Metro Radio's studios at Radio House, Longrigg, Swalwell, Gateshead, NE99 1BB.

"History is The Ship Carrying Living Memories to The Future", Mark White, Billingham, 2008.

Metro Radio, the Independent Local Radio (ILR) station for the Tyne and Wear area was
launched at 6.00am on July 15, 1974.

It was the sixth such station to begin broadcasting in the UK, and the official name of the programme contractor appointed by the regulator, the Independent Broadcasting  Authority (IBA), was Metropolitan Broadcasting Limited (MBC).  Metropolitan Broadcasting was to contracted to supply local programmes initially between 6.00am and 2.00am the following morning.

The new studios were located on a light industrial estate at  Radio House, Longrigg, Swalwell on the southern bank of the River Tyne, slightly west of Gateshead.  Metro Radio was to broadcast on two frequencies, 261 metres medium wave (1151 kHz AM) and 97.0 MHz VHF FM in stereo.

The first programme to be broadcast was The Breakfast Show with Don Dwyer, an Australian who, along with Giles Squire, another presenter had been recruited from the United Biscuits Network (UBN). The co-presenter was Harry Rowell who had previously worked in the News Department of Tyne Tees Television.

First Breakfast Show Video with Don Dwyer.  There is also footage of Radio House, Longrigg, Swalwell, Gateshead and the newsroom, plus an interview with the first Managing Director, Bruce Lewis.

The station was to reflect life in Tyne and Wear, south Northumberland and north County Durham, and unlike many fledgling ILR stations of the time, pop music and entertainment were to be of less importance in its programme schedules.  Indeed, its early schedules relied heavily on speech-based programmes, such as news, and costly-to-produce dramas, children's programmes and documentaries. MBC's first Programme Controller (PC) was Peter Lewis.

Metropolitan Broadcasting sounded very much like a local version of a cross between BBC local radio, BBC Radio 2 and Radio 4 (without the benefit of the licence fee), and although the output was highly innovative it produced disappointing audiences, and was thus unsustainable financially.  Young people in particular opted to stay listening to Radio 1 and Radio Luxembourg.

Presenter Giles Squire in Metro Radio's Studio 2 at Radio House, Longrigg, Swalwell, Gateshead.
However, the station's presenters and promotions team were often to be seen at outside events where listeners could pick up  a whole range of station merchandise such as badges, car stickers, sun visors and T-shirts.

At large events such as the Tyneside Summer Exhibition on the Town Moor in Newcastle, the radio station would have a huge marquee where live broadcast with requests and interviews would be undertaken.

Early days at Metropolitan Broadcasting  with part of the first line-up of presenters from 1974. From left to right: Don Dwyer, Giles Squire,Len Groat and Harry Rowell.
By December 1974 however, the station was forced to undertake a dramatic change in its output to gain a respectable market share of listeners.

One of the Metro Radio promotions staff at an outside
Despite the change to a slightly more pop music and slightly less speech-orientated station, Metro Radio was stifled by IBA needle time restrictions and excessive talk programming. Its original contractual agreement drawn up with the IBA in 1973, required the programme contractor to broadcast significant quantities of BBC Radio 4-type programmes.

The objectives of the IBA, the regulator of the early decades of ILR can be regarded in many senses as being almost diametrically opposed to the development of a financially viable network. The regulator itself was empowered by Home Office Minister Christopher Chattaway's Sound Broadcasting Act,1972 to ensure that the independent radio network envisaged along with its individual programme contractors such as Metro Radio in the north east possessed a balanced output, in particular offering programmes relevant to all sections of the community.  Indeed ILR was often criticised in this for 'being all things to all people'.
Original presenter Peter Wraight
who emigrated to the United

Practically, these regulations manifested themselves in restrictions concerning 'needle time' (the amount of recorded music featured in a station's output, usually in that time period on LPs, '45' rpm singles or tape media). The regulator also demanded that programme contractors broadcast a range of  specialist musical genre programmes (such as classical, heavy rock, folk music, live music), religious programmes, sports programmes and documentaries.  There were also stringent limits on the amounts of advertising an ILR station could broadcast - nine minutes in any 'clock hour'.

Effectively this prevented Metro from being able to resonate as a consistent sounding radio station.

A superb American PAMS Productions Inc. jingle package, The North East Sound was sourced by presenter Len Groat under Director of Programmes (PD), Geoff Coates. Back in the seventies the PD was a radio company director in every sense with a share holding (unlike the PDs of today who are not strictly speaking actual company directors).

Regarding general changes to Metro Radio's general station sound at this time, Len Groat states that for its first six months the station allowed presenters to personally choose all of the music for their programmes. By the end of 1974, however, a weekly meeting had been instigated between the station's main presenters and Geoff Brown the Librarian. At this meeting, a playlist would be formulated containing a selection of chart and recent singles. All oldies however, continued to be the personal choice of presenters.

The PAMS jingle pack was only broadcast for only a couple of years before an alliance of the IBA and the Musician’s Union forced Metro Radio to ‘buy British’. And of course, the surplus of minority interest and specialist shows, speech-based documentaries and dramas continued to throttle any growth in listenership.

Len Groat presents an outside broadcast from the
main windows of Jopling's Department Store in
Sunderland in March 1975, while members of the public 
look on in great interest.
Giles Squire, for example, continued to use his own PAMS jingle for another year after the ban, but the IBA were monitoring the output of the station continuously. Programme Controllers came; and went. Out went Geoff Coates as Director of Programmes and in came Mic Johnson, initially as Programme Organiser. 

Kevin Rowntree was Director of News, but during this period there was extraordinarily no Director of Programmes, which reveals an insight into the confused thinking and lack of priorities within the Metropolitan Broadcasting Company at the time. It also explains why the radio station broadcast such lengthy news bulletins one on the hour and another on the half hour. In
Giles Squire with Metro Radio outside broadcast vehicle.
retrospect it was far too much.

Giles in 2014 recently stated that during this time difficult time,

We very slowly built an audience against a back-drop of still sounding like Radio 4 meets Radio 2 with a bit of Radio 3 and very little Radio 1.

They were very tough times. We had a newsroom with thirteen journalists in total. We had five technical operators, at least three producers and all sorts of other roles apart from presenters.  James Whale, Peter Wraight and Maggie Mash were actually hired to be continuity announcers. We were trying to be audio television. How could any local radio station hope to make money with thinking like that?

Metro Radio was in fact haemorrhaging money aplenty; lots of it, and very quickly too.

Then came the first of many painful emergency measures and changes necessary if the radio station was to survive at all: Bruce Lewis who was the first Managing Director left the company and Neil Robinson took over. Shortly after this, both Metro Radio and Beacon Radio 303 (ILR Wolverhampton/West Midlands) had come to the attention of the IBA for their increased proportions of recorded music, and certainly in the case of the latter, their American soft-rock and pop sound.

There then followed a couple of years without a coherent direction incorporating a whole series of false dawns and different influences. These included that of Tim Burge, a Canadian radio consultant, who introduced music clocks and an overall station playlist (Metro Radio did not possess such a playlist as such up to this point). He also steered Metro Radio towards a softer approach with the tagline Gentle on Your Mind. Seventies presenter and future Programme Director Giles Squire takes up the story:

" was awful in retrospect. Although Metro's rating improved a little, it was not until we killed
Giles Squire's Pearson Garage-sponsored SAAB car.
off all that speech and took BBC Radio 1 on head to head that we really began to take off.. I remember the day we made the decision..It was after we had undertaken a great deal of research which suggested that a local station could never ever beat Radio One... well that was like a red rag to a bull.

We said 'OK not now but if we changed we could' and it worked! I have simplified the story but you must understand at no part of the day did Metro ever beat Radio One in those days (at night we did with James Whale but the audience was tiny and Radio One was not on at night as such)... and it was the show 'Chartwise' at 4pm which was the first to break the strangle hold. 

After that we starting winning all over the place....Ironically it was Steve Wright who was beaten first...The concept of Chartwise was a different chart each day..We had four ideas immediately.. A local one, the national the midweek and the USA...I remember finding a chart called the Europarade and contacting TROS in Holland to ask them if we could broadcast it...They said yes and even tried to help us source the songs but quite often I used to fly to Holland on a day trip and buy the singles myself."

Metro returned to the The North-East Sound format, but it took a large number of redundancies in 1982 to finally place the station on a sound financial footing and into profit.

However, before this was allowed to happen, the changes resulted in the station facing ill-judged industrial action. Unbeknown to the strikers, the station management soon realised that Metro Radio could broadcast just as effectively with most of the technical and journalist staff absent. As an unintended consequence of the strike, in the months ahead even more staff were made redundant.

Brian Clough interviews legendary singer Johnny Cash
for his specialist 'Country Jamboree' country and western
programme in the late 1970s.
Simultaneously to the staffing changes most speech-only programmes were scrapped as were lengthy news bulletins. The principle of incorporating all of Metro’s needle time into the front end of the day and making our own versions of songs to play late at night was also terminated. These changes meant even more trouble with the state regulator, the IBA, but the management were resolute and by 1984, the station finally became Number One in the North East.

The role of regulation is a difficult one and is finely balanced. Too much and creativity, innovation and profitability are stifled. Too little and again although profitability and shareholder dividends increase, creativity and innovation may well decrease. This is often coupled to less choice for the consumer or listener with ensuing buy-outs, mergers, syndication and the possibility of cartels.

The first decade of Metro Radio’s existence is a graphic case in point of the former; over-bearing and excessive state intervention. This is exemplified by the fact that Metro had an immense and impossible struggle to meet its remit of broadcasting a range of programmes and yet return a profit for shareholder investment. Despite many attempts to liven the output, including those wonderful PAMS jingles and a more Top 40-style approach, it was not until the mid-eighties that the station began to dominate the North-East, with carefully focused music.

Innovation followed; it was also one of the very first ILR stations, if not the first to introduce a computerised music scheduling system. This replaced a very time consuming, tedious and antiquated manual system. It was also one of the first commercial radio stations to music test, apportioning significant amounts of time and funding to undertake audience research.

It had taken an immensely difficult and arduous decade to turn the radio station’s fortunes around.  But Metro Radio had survived. It would never look back.

Continue reading here about Metro's History: The 1980s

jump further ahead in time and read about Metro's History:The 1990s, GNR, Metro FM and Beyond
Listen to Metro Radio (FM) and Metro Radio 2 (AM) today (click either logo)


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