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Thursday, 4 October, 2007

Because of the stuff to which I pay attention, I am getting two stories over and over.

  • 4 October marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first man-made object to successfully orbit Earth. A “basketball-sized” artificial satellite was launched as a by product of a Soviet program developing a system to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States. In order to verify and track the satellite, it was primarily a radio transmitter broadcasting 6 MHz (49M) at 2 watts. This frequency happens to be in a particularly popular shortwave band.

    Within minutes reports of a mysterious signal started to come in from ham operators, BBC Monitoring and other such services around the world. TASS issued the infamous announcement of the first artificial satellite within six hours initially through the Radio Moscow service to the Americas, oddly enough, broadcasting nearby at 6.020 MHz. [Other sources say 6.010, but it was close enough for the satellite to cause interference during the two-hour program.] It was this report which named the satellite “Sputnik” meaning, essentially, “companion”.

    This event popularized the suffix -nik (“one who does”, corresponding to -er in English) in American English for a short time. The only word coined in that time which persists today is “beatnik”.

    Von Braun launched the first man-made objects which, by modern definition, reached space. Details remain obscure, but the first such launches may have occurred as early as 1942. These projectiles did not orbit.

    The orbit of Sputnik was rather chaotic by modern standards, but due to the broad coverage of the space-based system one could tune into the signal every four hours (98, 113 or 119 minutes per orbit [depending upon source], covering parts of the northern or southern hemisphere each pass, and covering the opposing areas on the following pass) for approximately three minutes. Due to the relative obscurity of recording devices at that time very few original recordings survive. The recordings you have heard with regard to coverage of this anniversary are:

    • a recreation commissioned by CBS News to illustrate their radio and television broadcasts
    • an actual recording, possibly one of multiple recordings, made by BBC Monitoring keen to the importance of the feat
    • a recording released by the Soviets which is believed to be of an identical unit, possibly a backup system, produced terrestrially.

    Conspicuously missing from the coverage of the Sputnik anniversary is a longing for mankind’s return to space.

  • Before October 1967, the BBC provided three national radio services. What gaps were found in the services, particularly popular music and political programs, were covered by the “Pirate” broadcasters operating transmitters mostly in the North Sea, but always beyond the seven-mile limit. The passage in July, 1967 of the “Marine Broadcasting Offences Act” gave BBC and the Royal Navy jurisdiction over these stations. Most of these stations shut down immediately, others attempted to move to terrestrial transmitters in other nations. Radio Caroline, for instance, moved their transmitters to The Netherlands.

    Many popular voices of the pirate era moved to Radio Luxembourg, most notably Maurice “Kenny Everett” Cole, with studios in London their transmissions commenced from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg on LW (“the great 208”) and later shortwaves to all of Europe and the Americas. Manx Radio played a smaller role. Almost the entire staff of Radio London moved unexpectedly to the BBC itself. Among them John “Peel” Ravenscroft who had a modest but notable career in Dallas, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles and had only joined Radio London the previous spring. John Peel was personally responsible for connecting the jingle monger PAMS with Radio London providing the jingles which became world famous by way of becoming included on The Who Sell Out an album released that year. He served a similar role with the BBC as they launched their new service.

    Existing BBC services included The Light Programme, The Music Programme, focusing on Classical music but renamed the Third Programme upon the inclusion of educational content in 1964, and The Home Service focusing upon news and current events, analogous to NPR’s national, contemporary programming in the US.

    At Eight in the morning on September 30, 1967 following rather modest fanfare, the Light Programme’s frequencies were split between two services, the Light Programme continued under the name Radio 2, and the new youth-targeted popular music service Radio One. The other services continued with new names, Home becoming Radio 4 and Third becoming, astonishingly, Radio 3. These, however, were not full-time services as the names may imply. The services would share transmitter time regionally, often to the dismay of rural listeners hoping to listen to a program announced previously, but not available due to local time allotments.

    On this day the BBC Overseas Service switched to the name “BBC World Service”, although no other significant changes are recorded.

    This split is regarded as a key moment in the development within the broadcasting industry. For the first time, the content available per frequency had become rather specific. As the years wore on, programs became even more targeted to specific, anticipated audiences. That is, the “format” as the term is used in North America today was unintentionally invented.

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