Ninety years of BBC radio – listening back through time

On 14 November 1922, the first ever BBC radio broadcast went out. At troubled time for the corporation, remind yourself of all the great things it has done in the last 90 years.

It’s easy to forget that there was once a time when there was no BBC. But 90 years ago today, the British Broadcasting Company (it became the Corporation in 1927) made its very first radio broadcast, from the 2LO station based at Marconi House on the Strand.

The very first words uttered on air were “This is 2LO calling, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company calling. This is 2LO calling”. Listen here:

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s the very epitome of what we think of when we think about the BBC in the early twentieth century, right down to the clipped tones of that oh-so-BBC accent.

In case you’re worried that the BBC is facing an unprecedented barrage of criticism, put your mind at ease. As this article from 1927 by G D H Cole, published in the New Statesman shows, the corporation has always been at the centre of the debate about “standards” – he wrote:

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.

If that’s whetted your appetite for BBC talk radio nostalgia, there’s plenty more you can enjoy. BBC Radio 4 Extra has put together a series called 90 by 90, which is made up of 90 90-second programmes dropping in on a particular moment each year that BBC radio has been broadcasting. As producer Nick Baker has explained here, selecting which moments to pick was incredibly difficult – made even more so by the decision to limit each mini-programme itself to 90 seconds.

To kick off then, let’s have the first live outside broadcast – cellist Beatrice Harrison playing “Danny Boy” in a Surrey garden in 1924, accompanied by a chirruping nightingale.

Bip, bip, bip, bip, biiiiiiip. Five little sounds that can startle you out of a doze, shoo you out of the house if you’re running late, or taunt you if you’re willing time to pass.

You probably know where I’m going next - 1925, and the story behind the pips.

They’re so much part of the aural furniture of BBC radio that we barely think about them, yet we would feel like something was profoundly wrong if they suddenly disappeared or mysteriously multiplied.

On 18 April 1930, the BBC infamously announced that there was no news and then played some piano music instead:

In 1943 George Orwell resigned from his job as a talks producer at the World Service over his frustration at the censorship of his pieces – he said “I’m just an orange that’s being trodden on by a very dirty boot”.

You can’t survey Radio 4 without mentioning the Shipping Forecast. Whether you’ve listened to it in the customary state of slight bafflement as an insomniac desperate for sleep, when drunk having just crashed through the door, or on a small boat in the middle of the North Sea with no land in sight (I’ve done all three), it's a constant source of reassurance that everything will be just fine. Here, former coastguard Ian Stephen recalls how important it was for him:

In 1963, The Beatles were interviewed on BBC radio – they actually said “if we do as well as Cliff and The Shadows we’ll be doing ok”, by the way – and responded to Ted Heath’s recent disparagement of their Liverpudlian accents by attempting to “talk posh” like the BBC.

“I’m five feet six inches tall, and when he died I think I grew another five feet six inches.” In 1968, Nina Simone spoke and sang about the death of Martin Luther King. I challenge you not to want to cry during this one:

The Great Storm of 1987 plunged BBC radio into the dark. Sue MacGregor recalls trying to present the Today programme with only a torch, a typewriter and John Humphrys for company:

In 1990, the BBC World Service broadcast special messages of support for Terry Waite, who was being held hostage in Lebanon:

Finally, it’s worth hearing from Brian Roberts, the man who tried to futureproof BBC radio at the end of 1999 to make sure the Millenium Bug didn’t take it off air.

For me, this remark somehow encapsulates all that is best about the BBC:

“We were there, we were ready. It got to midnight, and nothing happened. So we looked at each other and we said ‘we’ll give it five minutes’.”

 

Two singers singing at a microphone during a recording session for a BBC radio programme in 1940. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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