Tonight’s BBC radio… in 1938 

7 February 2016

In the beginning there was local radio. With transmitters only able to operate at low power and no infrastructure to link individual stations together, the BBC set up an individual station for each city, and each station had its own management, schedule and style.

As time passed, it became possible to have transmitters that covered entire counties rather than just most of a city. Then the General Post Office worked out an economic way of building a network that would allow the BBC stations to be chained together to allow simultaneous broadcasting.

Both of these would take time and money to achieve, but the BBC had luck on its side: a government that wanted to spend its way out of recession, having discovered that austerity hadn’t worked and never would. The big industries of the day were invited to suggest projects that would expand British infrastructure, have lasting value to the economy and, especially, employ lots of people while they were being built and the government would offer cheap – or free – lending facilities to pay for them. A rash of steel works, electrified railways and new transmitters was the result.

The BBC called its expansion programme “The Regional Scheme”. It involved, first, taking the experimental Daventry long wave transmitter and making it permanent, offering one radio station programmed from London for the entire country (with opt-outs for Scotland because politics). Thus was the National Programme born.

Next, a high-power transmitter was built in each region-to-be, connected up to London – and the other regions – by the GPO, and the local stations that had opened in the 1920s were closed in favour of a new regional station combining the best practice, best talent and best management, in theory, of the local stations it replaced.

By 1938, that programme was almost complete. One station was left that was neither fish nor fowl – Stagshaw, serving the north east of England, was planned to be replaced by a fully-fledged North East region, but at this point was just a sub-region of the pan-North service. And there were three remaining local stations, 2BD in Aberdeen [2nd licence issued in the ABerDeen area], 6BM [6th licence, BourneMouth] and 5PY [5th, PlYmouth], now served by network connections and producing little of their own but not yet replaced by a high-power transmitter and converted to either a slave of the nearest region or a sub-region like Stagshaw.

Note that the two resulting networks, the National Programme and the Regional Programme, were not ‘streamed’. So, unlike today where there’s a permanent choice between, say, Radio 2 with its middle of the road pop and Radio 4 with its news and drama, each station offered merely a different thing to the other: classical music on the National vs dance music on the Regional, or a talk on one and a play on the other. Each Regional Programme station was also audible many miles from its base, so people in the North would often listen to the Midland or Welsh or Scottish Regional to give themselves a third option.

With that scene set, the Radio Times gives us a run down of the programmes for Monday 7 February 1938. Things worth noting include:

  • The broadcasting day begins at 10.15am, as we don’t want the frippery of radio distracting the workers from getting to their factories on time.
  • Every station starts with a religious service, mainly for those that cannot get to church every day, but also because how else do you start the radio day?
  • There are fill-in medium wave transmitters in London and the North region for the National Programme. They don’t come on air until it gets dark, which is when long wave reception can be prone to interference. As can medium wave, of course.
  • The National schedule looks crowded, because it is: with the whole country and all tastes to cover, it flits from subject to subject, genre to genre, style to style without embarrassment, but the result is a schedule that looks painfully unplanned and inconsistent to modern eyes.
  • After the service and the farmers’ weather and the shipping forecast, we have live organ music for 25 minutes, a talk for 20 minutes, 15 minutes of German-language schools instruction, 15 minutes of classical records, a religious history programme for 25 minutes, live classical music for 35 minutes, pop records for 30 minutes, half an hour of live organ music again, an interval to let you get over this heady excitement, more schools for 55 minutes, live music – halfway between classical and dance, so call it the Radio 2 of its day – for 35 minutes, schools again, live organ again, classical records and a live quintet.
  • And thus the daytime part of the National schedule passes. Dizzying, isn’t it?
  • The evening on the National properly begins at 6pm with The First News. There’s no news on the radio before 6pm in order to make sure people buy a morning paper and, if they’re really interested, their local evening paper too. There’s also no BBC news department to speak of. There’s a something of a news division for the Empire Service to the rest of the world, and for the Arabic Service, the BBC’s only non-English/Welsh station. There are also journalists editing agency reports down for the newsreader to intone. But it will take the outbreak of World War II before the BBC even considers “competing” with the newspapers and building a proper news service for radio.
  • At 7pm, Monday at Seven has been given an extra 15 minutes, as the page trumpets brightly. This is the first show today with a straight down the line entertainment remit and is like nothing we have today – live, some singing, some pop music, a couple of short dramas, puzzles, a sports roundup, a pantomime and the Variety Orchestra. It sounds very like Going Live or Live and Kicking and various other Saturday mornings kids shows, and its influence on Nationwide more than 30 years later can be seen.
  • The film and cinema trade had panicked at the arrival of radio in the 1920s but soon learnt that they could work with the upstart medium by providing it with material and in return getting free publicity for their movies. The BBC happily conspired in this – you could argue that it getting free material in return for a plug is basically just advertising by another name – but nobody seemed to complain very loudly, especially as the BBC maintained editorial control. So at 8pm we have a series about films, happily made in association, as such, with the Gaumont-British chain.
  • The Third News is a 9pm. If you’ve missed the second, worry not – it was on the Regional at 7pm and we’ll get to it.
  • Peak time – the average for the UK being 7pm to 9pm at that time – ends and we go back to pleasing everybody, with an hour and 5 minutes of the BBC Orchestra in concert, some poems, live dance music and half an hour of dance records – all by Jack Hylton.
  • The London Regional Programme is not actually a Regional Programme – there’s nothing regional about it. It’s the national basic sustaining service, running at all times in the background, from which the other regions are opting out of (as London saw it) or opting back into (as the regions saw it). This attitude – part of the later “01 if you’re outside of London like 75% of our viewers” approach the BBC still has to this day – would remain visible in the post-war BBC Home Service, the BBC Television Service when it properly regionalised in the 1960s, and in [Associated-]Rediffusion’s mindset about its region and the ITV network for its entire lifetime.
  • The dizzying mix of programmes of the National is reflected on the basic Regional – orchestra, ensemble (code for “not quite as good as an orchestra”), show tunes on 78rpm records, a live concert, a live quintet, some middle-of-the-road records, two short stories read calmly and slowly without much talent by their author, more MOR orchestra, a recital (code for “practicing in public”) and whatever Friends To Tea would be described as.
  • Peak time is mainly music, compared to mainly talk on the National. Other days reverse this. Or put music up against music and talk up against talk. This was the era of choice being something you really didn’t want to go too far. And now there’s 147 different brands of breakfast cereal, well, perhaps we can understand why not.
  • 8pm sees Ken Snakehips Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra. Britain was a much whiter place before WWII, but don’t let anyone tell you it was exclusively “white” of culture or attitude: Britain is a place that has, for over two hundred years, loved curry, Caribbean music, Chinese New Year, sharing Passover celebrations, festivals of lights, parties for the end of Ramadan, the full works – Britain’s culture is the cultures that we have absorbed and made our own. Here, for half an hour, people can tap their feet, jig or just generally really enjoy Snakehips and his swinging music – and they did.
  • Three years after this Radio Times was published, a Nazi bomb hit the Cafe De Paris in London. The nightclub was underground, so people thought it was safe. It wasn’t. Snakehips, playing his regular set there, his saxophonist and at least 32 others were killed outright. Another 80 we injured.
  • The Midland opts out of London at 7.30pm for their local singing group to do some American numbers – most likely in a “minstrel” style, ho hum – before returning to Snakehips and then breaking away again at 9.20 for a godawful variety programme.
  • With no room for the Greenwich Time Signal nearby, the Midland play it out at 11.30pm, which seems just weird nowadays.
  • The North doesn’t take Snakehips, going from some Northumbrian Singers doing folk at 7.30pm through to an excerpt from the Theatre Royal, Leeds production of Aladdin, presumably provided free by Francis Laidler in order to sell more tickets.
  • The BBC Northern Orchestra plays some lighter – but not light-light nor dance – music at 9pm. Shades of the type of “doesn’t quite fit in the box” music of Radio 2 at 9 or 10pm now.
  • The West presents a repeat of a light entertainment musical programme at 8pm, before using a useful option of the sort-of federal nature of the Regional Programme – taking the Midland’s output at 8.30pm before nipping back to London.
  • Wales had long been combined with West due to a lack of frequencies. Finally a region on its own, the amount of Welsh-language programming expanded – there were still pockets of Wales where people didn’t know English, despite a century of Welsh Not repression – and in peak time too. This would obviously decline sharply when regional programming was abolished on the outbreak of war, but would be slow to recover afterwards too, with a full service in Welsh not appearing until 1977.
  • When the Regional Scheme first arrived, Northern Ireland’s 2BE was replaced by a short opt-out from the North region. This couldn’t last, and didn’t, fortunately, as the programmes here show that Northern Ireland had much to offer its own region that 15 minutes of news and announcements an evening couldn’t provide.
  • Finally, the Scottish Regional – the regional station that differed most from the rest of the network, because politics. And it is very different.
  • Note also how Aberdeen, one of the last pre-regional stations, freely picks between available networks and has one programme of its own – a recital of Highland songs at 2.05pm.
  • Stagshaw, neither Arthur nor Martha, also picks between available network offerings, but manages two of its own programmes, to a total of an hour.

You Say

5 responses to this article

Paul Z. Temperton 7 February 2016 at 3:59 pm

Very interesting piece, thank you. What a messy structure!

Nigel Stapley 7 February 2016 at 7:56 pm

Seeing what’s on the Regional at 3pm, it is said that an announcer years later on the Thrid Programme introduced one broadcast with the words, “And now Elgar’s Enigma Variations from the Bath Room at Pump”.

Arthur Vasey 8 February 2016 at 12:17 pm

The joys of live radio – Bath Room at Pump!

Other examples of live radio going all cockamamie include a live concert on the Third Programme – a cleaner walked into the studio that was being used to relay the transmission – he faded down the concert, opened the mic and said “This is the BBC – and this is Charlie Farnesbarnes cleaning it” (I made up the name – not sure what the name was).

As recently as about 1980, Radio 3 took a live concert from somewhere in America – I think it featured the Boston Pops Orchestra – they took the feed direct by satellite from the relevant radio station over there – the concert under-ran – the announcer on Radio 3 must have left the studio – didn’t get back quickly enough – and Radio 3 listeners were treated to the delights of an American commercial break!

Arthur Nibble 8 February 2016 at 2:01 pm

So, Children’s Hour includes ten minutes of yet more music (this time a pianoforte interlude) and the results of a competition from nearly four weeks ago. I have trouble remembering what happened yesterday, let alone that far back!

Another excellent and highly informative article on this bespoke site. Thanks.

Andrew Bowden 15 February 2016 at 9:56 am

I guess the cinema show shows how long a culture of promoting things on programmes has been with us. Although not everyone appreciates it. There are still occasional letters to the Radio Times etall complaining about shows being full of people plugging things, And all without contemplating that those doing so are generally not being paid – and if you’re not being paid, how else would you entice people into the studio?

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