Small world, big circles 

15 September 2014

All new technologies are at first the preserve of the enthusiast. Television sets had to be built from a kit. Computers required a soldering iron and a knowledge of assembler or Z80. The internet need a phone line, a squeaky modem and plenty of patience. Eventually, they all become commonplace, with your children and your grandparents all thinking nothing of switching on the 3D HD satellite TV, grabbing their tablet computers and searching Google.

Thus is was with radio. At first it was the preserve of enthusiasts because it was technical and complicated. You built your own set with a crystal and a cat’s whisker. Then along came consumer units – still technical, still requiring retuning and the replacement of valves. But while the public adopted radio as soon as sets were simple and affordable, the enthusiasts continued (to this day) to push the boundaries of the medium.

The BBC recognised this. The Radio Times was published for the average listener at home to plan their listening day. But a second magazine was also produced – World-Radio. This BBC magazine was aimed at the enthusiast for radio who wanted more out of the new technology. This enthusiast would be armed with co-axial cables and valves, his (nearly always his) set with a removable lid, his garden strung with a long receiving wire, an earth-plate sunk below the petunias. He (nearly always he) sought greater fidelity, better reception, louder sound and lower noise. He also sought further away stations, branching out from the National Programme and his local Regional Programme services across into neighbouring regions. Then from there into neighbouring countries. Finally, he would invest in a short-wave receiver and all the required accoutrements and start to tune into the world.

World-Radio was his handy guide to this world of radio. With features on better reception and letters for fellow enthusiasts, World-Radio was a great hobbyists magazine. With the addition of programme guides and schedules, the enthusiast could draw his family in. No more listening to the squeaky sounds of a baffling language – now the whole family could sit down and enjoy a symphony from Prague, dance music from Schenectady, or a marching band from Melbourne. Choice, not just the BBC’s offered choice between National and Regional, was there for the enthusiast and for his family.

Like all enthusiasts’ magazines, there were in-jokes and humour for the “those in the know”, mixed with features for the listener and his family and technical matters to confuse or enlighten those who read through the magazine.

The BBC being the BBC, there was an emphasis on public service programming from other stations. Commercial stations in Europe aimed at the UK were barely mentioned at all – although commercial stations in the USA, not aimed at competing with the BBC or parting British people from their cash, still got featured. The Empire Programme (now the BBC World Service) also got listings in World-Radio. It never appeared in the Radio Times as the BBC chose to pretend it wasn’t listened to in the UK and thus such annoying matters as royalties and needle time didn’t have to apply quite so rigidly. But World-Radio was free to list the Empire programmes – the listener who read the magazine would be listening in now and again whatever.

Clearly receivable in the UK were broadcasts from Germany. This was seen, originally, as a good thing. The memories of the horror and slaughter of the Great War were in the minds of population even into the late 1930s – BBC Director General John Reith having only to look into the mirror to be reminded of what he experienced. The BBC’s motto – Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation – was based on the idea that if everyone could hear everyone else, if countries discovered they had more in common than they had differences, the Great War could indeed be the war to end all wars. Universal peace was possible, if we just listened to each other.

It was not to be. The National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, known to history as the Nazi party) came to power in 1933. By 1934 they had consolidated control of the country and the slow slide into war and Holocaust began. World-Radio frankly mentions the Propaganda Ministry (the word “propaganda” was neutral at the time, meaning merely “information”. The Nazi use of it would change the word to its current meaning) and its use of radio on the German population. As war approached, the ever-larger Nazi empire turned its radio transmitters outward, broadcasting propaganda to the people of Europe in their own languages.

When war finally came in September 1939, World-Radio was folded into the Radio Times. A small selection of friendly European stations were mentioned on a single page of each Radio Times, until they were too swallowed up by the Nazi onslaught. The American shortwave stations remained, the BBC carrying out government policy of reminding the British to love the Americans and the Americans that they should love the British. The list of stations in the Radio Times lasted beyond the war, but slowly got smaller and eventually disappeared. World-Radio never reappeared, but its name lives on in the publisher’s small print of today’s privatised Radio Times – “incorporating World-Radio”.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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