Radio 4’s marine forecast is a national institution, with millions of listeners reassured that somewhere out at sea, British fishermen are waiting patiently by their radios to find out if there’s a strike warning. of wind at Rockall or Cromarty.
Yet the announcement that Radio 4’s longwave signal would be shut down, as part of the BBC’s latest cuts, has left many wondering how the country’s fishing fleet will cope without access to updates four times a day.
The somewhat less romantic reality, according to Mike Cohen of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organizations, is that its members have not needed Radio 4 for decades. Modern fishermen have much more accurate devices to warn them of wind and rain: “Even the little 15m boats in Bridlington have satellite internet these days. I had video calls from people in the middle of the sea.”
However, this does not mean that they are immune to the charms of Navigate by, the music that announces the forecasts and was designed to help captains adjust their radios: “This musical theme is a link to other times, other people, other places. There is as much affection among fishermen for this as there is for the rest of us.
When the fishermen’s trade body asked its members what they thought of the shipping forecast, one replied that it ‘acts as a link between communities, a link over time’. Another added: “For us it’s a bygone era, but for many older people it’s a reassuring link to the past.”
The BBC plans to end dedicated programming on its Radio 4 longwave frequency next year, which could mean the loss of two of the current four broadcast updates. Early morning and late evening forecasts will remain on FM, DAB and online broadcasts. But the loss of the longwave signal – accessible far from the UK mainland – confirms that these will essentially be bits of nostalgia, more intended to wake up the nation or lull listeners to sleep.
Cohen said modern fishing boats are packed with GPS equipment, chartplotters and very accurate weather information: “You can put all of that into wheelhouse technology. Anglers want details of exactly where they are – not just a summary of the nation.
While fishermen still take substantial risks every time they go out to sea, he said the reality is that the modern fishing industry is a technology-intensive job that is “far removed from the stereotypical captain Birdseye with a sou’wester knitting his own kippers”.
Marine forecasts have been available for over a century, but took on its present form in 1949 – comprising most of the 31 distinctive names of nautical areas around the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland. Over the decades it has been parodied, interrupted from crucial moments of Test Match Special cricket coverage and provided musical inspiration – inspiring Sea Power to write the song North Viking Gale Warningand giving Blur the lyrics “On the Tyne, Forth and Cromarty / There’s a low in the high forties” on It’s a bottom.
A BBC spokesperson said the forecast would not disappear altogether and would remain “a much-loved part of the regular Radio 4 programme, providing listeners with quiet moments in their day”. The longwave signal – which was once threatened and currently relies on a small amount of historic meter-high glass valves to continue broadcasting – will survive for a few more years.
Cohen suggested that the general public liked to hear names of unfamiliar places such as North Utsire and South Utsire – coastal regions close to Norway – which he compared to meeting “dragons here” on an old map: “You don’t don’t see those names on a road sign. It’s kind of like beat the limits – go to the edge of the nation and look away.