I am slightly embarrassed to say that, mainly due to pressure from my wife, I watch Downton Abbey. Whereas it seems to be the highlight of my wife’s viewing week, I find it largely tedious and boring. But, every now and again something in it sparks my interest, and in the episode on Sunday the 5th of October it was the plot-line about the house getting a “wireless” (radio). The head of the house, the crusty Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville), is dead against getting a wireless, until he is told that King George V will be making a live broadcast on the radio to open the Wembley Empire Exhibition.
My wife had told me that this current series (series 5) starts in 1924, and I vaguely remembered that sometime in the last few years the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had celebrated its 90th anniversary, so I decided to read more about the origins of the BBC. For quite a while I have been planning to blog about the origins of radio, as the first ever radio transmission over water occurred just a few miles from Cardiff; but that is a much bigger task and something for which I don’t currently have the time.
It surprised me to read that the BBC was not the first organisation to broadcast radio in the Disunited Kingdom. In June 1920, Lord Northcliffe, the then owner of the Daily Mail newspaper, organised the live radio transmission of a concert from the Marconi factory in Chelmsford. However, the Government quickly moved to ban future such broadcasts, believing that radio should be confined to military and other important government use, and not for entertainment.
However, there was such a public backlash to this decision that, by 1922, the Government had to make a U-turn. It decided to give radio broadcasting rights to one sole operator, namely a newly created company which they decided should be called the “British Broadcasting Company Ltd.” and which would be headed up by a dour Scottish calvinist by the name of John Reith. Its founding principles, as laid down by Reith, were “to inform, educate and entertain”, principles which have guided it to this day.
The BBC started daily broadcasts from London on the 14th of November 1922, and it has been broadcasting daily ever since. Initially these broadcasts were made from studios in The Strand, in the west end of London. They then moved their studios to nearby Savoy Hill, but in 1928 construction was begun in Portland Place on what would become known as “Broadcasting House”.
The first transmissions from Broadcasting House took place on the 15th of March 1932. By this time the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. had changed its name to the “British Broadcasting Corporation”, a change which happened in 1927. Until 1936 the BBC only broadcast radio transmissions, and that on two stations, the BBC National Programme and the BBC Regional Programme. The Regional Programme was created to accommodate local broadcasting, which quickly sprung up after the BBC’s initial broadcasts from London in November of 1922.
With the outbreak of World War 2, the BBC decided to change its two stations to the “BBC Light Programme” and the “BBC Home Service”. After the end of the war, these two stations were joined by the “BBC Third Programme”, which broadcast mainly classical music.
By the 1960s both musical tastes and the radio broadcasting landscape had changed considerably, and there was increasing demand for more variety on the BBC. In particular, the BBC broadcast very little “rock ‘n’ roll” music on its Light Programme in the mid 1960s, and so teenagers had to go elsewhere to hear the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks etc.
This teenager demand led to a number of so-called “pirate radio stations” exploiting a loop-hole in the broadcasting legislation by broadcasting from ships anchored a few miles off the coast. The most famous of these stations was probably Radio Caroline, and a thoroughly entertaining picture of this pirate station is given in the movie “The Boat that Rocked”, which I really enjoyed when I saw it.
Despite most members of the Government abhorring “popular music” (rock-n-roll), it was clear that the BBC had to make changes. It closed the loophole in the law, leading to the pirate radio stations being forced to close, and in 1967, the BBC re-jigged its TV and radio provisions. To satisfy the desire for rock-n-roll, Radio 1 was created. Radio 2 essentially took over the output of the former BBC Light Programme, with light music of the likes of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole etc. The BBC Third Programme became Radio 3, and the BBC Home Service became Radio 4.