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16 December 2012

Nostalgia for Daft Pantomimes

Nostalgia - it's not what it used to be. Boom-tish.

The old gags are the best, and there'll be plenty more like that dusted off and lovingly reused as this year's crop of Christmas pantomimes are aired in the next few days across the local radio network.

I had a jolt the other day when my old mate Martyn Healy posted on t'interweb a recording of the Pennine Radio pantomime from 1984.

It's a time capsule.

December 1984 marks, probably, the end of the good times in the 'first wave' of ILR.

Putting aside the merits or otherwise of the panto production itself (mixed) the feel of the time is encapsulated in this link, which I read half a lifetime ago off the end of the (very posh and RP by today's standards) IRN news bulletin.

"It's 3 minutes past six on Pennine .. and the start of three hours of drama. From now 'til 7 o'clock the Pennine Pantomime - and then from seven 'til nine our first-ever full-length play: 'Echoes From The Valley'. Stay tuned to Pennine."

What this meant was that we were about to start three solid hours of off peak programming comprising ... wait for it ... three hours of original, in-house commercial radio speech production.

The first hour, the station panto, was a labour of love for presenter Andy Hitchcock and Head of Music Nigel Schofield.

The next two hours were a radio play, adapted from a stage show which I'd seen at Bingley Little Theatre which made great use of 'theatre of the mind' - perfect for a radio adaptation.

It was performed by a professional theatre company, actors who were paid Equity rates for their work, though it must be said the cast put in many extra hours above and beyond contract to get it right. I was honoured to produce that play for Pennine Radio.

It was only possible to consider such projects because we had two full time producers putting meaningful speech into daytime programmes whilst also pulling together off peak specialist shows such as Bookworm (a programme about books and writers), The Holiday Programme, 235 Weekend (arts) and Chips (a programme with programs for computer enthusiasts).

1984 was the year Pennine took a gamble, surrendering its licence early to bid for a bigger transmission area covering Huddersfield and Halifax as well as Bradford. The gamble paid off and the station launched to the bigger patch. It was a brief moment of confidence and rejoicing.

The following year saw the horror of the Valley Parade fire in which 56 people died. Pennine reacted magnificently to the tragedy in becoming a channel for community grief and solidarity.

One lesser casualty of events was Pennine's radio car which melted with the heat of the inferno. It was never properly replaced, so we lost the ability to broadcast at UHF quality from anywhere on the patch. The withdrawal from community involvement had begun.

The retreat became a rout with 1986's forced marriage with neighbouring stations Hallam and Viking,  which also saw the abrupt end of any features programming on Pennine. No more plays, no more books, no more arts coverage. Very nearly no more Dickie.

This post isn't a rant, or a grumble. The great joy of commercial radio is that unlike the lumbering beast which is the BBC it's usually quick to evolve when the economic, social or regulatory climate changes.

Independent radio today isn't better or worse than it was in 1984. It's different.

And, if we're honest, a decent producer in 2012 could edit that hour-long panto into ten or fifteen minutes which kept all the best bits whilst shedding a lot of padding and self-indulgence. The question, in producing pantos as well as managing radio stations, is telling what to cut without losing the spirit of the enterprise.

So if those are the ghosts of Christmases past and present, what of the future?

Global Radio is showing us one possible vision, in which heavyweight commercial alternatives to the BBC's Radio 1 and Radio 2 become available on FM to listeners nationwide.

Competitor groups without the muscle or the cheque book to follow that strategy (in any given jungle there can be only one king) may instead choose to become more like the 'ILR' of the past, rediscovering strengths in community, pride of place, news and personality; these traits are becoming apparent in Bauer and UKRD, for instance.

However the multi-layered evolution plays out (and I hope to continue to comment on developments through 2013) I believe the coming festive season is a good time to look back, rewind, replay and raise a glass to the pioneers of 1984 who loved radio, saw its possibilities and did stuff with it.

Like making daft pantomimes.

Then we can all tackle the coming new year, whatever triumphs or tragedies it may bring, with renewed energy.


  1. Your blog prompts me to point out 2 things:

    1. The production of all that speech programming was done at a time there was a LOT less income to such stations. How can it be that today's computerised, syndicated, minimal staff, higher income industry, stations cannot afford to do it?

    Ofcom could impose a blanket ruling that they do xx hours a week of 'arts/ meaningful speech', within 2 years, or not have their licences renewed.

    They would all DO it to KEEP the licences as they CAN afford it !

    2. "Independent radio today isn't better or worse than it was in 1984. It's different."

    I don't think you can call services syndicated from London, to Scotland or Cornwall and many places in-between 'independent'. The majority of what the London one does, the others HAVE to.

    The centralised 'newsrooms', music duplication area-to-area of the larger groups makes NO concession for anything local, and is certainly not done 'independently'.

    The decline of radio listening, station closures and subsequent lack of choice or 'variety' in the areas I worked in is well-documented. Sadly, in an industry still shedding jobs weekly, no one still IN it is prepared to shout, 'help' ...

  2. Great piece, richard. We won't be going back to days of pantomimes and plays on local commercial radio, but some of your themes are reflected in Ashley Jeary's podcast for the Radio Academy this week: http://bit.ly/UxTAcB