The Romance of ‘Radio Times’ 

7 February 2022

by the General Manager, BBC Publications


The first number of ‘Radio Times’ appeared on September 28, 1923, and one hundred thousand copies were sold. Today more than eight million copies are printed every week at a plant specially built for the purpose. The story of this gigantic undertaking is told here by one who has been associated with ‘Radio Times’ since the early days




Radio Times Annual 1954 cover

From the Radio Times Annual 1954

WHEN you collect your copy from the hall — sometimes the doorstep, I’m sorry to record — or when you browse through Radio Times during the week, do you ever pause to think of the human endeavour, the machines, and the material which go into the production of eight million copies, each of fifty-two pages, every week?

It is a gigantic undertaking — and it nearly didn’t happen! Let me tell you something of how Radio Times started and what is involved in getting the full details of BBC programmes into eight million homes every week.

Broadcasting began in November, 1922, and in the summer of the following year the British Broadcasting Company, Ltd., the title of the BBC of those days, realised that there should be a broadcasting programme paper available for listeners.

In 1923 the main income of the BBC was a royalty on wireless valves. The BBC had no resources to start a paper of its own. Launching a paper is an expensive business, and publishers were very reluctant to put their money into a publication devoted to broadcasting, which they did not think had come to stay. Eventually Lord Riddell, then Chairman of George Newnes, Ltd., the well-known publishers and printers, decided to handle the new magazine. Radio Times was born on September 28, 1923. If it had not been for the courage and foresight of Lord Riddell, always a man of great vision, Radio Times might not exist today in its present form. Lord Riddell was also connected with the News of the World, the only weekly paper with a higher circulation than Radio Times, until this year, for Lord Riddell’s baby, Radio Times, now has the biggest circulation of any weekly in the world.

What did the first number look like? It had thirty-six pages, of which seven and a half were devoted to programmes. In London there was broadcasting from 5.0 to 10.30 p.m., with an hour in the morning, and the five provincial stations — Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle, and Glasgow — broadcast from 3.30 in the afternoon until 10.30 p.m. How different from the present day when there are programmes from 6.30 a.m. until midnight.

At the end of each day’s published programmes the name of the announcer was given, and it seems that the same announcer was responsible for the whole day. Interesting people, those announcers — C. A. Lewis, Uncle Caractacus of Children’s Hour; A. R. Burrows, Uncle Arthur, who later became Secretary-General of the international body concerned with broadcasting; Percy Edgar, the Midland Regional Director who retired a few years ago; E. L. Odhams, later Editor of World Radio, the prewar BBC publication, which contained foreign programmes and technical articles; R. F. Palmer, Uncle Rex; Harold Casey, still at Birmingham; K. A. Wright, now Head of Television Music Programmes; and many other names of those who have spent their lives in broadcasting. There were three humorous cartoons, an article on Mr. J. C. W. Reith, the General Manager, and ‘What are the Wild Waves Saying?’ by Peter Eckersley, the Chief Engineer. The fifteen pages of advertisements were devoted chiefly to strange-looking wireless sets and the latest in horn-type loudspeakers.



How different all this is from the modern Radio Times, published in seven editions so that the programmes in the Scottish, Northern Ireland, Welsh, North of England, Midland, and West Home Services can be given prominence in the appropriate editions. The excellent drawings by the most distinguished artists of our time, and the authoritative articles on music, drama, talks, and other subjects covered by the programmes are well-known features of the present Radio Times.

One hundred thousand copies of the first issue were printed and soon sold. In 1924 the sales reached 500,000 copies every week, and the million mark was passed in 1929. The next milestone was in 1934, when two million copies a week were sold. Since the war years sales have risen steadily, and for the first half of 1954 they reached the world record of 8,200,000 every week. The greatest number of copies ever sold of one issue was 9,012,000 — the Coronation Number in 1953.


Radio Times coronation number


At the end of 1936 the contract with George Newnes, Ltd., ran out and printers from all over the country submitted tenders for undertaking what even then was a task of some magnitude. Waterlow & Sons, Ltd., the well-known printers of stamps and bank notes, were the successful contractors, and began printing Radio Times in January, 1937, at one of the most modem letter-press printing works in Great Britain, which they had specially erected at Park Royal in Middlesex.

Never before had a printer built so large an establishment around a weekly magazine. The area of the room housing the machines is 31,200 square feet [2,899m²] and is entirely free from obstruction. Huge lattice girders supporting the roof thirty feet above the floor have a span of 136 feet [41m]. The seven Crabtree rotary magazine presses are capable of producing 23,000 copies an hour. Fortunately all of these machines have two folders, two stitchers, and two deliveries, so that they can be converted into fourteen machines, each capable of printing an issue of fifty-two pages. If it had not been for the foresight of the printers in ordering machines constructed in this way it would have been impossible to turn out the present number of copies in the time available.







For those of you interested in statistics: 45,000 tons [45,722t] of paper are used every year on Radio Times; before the war this paper cost £11 5s. a ton [£775 now, allowing for inflation] — it is now £51 10s [£1410]. More than nine tons of ink are used on each issue — nearly 500 tons in a year; and the little wires used in one weekly issue to keep the pages together, if placed end to end, would reach for 315 miles [507km]. The copies for dispatch have to be tied into nearly 40,000 bundles; this uses two tons of rope every week.

The editorial staff collect the material for an issue from the various programme departments of the BBC, assemble it, combine it with appropriate pictures, drawings, and articles, and pass the paper for press on Thursday evenings. The printing of the 8,000,000 copies starts in the early hours of Friday morning, and, apart from the week-end break, the machines run almost continuously, and the lorries roll into the loading dock to take the finished product away until early on the following Thursday morning, so that copies are available to the newsagents all over the country in time for delivery on Friday—the eighth day after press day.


The changing face of the Radio Times


Apparently the Germans were worried about the morale-building value of Radio Times during the war, because a photograph was found in the German Air Force files in Berlin of the Park Royal factory, which was scheduled for destruction by the Luftwaffe — they did hit it on two occasions, with only comparatively slight damage.


A factory building

The photograph, taken from German Air Ministry files in Berlin, shows that the Park Royal works at which ‘Radio Times’ is produced was scheduled for destruction by the Luftwaffe. It was damaged, but only slightly


Readers write to us on all sorts of subjects, and we are very pleased to have their letters. What do they write about? On the business side some ask why we do not publish only the programme details, leave out the editorial pages, and charge less than 3d [1¼p in decimal, 36p allowing for inflation]. There are a number of reasons against this: for one thing we think the great majority of our listeners like articles supporting the programmes, and in any case we could not charge less than at present because of the high price of paper and because of other production costs. A few readers complain about the advertisements, particularly on programme pages. We appreciate their point of view, but advertisements are an economic necessity for any publication, and it would not be possible to sell Radio Times for 3d. unless advertisements were carried. Radio Times does make a profit, in fact a very good one, but this benefits all readers because that profit goes back into broadcasting and is spent on programmes. So in effect every listener is a shareholder in Radio Times.

What do those responsible for Radio Times aim to provide? First and foremost a readable family journal with full, accurate details of all the programmes — at the lowest possible price. We should like to give you a magazine on better paper with pages of colour, but this would mean sacrificing accuracy, because such a paper would take longer to prepare and print — and it would cost more than 3d. Rotary letterpress printing is at present the only method that enables us to give you programmes right up to date, by going to press at the last minute, and even stopping the machines during the run to make corrections if a programme has had to be changed.

Before the war the sales of Radio Times were equal to 33 per cent of wireless licences, and now they equal 63 per cent. Those of us who knew Radio Times in its youth, and who remember the early struggles, feel that this growth in popularity and usefulness is a great and even a romantic achievement.


Courtesy of VHS Gold


You Say

1 response to this article

Glenn Reuben 30 October 2023 at 10:45 am

What is the show being photographed on the cover of the 1954 Radio Times annual, and who took the photo?

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