Howard Thomas Part 2: Commercial Radio 

1 May 2005

Howard Thomas had the distinction of going head-to-head with the BBC three times in his long career. Before the war he help run the competition; during the war, he helped run the BBC; and after the war he helped run the competition again.

Tesie O'Shea

Tessie O’Shea, the voice of Cadbury’s on Radio Luxembourg

Before the Second World War, the BBC’s monopoly did not extend beyond the shores of the UK, and state and private broadcasters elsewhere took advantage of this, beaming programmes in English to the UK from stations like Luxembourg, Normandy, Lyons and Poste Parisien.

Because the BBC did not take advertising, there was a lot of money to be made for these stations from selling their airtime to sponsors. Advertising agencies recorded interesting, light and tuneful programmes – the exact opposite of most of the BBC’s pre-war output – in London, inserting tasteful references to their clients. The discs, or later metal tapes or film recordings, were then shipped to the stations to be played out, linked together by British announcers at the stations themselves.

J Walter Thompson was the biggest ‘radio’ agency, but the money changing hands was so great that no agent, no matter what their size, could afford to be left out. Thomas’s employers, the London Press Exchange, was one such agency, and its roll of clients included Cadbury’s, Reckitt’s and McDougall’s – all of which operated in competitive markets and all of which were losing out to the radio-promoted competition.

Howard Thomas, having learnt advertising sales in the hardest and best way – sticking his foot in northern doors – turned his knowledge to getting LPE’s clients on air, despite their reluctance to spend in this “new” medium.

His first job was to swing Cadbury’s around. The firm was still then firmly family-controlled, and the Cadbury family was famous for its strict adherence to Quakerism.

The problem with this was that the best day of the week to advertise was a Sunday. The BBC’s competition of a Sunday was minimal, to say the least. There was less competition, too, from the cinemas and other forms of entertainment. In the north, where 6-day working weeks were still not unusual, Sunday was often the only day of rest for the breadwinner. Plus, unlike Saturday, the next day was a shopping day.

So much for the theory. In practice, some Quakers hold that “the first day” is their god’s day. Commercial transactions, work, entertainment, all of these distract from simply giving one-seventh of your week to god.

These two positions seemed irreconcilable, but Howard was determined to do his best. His experience in putting together a pilot show and attempting to sell it to the Cadbury clan was one from which he learned a lot – in the most painful way.

Determined to gently introduce them to broadcasting and to remain as inoffensive as possible in respect of their beliefs, Howard put together a carefully middle-of-the-road programme. Light music from a middle-ranking orchestra, gently put together with the lightest of touches and the softest of sells. Nothing they could possibly be offended by.

And nothing they could possibly be enthused by, either. Howard realised his mistake as he played back the recording to them and watched them listen in silence and without comment, then leave at the end in the same manner.

Here was a lesson Howard would never forget: always think big. The mistake cost him a client (at first: Cadbury returned to radio within a year, but on weekdays!) but taught him to be a showman – something he would perfect later at the BBC and bring to such dazzling effect later still at the heart of ITV.

The lesson learned, his next big contract was for Reckitt’s Blue washing soap. The tag line, “From Out of the Blue Comes the Whitest Wash”, produced a programme of ‘surprise’ items of music and guests called Out of the Blue, fronted by Ruth Dunning, later to become the voice of Persil from the first day of Independent Television.

The successes soon piled up. Howard Thomas became a sought-after name amongst the advertisers and this finally brought him to the attention of the BBC, where he made a nice sideline in selling scripts, although the staff job he had once hoped for continued to evade him.

There were also failures, although, again, he learned good lessons from them that would help later. Lesson Two was: don’t overreach yourself; Greys Cigarettes may sound like a perfect match to the Scots Greys’ military band, but shove the band in a small studio and try to make a 15 minute programme with them and the result is cacophony. Add a baritone to sing over a band that can only keep time if it is marching, and it isn’t marching, and the results are beyond description. The limits of the medium must be respected.

Lesson Three was to not trust what it said on the card when it came to entertainers’ talents and flaws. This was also well learned and had practical application later. For Howard, the lesson came when getting Renee Houston to be the voice of McDougall’s Self-Raising Flour. On paper she was exactly what was needed: warm, vivacious, experienced and popular. In practice, she was also unscriptable and had a line in foul language that – foreign broadcaster or no foreign broadcaster – simply couldn’t be allowed to air.

The fourth and perhaps most important lesson for the future was: be organised. With so much money washing around the radio business, and with clients clamouring to get on air, a simple slip could be a disaster.

Discipline was needed to spend a whole day writing and not to allow interruptions to the process, then switch to one day recording all the shows just written without allowing the typical writers’ need to constantly edit to intrude. This discipline would later be most useful when controlling the 1001 things needed when starting a television company from scratch.

By the time these lessons were learned it was 1939 and Howard Thomas was at the top of the professional tree in radio advertising. With new clients coming on board all the time, Howard was happy – but perhaps a bit restless. He had failed to get into the BBC, but managed, almost by accident, to beat it at its own game. He had mastered the art of making popular programmes for the mass audience. He had also found that advertising and programming have a lot in common, and that techniques used in one could be applied in others.

If the BBC had been more enlightened, they could have come knocking on his door for a management role there and then. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, they might have.

But the fullness of time wasn’t to happen. The natural progression of history was derailed on 3 September 1939, when the governments of Europe, for the second time in a generation, went to war.

Commercial radio was suddenly over. The BBC battened down the hatches. And Howard Thomas was out of a job.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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