RAMPISHAM’S radio transmission station may close before Christmas with the loss of more than 20 jobs, even though it’s currently broadcasting into Libya.
The proposed shutdown of the Dorset site follows the BBC’s decision earlier this year to cut back on World Service shortwave broadcasting and stop it altogether by 2014, even though nearly half of the World Service’s audience (184 million in 2010-11) listens via shortwave.
The BBC says it’s phasing out shortwave because the Foreign Office cut the World Service grant by 16% (£46 million).
The possible closure of Rampisham raises some big questions.
Such as: Isn’t it just a stupid idea?
And: Is it even possible?
See Questions, below.
Rampisham radio transmitting station
The Rampisham station is just off the A356 between Dorchester and Crewkerne. Its masts have towered over the West Dorset landscape for 70 years. At its peak, the station employed around 120 people. Buses used to regularly ferry shift-workers between Bridport and Rampisham to ensure 24-hour coverage.
As well as being a significant part of Dorset life, Rampisham is also of national and international importance.
Britain has three major sites broadcasting internationally on shortwave. The others are Woofferton in Shropshire and Skelton in Cumbria.
Rampisham broadcasts more hours than they do, is more reliable, and has a wider reach across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. (It’s a little-known fact that the National Grid runs right through the Rampisham site, supplying 60,00 volts. I think it has only ever lost power twice in 70 years. Once was during the Great Storm of 1987, which shows it takes something pretty extreme).
The three sites are all owned by Babcock Engineering.
Babcock is proposing to close Rampisham, and cut three jobs at Woofferton. (Also, possibly, four at Orfordness in Suffolk, which has traditionally been medium-wave).
The company’s begun a consultation period lasting up until September 19.
Workers at Rampisham have been banned from talking to the media. According to the union BECTU, they are “shocked”.
I’m told, however, that staff think (and hope) that imminent closure is not absolutely certain.
There was talk back in 2004 of shutting Rampisham but it didn’t happen then and it may – may – not happen now.
In the days when I used to work for the BBC in Dorset, I was always interested in Rampisham, and to try to contribute to matters now, I’ve dug out some old notes and clippings and memories and had a think. I don’t have all the facts I would like to have, and I can’t, at the moment, get them.
I would simply like to suggest that that the following points are worth raising and pursuing.
Rampisham is currently broadcasting into Libya. The other two shortwave stations can’t reach Libya so well.
Is it really in the UK’s national interests to dismantle Rampisham and sell its equipment for scrap?
The modern preference is said to be for internet-based services, but Jo Glanville, in a good piece about the World Service in the current edition of the London Review of Books, makes the point that shortwave radio can reach many millions of people in ways that internet-based services cannot.
If Britain loses Rampisham and wants to broadcast to Libya in future, how will it do so? (No one knows what’s going to happen in Libya). Will Britain have to rent mast-space from another country?
Will Babcock even be allowed to shut Rampisham down?
A bit of history is relevant here. The World Service part of the BBC’s transmission network was sold off (privatised) in 1997 for £22million in an employee and management buyout. In December 2001, it was sold to Vosper Thornycroft (VT) for £105 million. Last year VT got taken over by the Babcock International Group.
Does the original 1997 deal contain “wider public interest” stipulations that still apply?
(Governments can take steps to protect national assets. For example, the current government has said it’s looking at measures to control what happens if universities change status and go private. See the White Paper on Higher Education: “We would ensure that, as the assets of a university have been acquired over time, partly as a result of direct public funding, the wider public interest will be protected in any such change of status.”)
Is it actually possible for a site like Rampisham to be scrapped? Or will Babcock, if they decide they really do want to get rid of it, have to try to sell it to someone else and say something like: “We can’t make any money from running this damn place – does anybody else want to have a go?”
I was told once that it would probably take about a year to dismantle Rampisham and that – “If they do dismantle Rampisham, they’ll never get it back again”.
What might happen to the site in future if it does get shut down? Could it be a wind farm? It’s on a ridge and there’d be no problem connecting to the National Grid.
Of course, it’s in the middle of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and planners and assorted locals might not like it, but no one could argue that the skyline of Rampisham Down was previously untouched. Not after 70 years of radio masts up to 100 metres tall.
(Two wind turbines have already been proposed for nearby Toller Down, with the applicant arguing that “the skyline has already dramatically been broken.”)