In October 1970, the eager 25-strong staff for the newly-founded BBC Radio Blackburn (as it was then called) met at The Langham, the BBC’s London training centre for new local radio crews. After completing their three-week course, the eclectic team headed back North in preparation for their scheduled launch on January 26th, 1971.
Due to miners’ strikes, however, the winter of 1970 was plagued by rolling power cuts which spurred the fledgling team, spearheaded by new station manager John Musgrave, into action. Using batteries and candlelight, Radio Blackburn spluttered into existence, their ‘test transmissions’ quickly becoming the real deal even as builders were putting the finishing touches to their studios.
From what had formerly been a motorcycle showroom on King Street in Blackburn, the nascent radio station reported on the blackouts until they eventually subsided and the staff went home for Christmas.
This week, the station celebrated its 50th birthday.
“I always had a fascination with radio,” says Gerald Jackson, who worked on Radio Blackburn’s first ever broadcast at the age of 20 and has been associated with the station ever since. “As a 14-year-old, I set up a radio station in my bedroom and broadcast to my next-door neighbour Phillip with a wire between our rooms across the garden. That’s what got me into it.”
Born in Leeds, a teenage Gerald fell in love with the pirate stations of the 1960s. Due to a concept called needle time, the BBC was unable to play more than an hour’s music a day as the Musicians’ Union and the Performing Rights Society believed anything more would put musicians out of work. In response, pirate stations sprang up three miles off the British coast, just outside territorial waters and the grip of British law.
“The pirate stations had something we’d never heard before in this country - DJs playing music all day,” explains Gerald, now 70 and still living in Blackburn. “I listened to Radio Caroline North from Ramsey Bay in the Isle of Man, and I thought ‘I like this’.”
Nurturing a passion for the technical side of broadcasting, Gerald cut his teeth on hospital radio at Leeds General in his teens, even going so far as to build them a studio. Then the BBC announced they were launching eight new local radio stations as part of a two-year pilot scheme, one of which was Radio Leeds.
“I was lucky one of the eight stations was Leeds,” says Gerald. “I was chair of a local youth group at that time and, because I thought radio was fascinating, I invited someone from Radio Leeds to talk to us. Nobody was the slightest bit interested but me, but I pursued this new allegiance with a girl called Diana Stenson and asked if I could come down.
“Eventually, they let me through the door and I started doing freelance work and operating the equipment,” he adds. “It all went from there. In the early days, you had to do a bit of everything, so I loaded tapes, made toast and coffee, and drove the breakfast programme with Di through the glass. It was a real apprenticeship.”
Still without the resources to put on a full day’s original programming, BBC local radio in those days would do 20-minute programmes followed by an hour of , say, Pete Murray from Radio 2, another 20-minute programme, then the World at One from Radio 4, and so on. “That was the only way to fill the air-time,” says Gerald. “But we wanted to make radio more local and play more tunes.
“We still had the issue of needle time, but we sort of got round that by being sent to Holland to buy Dutch records,” he adds with a chuckle. “The song was exactly the same as one from an English record, but didn’t come under the UK copyright laws!”
Further demonstrating his penchant for mischievous resourcefulness, Gerald recalls how he’d make up names of people requesting songs from the telephone directory for his afternoon show called Say It With Music, and an occasion where he was hauled in front of the manager.
“We were allowed to play original film soundtracks and I did a programme called Visiting Time for people in hospital,” says Gerald. “I played the theme tune from M*A*S*H, which is called Suicide is Painless. I tried to explain that Painless is the name of the dentist, but I was in the manager’s office in no time.”
The success of the BBC’s pilot led to another 12 local stations getting the green light, one of which was Radio Blackburn. Gerald applied, got the job, and was there as Blackburn-born Tom Nasiby officially became the first person to grace the new Lancastrian airwaves with his welcome of ‘This is BBC Radio Blackburn, serving you: the people of North East Lancashire’ in January 1971.
The morning after Sue Cox presented the station’s first show (first record played on air: The Resurrection Shuffle by Ashton, Gardner and Dyke), Gerald did the first breakfast show. “It was exceptionally exciting,” he says. “The number of listeners must have been in their hundreds, but that meant we could grow in experience as the audience grew in numbers. You were learning every day and it was hard work, but so rewarding.
“I produced a programme called Sunday Choice, which was a request show, and we’d get 300 letters a week for a show that could play maybe 20 requests,” he adds. “It was a different world. We did things stations would be proud of today, let alone in the ‘70s.
“The adrenaline rush of outside broadcasts was brilliant as well; you couldn’t beat it,” continues Gerald. “Over the years, we covered three Preston Guilds but one of the earliest events we did was at what is now the scout camp in Great Harwood. They had a live jazz band and we broadcast from the radio car at the top of a hill.
“We also broadcast the Festival of Contemporary Music in 1972 from King George’s Hall in Blackburn where a symphony orchestra was playing Stockhausen, which was all banging metal and strange noises. People actually rang in to ask if the transmitter was faulty!”
Gerald also covered royalty.
“Princess Diana was visiting for an official opening in Preston, so myself and a reporter called Mike went down. I was in the radio car and I said words to the effect of ‘let’s go inside and join reporter Mike West’ and Mike, in hushed tones, said ‘yes, Princess Diana is at the front of the room, ready to do the official opening’. Then this voice said in jest ‘well, I would if you’d shut up!’ She had a really good sense of humour.”
On July 4, 1981, the station’s name officially changed to BBC Radio Lancashire, with John Musgrave ushering in a new era with the subtle and timeless line ‘That *was* Radio Blackburn, this *is* BBC Radio Lancashire’. Seven years after that, the station moved to their current home on Darwen Street, where the magic continues to this day.
Gerald himself continued to work at Radio Lancashire until 1992, when he went to work for BBC Radio 5 Live as a freelancer after a wave of redundancies. He also helped build football radio stations, starting with Radio Rovers in 1993 and following up with similar projects for Manchester United, Everton, and Norwich City.
He also taught media at Blackburn College for three years, where some of his students included current BBC Radio Lancashire breakfast producer Leanne Bayes, Managing Editor of RadioToday Roy Martin, and Most Haunted's Glen Hunt. But that love of radio never left him, and he returned to the BBC in 1998 and soon started presenting programmes for BBC Radio Manchester.
“The intimate nature of live radio makes it magic,” says Gerald, who recalls fondly how listeners called his five children The Jackson 5 (yes, his youngest is called Michael). “I really enjoy talking to people, I just happen to have the pleasure of doing it in a studio with a mic.
“From the listener’s perspective, it’s a friendship and nothing could be more important during the pandemic,” adds Gerald. “We’ve had the privilege of being allowed into people’s homes.”
Hoping to celebrate Radio Lancashire’s 50th properly in the summer, Gerald says the station is his ‘other family’. What more is there to say, apart from Happy Birthday?