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G D H Cole in 1927: “Whatever the BBC does is, of course, wrong.”

The Beeb has always been a space for debate on culture, ethics and standards.

Two women listening to the radio on the beach
"Listeners put on the ear-phones or let their loud-speakers talk". Photo: Getty Images.

Plus ça change. In 1927 the British Broadcasting Company was granted a Royal Charter, elected John Reith as its first Director-General, and set about its mission to “inform, educate and entertain” the largest possible number of Britons. A mere 43 days later, writing in the New Statesman, the historian and theorist G D H Cole was lamenting the BBC’s efforts “to devise programmes suitable and pleasing to [the] standard listener” across its nascent stations. “For,” he writes, “the standard listener does not in reality exist.”

One of many speculative pieces which accompanied the birth of the broadcasting giant, Cole’s piece, originally published in the magazine in 1927, assessed the possibility of “eduction by wireless”, while noting the enduring impossibility of pleasing everyone with this ideal.

The piece is republished here in full, on the 90th anniversary of the BBC’s first broadcast. This evening, a new composition by Damon Albarn will be played simultaneously across 55 BBC radio stations, with a possible listenership of up to 80 million.

Education by Wireless

Whatever the British Broadcasting Corporation does is, of course, wrong. At least, it is bound to appear wrong to a body of listeners large enough to deserve consideration. For broadcasting has hitherto been conducted on the basis of a false and impossible assumption – the assumption of the standard or average listener. The BBC has tried to devise programmes suitable and pleasing to this standard listener, and naturally it has failed. For the standard listener does not in reality exist.

There are listeners and listeners. Some want one thing and some another. All want some variety in the programmes presented to them, but not the same variety. To some extent indeed the possessors of the better receiving sets can achieve the variety they want by tuning in now to one station and now to another. But even so, they encounter the difficulty that nearly all the programmes are compounded to a single recipe, and based on this same erroneous assumption of the standard listener.

There are, indeed, some few things to which the great majority of people want to listen. The very latest news during a really serious crisis is the most obvious case; for people do want to hear such news, even if they have no reasonable assurance that it is likely to be true. The same desire that causes special editions of the papers to sell like hot cakes makes most listeners put on the ear-phones or let their loud-speakers talk. But such cases are relatively rare; for the most part different sorts of people want to hear different things, and the attempt to provide a common programme for all sorts is bound to be a most unsatisfactory kind of compromise. It results in programmes which are a mere hotch-potch, and it sets all sorts of people writing to the BBC or to the papers to offer their advice.

In fact, of course, the problem is insoluble along the lines hitherto followed. There is no way of solving it except by recognising the different demands of different types of listeners. It is intolerable, when the busy man has some free time, to confront him with the alternative of, say, listening to Sir Oliver Lodge or nothing – he may not like listening to Sir Oliver Lodge, or even to any sort of lecture. There ought always to be alternative programmes available, and the alternatives ought to be available to all sorts of listeners and not only to the possessors of expensive sets. But alternative programmes alone, as the owners of such sets well know, will not solve the problem. It is necessary that the alternatives should be devised to appeal, not all to the fabled standard listener, but to listeners of different types and interests.

This point arises most obviously as soon as any attempt is made to put the resources of the wireless to educational use. The BBC, we believe, is at present investigating this problem, and discussing whether it shall undertake to provide an alternative educational programme. Recent attempts to infuse further educational elements into the existing programmes have led to a good deal of public protest; and no wonder, for there are a great many people who have no desire whatever to listen to educational lectures over the wireless, while among those who do want an educational service many are not unnaturally contemptuous of the fare at present provided. An educational programme, broadcasted on the ordinary wavelength, and stuck into the intervals of the ordinary programme, is bound to be a poor affair at best. Lest the standard listener should be unduly outraged, the lectures are carefully made “popular” in their appeal. There are more odd single lectures than consecutive courses; and even consecutive courses have to be treated on the assumption that it is mainly accident whether they are listened to consecutively or not.

Under these conditions, it is neither here nor there to blame the BBC for the poorness of the fare. The conditions themselves are wrong. If the listener who does not must be protected against having either to be educated against his will, or deprived of any programme at all. Some day, it is to be hoped, it will be possible to provide many alternative programmes. Till that can be done, we must be content with less; but a beginning might well be made with a distinct educational programme, based on a separate wave-length of its own.

To some, entirely sceptical of the educational value of the wireless, this may seem an unnecessary innovation. But there is a strong case for the view that broadcasting can profitably be put to educational use. From the standpoint of those interested in the rapidly developing adult educational movement, the case is clear. Broadcasting is no substitute for the work they are doing already; but it may be a very useful supplement, both in reaching isolated and scattered students for whom it is impossibly expensive to provide by the regular means of classes, and for interesting that wider section of the public which is the potential recruiting ground for students in ordinary adult schools, such as those conducted by the WEA. To put the matter more plainly, there are advanced and scattered students for whom, in the subjects they desire to study, help can hardly be afforded by any means other than the wireless; and there is a large public which can be interested in educational work, and to which the wireless provides a valuable means of access. But, if the educationists are to have the chance of using broadcasting for these purposes, the types of listeners who do not want them must be protected against having education crammed into their unwilling ears.

There is another respect in which a separate educational wavelength could be distinctly useful. At present, there are fairly drastic restrictions on the broadcasting of controversial matter. As Mr Bernard Shaw put it the other day, only members of the Government – to whom we must not add Mr Shaw – are allowed to make controversial statements over the wireless. Ordinarily, the lecturer who is invited to broadcast has to submit a manuscript in advance, and is supposed to adhere to the letter of what he has written down and submitted to censorship. Such a condition is obviously, for a very large number of lecturers, fatal to good work. For, apart from the actual conserving of what is said, rigid adherence to a written lecture must have, for many speakers, a tendency to cause dull and mechanical talking. This would not, indeed, afflict all lecturers alike, and some would be suited by the conditions; but it is hardly compatible with getting the best men to do the best work.

Moreover, the exclusion of controversial matter is, in the long run, obviously a futile and impracticable policy. There are many subject which simply cannot be treated except in a controversial way, and the definition of what is controversial plainly varies with the person making it. The BBC’s announcements during last year’s “General Strike” – fair on the whole as the company tried to make them – were certainly not regarded as non-controversial by the main body of the strikers; but Mr Shaw – who has since got more than his own back on the Postmaster-General – was not allowed to be broadcasted some time ago because of his refusal to give a pledge to say nothing controversial. The restriction is absurd on the face of it; and yet there is a case for it, under present conditions. Could not a half-way house be found, for the moment, by removing the ban no controversial matter for educational programmed supervised by responsible educational bodies such as the Universities or the WEA?

In writing this in support of a separate educational wave-length, we do not wish to give an exaggerated impression of our faith in the educational value of the wireless. Broadcasting is in some ways very like the newspaper, which is certainly not in any marked degree an educational instrument. But it need not be, as it is at present, analogous to a world in which the only newspaper obtainable is the Daily Mail. It must continue to provide widely acceptable programmes, and, as long as the alternatives are limited to one or two, it cannot escape altogether from the fallacious assumption of the standard listener. But its responsible controllers can at least begin to think more in terms of the diverse sections of which the potential listening public is composed, and, without sacrifice of majorities, begin to make some effort to meet the needs of articulate minorities as well. This is clearly not to be done by merely multiplying lectures of the existing types, but rather by providing lectures and courses of different kinds. Moreover, it seems important that such work should be developed in the closest possible conjunction with the existing educational bodies. There is a place for the wireless in the world of such bodies as the WEA; but this clearly needs working out in close cooperation with the WEA and the teachers engaged in adult education. There is also an obvious place for the wireless in the school especially in connection with the study of music; and this again needs working out in co-operation with the teachers and the local education authorities. In both spheres, the contribution of the wireless is, we think, likely to be only a minor contribution; but that does not mean that it is not worth a good deal of thought and conscious control, if only to protect us from being flooded by an endless stream of popular lectures of as little value to anyone as of interest to the great majority of listeners. The place of broadcasting in educations needs thinking out; and we are glad that the BBC is taking up the problem. Any solution is bound for the present to be only experimental and provisional; for the wireless is still in an early stage of development, and we are still largely ignorant of its potentialities and limitations. It may have little educational contribution to make; but what it has will certainly be the better if it is made the in the right way.

The above piece was uncovered during ongoing research for The New Statesman Century, available August, 2013.