BBC Digital Radio

In this section we track the history of BBC Radio. On this page we look at the BBC's national digital radio stations. On other pages: Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, Radio 5/5 Live, local radio and nations radio.

DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) first launched on 27 September 1995 from five transmitters in the London region, with a simulcast of the BBC's five national networks, along the World Service, a feed from Parliament, and 5 Live Sports Plus. An additional service, BBC NOW, a ten minute loop of news and information, was also promised.

By 2002, the additional pilot services had disappeared, ready to be replaced by a line-up of permanent stations, proposed in 2000 under the codenames Network X, Network Y and Network Z. They would be joined by the Asian Network, while 5 Live Sports Plus made way for 5 Live Sports Extra, the first of the new digital stations to launch, on 2 February 2002. The remaining services are described below.


BBC Radio 6 Music

The BBC's first stand-alone digital-only station, 6 Music, aims to 'celebrate the spirit of alternative music', playing tracks from the 1960s to the present day. It launched on 11 March 2002 as a part of major foray into digital audio broadcasting to stimulate interest in the nascent DAB platform. At that time that very few people owned a DAB radio - it was expected that, initially, most listeners would be hearing the station via the internet.

The original driving force behind the station, codenamed Network Y, was the BBC's huge archive of session tracks and music documentaries, which would be plundered for the new network. The station also promised to give airtime to artists and styles of music that receive little airtime .

Comedian Phill Jupitus opened the station on its first day, and would continue to present the breakfast show for the next five years. The other weekday presenters were Gideon Coe, Liz Kershaw, Andrew Collins, Tom Robinson, Janice Long and Chris Hawkins - all of whom, except for Collins and Long, were still with the station fifteen years later.

Weekends included a rock show presented by Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, funk and soul from Craig Charles, and leftfield and experimental music in the Freak Zone. They were later joined by Gilles Peterson and his world music show, and electronic music in 6 Mix and Nemone's Electric Ladyland.

6 Music's most divisive presenter, George Lamb, took over the mid-morning show from Gideon Coe in October 2007. He presided over an inane cacophony which seemed totally at odds with what 6 Music was set up for. After a series of controversies, he was moved to a lower profile weekend breakfast slot in late 2009, before leaving the station altogether a few months later.

Throughout the 2000s, 6 Music had a small, but growing, listenership. However it was a very loyal listenership, who would prove vital when in February 2010 the BBC Executive announced plans to close the station. A high profile campaign to save 6 Music led to much increased listening figures and, ultimately, a reprieve when the BBC Trust rejected the closure plan.

Comedians such as Adam and Joe, Russell Brand, Russell Howard and Stephen Merchant were a fixture of the weekend schedule in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The station has increasingly used musicians to present shows, with the weekend line-up including names such as Catatonia's Cerys Matthews, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and Elbow's Guy Garvey, as well as Tom Robinson, Iggy Pop and Don Letts. Many other musicians and singers have provided cover to shows across the weekend.

In April 2011 Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie moved from an evening slot on Radio 2 to afternoons on 6 Music. It was the last major change to the station's schedule for several years, a long period of stability allowing listening figures to continue to grow to the extent that the station's audience now surpasses that of the much longer established Radio 3, and is consistently the most popular digital-only station in the UK.

Changes in 2019 will see Lauren Laverne replace Shaun Keaveny on the breakfast show, who in turn replaces Radcliffe and Maconie who move to weekend breakfast.

Click here to view the development of the 6 Music schedule in tabular form (opens in new window). Note that the dates across the top are not necessarily when the schedule shown came into effect; rather it is a 'snapshot' of the schedule at that time. To investigate past 6 Music schedules in greater depth, please visit the BBC Genome project (for years up to 2009) and BBC Schedules (covering 2007 onwards).


BBC Radio 1Xtra

Codenamed 'Network X', a name which was apparently considered for on-air use, the BBC's station covering black music launched in August 2002. The station was initially named simply 1Xtra (no BBC in the name, though it did appear in the logo).

The station originally broadcast a large number of specialist shows covering many genres, such as dancehall, garage, drum 'n' bass and Soca. Over the years these have gradually reduced in number.

Though the original line-up was made up mostly of largely unknown names, established presenters from Radio 1, Trevor Nelson and Tim Westwood, would later present weekday shows. Following the release of some less than impressive listening figures in 2010, Westwood bemoaned on air that he was "broadcasting to absolutely nobody...it's soul destroying". He left his drivetime slot in 2012.

In April 2011, the station was officially named 'BBC Radio 1Xtra', and from now on would work more closely with Radio 1. During the 2010s, the amount of output shared between the two stations has increased, with Saturday evening and some overnight programming going out on both, as does the late evening show, The 8th since 2017. News bulletins outside of breakfast, along with Newsbeat, are also simulcast between the two stations.

Click here to view the development of the 1Xtra schedule in tabular form (opens in new window). Note that the dates across the top are not necessarily when the schedule shown came into effect; rather it is a 'snapshot' of the schedule at that time. To investigate past 1Xtra schedules in greater depth, please visit the BBC Genome project (for years up to 2009) and BBC Schedules (covering 2007 onwards).


BBC Radio 4 Extra

The last of the BBC's new digital stations launched in December 2002. Codenamed 'Network Z', the station was named BBC7, omitting the word 'radio' as it was assumed that, at least at first, most listeners would be hearing the station via means other than a traditional radio.

Just as 6 Music was set up to raid the BBC's music archive, BBC7 would have the BBC's huge archive of classic radio comedy, drama and readings at its disposal.

BBC7 would also demonstrate a renewed commitment to children's programmes, which, by now, had disappeared altogether from national radio. The Big Toe Show and The Little Toe Show aired daily, aimed at school age children and pre-schoolers respectively. The Little Toe Show was rebranded as CBeebies Radio in 2007, in line with the BBC's pre-school channel on television.

The schedule also included a daily sci-fi slot, the Seventh Dimension, and at the weekend, the Comedy Controller enabled comedians to choose three hours of their favourite comedy gems from the archive.

Along with all the BBC's national stations, a new logo for BBC7 was introduced in 2007 which incorporated the word 'Radio', though the station was not officially renamed BBC Radio 7 until October 2008. However it wasn't the last time the station would find itself being rebranded.

In February 2010, a radical shake-up of the BBC's digital radio portfolio was announced. The most controversial proposals were for the closure of 6 Music and the Asian Network, but Radio 7 wouldn't escape unscathed - it would be rebranded as Radio 4 Extra, and would in future work more closely with its parent station, with greater cross-promotion between the two.

Listeners were dismayed at the prospect of the station being taken over by Radio 4 catch-up programming. In the event, the changes were not as drastic as feared, and the rebrand brought about a large increase in listeners. It remains the BBC's second most popular digital station after 6 Music.

Despite the name change, the Seventh Dimension remained as it was, and has often aired audio Doctor Who adventures produced by Big Finish.

Children's programmes were reduced - CBeebies Radio disappeared from the station altogether and became an online-only service, while the older children's output was reformatted as The 4 O'Clock Show with Mel Giedroyc. However, with the average age of the listener in their 60s, this was axed in 2015, leaving no children's programmes left on 4 Extra at all.


BBC Asian Network

The Asian Network can trace its history back to the start of programmes produced for the Asian community by BBC Radio Leicester in the 1970s. Over time, this programming grew and in October 1988 it was combined with BBC Radio WM's own Asian programming to create the original incarnation of the Asian Network.

In November 1996 this expanded to become a full-time station in its own right, available across parts of the Midlands on Radio WM and Leicester's former AM frequencies. A few years later, as part of the BBC's major expansion into digital audio broadcasting, it was proposed to take the station nationwide.

The BBC Asian Network launched nationally in October 2002, the only national network to broadcast from Birmingham. Between 2004 and 2010, it broadcast its own daily soap, Silver Street.

As with 6 Music, the Asian Network found itself under threat of closure in 2010, with the BBC citing the high cost and low audience figures of the station. The BBC Trust agreed that closure could go ahead, but only on the condition there would be replacement programming for the audience, which would most likely take the form of programmes on local radio (though how this would have worked in practice is unknown, as many BBC Local Radio stations already broadcast Asian programmes).

The BBC accountants soon figured that this would actually cost more, and the cheapest option was actually to keep the Asian Network open as a national network. And so the station would remain on air, albeit with a major cut in budget.

Schedule changes in 2018 saw overnight programming switch from Radio 5 Live to Radio 1Xtra, meaning that some nighttime programmes now air across three networks (Radio 1, 1Xtra and Asian Network).

Click here to view the development of the Asian Network schedule in tabular form (opens in new window). Note that the dates across the top are not necessarily when the schedule shown came into effect; rather it is a 'snapshot' of the schedule at that time. To investigate past Asian Network schedules in greater depth, please visit the BBC Genome project (for years up to 2009) and BBC Schedules (covering 2007 onwards).


Audio

From our YouTube channel, a playlist comprising 6 Music test transmissions and launch audio from 6 Music, 1Xtra and BBC7.



Links

BBC Radio 6 Music official site
BBC Radio 6 Music schedules at BBC Genome
BBC Radio 1Xtra official site
BBC Radio 1Xtra schedules at BBC Genome
BBC Radio 4 Extra official site
BBC7 schedules at BBC Genome
BBC Asian Network official site
BBC Asian Network schedules at BBC Genome
BBC Radio 6 Music Wikipedia entry
BBC Radio 1Xtra Wikipedia entry
BBC Radio 4 Extra Wikipedia entry
BBC Asian Network Wikipedia entry


Text copyright © Robert Williams, images and audio copyright © British Broadcasting Corporation