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The pioneers who switched us on to local independent radio

It's impossible from the vantage point of the 21st century to appreciate what an impact BRMB made 30 odd years ago.

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BRMB radio programme controller Bob Hopton with his team, including Ed Doolan, second right, in April 1980

Can it really be 40 years ago? On February 19, 1974, the country was in the grip of industrial chaos and a three-day week, glam rockers Mud were at Number One with the absurdly infectious Tiger Feet and a radio station which was to become part of Birmingham’s cultural fabric was taking to the airwaves for the first time.

For the so-called Second City, the launch of Birmingham Broadcasting Ltd – longhand for BRMB – is right up there with Tony Blackburn kicking off Radio One in 1967 to the strains of Flowers in the Rain by The Move. Birmingham was never going to be quite the same again.

The names still trip off the tongue all these years later, as much a part of the story of the Midlands capital for a certain generation of listeners as HP Sauce, the Bull Ring or British Leyland.

Les Ross, quite possibly the best breakfast DJ of them all, a wonderfully inventive crackerjack of an entertainer akin to Ken Dodd at dawn with a turntable rather than a tickling stick, Tony Butler, who pioneered the football phone-in, Ed Doolan, late night music man Robin Valk, DJ Nicky Steele, hard-nosed newsman Colin Palmer and several others.

Their names became, for a period of time, part of Birmingham’s very consciousness, with a refreshingly irrepressible style more redolent of the glory days of pirate radio than the ageing Reithian values of the Beeb.

Back in the Birmingham of the late 70s and early 80s, there was no real need to bother listening to the inane blatherings of Tony Blackburn, Noel Edmonds or Jimmy Savile (God forbid) when you had a one-off genius like Les Ross on your own doorstep.

It’s practically impossible, from the vantage point of the information overload years of the 21st century, to appreciate quite what an impact BRMB made 30 odd years ago when it was at its peak of creativity and market penetration.

Commercial radio in its infancy was a brash antithesis to the still buttoned-up presentation of the BBC, a near 70s kindred spirit to the likes of Caroline or North Sea International who had taken on the establishment a few years before, making broadcasting waves offshore while flashing two fingers at the establishment.

If commercial radio was rather more mainstream in its musical choices than its rebel piratical predecessors – it was a joy to come across the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Canned Heat on Caroline back in the late 60s – it merrily crossed new boundaries with its sports coverage.

Tony Butler may have become a bit of a self-parody by the end, with his relentless On Yer Bike rasping, but he was immensely popular for years, helping pioneer the football phone-in which is, for better or worse, now a staple part of the landscape of sport on the radio. Heaven help us, but he may even have helped inspire the likes of Stan Collymore and Robbie Savage. Cheers Tone.

BRMB was also unafraid of innovation, despite dropping the odd clanger on air. For a while, it ran a religious programme, a brass band show, even a sex problems hour. None stood the test of time like Tony Butler or Les Ross, but at least they had a go.

It couldn’t last of course, and by the early years of the 21st century, the good ship BRMB was, if not exactly listing, in urgent need of new directions to less choppy waters.

As the man in charge of the 2014 version, Birmingham Free Radio boss Phil Riley, told the Post: “BRMB was a well-recognised brand which had a great degree of warmth and affection but in terms of the people that were tuning in, it was in serious long-term decline.

“There was no clear concept of what the station was about, or what it stood for. It started as the only game in town, being all things to all people. But it it had stopped being part of people’s lives, and needed reinventing as a brand.”

If BRMB had lost some of its audience, which it had by around half of its one million-plus peak, it’s hardly surprising, given the choice available to listeners.

As Phil Riley points out, back in the 70s, there was only the BBC, national and local, as competition. Today, there’s Heart, Capital, Smooth, Classic FM, Talksport, and many others out in digital radioland. The goalposts have not so much been moved as demolished and burnt to the ground.

Long-standing listeners who had lapped up the likes of Ross, Butler, Doolan et al back in the 70s and 80s suddenly had a bewildering set of rival stations and digital outlets to contemplate. But less is still more in many aspects of life, and greater choice for the consumer does not necessarily mean greater quality.

And while Phil says the Internet has not been a telling factor in the audience decline, there’s still a sneaking suspicion that increasing numbers of today’s younger generation are more likely to turn to their iPad or mobile phone for instant gratification than try and dig out another Les Ross – as if they could – on the radio dial. Why bother listening to the radio (or read a newspaper or watch television) when you can create your own hermetically-sealed digital world at the click of a mouse or button, and self-obsess in front of a screen with fellow virtual addicts for hours?

The internet has changed the world irrevocably, and those of us toiling away in traditional media are having to come to terms with that inescapable fact of life on a daily basis.

But it’s still content that counts, the hordes of emotionally incontinent digi-people notwithstanding, and today’s team at Birmingham Free Radio owe a considerable debt to the 70s and 80s broadcasters who first lit the blue touch paper down in Aston.

 

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