It’s a Monday night in Bristol in July 1983. Your parents are downstairs watching Coronation Street while you skulk in your bedroom under the pretence of doing homework. In reality, you’re hunched over your cassette recorder, fingers hovering over the buttons in feverish anticipation. A quiver of excitement runs through you as a voice from the radio announces: “and now the moment you’ve all been waiting for…” There’s a satisfying clunk as you press down on play and record simultaneously, and moments later the room is filled with strange metallic squawks and crackles. “SCREEEEEEEEEEE…”
You’re listening to the Datarama show on Radio West and partaking in the UK’s first attempt to send a computer program over local radio. Joe Tozer, who co-hosted the show, recalls how it all began: “I think it was just one of those ‘ping!’ moments when you realise that the home computer program is just audio on a cassette, so why not transmit it over air? It just seemed a cool idea.”
Sinclair Spectrum loading sounds (these are the sounds that were broadcast over radio)
Joe was an early adopter of home computing, having programmed ‘6502 Tangerine’, ZX80 and BBC computers since around 1979, and had been working at Bristol-based Radio West since 1981. “The station was very interested in its early days about providing niche content for ‘off peak’ broadcast”, says Joe, “and along with Tim Lyons, the Chief Engineer, I proposed a weekly home computing show, with the unique feature of transmitting programs ‘live’ from the cassette storage used at the time”. Datarama was born, but it wasn’t until July 1983 and the fourth episode of the show that the hosts finally received clearance from the Independent Broadcasting Authority to transmit computer data.
So what program did Joe and Tim choose to transmit during this landmark broadcast? Charmingly, they plumped for a photograph of Charlie’s Angels star Cheryl Ladd taken from a 1975 edition of the Evening Standard. Joe clearly remembers the moment that Cheryl’s face was beamed across the West Country: “On the night it was quite exciting. I’d written the Cheryl Ladd graphic code myself, as it was small and could be easily coded for both the BBC and ZX81 Micros, and it seemed really amazing to have images being transmitted over the radio. I think we’d done a couple of unannounced test transmissions during closedown earlier in the week as proof of concept, and surprisingly found AM worked better than FM. On the night the recorded program went out it all worked, and there she was on the screen — Cheryl Ladd in glorious 40x80 pixel Teletext-style black and white.”
Amazingly, sending the program was as simple as pressing play at radio station: “to be honest it was all pretty straightforward,” says Joe. “The data rates on cassette at the time were so low, maybe a few hundred bits per second, it just worked.” The listeners loved it, and pretty soon Joe and Tim were transmitting all kinds of programs that they’d written for the show, including minigames and an application that translated keyboard inputs into Morse code. Initially they just sent programs for the BBC Micro and ZX81, but later on they expanded this to include Commodores, Dragons, FORTH-based micros and “pretty much anything that was around at the time”.
Unbeknown to Tim and Joe, a few miles up the road in Worcester a man by the name of Simon N. Goodwin was also experimenting in transmitting computer programs over the airwaves. Simon had been writing games and articles for home computing magazines since 1979, and in 1983 his Spectrum game Gold Mine had just gone into the All Formats Top 20. He was also the co-presenter of the Computer Club show on Radio Wyvern, and in December 1983 he programmed an animated ‘Christmas card’ in BASIC to be sent out to the listeners.
The card was sent out in two versions, one for the Sinclair Spectrum and one for the Tandy TRS-80, both complete with music and prancing reindeer. But could the listeners download it? “It worked for some people”, says Simon, “but not everyone who tried was successful, especially the TRS-80 version, which was a relatively error-prone format (though a third of the speed of the ZX version). One person managed to read the TRS-80 version on a Nascom, a very different (British, bare board) system which was popular in the UK at the end of the 1970s, but that took some quite ingenious machine-code programming.” Unlike Joe and Tim, Simon found that, as would be expected from the higher bandwidth, listeners were more successful at downloading on FM rather than AM.
Simon came up with the idea for transmitting his Christmas card after reading an article in Personal Computer World earlier that year about a Dutch station broadcasting the ASCII text of programs. However, it turns out that the Dutch were transmitting computer programs a lot earlier than 1983: the domestic radio show Hobbyscope (or Hobbyscoop to give it its Dutch name) was sending code over the airwaves as far back as 1980.
Indeed, Hobbyscoop transmitted programs throughout the 1980s, and the makers of the show even came up with a way to avoid broadcasting a program multiple times in different versions for each different home computer. The solution was the BASICODE format, which could be downloaded onto any home computer running BASIC, as long as the user ran a translation program first.
The UK and the Netherlands weren’t the only countries enjoying the excitement of downloading programs from the radio: in fact, the craze took off all over Europe. In Finland, Kai R. Lehtonen was inspired by the Dutch broadcasts and attempted to do something similar on the YLE public radio station, and in 1985 his team succeeded in broadcasting a program that was downloaded 600 km away from the station.
Perhaps some of the most enthusiastic early downloaders were to be found in Serbia, then a part of Yugoslavia. Zoran Modli, who hosted the Ventilator 202 show on Radio Belgrade, was approached by the editor of the Galaksija computer magazine with idea of sending a Spectrum program over the airwaves. Zoran remembers broadcasting for the first time: “Both me and my radio team were very excited. I had to inform the Radio Belgrade technicians who were on duty at remote radio transmitters that for the next few minutes only hissing and growling would be heard. Lay people were confused and wondered, ‘What is this lunatic doing?’ But those who listened and understood excitedly contacted us by telephone to say they had successfully loaded the program onto their computers!”
From 1983 to 1986 Zoran broadcasted about 150 computer programs, most of which were sent in by his dedicated and enthusiastic listeners. They included programs for mathematical calculations, short educational programs, mini-encyclopaedias, simple games and even a flight simulator. The broadcasts became so popular that National TV Belgrade even featured them on their ‘Sunday Afternoon’ program, so every weekend for two months viewers were treated to an ear-splitting din of screeching ones and zeroes.
In the end though, it was floppy disks that halted the craze for transmitting data through the radio. With the arrival of the 16-bit home computers in the late ’80s, audio cassette storage became a thing of the past, and it wasn’t until the widespread arrival of Wi-Fi in the 21st century that wireless downloading became possible again. Even if audio cassettes were to somehow re-emerge as a storage device, modern games are so gargantuan that it would take considerably longer than a couple of minutes to broadcast them.
As Codemasters employee Simon N. Goodwin concludes: “If we were to try to broadcast GRID for PS3, Windows or Xbox 360 in TRS-80 cassette format it would take around four years and require a C-1,957,341 cassette (let’s get a ‘C two million’ to be on the safe side) to record the results.” So next time you get frustrated at how sluggishly a game is downloading, just be thankful you’re not taping it from the radio.
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If you’d like to learn more, Simon N. Goodwin writes about the pre-PC days of UK home computing here.