easier to identify the various FM signals we heard on the trip.)

There are still large chunks of the Welsh mountains where FM signals are unreliable at best, so we were glad to have the powerful 198 kHz longwave Radio 4 signal as company when FM faded away. Arriving at our destination, Portmeirion (the Italianate village made famous as the setting for the 60s TV show "The Prisoner"), we found the nighttime MW dial to be full of stations from Ireland (RTE1 at 567 kHz), France (France Bleu from Lille at 1377 kHz and others) and beyond. Later in the trip, we taped Radio Manx from the Isle of Man (with a strong signal in Liverpool on 1368 kHz), as well.

While making the Beatles rounds in Liverpool (a particular passion of Mrs. NERW's), we noticed the Allerton Park tower, home to BBC Radio Merseyside on 95.8, clearly visible from John Lennon's childhood home!

On the way to Stratford the next day, the rental NERW-mobile (a Fiat Punto) pulled in at the Crown Castle Droitwich site southwest of Birmingham, home to the half-megawatt of Radio 4 on 198 kHz, as well as the usual complement of Radio 5 on 693, Virgin on 1215, and Talksport on 1053, each with several hundred kilowatts!

The following day gave us a look at another powerful Crown Castle site, the Brookmans Park site north of London that transmits Radio 5 Live on 909, Virgin on 1215, Talksport on 1089 and Sunrise on 1458 (the former BBC London MW facility) to the capital city. A few miles to the south on the A1, we passed the four-tower array that carries LBC talk radio (1152) and Capital Gold (1548) to London. It's a very rare sight in the UK; most MW transmitters are much lower in power than LBC's 97.5 kW, and most are either non-directional or operate from single towers with a sloping wire ladder antenna providing some directionality.

And from there, it was off to France - but we'll tell you more about that next week. In the meantime, here's what's been happening this week in NERW-land:

That's it for another week; don't miss part one of our Atlanta trip on Tower Site of the Week this Wednesday, and we'll see you back here next Monday!

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