Atlantic 252 presenter Dave James, Tuesday 29th October, 2002
I SPENT much of Friday looking down a microscope, thanking the good monk Mendel for his laws of genetics and the relative ease with which I can discover many interesting things. I divided hundreds of flies by phenotype (and, because of the brilliance of balancer chromosomes, by genotype also) so that I could set up genetic crosses that will, with any luck, start to produce some results by Christmas. In order to keep up my attention throughout, the fly room was graced by the sound of BBC Radio 4, from 9am through to 7pm (with a brief change of station at 5pm when I decided I didn't need to hear the same news a fourth time). There was Desert Island Discs with Anthony Julius (I liked his choices of Chicago and little Stevie Wonder). There was the final reading of the excellent book of the week, The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler. I wandered off through Woman's Hour but came back in time for The Richest Man in Britain, The Archers and Gardener's Question Time. I almost felt intellectual by the end of the day.
What surprised me, however, were the frequent referrals of listeners to Radio 4's long wave output. I knew that this was where the cricket commentary is often relayed, but I knew of no other purpose for it. Nor, for that matter, do I know of any shop that sells long wave radios anymore. Why do the BBC still broadcast on something the majority of people can no longer receive?
It turns out that the BBC's 198 LW output focuses on the cricket, the shipping forecast, news from Westminster and Christian worship and services. Out of hours, 198 LW is also used to broadcast the World Service within the UK. I love that the BBC still bothers to do this. In a world where things must be relevant, the majority of the BBC's audience have no need for this: they can pick up FM broadcasts or DAB digital streams. But think of trawlermen and sailors, who do not have access to the Internet and who are too far away to receive good quality FM broadcasts. Without long wave they would be isolated, detached from the goings on in the UK. There's is a voice that would be barely heard if this service were removed, and the BBC could pull the plug easily. But the trawlermen are still catered for: the shipping forecast takes precedence over everything on air, even the cricket.
The only other thing I knew about long wave was Atlantic 252. I remember listening to this occasionally when I was little - I'm not sure why - and remember wondering the same about the access of the station: who on earth would listen to pop music through crackling AM radio? I wondered if yachts in the Azores were partying in the sun, if fishermen were having a bop and a boogie in the lull and swell of the stormy Atlantic Ocean. I pictured glitter balls hanging from the rigging.
On Friday, I suddenly wondered if you could still receive the station. Is there still a pop service for those lost at sea, a last broadcast to lonely sailors, moonwalking and mastering the Macarena?
Atlantic 252 hit the airwaves in 1989, at a cost of £6 million, as a collaboration with Radio Luxembourg. It had a catchment of 47 million potential listeners, reaching out over Ireland (it was broadcast from Mornington House in Trim, County Meath) and the UK. At its peak it pulled in 4 million listeners, and could be received as far away as Moscow, Finland and even Brazil. The first song to be played was Sowing the Seeds of Love by Tears for Fears.
All across the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea there were literally some sailors doing little dances, being generally loving and getting on down at night.
But popularity declined and, sadly, owners CLT (now RTL) pulled out of UK radio in 2002. Atlantic 252 ceased transmission. It was bought out by the TeamTalk 252 project, which failed after six months. 252 LW is now used by RTÉ Radio 1, the frequency the only Irish-broadcast LW band. Long wave is an ever-dwindling resource, only really now used in Europe, Mongolia and Russia and for marine navigation.
I never really listened to Atlantic 252, but I liked the fact that it existed. It was a victim of the modern age and changes in media requirements and demand. I feel sorry for the sailors.
See also: On The Eire
A reunion for the 20th anniversary of Atlantic 252 was held on the 12th September 2009 in Trim. If anyone knows how that went, I would be interested to know.