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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories