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RADIO HISTORY: THE STORY OF RADIO LUXEMBOURG

DESIGN  BEGINNINGS  SUNRISE  SUNSET  ENDINGS  RADIOGRAMS  MAGAZINES  PW  RADIO TIMES  OUT OF PRINT 

LUXEMBOURG  RADIO SERIALS  POPULAR WIRELESS

This material is a condensed version of an original article published in 'The Radiophile'.

Competition for the BBC

Despite opposition from the BBC and the British government, RTL's Radio Luxembourg was transmitting sponsored programming on the long wave before the war. Long wave transmissions can cover greater distances, unlike medium waves which are more affected by atmospheric changes as they rely upon tropospheric reflection to reach far beyond the horizon. One of the very first regular programmes was ‘The Ovaltineys Concert Party’ with its famous signature tune ‘We Are the Ovaltineys’. A refreshing change from the stiff BBC programming and with much programme content based around records, Radio Luxembourg proved to be very popular with British listeners until WWII stopped them dead.

A rather tentative re-start to transmissions began in 1946; the studios had been laid waste by the Nazi occupiers and there was little left other than a secret cache of pre-war gramophone records. A very small British staff did their best and the transmissions were once again on long wave, with the English language emphasis being on Sundays. Only a small amount of English programming was transmitted during the week.

By 1950, and despite the still limited transmission hours, things had improved, with programming helped by large-disk recordings and the then novel process of tape recording. Record requests remained ‘live’ in the Luxembourg studios and sponsored programme material recorded in the UK was sent over to Luxembourg, featuring popular artistes of the time. Luxembourg not only transmitted, but it listened too. They took notice of their listeners – and listeners they had, in their many thousands - and by doing so, they were able to shape the programming to maximise listener satisfaction and increase their listening audience. In July 1951, radios were tuned for the very first time to 208 metres medium wave to hear Pete Murray announce the start of the newly expanded service.

The start of 208

208 was originally called ‘Luxembourg II’ to distinguish it from the long wave transmissions. It was used for English-language broadcasts during evenings, medium wave daytime reception in the UK was severely curtailed due to the disruption of the ionosphere caused by sunlight. After dark, reception improved greatly; though medium-wave fading remained a problem due to signal cancellation as reflected signals were received out-of-phase with ground wave signals. Summertime caused headaches for Luxembourg due to the long daylight hours which limited the transmission range, so rates were cut to keep sponsors happy.

What was broadcast on Radio Luxembourg in those still austere post-war days? I was recently sent a small collection of documents related to Luxembourg: a handful of newspapers, magazines and photographs, plus a typewritten schedule for Radio Luxembourg, covering the week beginning 30th July 1950.

Sunday started at 2.30pm with half an hour of records. Next was ‘Hollywood Calling!’ introducing famous Hollywood film stars. 3.15pm brought Edmundo Ros, presented by Currys cycle and radio shops, followed by ‘Gracie Fields in the Wisk half-hour’. Then came ‘Time out for Teddy’ featuring singer Teddy Johnson, after which Horlicks presented ‘Opportunity Knocks’ with the inimitable Hughie Green, followed by a country and western item. It is clear to see that the programming was, in general, designed for the more mature listening audience. Each segment was short; quarter hour or half-hour. The listener wasn’t allowed to become bored.

The evening began at 5.15 pm with Carroll Gibbons and his orchestra, half past five had Max Wall in ‘Radio Roundabout’ sponsored by ‘Rinso’. 6.00pm was ‘Introducing Mecca Dancing’ from the Locarno, Streatham, and at 6.15 David Rose and his orchestra filled a quarter-hour ‘Interlude’. 6.30 and Jo Stafford sang… but then, at 7.00pm, continental language programming takes over, reverting to English later at 9.30pm for ‘Swing Requests’ with Geoffrey Everitt. At 10 pm, Roy Plomley went ‘Off the Record’ followed at 10.30 by ‘This is Europe’, a half-hour of music from the continent. 11.00pm was finally time for the much-awaited ‘Top Twenty’, a selection of the previous week’s best-selling songs. Finally, ‘Music at Midnight’, a gramophone recital, brought the listener to 12.30am and close down.

It was a different story for weekday presentations, however. With the exception of Sunday, a very limited schedule was in operation until 1951.

Success, despite the opposition

Right up to the 1950s, British newspapers refused to carry Luxembourg’s programming content, as the station was widely seen as a competitor for advertising revenue; so ‘Radio Parade’, a free weekly guide to the Luxembourg programme schedule, was produced by Radio Luxembourg Advertising Ltd. and was available in Currys shops. The pages of ‘Radio Parade’ shows that little had changed from the format described above, even by mid 1951. But changes were coming and ‘Radio Parade’ showed that the fun really began on Monday July 2nd on 208 metres, medium wave when at 7.00pm what was still referred to as ‘Luxembourg II’ opened up with ‘Raise your Voices’ which paved the way at 7.15pm for the first quarter-hour episode of ‘Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future’. The evenings were filled with mixed programmes, all in English language and mostly music-based. Dan Dare starred Noel Johnson, one of the voices of the light programme’s ‘Dick Barton’. The serial aired every weekday and featured a script adapted from Frank Hampson’s original ‘Venus’ story, the very first Eagle Dan Dare adventure. I clearly remember listening to these transmissions in my youth and being frustrated by the constantly changing signal strength, due to signal out-of-phase cancellation and of course the light summer evenings. Just when the story reached an important stage, out would fade the signal to be replaced by breakthrough from some continental station or other, usually French, I believe. Despite the insurmountable reception fading problems the listener numbers soared, attracted by the variety of material and also by the novelty of sponsored radio. Soon, the slogan ‘208 – your station of the stars’ was adopted.

The war of the radio waves

The BBC stubbornly refused to accept the existence of Radio Luxembourg; perhaps understandably, Radio Luxembourg countered in a similar way by refusing to acknowledge the BBC, or the fact that many of its stars were also those of the British corporation and occasionally, because of recordings, performing on both services apparently simultaneously. In a manner that seems today suspiciously like a fit of pique, at least one performer, the first British ‘disc jockey’, Christopher Stone, was banned for several years before WWII by the BBC for appearing on Radio Luxembourg. The smug, self-righteous pomposity must have seemed intolerable. No wonder, given the option, millions of listeners chose Luxembourg.

Luxembourg printed publicity

More publications came on the scene, offering expanded information on programmes other than those of the BBC, as long as people were prepared to pay. These magazines were not, apparently, directly connected with Luxembourg Advertising. ‘Radio Weekly’ cost three pence and presented the week’s output of Radio Luxembourg, AFN and Radio Eireann on just eight monochrome pages, with spot colour on the title graphic only. Brevity had to be the watchword with editorial material but there were photos of stars and personalities of the day and clear no-frills presentation of scheduled broadcasts.

Forward a little way to November 1951 and another independent publication, ‘208’ magazine, offers – for the princely sum of 6d – a full month’s worth of programmes, exclusively Luxembourg. Replacing the discontinued Radio Parade, this magazine is an improvement over its erstwhile rivals, being printed on better quality paper, with spot colour on the cover pages. Full colour printing was always very expensive in the days of letterpress production.

Luxembourg, 1951 to 1953

As for the Luxembourg programmes themselves, Sunday 4th November still had Gracie Fields but now she was scheduled alongside the ‘Ovaltineys Concert Party’, ‘Opportunity Knocks’, a talk by J.B. Priestley, ‘Perry Mason’, ‘Bing Sings’ and the top twenty. Monday retained ‘Dan Dare’ and also ‘Movie Magazine’, ‘Secrets of Scotland Yard’, ‘Perry Mason’ again, and ‘A Date with Dickie’ featuring Richard Attenborough, with Sidney Torch’s orchestra and singer Carole Carr. Now, each weekday followed similar lines – filled with quarter-hour soap operas, Dan Dare and general interest material such as Twenty Questions (the latter featuring Stewart MacPherson as the question master, with Richard Murdoch and Fabian of Scotland Yard among the panellists), alongside the record programmes. The widened range of popular programming placed Luxembourg in direct competition with the BBC’s Light programme. One regular advertiser is often remembered with something approaching affection; Horace Bachelor offered his ‘Infra-Draw’ ‘foolproof’ football pools winning formula to listeners willing to believe him. Send your money to ‘Keynsham’… that’s K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M… It must have paid off as the adverts kept coming.

1953 was of course the year of the Coronation and the year when TV really began to take off in Britain. What of Luxembourg? Well, Dan Dare was gone from the listings, but there was ‘The Alka-Seltzer Show’ a quarter-hour of music featuring Texan singers Martha Tilton and Curt Massey, ‘The Answer Man’ – ready to answer any question sent in by listeners - and ‘Hopalong Cassidy’, a half-hour weekly playlet presented by ‘Spangles’ (popular sweets of the time).

208 magazine lasted, surviving several further changes, until 1959. By that time, the output from Luxembourg was becoming pop-oriented and aimed at an ever more youthful audience. By the early 1960s almost all soap-operas, drama, talks, quiz shows and sporting content had gone and the emphasis was almost entirely on recorded pop music. This must have reflected the inescapable fact that old-style family entertainment was now the province of television.

Transmitter changes

The site of the original long-wave transmitter for Radio Luxembourg was the Junglinster plateau, about a half-hour’s drive from the studios. In 1952 a medium wave transmitter was working at 150 kilowatts, broadcasting English language programming in the evenings from the same site on 208 metres. By 1956, 208 transmissions at a power of 350 kilowatts were from Marnach in the northern region of Luxembourg, the change being made to improve British reception. The antenna was directional and helped to beam the signal toward Britain. This must have greatly improved British reception, especially in the south of England.

Fresh contenders

Competition arrived in 1964 in the form of Radio Caroline, the first of numerous pirate radio ships. About 4 miles offshore in British waters, its ground wave signals were clear and fadeless for all listeners within transmission range. Luxembourg countered by abandoning most pre-recorded sponsored programming, instead using live disc-jockeys, with spot advertising. The success of the pirates was, however, transitory. In 1967 the British government passed legislation preventing them from selling advertising space in the UK, then instructed the BBC to create their own ‘pop’ station, Radio 1. With the ships silenced, Luxembourg once again became the sole voice of commercial radio for a time. Record companies were the major source of funding so to cram as many as possible recordings into the available air-time, record play times were reduced, sometimes to the point of being almost just ‘tasters’ of a given recording. In turn this meant that listeners were subjected to a barrage of often mediocre pop music, quite a change from the carefully planned sponsored programming of old.

Epitaph

It could not last. The slow but sure decline in the station’s fortunes was increased by the development of a British network of independent local radio stations. By 1982, independent local radio could be heard by about 80% of the British population, either on VHF or AM. The BBC similarly was setting up its local services.

The trademark Radio Luxembourg gong was silenced on 1 January 1992, ending a long and for the most part successful piece of broadcasting history… only the memories remain.

For more on this amazing radio station, visit:

http://www.radioluxembourg.co.uk/

And for a truly fascinating insight into the role played by Stephen Williams' creation of Radio Luxembourg, this site is essential viewing:

http://www.suttonelms.org.uk/williams00.html

 

 

 

Radio Parade, 1950

 

Souvenir album, early to mid 1950s

 

Radio Parade, 1951

 

VINTAGE RADIO world: SIXTEEN YEARS OF WEB PRESENCE