40 years of Radio Norfolk ruling the airwaves
PUBLISHED: 06:30 05 September 2020 | UPDATED: 08:54 05 September 2020
Our much-loved station Radio Norfolk celebrates 40 years on the air this Friday. The station’s Paul Hayes takes a look back at the birth of a Norfolk institution
There are many reasons why Norfolk has an individuality and a sense of identity lacked by many, if not most, other English counties. History, geography, dialect – all of these are involved.
But it’s also, I think, at least in some way down to the fact that unlike so many other counties, Norfolk has several of the cultural attributes of a nation. We have our own football team in Norwich City. Our own newspaper in the EDP. And, for the past 40 years, we have had our own broadcaster – in the form of BBC Radio Norfolk.
It’s that sense of ‘Norfolkness’ which has enabled the station to mean something, in various ways, to a huge number of different people. Before Radio Norfolk opened, the BBC’s local radio stations had mostly tried to cover only single cities. The one previous attempt which had been made at a county station, BBC Radio Durham, had lasted for just four years and then been shut down.
But BBC Radio Norfolk was different. It thrived and survived.
“People in Norfolk were just so pleased that there was their own local radio station,” says Lesley Dolphin, who was one of the founding members of staff in 1980. “We took to them, they took to us!”
Before Radio Norfolk, there had been no broadcast media that purely served the county. The BBC had been broadcasting radio programmes from Norwich since 1957, on the local frequency of the Home Service and later Radio 4, but these were serving the whole of East Anglia. The same was true of BBC East television and Anglia TV, which both followed from 1959. Although there were often cries from other parts of the region that they were Norfolk-centric, by their very nature they could never cover the county in a truly local way. But by 1980, there were BBC and commercial local radio stations across the country, and Norfolk was eager to join in.
“We were in a situation where it was unknown, untested, and we were in fear that it would be a long time building its audience,” recalls John Mountford, who was the very first presenter when the station went on-air on the evening of September 11, 1980. “The exact opposite was true. People engaged with it very quickly, because they hadn’t had a voice like this, which sounded like them and talked like them. Within days we were getting endless phone calls, people coming in, bringing cakes or whatever.”
Ever since, Norfolk has always remained near the top of the charts for the most popular of all the BBC Local Radio stations, and frequently beats most of its national rivals here in the county. Of course, not everybody listens all of the time. But there can be few people living in Norfolk who are completely unaware of the station’s existence. And in times of trouble, such as the December 2013 storm surge or the ‘Beast from the East’ of 2018, it’s proved a trusted source of vital information.
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“That was one of the new things for Norfolk,” says Jill Bennett – now the station’s West Norfolk producer based in King’s Lynn, and another member of the original team from 1980. “When we had those extreme weather events, whether it was flood or it was snow, it was a really important service that had never been there before. Somebody who I knew in our early days whose village was cut off by snow told me, ‘It was different this time.’ And when I asked why, he said, ‘Because you were on the air, we knew what was happening’.”
“Those news stories, in a way, are the easiest to cover,” says the station’s news editor, Nanette Aldous. “You’ve got that focus, and everyone pulls together. I think that’s when Norfolk as a community pulls together as well, and when you’re at the heart of that, that’s a really special thing.”
Some only turn to the station in times of need. Others tune in at particular points for specific reasons, such as for the Norwich City commentaries. The Canaries have thousands more fans across the county than could ever fit into Carrow Road, and that’s where the coverage over the past forty years has been so vital to so many.
The station certainly gives other sports and other teams their due, of course – it was there live when Diss Town won the FA Vase, and when the Linnets made it through to the second round of the FA Cup; for speedway successes and cricketing triumphs, and for a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympics. But there is no denying that it is Norwich City which is the one team to bind the Norfolk nation together. Something which was really brought home last year, on the day Duncan Forbes died.
No other radio station could or would do what Radio Norfolk did that day – providing a space for memories to be shared and tributes to be paid in the same way that a national station might do for, say, a World Cup winner. But 5 Live or Sky News would have had little time for Duncan Forbes; his death meant nothing to them. Radio Norfolk, however, understood what he represented to a generation locally.
BBC Radio Norfolk’s own original Voice of Carrow Road was of course the late, great Roy Waller – and there is no finer example of how the station has earned its place in the popular culture of the county. Not just through football, but with the thousands of regular listeners who made Roy’s afternoon show such a part of Norfolk life. And an example, too, of how it isn’t simply news and sport which the station supplies. Arts, entertainment, features, documentaries, the new local music show Introducing – all of these continue to provide outlets and voices for the county’s creativity.
If you need evidence of how much the regular, everyday programmes have meant to people down the years, then look no further than when the station made a controversial change to its weekday schedule in the autumn of 1995. Something which might, perhaps, for other radio stations across the country have merited a tiny column deep inside the local newspaper was a front page story on the EDP and Evening News, and provoked a lively debate in both papers’ letters pages for some weeks.
BBC Radio Norfolk was the county’s first ever local radio station, and now the ranks around it are increasingly thinning out. Radio Broadland, which alongside Radio Norfolk dominated local listening for many years, turned into part of the Heart national network and then disappeared from the county altogether – its programmes now come from London and Milton Keynes. Other commercial stations have merged or are merging. With the BBC’s funding and future so often under the spotlight too, is Radio Norfolk set for another forty years?
“People say to me, ‘Oh I tuned in the other day. I love it! I didn’t think that’s what it was going to be like!’” says Nanette Aldous. “And you go, ‘Well, what did you think it was going to be like?’ And they say, ‘I didn’t know, I thought it was for old people!’ That’s got to go. But as for Radio Norfolk and the things that we do – I’m very proud.”
The Story of BBC Radio Norfolk, a series marking the station’s 40th anniversary, can be heard on Sundays at 1pm, or online via the BBC Sounds app or at www.bbc.co.uk/radionorfolk
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