Radio Birdsong
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Birdsong Radio Story

The Story of Radio Birdsong

The original recording was made for a 1991 production of Raymond Briggs’ play about nuclear war, ‘When the Wind Blows’.   Using a portable digital audio tape (DAT) recorder, birdsong and other country sounds were recorded over several days in the rural Wiltshire garden of radio engineer and broadcaster Quentin Howard.   Hours of recordings were digitally remixed to create a 40 minute ‘audio soundscape’ –  layers of sound-upon-sound capturing the calls and patterns of different birds and country images.  

In July 1992, the new national radio station Classic FM, which was built by Quentin, was nearing completion. He decided to use the birdsong recordings to test the transmitter network over the summer months, prior to Classic FM's launch on 7th September 1992.  Millions of listeners heard the continuous broadcast of birdsong, interrupted every 30 minutes by the required statutory announcements (also voiced by Quentin).  It was the first time anything like this had been heard on radio and it immediately captured the attention of press and public alike.  Brian Johnston, the famous broadcaster and cricket commentator, mentioned it during Test Match Special, much to the angst of the BBC!  Soon every newspaper carried stories about the sound of birds whilst media pundits and rivals were desperately trying to figure out what the real sound of Classic FM was going to be once it launched.   Birdsong test transmissions turned out to be the best publicity Classic FM could ever have wished for, maintaining the secrecy and enigma of the new radio station whilst attracting much publicity. Classic FM's PR company admitted it was the best publicity they hadn't thought of themselves.   

Several years later in 1999, Quentin Howard created the UK's first national commercial DAB network, Digital One, and the birdsong tapes were used again for a few weeks prior to launch. However, there were very few DAB radios back then and so not too many people heard the birds. 

In 2005 the Birdsong returned briefly to DAB and when it was removed letters appeared in The Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail demanding its return.   In 2007 OneWord, a DAB radio station on the Digital One network, ceased broadcasting and the birdsong was wheeled out once again to provide a ‘filler’ service.  But this time there were millions of DAB radios and the service quickly became a hit, reportedly gaining half a million listeners and helping to sell many more DAB radios. 

Radio Birdsong had once again captured the imagination of listeners and the press.  Stories emerged of inmates in Her Majesty’s prisons listening to the birdsong to remind them of life outside ("Birdsong doing Bird", one newspaper inevitably headlined).  Doctors and dentists used the station to create soothing atmospheres in waiting rooms.  Offices played Radio Birdsong in the background and reported better productivity and reduced staff tension.  Parents found their infants would fall asleep more easily to the sound of Radio Birdsong and on long car journeys it soothed fractious children.  There have been reports of estate agents tuning in to Radio Birdsong, opening the windows and telling prospective buyers that the house was full of country air!

BBC Radio and TV broadcast several stories about it – Breakfast TV, Country File, the Today programme, BBC 5Live and many local stations have all reported the story.   Russian TV travelled to film in Quentin Howard’s Wiltshire garden, keen to tell their viewers about this uniquely British phenomenon.   Everyone had their own reasons for enjoying Radio Birdsong and it has earned a place in British radio history, still proving as popular nearly 20 years on.  The now-famous recording features pigeons, thrushes, chaffinches, crows and other birds.  A ‘twitchers’ website reports as many as 12 species identified.  

As with all such stories, it has spawned some legends, some true, others not.  One involved an attempt by engineers in the BBC Transcription Department, determined to prove they could hear someone swearing in the distance, presumably hoping to upset Classic FM’s launch.  No such profanity was found.  Another suggests loud cracks heard on some versions were shotguns.  Again this is untrue (the sounds were wooden cladding on Quentin's house expanding in the early morning sunlight, included on the test transmissions simply to provide a brief test of Classic FM’s audio overload system).  

Copycat websites have appeared trying to cash in on the Radio Birdsong phenomenon but their recordings lack the fullness of the unique ‘soundscape’ created by Howard.

In June 2009, Digital One decided to remove the Radio Birdsong channel, replacing it with a new music service targeted at unsigned bands.  This created a backlash from listeners with suggestions to petition 10 Downing Street and “Bring Back Our Birdsong” letters in the papers. Exactly why Digital One’s management decided to stop one of its most popular services remains a mystery.  There have been suggestions it was proving TOO popular with listeners, yet whatever the reason there is still unused and spare capacity on the Digital One network which would allow radio Birdsong to continue.  

Up to now, recordings of the original Radio Birdsong tape have not been made available commercially in quantity, but the popularity of Radio Birdsong and its removal from DAB radio has prompted Howard to make it more widely available for the first time.   Arrangements are being made to offer CDs and MP3 downloads, and meanwhile Howard is busy recording and creating new versions of his famous "soundscape" featuring more birds and relaxing sounds of the British countryside. 

© DornB 2009

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