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’.”