Sunday, 26 July 2015

A Birmingham Broadcast trail

Not quite a trail of tears, but close....

Before even more threats line up for the last remnants of local broadcasting - through a toxic combination of cost-cutting, indifference, incompetence and government hostility - you might like to take this walk. 

You wouldn't think it today, but Birmingham bristles with unlikely old radio and TV studio locations. Some are completely untraceable; some hold strong memories. You can still spot traces of some of them dotted across the city. 

So here's a guide. You really can walk this if you want to, although it's a bit of trek to get out to Edgbaston and back, just to see a building site...

Aston Cross: Radio House

The trail starts with Radio House at Aston Cross.

When ABC Television (later to become ATV, then Central) started up, they built a five story office block at Aston Cross, right next to the Aston Hippodrome Cinema, which they converted to a studio. Trivia fact: ABC built the very first Independent TV studio outside of London. There's a LOT of broadcast history in Brum. 

Once, Aston, birthplace of Ozzy, was a bustling inner city suburb, but much of it has gone. The Hippodrome site now houses a Staples. 

When BRMB launched in 1974, with ATV as shareholders, they moved into the ATV's old admin block, installed studios on the top floor, and named it Radio House. It's still there, but now it's just an office block again, although it did house a web station for a spell. ATV moved to large city centre premises on Broad Street. That's now being demolished. 

Gosta Green: Aston University and the Beeb

From Aston Cross, head into the city and make for the Aston University campus. There you'll find the EBRI (short for European Bioenergy Research Institute) building. 

This started life as another cinema in Gosta Green, another once thriving inner city neighbourhood. The cinema became one of the many Birmingham BBC locations, pressed into use as a television studio. 

After the BBC moved out in the 70s, it was eventually converted to house the Birmingham Arts Lab in the late 70s. The frontage remains. 

BBC locations 

From Elliott Brown's Flickr Stream

As well as at Aston, the BBC operated out of Broad Street in the city and Carpenter Road in Edgbaston. 

They moved everything to Pebble Mill Road in 1971. Pebble Mill Studios ran until 2004, delivering a raft of TV and Network output, and housed BBC WM from its start in 1970.

Trivia note: Pebble Mill was the birthplace of Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson. He didn't like Pebble Mill very much.  

There's nothing left to see there now. The old site has been redeveloped. 

The BBC moved to its current location, The Mailbox, in 2004. We'll head there at the end of the trail, but for now, let's spare a thought for top pirate outfit PCRL, which operated from of all sorts of places in Handsworth and beyond.


PCRL was a hugely influential Birmingham outfit in the golden days of urban pirate radio. They broke reggae hits locally; they did solid if occasionally dodgy business; they were busted literally hundreds of times. It's difficult to say where their studios actually were for any period of time, because they had to move every few weeks, up and down and around the Dudley Road and all over Handsworth. 

Those days are over. It's cheap, easy and legal to put up your own web station, and there's dozens of outfits following in their footsteps. 

Traces of long-lost commercial operations

So let's head back into town, and head down to Holloway Circus, aka the Pagoda Roundabout. 

Face south, and look up. 

25 years on, you can still make out an ancient, faded billboard running along the top of the building. 

This was for Buzz FM. It's all that's left of a station that flared briefly in the 90s. 

Buzz FM launched in 1990, but only lasted four years. There is, however a direct link between this ill-fated operation and what is now, ironically, one of the city's most popular commercial stations. After Buzz folded, the license went to Urban outfit Choice FM. Choice bumped along for a while, then was bought and sold by larger groups, several times. 

Flickr: Elliott Brown  
There's another ghost site, of course. This one's on Lionel Street, where the old Kerrang Radio used to operate from before it disappeared from FM, first consigned to DAB, and now relegated to a shadowy online presence. Word this week is that the owners are going to use the frequency, currently occupied by Planet Rock, to house their London-based Absolute Radio output. It's a bit of a hike - beyond Charles Street Queensway and over a very rough car park - especially when the only thing that seems to be of value is a local FM frequency for their London output, so I'm not recommending a diversion. But here's a bit of empty studio nostalgia.

And now?

Flickr - James Cridland    
After name changes and format revisions, the license that first was awarded to Buzz... which then went to Choice...eventually morphed, unbelievably, into the Birmingham version of Capital FM.  

And if you walk back up from Holloway Circus along Suffolk Street Queensway, nodding to the Mailbox where the BBC now lives, up to Broad Street, you'll be where Central, inheritors of the old ABC/ATV operation, used to run from. 

Looking out from the shot below, there was another old BBC site, a hundred yards to the right up Broad Street. This view is taken from the Library of Birmingham. In this shot, you're looking straight out over the huge old Central TV complex. back down towards the Mailbox.

Flickr - Elliott Brown    
Lots of old sites, then. Now, the quarter bounded on two sides by Broad Street and Suffolk Street Queensway is pretty much the only place where there is any broadcast activity left in the city. Capital, Heart, and others including Free, inheritors of the old BRMB, are on Broad Street. The BBC is two hundred yards away. And Central? That complex was flattened. They retain office space and a single studio, in Gas Street, at the very back of the development. 

It's not a lot to show for well over half a century of brilliant work. And there'll be even less in the future, I'm afraid.

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Keith Rogers said...

Excellent article Robin,and thank you for the share. I have some very early connections with the origins behind PCRL. In 1981 I loosely ran the pirate station Sounds Alternative, 1179khz(254m) which broadcast alternate Sundays. During the broadcast in 81 we always included a two hour Reggae show, one hour was presented by Music Master(Cecil) with quite regular mentions for a well known Dudley Road record store. The rest as the saying goes is history.............

Duncan Jones said...

Very interesting as always Robin. If memory serves me well, BBC Radio Birmingham used to have a shop/ studio at the top of New Street. I started working for the station as a casual 'phone answerer in 1981 and I'm sure the shop was still a going concern then.

Neil Hillman said...

Hugely enjoyable and, as ever, meticulously researched... I spent nearly a decade in Central's Broad Street studios and I remember being told of the ghost who walked through the previous studios in Aston. It was the ghost of an usherette who fell to her death from the balcony of the cinema that the studios had previously been. I never heard of anyone at BRMB seeing her after ATV left...

Neil Hillman said...

So sorry to hog more column inches, but the memories you've re-kindled are so vivid, Robin... I actually started my 'broadcasting' life at Gosta Green, in the University Radio Aston (URA) studios as a presenter (circa 1979 - 1981), presenting a show that ran 8pm - 10pm once a week on a Wednesday. It was imaginatively entitled 'After Dark'; not nearly as cool as the guy that followed me at ten, with his show 'Burning Ashtray'.
We were broadcasting on A.M. in those days and, being electronics students, some tinkering was inevitable... The transmitter got tweaked and tweaked until eventually our low-power, campus-only range meant we could be heard on medium wave as far away as Acocks Green. Not bad. It was at this point however that the Home Office, or DTI, or whoever, shut us down. Temporarily.
It was as close as I ever got to Pirate radio, but every Wednesday night I was, spiritually at least, bobbing around on the North Sea playing new and magnificent music for a discerning audience. Bliss.

Lora Colley said...

Excellent Birmingham radio history article. Thank you for sharing.


Lora Colley said...

Excellent Birmingham radio history article. Thank you for sharing.

John Ross-Barnard said...

Astonishing the changes, well done. But looking back at the instability of the industry and the stresses of the time not to mention the broadcasting politics, one has to say - was it really all worth it?
Happy Daze JRB

Robin Valk said...

Hi John

I would say absolutely, yes, John. But I would add that the radio you and I knew a generation and more ago was of its time. It did admirably well in some circumstances, and I salute many of the practitioners who worked in it. Now, we are in different times, and radio does not fulfil quite the same needs. Which is not to say that it can not be exciting and valuable. It's just less... innocent.