Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Radio Broadcasting Scene in Scotland

The country in our historical spotlight today is Scotland.  While there have never been any international broadcasts from Scotland, nor any broadcast transmissions from there on shortwave, the radio scene in Scotland has nonetheless been vey active.  In fact, the history of radio broadcasting in Scotland goes right back to the early 1920s during the era when experimental and demonstration stations were being set up around the world.

Scotland is a country that is a part of the United Kingdom and it covers the northern third of the island of Great Britain.  It shares a border with England to the south, and it is otherwise surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.  In addition to the mainland, the country is made up of more than 790 islands, including the Hebrides, the Orkneys, and the Shetlands.

The geography of the mainland comprises three distinct regions; the Highlands in the north, a range of hills called the Southern Uplands in the south, and a rift valley known as the Central Lowlands that stretches right across the middle of the country, separating the Highlands in the north from the Uplands in the south.  The central lowlands are where the bulk of the 5½ million Scottish people live with the two largest cities being Glasgow in the west and Edinburgh the capital in the east.
 The first radio broadcasts in Scotland were made in 1922 from Bath Street in Glasgow.  Scotland’s first radio station was called Milligan’s Wireless Station and it had the callsign 5MG, after its founders Frank Milligan and George Garscadden.

Milligan had a radio shop and he wanted to sell more radios but there were no stations on the air at the time, so they set up a very crude station and broadcast at night.  This station could be heard as far away as Carlisle and Inverness and it survived for five months.

Then, in November 1922, a group of radio manufacturers in London clubbed together to form the British Broadcasting Company, so that they could produce daily programs and sell more radio sets.
Their first Scottish station was launched in Glasgow on March 6, 1923.  They bought 5MG, all of Milligan’s equipment, used the same flat in Bath Street, and they took on Milligan’s daughter Kathleen as a presenter.
 This new radio broadcasting station was launched as 5SC (SC for Scotland) with one small studio and and it was on the air daily.  The BBC went on to set up local stations in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, but then in 1932, these were consolidated into a regional broadcast called ‘The Scottish Programme’.

 When the Second World War began in 1939, the BBC combined the previous ‘National Programme’ and all the various ‘Regional Programmes’ (of which the ‘Scottish Programme’ was one) into a single ‘BBC Home Service’.  This operated from many transmitters throughout the UK, but used just two synchronized frequencies; 668 kHz in the south, and 767 kHz in the north.  The thinking behind this was that enemy aircraft would not be able to use regional transmitters on the same frequency as navigational beacons. 

On July 29, 1945, the BBC resumed its previous regional structure, and they provided local ‘opt outs’ from the Home Service in each of the regions.  In Scotland, the main transmitter was in Glasgow on 809 kHz.

 In 1967, the BBC Home Service was renamed BBC Radio 4, and on December 17, 1973, the Scottish regional opt-outs on Radio 4 were restyled as BBC Radio Scotland.  Five years later again in 1978, this became a full-time service with three synchronized transmitters on 810 kHz, made possible by the switch of Radio 4 programming onto the long wave frequency of 198 kHz.

 And incidentally, while the main 500 kW longwave transmitter for the BBC in the British Isles is located in Droitwich in the English midlands, there are also two 50 kW longwave transmitters in Scotland with synchronized signals on 198 kHz.  One is at Westerglen in the Central Lowlands midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh and the other is at Burghead to serve communities in the far north.

As would be expected, there are also now more than 20 FM transmitter sites carrying the BBC national services and BBC Radio Scotland throughout Scotland.  Interestingly, Radio Scotland itself now also has local opt-outs, with a Gaelic language service being carried at times from studios in Stornoway, on the FM transmitters covering the Hebrides and the north west coasts of the Scottish mainland.

One other BBC national service is still carried on mediumwave in Scotland, and that’s Radio 5 Live – the sports station that was launched in 1994.  That can be heard on 693 kHz in the north of Scotland, and on 909 kHz in the south.

On the commercial radio front, the first attempt at pirate radio in Scotland was in 1928.  The Daily Mail wanted a radio station to advertise their newspapers but didn’t have a license so decided to broadcast from a ship at sea.

They chartered a steam yacht and set off from Dundee but their equipment didn’t work.  So they sailed into Dundee harbor and played music on powerful loudspeakers that could be heard a mile away.  It was considered a success, but it wasn’t really ‘radio’.

 The most famous offshore radio station in Britain was Radio Caroline which started in 1964.  Other similar stations were launched around the British Isles, and in Scotland, Tommy Shields, a PR man for Scottish Television, launched Radio Scotland from the converted lightship the LV Comet, anchored off the coast of Dunbar, outside territorial waters to the east of Edinburgh.

 This station used two 10 kW RCA ampliphase transmitters model BTA10J combined through a home built diplexer to produce 20 kW.  However, that arrangement apparently was not reliable and most of the time only one transmitter was used.

 The station went on air on New Year’s Eve 1965, just a few minutes before midnight, using a wavelength of 242 m or 1241 kHz.  The first voice heard was that of actor Paul Young who later presented the popular ‘Ceilidh’ program of traditional Scottish music.  The station was a success, but it was on air for only 19½ months.

The British government made the support of offshore radio stations illegal, and Radio Scotland shut down on August 14th, 1967.  Sadly, Tommy Shields lost money, lost his business, and died soon after the station left the air.

But, Radio Scotland had a very big influence on Scottish broadcasting, which until then had been a monopoly by the BBC.  In the early 1970’s, the British government laid plans for commercial radio, and they passed the Sound Broadcasting Act in 1972.  The first licenses awarded were for stations in London and Glasgow, and Radio Clyde began broadcasting from Glasgow on December 31, 1973 on 1152 kHz.  Just over a year later, Radio Forth began broadcasting from Edinburgh, on January 22, 1975 on 1548 kHz.

A second tranche of licenses was awarded in 1980, and this saw the launch of:
  Radio Tay in Dundee (1161 kHz) October 1980
  Radio Tay in Perth (1584 kHz) November 1980
  Northsound Radio in Aberdeen (1035 kHz) 1981
  West Sound Radio in Ayr (1035 kHz) 1981
  Moray Firth Radio in Inverness (1107 kHz) 1982

Then in the 1990’s, there came a raft of community stations and regional stations such as Radio Borders in Selkirk, Scot FM (now Heart), and Beat 106 (now Capital).  In the mid-1990’s three Independent National Radio stations were licensed, and these included
  Virgin Radio on 1215 kHz with 100 kW from the BBC Westerglen transmitter site
  Radio UK, now Talksport, with 125 kW on 1089 kHz, same BBC Westerglen site.
 The BBC Westerglen transmitting site is located midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
 The independent commercial radio landscape in Scotland has changed enormously over the years, and one wonders how much of that would have happened, but for the influence of the offshore stations of the 1960’s.
(AWR Wavescan-NWS 480)