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Dorset World Service site may shut after 70 years

Tall mast, low buildings, red sunset sky, at Rampisham radio transmitting station, Dorset

Rampisham Radio Transmitting Station photographed at sunset by Nigel Mykura. (Reused under Creative Commons Licence)

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.

Proposed closure

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.

Why?

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.

Questions

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?”

The future

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.”)

13 Responses to “Dorset World Service site may shut after 70 years”

  1. nathalie roberts

    Let’s imagine the internet breaks down for some reason or even worse let’s imagine Libya and other countries only get CNN and Al Jazeera because there is no BBC from Europe, only France 24. What a balanced view of the world we/they would end up with…
    As for wind turbines, if they are efficient, there would be a better place than many.

  2. Maddie Grigg

    That’s terrible news. So much for Radio Freedom. It’s ironic that the internet may well be the launch pad for a spirited campaign to keep the Rampisham transmitting station open.

    There is a piece of audio featuring a snippet of Rampisham on the Maiden Newton to Beaminster section of the Wessex Ridgeway audio trail:
    http://www.dorsetforyou.com/393159

    I love the masts – a Stonehenge for a modern world – and it would be a very sad day indeed if the whole site were to be dismantled.

    If it had to be, though, I’m with Nathalie on the wind turbines.

  3. Knobby

    I had a chat with a guy who worked at the Rampisham site just after VT had bought it. The workers who had taken shares in the 1997 privatisation, which I believe was most of them, made themselves a very healthy profit when they sold to Vospers.

  4. Mike P

    I would like to thank Mr. Hudston for his excellent article. In the USA a large number of shortwave stations have been dismantled and scraped, and once that happens, there is no chance of them being replaced due to the extreme costs involved; not to mention all the environmental rules. Shortwave still provides a needed service to the entire world, and those committed enough to continue forward are doing a grand service for all concerned. If banks can be bailed out, as well as other “too big to fail” businesses, maybe someone will step forward and take that big step to save a valued resource.

  5. Norman M

    I was the last Engineer-in-Charge (EiC) of Rampisham under BBC ownership and saw the change to Merlin Communications in 1997. I too am surprised at the decision to close the site as it is one of the most modern of the short wave locations in the UK, being completely re-equipped in the 1980s and 4 of the Marconi 500kW transmitters were extensively upgraded in the late 1990s. The investment lost on closure would be impossible to recoup.

  6. dicky

    I came to Rampisham in 1956 and worked there until 1989. It was a wonderful place to work at and it is sad to see it is being closed down

  7. Claire

    Once it’s gone, it’s gone and who knows when we may need it again? It would be a shame to lose it, both from a broadcasting point of view and as a local landmark.

    In our house they are affectionately known as the ‘Dragon nets’ sitting on the ‘Fog Factory’, for reasons well-known to locals.

    I for one would be very happy to support a wind farm if the broadcasting HAD to end. I’ve never understood why anyone would object to a wind farm when the alternatives are nuclear power stations, open-cast mining and other dirty generators.

  8. Basher Booth

    Since our arrival in Rampisham 3 years ago, the masts have been known as ‘the giraffes’, the term coined by our then 5 year old. There appears to be a strong case for retaining the station, its potential closure being symptomatic, I think, of successive governments’ failure to appreciate how much of a national asset the World Service is for the UK. However, if it has to go, I too cannot see an argument against a wind farm on this location.

  9. JonnyB

    Very sad news to hear about the possible closure of Rampisham. Most of the staff are great engineers and I enjoyed my 4 years working with them. It is such a shame that all the good engineering careers seem to be disappearing, and with it Britain’s ability to influence the world.
    Shame but to be expected when a Torrie government is in power!!!

  10. Peter

    Just for some typical BBC jargon .

    This place ……

    “Is a legacy distribution center”

    It would also seem that the LW tx system is next on the turn it off list.

  11. Eric Shackle

    Thanks to you, I’ve stumbled on to an interesting story. See my blog:
    Nimblenoms.blogspot.com
    Best wishes, Eric Shackle, retired Sydney
    journalist.

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