Go back 90 years to the first radio broadcast by the newly formed BBC and you might think you’ve entered a time warp. The company (it became a corporation later) was obsessed about a government inquiry and accusations that it was elitist and biased towards London. How could it survive without the licence fee? How do you keep those troublesome regional stations happy? How do you stop your unruly artistes (as they were then so politely called) from landing you in the muck? Not much has changed in 2012.
The BBC has always been at the mercy of the licence fee, set initially by the government at ten shillings (equivalent now to about £13). On the licence fee depended the company’s ability to outdo its rivals with programme schedules stuffed full of dramas (beamed straight from the Old Vic), sitcoms, thrillers, classical concerts, live sport (the Epsom Derby) and the shipping forecast. ‘We have faced many difficulties since we set ourselves this task,’ moaned the first chairman, Lord Gainford, sounding remarkably like Birt, Dyke, Thompson and co. ‘We have had to face misunderstandings and purblind points of view.…’
The licence fee gave the BBC the mono-poly it needed to lord it over all the other wireless companies. A disgruntled reader of the Radio Times complained in 1923: ‘It seems to me that the BBC are mainly catering for the listeners who own expensive sets and pretend to appreciate and understand only highbrow music and educational “sob stuff”.’ In the same issue, the BBC’s chief engineer, P.P. Eckersley, is obliged to explain how this weird alchemy works. ‘If I can hear you, then surely you must be able to hear me?’ worried the technologically averse. I have a horrid suspicion I would have been among them, distrusting the way those unknown voices from the city invaded my very own living space.
‘This is 2LO, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company, calling,’ announced Arthur Burrows, the first director of programmes, from a microphone rigged up on the seventh floor of Marconi House, just off the Strand, on the evening of Tuesday 14 November 1922. It was all very last-minute and rudimentary (and not at all like the sleek sophistication portrayed in The King’s Speech). During the day the ‘studio’ was just another office until five o’clock when the mikes were lowered from the ceiling and the grand piano moved into place for a night of dance music interspersed with regular news bulletins. These were read in full quite fast but then the details were repeated slowly, so that listeners could take down notes. Every seven minutes the station was shut down for three minutes, in case the station interfered with ‘the government service’ operated by the GPO.
Those tuning in from home-made crystal sets or expensive Marconi receivers would have heard the musicians breaking off to chat to each other, while Burrows declared on air, ‘One moment, please, while we move the piano.’ The range of the signal was only about 30–40 miles in those first months, and even that was sporadic, crackling and spluttering its magic through the ether. But as Eckersley’s team of engineers worked through the night to come up with technical improvements and innovations that would persuade people to go out and buy the latest wireless gadget, the BBC’s first group of managers, which included Burrows and John Reith, devised ever more ambitious entertainments. Within a few months they had solved the problem of limited range by creating the simultaneous broadcast.
This would link up London (by an ingenious combination of telephone trunk line and wireless technology) with the five regional stations in Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester for a ‘National Broadcast’ across the country: ‘We have but to change our mind with a slight click in London when the crystal user in Milngavie (I bet no Sassenach gets the right pronunciation) knows it for a fact,’ Eckersley announced. The scope and impact of radio was dramatically enhanced, linking London not just with Milngavie but also with Moscow, Munich and Malmo. Shakespeare’s girdle had at last encircled the earth. The BBC’s national station soon had a potential audience of 250 million listeners throughout Europe.
Eckersley and co. were so enthusiastic about their technical wizardry and its possibilities that they surely would not be surprised to discover that next Wednesday BBC Radio is celebrating its 90th birthday with a ‘simulcast’ that should reach 120 billion listeners across the globe. Radio Reunited will last for just three minutes and be broadcast at the same time on all the BBC home stations and throughout the World Service’s 27 language networks. It’s a compilation of recorded messages from listeners imagining what radio might be like in 90 years from now.
Damon Albarn, the former frontman of Blur, who has been asked to choose the messages and set them against a musical soundscape, is a fan of radio because of the way, unlike TV, it can bring people together, sharing one thought, one idea at the same time. That’s the excitement of wireless — its power to communicate so directly and immediately. Pictures just get in the way. Back in 1922, the original BBC team were buzzing over with extravagant claims for their new device. ‘We have shaken the ether of Great Britain,’ declared Arthur Burrows, who also predicted that Parliament would one day be broadcast — ‘it’s bound to happen this century or next’.
That came in 1975 just in time to give radio the boost it needed after the Sixties’ TV revolution. Now again it’s racing ahead in the technology stakes. By the middle of next year all new cars will be fitted with digital radios as standard. Radio 5 Live will at last be reliably available to motorway commuters, or Radio 4 Extra if you prefer to hear reruns of The Navy Lark while stuck in traffic. With the new iPlayer Radio smartphone app, you can now listen to The Archers while lying on a beach in the Seychelles, Jarvis Cocker while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, or Choral Evensong on a boat that’s bound for Greenland. Radio is perfect for this new mobile age, and given a new lease of life by the flexibility of digital.
It brings people together by keeping them informed of what’s going on, as the BBC Burmese service discovered during the uprising of 2007 and the BBC Arabic service last year during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The internet and mobile phones can be monitored; radio is in the air and cannot be tied down or bought.
On 90 x 90, Radio 4 Extra’s celebration of the anniversary, 90 favourite wireless moments from the past 90 years will be played over 11 days from 14 November, including the first outside broadcast from 1924, of a cellist playing in her garden to the accompaniment of a nightingale (an early BBC subterfuge or a genuine recording?), and Orson Welles as Harry Lime in 1951.
What will life be like 90 years from now? A scary thought. One thing, though, for sure, is that we’ll still be listening.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012