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Opinion: ‘The next caller, Archbishop. . .’

06 October 2023

When LBC was launched 50 years ago, religion was part of the mix, John Forrest recalls


A poster used to launch LBC Radio in 1973

A poster used to launch LBC Radio in 1973

IT SEEMS hard to think of a time when all UK radio programmes came only through the BBC. LBC Radio, the first independent local radio station to go on the air, celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sunday. It marks the moment when the monopoly was broken, and a boom in radio listening began.

What might go unnoticed is the fact that, in its early days, LBC offered regular “religious broadcasting” in its programme mix. Its franchise bid had promised several religious programmes. We Believe, a two-hour phone-in, was to be on Sunday afternoons, a “service of worship” at about midday every Sunday, and a religious “thought” each weekday.

I was handed the job of developing and producing this religious output with a modest budget, alongside my other production duties. I was a young producer with a developing passion for religious communication, and just two-and-a-half years of BBC local-radio production experience.

The BBC had a longstanding tradition of religious broadcasting, pioneered and regulated with tones of respect, tradition, and authority. This reverential approach is generally credited to the Establishment views held by its founding director, John Reith.

But a new broadcasting competitor offered alternative opportunities to question religious life without the encumbrance of hierarchical production structures and religious advisory committees. In the new mix of 24-hour listening came the novelty of extended phone-ins.

THE first LBC studios were just off Fleet Street, the epicentre of the journalistic world in those days, and many news-making people would pass by at one time or another. Although it was technically just a local radio station, religious movers and shakers were attracted into the studio. Archbishops, church leaders, religious celebrities, and campaigners held a seat for an hour or so for loosely structured Sunday afternoon phone-ins, which attracted callers from indeterminate backgrounds.

Church leaders of most denominations found themselves exposed to questions of faith from random Londoners. Cliff Richard, Mary Whitehouse, Sydney Carter, Bishop David Sheppard, and other celebrities were included. Mervyn Stockwood, the erstwhile Bishop of Southwark, joined in a round table discussion over Christmas lunch with Ken Dodd and John Betjeman. The Church Times’s radio critic of the day, Norman Hare, listened in to one live phone-in with Archbishop Coggan, who suggested that he did not mind being addressed as “Your Grace, Archbishop, or just Donald.” His next caller “could not have heard, as he addressed him as Your Lord”, Hare wrote.

John Forrest A schedule for the opening day of LBC, on 8 October 1973

Non-Christian faiths also found platforms, and were held to the scrutiny of the phone-in audience. The Hare Krishna movement, the Lord’s Day Observance Society, Scientologists, and the American guru Sri Chinmoy were among those who took up the challenge.

Today’s frenzied debates on social-media platforms were decades in the future, but phone-ins gave opportunities for issues to be exposed and debated in a public arena through moderated and relatively courteous exchanges.

The Abortion Act and the Sexual Offences Act had both been passed five years previously, and occasioned provocative discussion among Christians and other religious groups. People with various views came into the studio, often finding themselves at a table next to those who were promoting opposing views. Violence in Northern Ireland and its spread to the mainland were often part of the news agenda, and issues were reflected in the programming. The regular “Religious World” news section featured a moving interview with Fr Des Wilson, a controversial Roman Catholic priest from Ballymurphy.

Religion met contemporary culture in the early 1970s through the West End musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Their creators came in. So did the Revd Garth Hewitt, who reviewed the latest releases on the burgeoning Christian music scene each month. Journalists from national and denominational newspapers and religious press offices broadcast regularly, either to review the religious press or to present one of the daily one-minute “Final Thoughts.” The Church Times’s news editor of the time was a regular contributor.

The production team was tiny, and mostly voluntary, but it contained talented people who went on to have significant broadcasting futures: Justin Phillips became a senior editor on Radio 4’s World Tonight, and then Head of Heritage at the BBC; the voice of Nick Page became nationally known on Radio 2. Even our phone operator, Gordon Radley, became a highly successful TV presenter with Anglia and Sky TV.

When the programmes were cut in a round of cost-saving measures in 1975, Mr Page took over with a team of willing and talented volunteers. They included the Revd Cindy Kent, familiar already for her pop music and BBC work, and, in more recent years, known for her association with Premier Christian radio.

THE fledgling prospect of religious broadcasting on commercial radio was eventually stifled by arguments about “the market”. But there was little vigorous support or understanding of innovative religious broadcasting in significant religious quarters. A few brave souls still fight on today, and some of them produce spectacular work.

But the development of broadcast media over the years means that, outside the BBC, creating a “religious” programme is more likely to be left to religious organisations with partisan or even vested interests. In the noise of today’s social- media audio-visuals, we are noticing a diminished public square. I hope that there is still time to champion public-service-focused local radio, on which diverse religious ideas from a variety of faith backgrounds can find a common platform and be respectfully presented and explored.

John Forrest is a former radio and television producer. He is based in Hertfordshire and makes films.

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