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Radio in Hastings

Part 1

Written By Andy Bantock

If you drive into Hastings on the A259, you’ll pass a sign that proudly proclaims that the town is the ‘Birthplace of Television’. It’s a slightly exaggerated claim as Baird had already developed his TV system elsewhere – it was shown in public for the first time in Hastings. Furthermore it was not Baird’s, but another system entirely that became the basis for what we use today.

That notwithstanding, Hastings has a proud history in the field of broadcast media. It was one of the first places to have cable television (remember that rotary switch on the wall?). Hastings, for its size, has also had an amazing selection of short-term radio stations (RSL’s) in the past couple of decades, probably the best known of which is Hastings Rock, which has just finished yet another 28 day broadcast; 21 years since its first.

Hastings’ topography makes it rather radio wave unfriendly. With a high inland ridge and low-lying coastal fringe, it was effectively shielded from good reception of the main BBC stations. Until the advent of national commercial networks like Classic FM spurred on the Corporation to install a transmitter at the Hastings New Town TV site. Most people can listen to the national networks in Hastings now and the AM transmitter at Bexhill means that local reception of BBC 5 Live and Absolute (Virgin as was) isn’t bad.

The BBC started its network of local radio stations in the late 1960’s and, what started out as BBC Brighton in 1968 later (and with the addition of another transmitter), became BBC Radio Sussex and then BBC Southern Counties (combining Sussex and Surrey), finally ending up as BBC Sussex. Its name suggests a county-wide service but, as many listeners complain, it’s still very Brighton-centric and, in any case, coverage on FM has never been that good in Hastings.

After the demise of the offshore pirate stations in 1968, commercial radio arrived on a legal basis in the UK in the early 1970’s with LBC and Capital Radio. Stations popped up all over the UK initially offering a very wide ranging programme schedule but, as time moved on, narrowing down to very specific formats aimed at a particular demographic to make advertising sales easier.

In 1989, Southern Sound, based in Portslade and serving Brighton and parts of West Sussex, won a licence to cover East Sussex from transmitters at Heathfield and (unlike the BBC) Hastings. Initially the service was run from studios in Eastbourne, with local adverts fed to the Hastings transmitter. With eventual de-localisation, the Eastbourne studio soon closed and everything came from Portslade, as it does to this day under the Heart Sussex banner.

In the late 1990s the then Radio Authority advertised a tranche of licences known by the acronym SALLIEs (Small Scale Alternative Location Licence). Whereas previous, bigger, licences had been advertised for specific towns or cities, the SALLIE application allowed a potential station to select a site from within a wider geographical area.

In Hastings both the Hastings Rock group and a rival, Conqueror Broadcasting, applied for a licence to cover the town. Conqueror were ultimately successful and launched as Arrow FM on Good Friday, 10th of April 1998, from studios in the then recently built Priory Meadow shopping centre.

Early on, under the direction of Mark Briggs, Arrow did serve the local area well but, within three years the station had been sold to Radio Investments (later to become The Local Radio Company - TLRC) and local programming started to decline. TLRC owned stations all around the UK, including Sovereign in Eastbourne and Arrow, and much of the non-daytime programmes ended up coming from Stoke-on-Trent!

In 2009 TLTC sold Arrow and Sovereign to Media Sound Holdings, owners of Splash FM in Worthing and Bright FM in Haywards Heath. The death-knell for local radio in Hastings came in 2010 when the communications regulator Ofcom approved Media Sound Holdings’ request to share all programming across their four stations. The Hastings studios closed down and all programmes come from Worthing, with local advertising and ‘idents’ automatically inserted to create the illusion of localness.

So, Hastings is left with no real local radio station. When they say it’s raining outside, it could well be bright sunshine in Hastings given our propensity for a local microclimate! In fact, to avoid such faux-pas, the presenter will shy away from mentioning anything local, so we end up with a homogenous mix of bland generalisations!

Our only respite comes twice a year with Hastings Rock, for 28 days in May, and Carnival FM, for eleven days in August. Both short-term stations are bedded in the community: they are based in Hastings and the presenters travel through the town to get there. Which means, when they talk about local things, they really know what they are talking about.

So why, do you ask, can we not have the likes of Hastings Rock, or Carnival FM, 365 days a year? Well, put simply, the communications regulator Ofcom won’t let us because, according to them, there are insufficient frequencies available. Ofcom would also point to the fact that they advertised Community Radio licences in 2007, but no-one from Hastings applied.

We’ll turn to a more in-depth history of small-scale radio locally and what might happen in the future for radio in Hastings next time.

Andy Bantock runs a locally based broadcast radio consultancy, specialising in Community and small-scale radio, handling both technical and programming issues

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