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Sounds of British Radio

Claire Stephens | Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Department of Film, Television, and Theatre and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts will present FTT Talks with Tony Stoller tonight. Stoller was the regulator of commercial radio in the UK until his retirement in 2006. He has just published the definitive history of the medium, in “Sounds of Your Life: The History of Independent Radio in the UK”, describing an experiment in blending commercial and public service which is unique in the English-speaking world.

A graduate of Cambridge University, Stoller was awarded a CBE by the Queen in 2003 for services to broadcasting. He is currently a member of the Centre for Broadcasting History Research and a visiting fellow at Bournemouth University’s media school, the editor of The Friends Quarterly and a member of both the UK’s Competition Commission and the Administrative Appeals Chamber in the UK’s information rights Tribunal. He will discuss the history and current state of radio in Britain and elsewhere.

Stoller first became interested in radio when he was given one in his youth, and after he left the University of Cambridge, he worked for a newspaper before he became a commercial radio regulator. As for his tastes in music on the radio, he grew up listening to Paul Simon and the Beatles, but his musical love was classical. He also listens to a lot of jazz and hopes to hear a lot of blues during his time in the Midwest — where he’ll undoubtedly be asked one question.

What do American accents sound like to the British?

“When I hear somebody with an American accent, it sounds energetic, it sounds lively and thrusting, and always courteous,” Stoller said. “There’s nobody more polite or courteous than a polite or courteous American.”

Stoller’s work in local radio began with Independent Local Radio (ILR). At that time, individual stations provided programs and signals to transmitters owned by the regulator. Such work entailed licensing new stations, checking broadcasting what license required and dealing with questions about advertising control and outlawing of sponsorship. In this very detailed work, he describes beginning to do bits rather than the whole thing as he did later on in his career.

In his book “Sounds of Your Life: The History of Independent Radio in the UK”, he discusses an experiment from 1973 onward that took a British model of radio and added on the American model of radio to find somewhat of a middle ground. This model worked well for more than a decade, with each station meant to be independent and funded by advertising.

In his talk, Stoller will also discuss the differences between American and British radio — two models that began in the 1920s as fundamentally and completely different. The American model, Stoller explains, consists of commercial radio stations funded by advertising, which led to commercial television. In Britain, however, the BBC was entirely state-owned and state-run.

“You listen to the radio while doing anything else, it’s always with you. Very simple, very inexpensive. It makes no demands at all on any resource, any number of people can listen to it,” Stoller said. “It’s always there, it’s very cheap, and when it works well, it tells you everything you need to know.”