If you popped Radio 4 on this morning, chances are the famous Today programme filled your living room. From the dulcet tones of wounded politicians to atrocious racing tips, the morning news magazine is arguably British radio’s most well-known show, with 7.18 million listeners a week according to the latest RAJAR figures.
But did you know that as well as excoriating slippery MPs, the tech behind Today, and Radio 4, plays a key part in the defence of Britain’s shores? Read on and we’ll tell you just how Humphrys and co keep our boys in the loop about any attacks on Blighty.
While chances are us tech types are tuning into Radio 4 on our DAB radios, or listening again on BBC iPlayer, some of you out there may still like to get your daily dose of The Archers on Radio 4 Long Wave. Found at 198 on the AM signal, this version of Radio 4 broadcasts the shipping forecast, the Daily Service and the cricket Test Match Special. But it’s Radio 4 Long Wave that’s at the core of our national security.
See, this frequency can be picked up by all four of Britain’s nuclear submarines, deep under the blue at secret locations around the globe. Word is that if the captains of these Trident-armed subs can’t tune into Britain’s flagship morning radio show for three consecutive days, then they know the UK is done for and it’s time to break out the codes and fire off the deadly weapons. These codes are stashed in a lock box and handwritten by the Prime Minister and are only to be opened when Radio 4 falls silent.
This juicy gossip was first revealed in The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War 1945 to 1970, written by eminent historian Peter Hennessy. Understandably, it’s not without controversy. Some claim that because Hennessy has failed to reveal the source for his information that it’s all largely nonsense.
Yet when Today went off the air briefly during a fire alarm at BBC Broadcasting House in November 2003, word is there was panic amongst the admiralty, as Trident subs tried to discover why the show had gone down. The 15 minute hiatus obviously didn’t cause too much a public stink, but you can be sure the Beeb wouldn’t want a similar incident happening again.
Yet it’s not just nuclear subs that use Radio 4’s 198 frequency for something other than checking the score at Lord’s and seeing how the weather is off Malin Head. Old-school radio-teleswitching (RTS) electricity meters, designed to check when cheap electricity is available during so-called Economy 7 off-peak hours, also uses Auntie’s long-wave channel.
But times are changing. Economy 7 users who move into new houses are now getting digital meters rather than old-school RTS ones, while Radio 4 Long Wave itself is starting a ‘long goodbye’ with the growth of internet and digital services now meaning it’s become far more niche than before.
While the service will continue on digital and online platforms, the 198 frequency is on its way out. Earlier this year the BBC was forced to buy up the 10 remaining glass valves that transmit the 198 signal. Once they go, which experts says could be by the end of the decade, Radio 4 Long Wave as we know it will fall silent.
That may not be an issue as more areas of the country get digital radio access. But for the Navy’s nuclear subs, it could mean looking for new ways to work out whether we’ve suffered a major attack back at home.