Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We don’t get across the Atlantic nearly as much as we’d like to. Back in 2002, there was a trip to England and France that took us to some historic BBC AM sites and London’s main TV/FM sites. In 2011, a family wedding in Ireland provided a delightful excuse to see some of that island’s transmitter and studio facilities.
And then in the fall of 2017 came the chance to take my dad on a bucket-list trip, his first ever visit to Europe. You know how your editor is a radio guy? Dad’s a car guy, and so much of the trip was devoted to car-guy stuff – the Williams F1 team headquarters, a race at Silverstone, the amazing Donington Park auto museum, and so on.
That was all very cool, and Dad had a great time, but that’s not why we’re here on this page, is it now? Fortunately, Dad was willing to go along for the very first item on our tour agenda the afternoon of our arrival in London, a visit to the BBC’s Broadcasting House.
This is really two buildings – the landmark Art Deco 1932 Broadcasting House, attached to the much larger and newer “new Broadcasting House” that opened in 2013 behind and to the east of the original building. (It connects, in turn, to the “John Peel Wing,” the 2005 structure that’s home to BBC London local radio and several of the BBC’s foreign-language services.)
Even the interior of the original BH is a landmark, which means you can still ride in the lifts or walk the stairwells and narrow hallways that Edward R. Murrow used when this was his headquarters during World War II. From the Latin inscriptions in the lobby to the wood-paneled board room on the third floor, the history inside is palpable.
The studios in the original BH were largely redone in the 21st-century renovation, though the original studio walls are preserved behind newer enclosures. Radio 3 (the classical music service) and Radio 4 (the world’s best spoken-word station, bar none) call the old building home, while the top floor of the new Broadcasting House houses the very modern studios of Radio 1, the youth-oriented service, as well as its offshoots 1Xtra and 6 Music.
The lower floors of the new BH are equally modern, housing the BBC World Service (which moved here from historic Bush House) and various BBC news departments, with the bottom few floors occupied by the huge atrium that’s shown off to great effect on BBC TV newscasts. That operation had been out at the Television Centre at White City, a few miles west of here, before moving here in 2013.
And yes, that’s a Dalek and a TARDIS in the lobby of new Broadcasting House, not that Dad knew that…
We can’t show you pictures from inside Broadcasting House, but we can show you some views from the roof, which has a nice view eastward to the nearby BT Tower, the 191m communications tower that was the tallest building in the UK from 1964 until 1980. That four-bay antenna at the top of the mast may look like it’s for FM, but it’s actually for DAB, transmitting four multiplexes of digital audio around 220 MHz to the heart of the city.
A few blocks south of Broadcasting House in Leicester Square, we walk past the Global Radio headquarters. This is the latest incarnation of London’s oldest commercial radio broadcasters, which date only to the early 1970s when the BBC’s monopoly ended. LBC, the news-talk station, and Capital Radio, the top-40 station, were the first independent local radio stations in London and are both now part of Global, occupying the longtime Capital Radio studios; today, Global has a cluster here as large as any US commercial broadcaster, including the national Classic FM network and the local/regional Smooth, Heart, Radio X, Capital XTRA, LBC News and Gold services. (If you’re looking for them on FM here, you’ll find LBC at 97.3, Capital at 95.8, Classic FM at 100.0, Smooth at 102.2, Heart at 106.0, Radio X at 104.9, Capital XTRA at 96.9/107.1, LBC News at 1152 AM and Gold at 1548 AM.)
Our second day in London is spent mostly playing tourist, including a lengthy visit to the Churchill War Rooms, the underground warren of preserved offices and housing that was the headquarters of the British war effort in World War II. There’s plenty here to delight a radio historian, including the reconstructed control room/studio from which Winston Churchill made several historic BBC broadcasts during the war. (If you saw the Churchill movie last year, you were looking at a masterful recreation of this space.)
Day three found us renting a car and driving westward out of London into the Oxford area.
After a pleasant afternoon touring the high-tech Williams F1 headquarters and museum at Grove, a few miles southwest of Oxford, we head north for the night, catching the last rays of sunlight in Beckley, northeast of Oxford.
This 166m tower now belongs to the national transmission company Arqiva, but it was built by the BBC in the early 1960s as a TV and FM relay to bring better signals to the Oxford area, which received fringe signals from the transmitters serving London and Birmingham.
As with most of these sites, the tower has been extensively rebuilt as transmission has changed over the years. Today, it’s crowned by UHF TV antennas that broadcast nine digital “Freeview” multiplexes, giving viewers access to more than 60 TV channels and several dozen radio channels. Below that is a multiplexed FM antenna that carries four national BBC services, BBC local radio for Oxford (at 95.2), the national Classic FM and the regional Heart FM. Below that is the DAB antenna that carries four multiplexes in the 220 MHz range – and hanging from one of the guy wires, if you look very closely, is a vertical antenna that carries the national Absolute Radio service with a low-power signal at 1197 kHz.
(Want to know more about the history of this site, and pretty much every other transmission site in the UK? Our friend Mike Brown has been chronicling them for years at the “Transmission Gallery” at his mb21.co.uk – check it out!)
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Next week: From England’s Midlands to the south of Germany