Kate Chisholm

Global power

BBC Radio is celebrating its 90 birthday with a simulcast that should reach 120 billion listeners. <em>Kate Chisholm </em>goes back to radio’s roots

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.

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