How we beat the BBC

Thirty years ago this month, a group of strike-happy young upstarts at Britain's first commercial station revolutionised radio. Vincent Graff recalls the way London fell in love with LBC's non-stop news
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It was the autumn of 1973 and Peter Allen, later to become a presenter with BBC Radio Five Live, had a little difficulty. He had somehow persuaded LBC, just about to launch as Britain's first commercial radio station, to give him a job as a political correspondent. He had two problems - he didn't know a great deal about politics, and he didn't know anything at all about broadcasting, not even how to use the equipment.

No matter. His political editor Ed Boyle, who had been working at the BBC, had an idea: using his ID card, Boyle smuggled a small team from LBC into Broadcasting House, where they set about mastering the machinery. "Ed's feeling was that the BBC ran on public money, so we had every right to do it," says Allen.

The BBC took a less benign view - and kicked the scoundrels out.

At LBC's beginning, 30 years ago this month, most of the staff were, like Allen, clueless in the ways of broadcasting, having come from the world of newspapers. But despite such an amateurish start, the all-news London Broadcasting Company, based in a basement studio in a square behind Fleet Street, went on to launch or boost the careers of an amazing array of names. Jon Snow, Janet Street-Porter, David Jessel, Claire Rayner, Carol Thatcher, George Gale, Brian Hayes, Carol Barnes, and Jeremy Beadle all worked there in the early days.

At its peak, the London station really mattered. Politicians queued up to appear on its news programmes and phone-in shows. Audiences liked what they heard. By 1976, LBC had 2 million listeners; more people in the capital made a point of listening to the AM show, with Bob Holness and Douglas Cameron, than tuned in to Radio 4's Today programme.

But the first few years were far from smooth. Launched - badly - just in time for the world oil crisis and the advertising recession, the station was at first short of listeners and cash. Industrial relations were appalling. The speech would go quiet, and the managing director would bring in some classical records from home and play them on air. On launch day, recalls Allen, "I remember the boss saying: 'We go on air in six hours and we never stop'". "Of course, we stopped quite soon. We went on strike regularly. We were forever having last-ditch talks. But whenever we went on strike, we won."

John Perkins, then an LBC reporter and the National Union of Journalists' staff representative, once wrote to his MD: "We are often described as the battery hens of broadcasting - we would like parity with battery hens, who do get food, light, heat and water."

Ron Onions, then editor-in-chief, recalls: "There was quite a militant union which had got used to running the place itself, and which wanted pay parity with the BBC, for understandable reasons.

"But the money just was not there. At one point we had just one commercial running on the station - for gripe water, if I remember - bringing in an income of about £5,000 when we had a wage bill running at 20 times that."

It would be unfair to concentrate on the problems at the station. It revolutionised the way news is broadcast. It turned the phone-in, until then a laughable, little-used format on BBC local radio and nowhere else, into what Onions calls "an art form under Brian Hayes". It also stuck out for journalistic freedom. When Margaret Thatcher banned television and radio from broadcasting the voice of Gerry Adams in 1988 - but not his reported speech - Hayes hosted a brilliant phone-in with the Sinn Fein leader. In the studio, he had an actor wearing a pair of headphones linked to Adams, who was in Belfast. Hayes would ask a question; Adams would reply; and the actor would repeat word for word everything Adams said - prefaced by "Mr Adams says...". It was a wonderful piece of radio, which revealed the madness of the ban and was far braver than anything the BBC would dare try.

Other LBC firsts are now so commonplace as to be obvious: it was the first station to let reporters to file reports live on air by phone, it pioneered two-headed presenting, and it realised that a news bulletin reporting what the Prime Minister said yesterday is a more lively affair if the listener is allowed to hear the PM saying it. (Until LBC came along, the BBC used very little actuality in its bulletins.)

"We were in direct competition with Radio 4 and probably 99 times out of 100, we got the story right and we got it first," says another former LBC man, Dickie Arbiter, who went on to become a Buckingham Palace press secretary. He points out that, in the Seventies, the BBC might make listeners wait three or four hours for a proper bulletin - whereas LBC, whose slogan was "where news comes first", could deliver it immediately. It was this realisation that, in part, led the BBC in the direction of a rolling news channel. Even today, in front of and behind the microphone, Radio Five Live employs a good number of former LBC people.

"There is a lot of LBC in Five Live," says Hayes, who these days presents programmes for both.

And nowadays? Many changes of ownership later, and in an entirely unrecognisable radio landscape, LBC has two stations - LBC 97.3 on FM and LBC News 1152 on AM - with a combined listenership of 750,000.

After some years of horrible under-investment and neglect, LBC once again appears to be in the arms of a loving parent, Chrysalis, which bought it last year.

But for real fans of the station, its heyday has been and gone. "It was," says Allen, "the best fun I ever had."