BBC Wiltshire celebrates 30 years on air

By Ben Fitzgerald - 13 March 2019

CommunityBusinessArts and Culture

On April 4, BBC Wiltshire will celebrate its 30th birthday.
BBC publicist Jack Pitts recalls the launch:

It’s 5.55am on April 4, 1989, and a scrum of journalists are clutching their notebooks and pressing their cameras against the glass.

Inside the radio studio, the breakfast presenter of what would become BBC Wiltshire is about to utter the first words heard on 103–105FM.

“The seconds were counting down to 6am and I was quite nervous,” Paul Chantler recalls, nearly 30 years to the day later. “I was paranoid the first record would be in the wrong place, I must’ve checked that seven or eight times.

“The first track was The Carpenters – ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, a bit cheesy considering the time but it made sense.

“When I looked up after the song all the journalists had left and gone for breakfast – it was just me there!”

Fifteen minutes later the station held its first of countless competitions. All four phone lines lit up.

“I thought ‘brilliant, at least we’ve got four listeners!’” Paul said.

Three decades have passed since Paul first took to the airwaves.

Back then, the team would come into the Swindon studios each morning to a pile of tapes, each of which had been sliced and stuck together to create radio packages - interviews, sound bites and news reports. Even the jingles were played on small loops of tape.

Nearby would be another pile, this time of vinyl records.

And soon the newsroom would light up with the sound of clattering typewriters, reporters speaking into microphones and sports journalists getting the inside scoop on the phone.

Salisbury had originally been earmarked for the BBC’s Wiltshire HQ, but Swindon, a fast-growing town close to the M4, won the day.

A building on Prospect Place in Old Town which had been used for administration was gutted and revamped with studios, a newsroom, phone-in gallery and engineering room.

The building was renamed Broadcasting House, and would become the main home of the station for the next 30 years.

But although the station now had a home it did not have a name. The copyright for the name Radio Wiltshire had already been taken so the team settled on BBC Wiltshire Sound – with the slogan “parish pump and proud of it” and the white horse as its logo. It was many years before it was renamed ‘BBC Wiltshire’.

Broadcasting House soon became a hub for local news and the radio a daily companion to many Wiltshire people.

Thousands of locals have told their stories and given their opinions at Broadcasting House, along with a long list of famous names, including prime ministers, music royalty like Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, and stars from the stage and screen. In recent months,Giles and Mary from Gogglebox, astronaut Tim Peake and comedian Rory Bremner have all made appearances on air.

The station has also seen some slightly off the wall shows, including Gerry Hughes’ 1,558 episode-long run of Acrebury, which earned a Guinness World Record for the Longest-Running One Man Radio Soap Opera.

The station’s presenters often feel just as at home when away from home, and memorably there have been hundreds of events broadcast from across the county. Some of the standout moments include Symphony for the Spire at Salisbury Cathedral in 1991, the All Day Breakfast in Swindon in 2008, the Royal Wedding Party in Salisbury in 2018.

Amazingly, one of the original presenters is still at BBC Wiltshire 30 years on.

Graham Seaman presents the lunchtime show from midday to 2pm.

“Wiltshire has changed massively over those years. We’ve seen the expansion of Swindon, we’ve seen a lot of successful companies grow like Dyson, but then again in many ways it hasn’t – the culture remains as was,” he said.

“We’ve been in the same building that whole time, there’s been a lot of changes and modernisation, but we still had a record player in the studio until five years ago!”

For nearly 11,000 days BBC Wiltshire’s bulletins have kept the county up to speed with the latest news, sport, travel and weather.

They give the listeners a distilled version of what’s happening in Wiltshire. The reporting team cover everything from all-night elections counts to escaped convicts - and are always ready when important stories break, even the ones that send shockwaves around the UK like the Salisbury poisoning and the announcement that Honda plans to close its Swindon factory.

BBC Wiltshire assistant editor Shaun Hodgetts has covered Swindon Town FC for 35 years, including their unforgettable promotion to the Premier League in 1993.

“I’ve seen Swindon at their very best and their very worst – but there’s always a buzz covering them,” Shaun explained.

“What hasn’t changed as a journalist is having contacts. Having relationships with coaches and players really makes the difference.

“But it’s not just Swindon Town. We’ve been to Wembley with Chippenham, we cover the speedway, ice hockey and local stars in the Ryder Cup, Olympics & Paralympics.”

Every big birthday deserves a party, and BBC’s Wiltshire’s is no exception. 

Throughout 2019 presenter Ben Prater will be taking the station on the road with Ben’s Big Breakfast Tour, broadcasting live from 30 of Wiltshire’s most iconic locations.

Some of Wiltshire’s best known faces will be taking the reins at BBC Wiltshire as guest editors, including star of the Apprentice and Countdown Nick Hewer, TV archaeologist and historian Phil Harding, Olympic Swimmer Sharon Davies and actor Christopher Biggins. 

Then, on April 4 (the big day itself!), the breakfast show will broadcast live from Swindon College, where students will be cooking what may just be the biggest lardy cake the county has ever seen.

BBC Wiltshire is now run by its first permanent female editor, Mary Sanders. 

“It’s been wonderful for BBC Wiltshire to spend the last 30 years at the heart of the community in Swindon and Wiltshire – covering major news events and celebrating the incredible achievements of people living in the county,” she said. “As well as the big stand out moments, listeners talk to us every day and have a wonderful connection with our presenters. They share stories they haven’t told anyone else, they laugh with us, they cry with us and they inspire us to make great radio for them. We hope our listeners enjoy celebrating this 30th year with us, and we look forward to the next 30!”

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