From Educare’s Random Subjects Made Simple No. 52 – Long wave goodbye Radio 4 Wednesday, March 6th, 2013
Picture the scene – the last words of the 7 o’clock news bulletin are read, the continuity announcer says a phrase that’s been heard on British radio for the last 62 years, ‘And now, the Archers.’ But just as the first bar of the jaunty theme tune comes to a close, there’s a pop, and nothing but crackly silence comes out of the radio receiver.
No, an alien invasion hasn’t wiped out Broadcasting House, nor has an earthquake swallowed London. What’s more, the Aldridges, the Grundys, the Woolleys and all the denizens of Ambridge will continue their adventures elsewhere. But for the 90,000 households, the ships and overseas listeners who rely on Radio 4 Longwave for their access to The Archers, the Shipping Forecast, and of course Test Match Special, that’s what the end will sound like…if it comes at 7.03pm on a weeknight, that is.
Because of the strength of Longwave transmission, all BBC Radio 4 LW programming is broadcast from just one set of huge 700ft transmitters in Droitwich. The Droitwich transmission station was established in 1934 to serve the fledgling BBC radio service. During the war, the station was used to transmit to occupied Europe, including sending encoded messages to resistance organisations in France and elsewhere. When peace returned, it too returned to civilian use and has been transmitting BBC programming ever since.
But these days, the station hasn’t changed significantly since the early 60’s. Using 1960’s technology has its drawbacks, and that’s why our 90,000 Archers-lovers might be worried – the station uses a pair of giant electronic valves to function properly. However, they can no longer be produced, there are less than 10 of these valves left in the world, and the BBC owns them all. Each should last between one and ten years, but they fail periodically at uncertain intervals, and when the last-but-one valve blows, it will leave its counterpart unable to regulate the transmission properly. Radio 4 LW will fall silent, and for the first time in over 85 years, the BBC will no longer transmit on or around 198khz.
The thing is, nobody knows when this might happen, so transmission could be cut short at any time. Most worryingly, should a captain of one of Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines believe Britain to be destroyed, one of the last checks he carries out before he launches his missiles is to listen for Radio 4 LW. Let’s hope the Royal Navy have invested in some digital radios.