Radio stars: Fabulous 208 - the station that made Alan Freeman (and a host of other pop-pickers)
Wednesday 29 November 2006
So farewell then, pop-pickers. The veteran DJ Alan "Fluff" Freeman, inventor of the catch-phrases "all right", "stay bright" and "not 'arf" has gone to the great radio studio in the sky.
His death on Monday, at the age of 79, robs broadcasting of a true pioneer: an iconic member of the illustrious generation of postwar disc jockeys who introduced Britons to pop music.
It is also a nail in the coffin for a much loved and parodied institution: Radio Luxembourg, the station that changed the face of radio during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The public's memories of Freeman - the inspiration for Harry Enfiled's DJ character Dave Nice, of Smashie and Nicey fame - will forever be intertwined with this legendary broadcaster, which was known in its heyday as FAB 208, and launched the career of a virtual Who's Who of influential broadcasters, from Jimmy Savile and Hughie Green, to Noel Edmonds and Chris Moyles.
Edmonds led tributes yesterday to his former colleague and mentor in the most appropriate manner possible: by recalling Radio Luxembourg's golden era, in which Freeman was able to pioneer his now-ubiquitous chart show. "At the start of my career with Luxembourg, Alan was a major inspiration and a great support," he said.
"It is very rare for any broadcaster to create an entirely new form of presentation. He'll always be remembered for achieving a unique style which was instantly recognisable."
In truth, with Freeman and others, it's almost impossible to overestimate the influence that Radio Luxembourg exerted on British music. Broadcast on the crackly medium wave band, it became the most successful commercial radio station in history, reaching an unsurpassed 78 million listeners a week during its prime.
Sir Cliff Richard once admitted he grew up ignorant of the fact that Luxembourg was a country, saying: "I thought it was just a couple of rooms with DJs in it." Sir Tim Rice, another listener, recalled: "I was given a trannie in 1961 and listened in bed at school."
The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Little Richard were first played on Luxembourg, while the station's slogan "two-oh-eight, your station of the stars" is thought to be the first radio jingle. And although it was never quite "cool" in the modern sense (Freeman, for instance, was dubbed "fluff" because of his affection for unfashionable knitwear) the station's crack squad of highly paid DJs went on to rule the airwaves for several decades. Their number included Pete Murray, David Jacobs, Don Moss and Kent Walton.
Its staggering success first came on the back of technological advances that turned radios into relatively cheap consumer items. "We all got crystal radio sets for Christmas, in white Bakelite, with headphones that used to give you a headache, and we used to listen to Radio Luxembourg in bed," recalls Peter Hennessy, the author of Having it so good: Britain in the 1950s.
"The signal was not very good and there was lots of wooing, but in the early days it was one of the few places you could listen to pop. It was the only alternative we had to standard BBC fare."
The station was also famed for its sponsored shows, which included The Ovaltineys, and Take Your Pick, sponsored by Beecham's Pills, and an advertisement for a football pools tipping system. "Like many people, I remember the extraordinary voice of Horace Batchelor, who would appear in advertisements for his service that gave you advice on how to increase your chance of winning the pools," adds Hennessy. "He had a strong Wiltshire accent, and used to spell out the address of the town he lived in letter by letter: K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M. Across Britain, schoolchildren used to run around the playground mimicking him."
Radio Luxembourg's success story began in 1933, when it was founded by a French firm eager to reach an international audience. The first presenter, Stephen Williams, played contemporary hits by the likes of Gracie Fields and George Formby. Based, as its name suggests, in Luxembourg, it used an extra-powerful transmitter to broadcast across the Channel. This bypassed British broadcasting regulations, and gave it a virtual monopoly on commercial radio in the heavily-regulated UK market. Despite a PR setback during the Second World War, when its transmitter was used by the Nazis and Lord Haw Haw to broadcast anti-British propaganda, it became a key player in the industry as pop took off during the 1950s.
"There was this very powerful radio transmitter in the Grand Duchy, so DJs would be recruited from the UK to go and live out there," recalls the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini. "It was, if you like, a pirate ship on land, and people who wanted to listen to pop in the UK had few options. It was completely dominant, and also uber-commercial, so record labels would buy up slots of air-time during which music by their artists was the only music that could be broadcast. Most of the famous Radio 1 DJs of the 1970s came from there."
Its success couldn't last forever, though. The exodus of stars was part of a long, slow decline for Radio Luxembourg, which started when it began to face competition from the mid-1960s onwards. Not only did a plethora of pirate radio ships begin broadcasting (with better quality sound), but Radio 1, launched in 1967, and then licensed commercial broadcasters began to compete for its market share.
One of the station's alumni, Tony Blackburn - who was disciplined at Millfield for listening to Luxembourg after lights out - believes the station was incapable of living with competition.
"For me, the sign that it was really on the way out was when it started sounding old-fashioned," he said. "The problem was that Luxembourg was controlled by record companies like EMI and Decca, who would pay for hour-long slots of their stuff, and use it to broadcast records they couldn't get played anywhere else. I used to record my show in studios in Mayfair, and it would then be shipped out to Luxembourg. We didn't mind the record companies telling us what to play, as they were paying a pound a minute, which was a lot of money in those days. But it didn't do any good."
In 1992 Luxembourg was put out of its misery by its then owner, the Compagnie Luxembourgeoise de Telediffusion. A tearful DJ, Mike Hollis, uttered its final sign-off on 20 December. "We were the best. The first to play the Beatles and the Stones, and the first to have a top 20 chart."
News of its departure led to an outpouring of grief. Luxembourg was fêted as a cultural phenomenon with an influence that extended far beyond the world of music. The inventor Trevor Baylis said that listening to it during adolescence had motivated him to create the clockwork radio. "I was a beatnik in those days, very into New Orleans jazz and rock 'n' roll, and it was one of the only places you could listen to that music," he recalled.
Today, after 13 years of silence, there is a new dawn. Radio Luxembourg is on the verge of returning to the airwaves. The broadcaster RTL relaunched it in September 2005 on a shortwave digital frequency, 7295, which is about to become available to British listeners.
The station is remaining true to its historic roots, hiring a selection of British DJs to front daily shows. "We are playing classic rock, things like David Bowie or Ozzy Osbourne," said the firm's vice-president for digital radio, Dan D'Aversa. "The audience at the moment is around zero, but that is because the technology to receive it has only just gone on the market.
"For us it is a test, though. We have relaunched the station as an experiment. Historically Luxembourg was the biggest commercial station, so in the future who knows what will happen?"
Fittingly you get the feeling that it's the sort of boundless optimism of which Alan "Fluff" Freeman, if he were listening, would be liable to approve.
Luxembourg luminaries. Not 'arf!
The rotund "shock-jock" enjoyed a stint at Luxembourg as a teenager during the late 1980s, having first cut his teeth at Radio Aire, in Stoke, and Radio Topshop in his native Leeds. He went on to work at Capital Radio, before achieving fame/notoriety hosting Radio 1's breakfast show.
In 1968, Edmonds left his native Essex (where he was a trainee teacher) and travelled to Luxembourg, where at the age of 19, he landed a job as a DJ on the station. This kick-started a career that saw him at Radio 1 throughout the 1970s, before he decided to devote his considerable talents to TV.
Green became a household name in 1955 with the TV game-show Double Your Money, which he had begun on Luxembourg several years earlier. He hosted the TV talent show, Opportunity Knocks, and was known for his right-wing views. After his death in 1997 it emerged that he had secretly fathered the TV presenter Paula Yates.
Now then, now then! Savile worked at Luxembourg from 1958 to 1967 before moving to TV, where he dazzled as the first, best, and longest-lasting presenter of Top of the Pops. He hosted the children's show Jim'll Fix It and Eurovision song contests and appeared in 1980s British Rail advertisements. He was knighted in 1990 for services to charities.
This grande fromage of Radio 2's current line-up learnt to DJ on the pirate stations of the 1960s, joining Radio 1 in 1969. After falling out with his bosses in 1976, following a row about the Bay City Rollers, he emigrated to California, where he recorded a weekly show for Luxembourg before returning to the UK in the early 1980s.
David 'Kid' Jensen
This Canadian DJ earned his nickname "the kid" because he was the youngest of Luxembourg's presenters when joining the station in 1958, aged 18. He joined the BBC in 1976, and presented Top of the Pops before going on to worked for a variety of commercial stations. Jensen now earns a crust at Capital Gold.
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