English announcer on Radio Normandy

One of Europes pioneering commercial radio broadcasters, died on 23rd of November 1994. Stephen Williams, the son of Rev. H. Clement Williams was born in Hackney London on 31 March 1908 and was educated at St Pauls, Trinity College, Cambridge.

During a break from college in 1928, Stephen, a keen wireless enthusiast landed a job as an announcer with the broadcasting yacht "Ceto"; an early attempt at offshore commercial radio. On 3rd December 1933, he opened Radio Luxembourg. When the English service, now on satellite, eventually closed at the end of 1991, the last words were those of Stephen Williams, "Good Luck, Good Listening.. and Goodbye".

As recognition of his contribution towards establishing closer links between Luxembourg and Britain, he was awarded the Order of

Merit by the Grand Duke of Luxembourg in 1992.

Stephen, who died aged 86, was married with two sons.:



by Stephen Williams

Late of Radio Normandy, Radio Paris and Radio Luxembourg.

It was while I was at prep-school that a friendly master invited me to listen to his wireless set, a very novel experience for me. There was no broadcasting then in Great Britain, so it was to a continental station we tuned to, the Eiffel Tower in fact. There was only a violin playing but it turned me into a wireless fanatic from then on. My schoolmaster encouraged me to build a crystal set of my own to be ready for British wireless which was due to start in a few months. He suggested the "ingredients" I should use‑two empty cotton reels for aerial insulators, wire from old electric bells for tuning coils, an old all‑metal bicycle pump as a variable condenser, broken lead soldiers fused with flowers of sulphur to form the crystal, and the only two items I should have to buy‑ a pair of headphones and a 100ft coil of aerial wire. I built the set at a total cost of thirty shillings (£ 1.50 in today's money), and on this contraption I was able to listen proudly to the debut of the BBC on 14 November 1922, and from the moment I heard the announcer say "This is 2L0 calling, 2L0, the London Station of the British Broadcasting Company ", I was seized with an ambition to have a job like his.

I went in for wireless in a big way‑I followed its progress and read all I could about it. I really studied it, to the considerable detriment of my normal school work.

1928 brought the first chance of fulfilling that ambition. In my "long vac" from Cambridge I got a job on a "Broadcasting Yacht". This was a glamorous steam vessel which had belonged to Lord Iveagh, of Guinness fame, but was now under charter to the Daily Mail. I was to be the announcer and in charge or all its programmes, which really meant becoming what we now call a disc jockey. The idea (familiar enough thirty years later when the Radio Carolines and Londons came along) was to broadcast at sea from just outside the three-mile limit and advertise the Daily Mail, the Evening News and the Sunday Dispatch. With a small transmitter on board we set off from Dundee for trials. All seemed to go well until we met a bit of a sea, and even a very modest sea was inevitably enough to vary the distance between our aerial and the water which caused our signals to fade severely. Finally the idea of transmitting had to be abandoned, but the German firm of Siemens Halske came to our rescue with four super loudspeakers, each weighing 6 1/2 cwt, and capable of being heard clearly for more than two miles on a moderately clear day. We mounted them on the yacht's superstructure and set off on our cruise all round the coast of England, blasting out gramophone records and plugging the desirability of reading our three sponsoring newspapers.

Of particular interest at that time was the Daily Mail `s innovation of a Free Insurance Scheme under which "Registered Readers" could claim benefits in cases of violent death, serious accident or even, I seem to remember, the birth of twins. Incidentally while on our cruise there was a serious train crash at Darlington, and we were able to give the news over our microphone that the families of five "Registered Readers" would be entitled to benefits amounting to a total of a hundred thousand pounds.

The idea of a broadcasting yacht had been the brainchild of Valentine Smith, the Circulation and Publicity Director of the Daily Mail. He now moved over to the Sunday Referee, a highly respectable sporting paper, recently transformed into a family Sunday paper and owned by Isidore Ostrer of the Gaumont British Picture Corporation. Remembering that the broadcasting voyage of his Daily Mail yacht had done a lot for that paper's circulation, Valentine Smith decided to involve the Sunday Referee in broadcasting if he could, and he settled me on his staff to help him do it.

As it happened a small private company called the International Broadcasting Company (IBC) had recently been registered with a capital of £200. The man behind it was one Captain Leonard Plugge who later became M P for Rochester, Chatham and the Medway Towns (which gave his political opponents the chance to sneer "Pull out the Plugge and keep the Medway clean!. "). Plugge's ambition was to launch commercial broadcasting for the United Kingdom on similar lines to its successful operation in the United States. The trouble was he could not find anywhere which would let him broadcast regularly. He had tried arranging an odd programme or two in Belgium, Holland, Poland, Yugoslavia and various other countries even France, where the Eiffel Tower would only allow him one programme. One day, however, driving from Dieppe to Deauville (obviously he had some private means) he stopped for an aperitif at the Café Colonnes in the small Normandy fishing town of Fécamp. Here he learned that Fécamp supplied most of the salted cod consumed in France and was also the only place in the world where genuine Benedictine (the popular liqueur) was distilled.

Plugge was not greatly impressed, but he pricked up his ears when he heard that the youngest of the directors of Benedictine, M. Fernand Le Grand, was a keen wireless amateur with a small wireless transmitter in his drawing room. With this he amused himself broadcasting to his friends in Le Havre (about 12 miles away) and recently had been relatively successful at selling shoes by wireless for one of his friends in that line of business.

Captain Plugge and M. Le Grand met over a bottle of Benedictine in the drawing room with the wireless set. They soon fixed up a deck. Le Grand would allow Plugge to use his transmitter to broadcast in English at certain times of the day and Plugge would pay him 200 francs per hour. (The exchange rate at that time was around 200 French francs to the pound sterling ‑ so Plugge was on to a good thing!)

Plugge abandoned his trip to Deauville and set off for Le Havre to try to buy some English gramophone records. He also needed some cash, and to change a cheque he called in at Lloyds Bank in Le Havre, met one of the management, William Evelyn Kingwell, and ultimately fixed up that Kingwell would go over to Fécamp on the next six Sundays, make up a programme from the records Plugge intended to buy, and announce their titles in English over Le Grand's little wireless set.

Back in London, Captain Plugge contacted various newspapers in the hope of interesting them in his scheme. Only one responded and that was (you've guessed it) the Sunday Referee, where the combined enthusiasm of Valentine Smith and myself seemed to fit in perfectly with Plugge's plans, as indeed his did with ours. Two or three quite intensive meetings settled details between the Sunday Referee and Captain Plugge's international Broadcasting Company and in a little over a week the Sunday Referee was issuing contents‑bills all round the South‑East of England proclaiming "Special Foreign Broadcasts for British Listeners"  (even in those days listeners were not too happy with the BBC).

The next Sunday the paper carried details of f the programmes which Kingwell would be announcing, together with times and information about the station's wavelength and where it was to be found on the dial. Rather to everyone's surprise, the Sunday Referee sold out completely along the South coast. The following week it did better in London and it was obvious that readers' interest was growing and the upward trend continued as Sunday followed Sunday. Finally, Plugge's employee, Max Staniforth, ex publicity chief of the Argentine State Railways and I, the Sunday Referee's wireless enthusiast and adviser on wireless matters, found ourselves in Fécamp charged with the task of launching M. Le Grand's half‑kilowatt drawing room wireless set as five kilowatt Radio Normandy, the first regular English language commercial broadcasting station selling British goods to British listeners.

Two second‑hand aerial masts in the Benedictine's herb garden (situated on the Normandy cliffs right opposite those of Seaford) and beneath the aerial a small hut to house Le Grand's little transmitter, with additional stages to augment its power, gave us a broadcasting station capable of being heard throughout London and the South of England. For studios M. Le Grand offered part of the Benedictine stables, (nearly all their transport had been motorized), so here in a hay loft above the horse stalls, with walls "damped" by old rugs and flooring "deadened" with stable matting, Radio Normandy was born.

Making up programmes was not the easiest of jobs, for we had only the gramophone records Plugge had bought in Le Havre plus a couple of hundred or so which Staniforth and I had brought over with us. A great deal of improvisation was needed and we pressed into service anyone who could speak or sing a word or two in English. Gradually we learned from our letters that we were getting listeners. There was plenty of correspondence, for foreign postage in those days was only three halfpence ‑ less than 1p today. When we told potential clients the size of our postbag their answer was simply "Maybe but will they buy anything?" and in any case most possible advertisers did not think our listening figures would be big enough to interest them.

What in fact were our listening figures? Nobody really knew, so I tried to find out. With the help of the Sunday Referee which was still our supportive backer I started the "International Broadcasting Club ". It cost nothing to join, just a 1 1/2 stamp. For this members got a small membership card and promised to listen regularly to our station. Unbelievably within three weeks nearly 50,000 applications had been received at the Sunday Referee offices and in less than three months more than a quarter of a million names were on the books. With these impressive figures the man who was trying to sell our airtime asked advertisers the same question as before and got the same answer "but will they buy anything?" One early prospect even suggested barter and offered 12 radio‑receivers in return for announcements advertising his products. An underwear maker offered to supply complete outfits for air publicity, and a number of other concerns made similar offers. Obviously this was no good to us. We needed something positive to convince advertisers that our listeners could represent a genuine market. The answer came from an associate of Plugge's, George Shanks, whose enterprising idea really broke the deadlock. Looking through an old book on household management and cookery (like Mrs. Beeton's) he came across a recipe for a sort of face cream and in the back kitchen of his mother's house in Great Stanhope Street, London W 1 (a street which Nazi bombs later destroyed) he made up a supply in small glass pots and sent over two or three samples to Fécamp with the request that we should try to sell the product by radio. Well, it smelled nice, felt soft and nice, and quickly sank in when rubbed on the skin. It seemed to have possibilities, so Staniforth and I made up a little story to glamourise it a bit!

" Long ago in the streets of Persepolis a beautiful young Persian princess was bring carried in her chair, when she found her progress barred by a disturbance in the roadway. Her attendants told her that a bunch of students were ill‑treating a poor old Egyptian slave. With flashing eyes the Princess descended from her chair, ordered the students to desist, rescued the old man and with a small purse of gold sent him on his way. Years later at the marriage of the princess she found among her wedding gifts a token of the gratitude of that old slave whose life she had saved. It was a small alabaster jar of wonderful ointment which made her even more beautiful than before. With the passage of time the secret of the ointment was lost but recently it was found again. It has now been refined and brought up to date and under the name of Renis Face Cream it is available to ladies everywhere. The price is two shillings and three pence per pot, post free.

Well, it sold and sold, but looking back at that effort can anybody be surprised that steps had to be taken to control the ethics of advertising claims? However, it did the trick and advertisers began seriously to consider buying our airtime.

A very early paying client was Spinks of King Street, St James. They were calling for listeners' old gold which then had increased dramatically in value through Great Britain's abandonment of the Gold Standard. Another early paying client was Henlys', then the great second‑hand motor people. They decided to put a new car on the market in conjunction, I think, with Standard Motors and were on the point of launching something really super to be called the SS 1. It is better known today as the Jaguar.

Soon advertisers were showing positive interest in our activities, always encouraged by the Sunday Referee, which not only led the way with its own programmes but also gave us splendid coverage in its columns, and was the only newspaper publishing Radio Normandy's programmes in detail as well as the International Broadcasting Club's news.

My personal interest in Radio Normandy faded when its teething troubles diminished, and quite soon I was asked to take on the job of running a similar English language programme service from Radio Paris the principal broadcasting station m France, well established and very well equipped, with a power fifteen times greater than that of Radio Normandy. My transfer meant severing all connection with Captain Plugge and his International Broadcasting Company and a loosening of my ties with the Sunday Referee, for I became Directeur général of Radio Publicity, a British company, chaired by a Frenchman (M. Jacques Gonat) and operating in Paris.

In a way the Paris venture was too successful. We attracted so many British advertisers that French listeners became fed‑up with hearing so much English on their number‑one station, and the French Government intervened and told us we would have to go elsewhere. But where could we go? Fortunately there was a brand new station in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg which was just completing its trials. It had been built expressly for commercial broadcasting.

In fact at one time we had hoped to be the builders of it, but British finance had got cold feet because Luxembourg was so close to Germany, and coming into prominence there at that time was someone they didn't like the look of ‑ Adolf Hitler. This was not really surprising for much of the finance we could have called upon was in Jewish hands. So a French concern built the station and therefore owned it. Not quite what we had hoped. Fortunately, however, our French chairman, Jacques Gonat, was a man of considerable influence and affluence in France and was able to get for our company (Radio Publicity) the sole concession for English language programmes at Radio Luxembourg, and so I found myself delegated to that station to launch and direct its English language activities.

Luxembourg was by far the most powerful broadcasting station in Europe. With up to 300 kilowatts in its aerial circuit it was sixty times more powerful than Radio Normandy. It could cover all Britain and almost all of Europe. Getting in at the very beginning we virtually dominated the station in airtime sales. Nevertheless the problem of audience listening figures proved much greater at Luxembourg than it had been at Normandy or at Paris. Hardly anybody knew where Luxembourg was, what it was or even if it was a country at all. Normandy and Paris had been household names in Britain ‑ but Luxembourg? Even the London & North Eastern Railway Company who included Luxembourg among its continental destinations seemed distinctly uncertain of its whereabouts in a travel handbook of the period.

Our Radio Paris advertisers to a man agreed to transfer their progammes to the new station, but unless British listeners could be attracted in sufficient numbers they would soon lose interest and withdraw. The Sunday Referee could be relied upon to continue its own programmes and to give us good coverage in its columns, but no other paper would even give us a mention. They feared we might become too powerful a competitor in the battle for advertising allocations. It was a most serious problem.

The date of our first transmission from Radio Luxembourg had been fixed to coincide with our last transmission from Radio Paris so on that occasion (3rd December 1933) we joined the two stations together in simultaneously broadcasting the same programmes. There were frequent announcements "This is Radio Paris and Radio Luxembourg ". Whenever possible I personally came on the air to say that from next Sunday all our future programmes would come from Radio Luxembourg instead of Radio Paris and since, at the moment, both stations were broadcasting exactly the same thing at different positions on the long‑wave dial, listeners could identify Radio Luxembourg's position by moving down the scale until they heard my voice again. "Have you got it?" I asked repeatedly, "Well that's where you will find all our programmes from next Sunday onwards, so do please remember the dial reading and mark it if you can ". It worked and I heard that listeners had quite enjoyed their "twiddling for Luxembourg ". People asked each other next day in the train or in the office "did you find Radio Luxembourg yesterday?" So the word got around.

On 5th December 1933 I transferred my office and domicile to the Luxembourg Grand Duchy and thereupon became the very first British subject by birth to be officially domiciled in that country. My only problem was that unlike other foreigners I was unable to produce a personal record of good behaviour from the police of my native country, and I had to invoke the help of the British Consul in Luxembourg, who was a Luxembourger by birth, to convince the Luxembourg authorities that in the United Kingdom only criminals have police records.

Reading the mail from Britain, which slowly developed into a sizeable postbag, I came to the conclusion that the mere fact of Luxembourg being so little-known to British people was an attraction which encouraged them to tune into our new station and I did my best to intrigue them further by talking on the air, whenever I had a gap in the sponsored programmes about the charms and unusualness of the Grand Duchy and the way of life of the people who lived there. I tried to build it up as a genuine Ruritania, in no way fictional, but very factual. A very progressive democracy in a most fascinating setting and in several ways more advanced in the social care of its inhabitants than the rest of Europe including ourselves. It was Luxembourg itself which really "tickled the fancy" of our listeners and they flocked to listen to our programmes. In fact within a very few months of our start I was forced to give up my talks about the Grand Duchy, its history and its ways, for there was no more time to devote to this purpose ‑every available minute was carrying somebody's advertising message. Personally I was very sorry I could no longer romance about the place, but it was business I was there for, not romance. Confirming this, an independent survey conduced in 1937 by Professor Plant of the London School of Economics showed our listening figures at weekends to be twenty times those of the BBC and for Radio Luxembourg what could be better business than that?

The Sunday Referee, however, did not fare so well. Its own broadcasts and its exclusive policy of printing all our programme details had nearly trebled its circulation. The Newspaper Proprietors Association did not like this at all. It was not the increased circulation‑that they thoroughly approved ‑ it was the achieving of this by the use and encouragement of radio advertising which the NPA regarded as a deadly threat to their own advertising revenues. Several ultimata were issued, which the Sunday Referee managed to ignore, but finally the paper was denied access to all the newspaper trains and other transport and distribution facilities which the NPA operated on behalf of newspapers in general. Country‑wide distribution was too big a task for a single paper of the Referee's size to undertake on its own, and sadly the Sunday Referee was forced to withdraw from radio altogether. Ultimately it merged with the Sunday Chronicle, and for some years now has been only a memory.

Radio advertising itself went from strength to strength until the war, but towards the end of the thirties big business interests began to enter the commercial radio field and there was little or no place for individual enthusiasts of the do‑it‑yourself persuasion. Max Staniforth, my onetime co‑pioneer at Radio Normandy, became a "Reverend" and found solace in the Church. (He died in 1985 aged 93.) I, now the sole survivor of those early days, persisted in broadcasting until 1975 (radio only, of course, as befitted an original wireless enthusiast!)‑ but even now, almost because of tradition I think, I doubt if the BBC has really forgiven our effrontery in setting up as rivals, or for the trouncing Radio Luxembourg gave their listening figures at weekends before the last war.

Undoubtedly the birth pangs and early childhood of commercial radio from the continent helped to pave the way for the multi‑million pound operations of the ITV and IBA companies, and they certainly helped to put the country of Luxembourg on the map by making Luxembourg's radio a household name through‑ out Europe. Also undoubtedly they jogged the BBC towards lightening the austerity of its original conception of what its programmes should be, and it hastened the decline of the Corporation's traditional maiden‑aunt-ish attitude to its listeners.

Not bad from such modest DIY beginnings!

European Journal of Management ‑ December 1987.