The Sad State of British-Made Radio Broadcast Equipment Manufacturing

I am currently refurbishing three radio broadcast desks at the moment: Two are Sonifex Sovereign MX25 models, the third is a Soundcraft Series 10.

Now Sonifex are still going strong, in fact they have expanded many-fold in recent years, with an ever-increasing range of products; they are most definitely the exceptional success story in what was once, relative to the size of the market, a buoyant industry. Soundcraft on the other hand, in terms of radio studio kit: Who remembers them?

 Add ASC, MBI, Alice Stancoil (later to morph into Alice Soundtech) Audionics, Neve, Tweed and Clyde Electronics and you have a list of equipment producers that are either defunct or gone through re-organisations or rebirths.

Along with Sonifex, only Glensound continue to produce top-quality radio broadcast related kit in any volume, but, frankly, it’s rare to see the latter’s products in any volume outside the BBC.

When I entered the industry in the mid ‘80s, you had a varied choice to suit both application and budget. Entry level desks from Soundcraft, such as the Spirit Folio SI, a mid-range choice, such as that work-horse, the Alice Air 2000, to high end with the Prima from Clyde Electronics or MBI’s Series 24.

Where it all began for me in 1986: Southern Sound Radio, Brighton

Sonifex cart machines (UK), MBI Series 24 desk (UK), GPO Key and Lamp unit (UK), EMT 950 Turntable (German)

Note the lack of screens!

ASC would fill-in the studio kit gaps with modified versions of the Revox PR99, studio clocks, speakers and a lovely little OB mixer, the Minx (of which I still have one).

Cart machines? Well, unless you had cash to burn and bought ITC or Tomcat from the US, Sonifex was the de-facto machine. In fact, I am reliably informed that the staff at Sonifex have the IBA to thank for the company swimming pool that was built at their Irthlingborough factory: As a result of a change in regulations allowing ILR stations to broadcast different programmes on different frequencies or transmitters, known as “spilt programming”, Sonifex found itself receiving large orders for their HSX cart machines. Whereas, previously, a studio required around six or so of these machines to play jingles, trails and adverts, now they needed twice that number to cope with split breaks. In fact, I know of one group of stations that was so mad keen on splitting its AM/FM platforms that it had a dedicated operator just to load the advert carts into the numerous machines! It was no surprise then, that it was one of the first to consider a (very expensive) PC based system to replace all those HSX’s.

Paying for Sonifex's Swimming Pool: HS Cart Machines and recorder unit top left

You could get phone-in systems from UK based Austin Taylor – those two white keypads with their red and yellow buttons would be found in both BBC and commercial stations the country over. And Telecaster was the replacement for that GPO, UK built “key and lamp” system – those of a certain age will remember those!

The racks room was, depending on the organisation, dominated by either silver BBC designed and produced “coded-equipment” or, for the commercial sector, yellow GPO, UK built and supplied products.

But I am not listening through nostalgic headphones when I regale this stuff. Of course, there was kit we used that was made outside these shores. For instance, we never really managed to make a decent open-reel tape recorder in this country. We tried and, the BBC bought some from EMI and Leevers-Rich, but the domination of better built Swiss and cheaper Japanese-made products was inevitable.

But today, we have reached the sad state-of-affairs that, if you are selecting equipment for any standard of radio studio, the choices are both limited overall and, of concern, hardly anything is made in this country now. In these post Brexit times I am not banging the “little Englander” drum in writing this blog. I know we are living in a multi-national, connected-market World and that other countries see the UK as just another place to do business.

So, I ask, if they do, then why aren’t we doing the same? We have the skills and vision and the market is so much larger, in terms of station numbers, than it was 30 years ago.

If we did, then maybe we would still have a vibrant, multi-vendor radio broadcast equipment sector like them?

Over to you.

Iain Betson