Celebrating 40 Years of Commercial Radio

08/10/2013 10:31 BST | Updated 07/12/2013 10:12 GMT

There's nothing like a 40th anniversary to make you feel old! This week's celebrations for LBC Radio and the start of legally authorised commercial radio in Britain have taken me right back to October 1973 - long before I joined BBC News, where I was media correspondent for 24 years.

I'd just joined Campaign - the "newspaper of the communications business" - as a junior reporter and was desperately keen to hear the first historic broadcast. I'd been a fan of radio since listening to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes in the 1950s. I'd even - strange child that I was - listened to the BBC's Today programme in the days of Jack de Manio, a legendarily eccentric presenter famous for his inaccurate time checks.

But I'd also got married two days before and my wife was less wedded to the idea of waking up early to listen to the radio. At 6am on Monday October 6th 1973, I tuned in to LBC's opening moments through an earphone under the pillow.

LBC's honeymoon proved to be shorter than mine.

It had a dreadful start. The Economist accused it of "amateurism" and "lacking the authority a news and current affairs station needs to compete with the BBC".

In the House of Commons, the acerbic Labour MP Gerald Kaufman - who never wanted commercial radio - put the boot in. LBC, he said, "has hardly any listeners, gets hardly any advertising and seems to be on the verge of financial disintegration - would it not be kinder to put it out of its misery?"

Capital Radio, which went on the air a week after LBC, had made a more encouraging start. But it soon got into difficulties too, with a misguided music policy that it had to change by Christmas.

Neither station was helped by the dreadful economic situation in 1973 - an oil crisis, national industrial strife and nightly power cuts.

Advertisers and their agencies, who had been only too keen to embrace commercial radio a few years before, when pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London were broadcasting from the North Sea, were now confronted with two unconvincing London stations.

It was my job at Campaign to report their views and they were not impressed. And because the stations couldn't criticise the advertisers, they blamed me - the messenger - for their precarious situation.

Fortunately for commercial radio, things started to look up. LBC's original management team was replaced - and the editor of the Today programme switched camps to head up a new team. After a few months they started to give the BBC a run for its money.

Glasgow's Radio Clyde was the next station on the air and was an immediate success, showing just how vibrant Independent Local Radio could be, connecting with listeners in a way that the BBC had found difficult to do, particularly north of the border. Other out-of-London stations quickly followed.

Ten years after LBC's launch, I joined it to present a weekly media programme called Advertising World. I was trained by commercial radio - and without that experience I doubt I'd have got the job as the BBC's media correspondent.

Many, more distinguished, broadcasters and editors learned their trade in commercial radio. They include Channel 4's Jon Snow, who cycled to broadcast live for LBC at the end of the IRA's Balcombe Street siege in 1975; ITN's Julian Manyon and 5 Live's Peter Allen, who took part in the first experimental parliamentary broadcasts from the House of Commons; Radio 4's Martha Kearney, Radio 2's Chris Evans, 5 Live's Nicky Campbell and two of the BBC's specialist editors, Mark Mardell and Mark Easton - not to mention the many stars who continue to broadcast for commercial stations.

That is one great legacy of commercial radio. Another is that it has successfully galvanised the BBC to raise its game in radio.

It happened in the 1930s, when the commercial threat came from Continental stations broadcasting in the English language. It happened in the 1960s with the pirate ships; in the 1970s with the launch of LBC and Independent Local Radio; and again in the 1990s, when the rules governing commercial radio were relaxed, to allow rapid expansion and the first national stations, Classic FM, Virgin Radio (now Absolute) and Talk Radio UK (now TalkSport).

Together, the BBC and the commercial stations have ensured that radio continues to thrive in Britain, despite the enormous competition from television and the new digital media. Their challenge is to keep doing so in the uncertain wireless future.

Torin Douglas will be giving a public lecture at the University of West London on Wednesday 9 October, reflecting on how independent local radio has survived in the increasingly competitive media landscape. Reserve a seat at or call 0208 231 2199