Meet the Empire Announcers 

21 April 2022

Almost every letter received by the BBC from overseas listeners contains some reference to the announcers – a few of the critical, but the vast majority praising their friendliness, their informality, their pleasant voices. To these comments there are usually added questions: ‘Who are the announcers?’ ‘What do they look like?’ ‘What do they do in their spare time?’ This article by BASIL GRAY, Overseas Announcement Editor, is the answer to those queries



London Calling masthead

From ‘London Calling’ for 24-30 September 1939

ON December 19, 1932, the Empire Service was ushered in by the voice of W. M. Shewen, saying in slow and deliberate tones ‘This is London calling.’ And so a new Service was begun, and a new tradition in announcing established.

For a short time Shewen was the only Empire announcer, but with the rapid expansion of the Service the staff of announcers has increased from one to seven. This may surprise the many listeners who are still under the impression that one man is solely responsible for announcing Empire programmes — how often one sees a letter from some enthusiastic correspondent who wants the name of the announcer. R. N. Dougall, Senior Empire Announcer now that Shewen has taken up other duties in the Corporation, when confronted with such a letter remarked a little wryly: ‘They must think we are supermen’ — a reasonable comment when you consider that Empire Programmes are on the air for over eighteen hours out of the twenty-four.

A man sits at a microphone

John Selby in the studio

As I have said already, there are seven announcers, but as I write Dougall has been temporarily transferred to other work and the vacancy has been filled by a newcomer, John Sullivan. Dougall, who has been announcing for some years now, was originally in the Accounts Department of the BBC, but his knowledge of languages and his clear and colourful voice gave him obvious qualifications for announcing. In his spare time Dougall plays squash — and plays it well enough to be the BBC’s champion at the game.

Of the others, the senior is Patrick Butler, who was educated at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took an Honours degree in Natural Science. He came to Empire announcing some four years ago, after he had taken a course of training at a Broadcasting School, and has maintained his enthusiasm for announcing, whether he is engaged with programmes of light music, variety, the News, or classical music — although he confesses to a preference for the last. Chief among his hobbies are gardening and travelling, and he plays a vigorous, if erratic, game of tennis. He is also a keen motorist, but in this respect he is overshadowed by his colleague, Hugh Venables, who is the acknowledged motoring expert of the announcers.

A man in a very stiff collar and tight tie

R. N. Dougall, Senior Empire Announcer

Venables’ adventures began when he was very young – in 1914, when his father was taken prisoner by the German Army authorities and he and his mother were ordered to leave Mulhouse, Alsace, in twenty-four hours. In England he went to school at St. Paul’s, where he played a great deal of rugger, but, in his own words, failed to achieve any academic distinction. Schooldays over, Venables made a precarious but happy living at Brooklands Motor Track, tuning and selling cars. In May, 1935, he joined the Recorded Programmes section of the BBC where one of his duties was to speak the linking dialogue in sound pictures of important ceremonial and sporting events. It was noticed that he had a remarkably good voice for broadcasting, and after preliminary tests and training, he became a regular announcer on the Empire staff in June, 1938. In addition to his fondness for motoring, he has recently taken to flying, gaining his licence in record time. On the one occasion he was late for evening duty, his novel and truthful excuse that when flying over the Channel that misty afternoon he had lost his bearings turned official reprimand into interested inquiry.

Talking of flying, brings us to another announcer pilot, John Selby, who came to the BBC in 1936 as Senior Announcer and Outside Broadcast Assistant at the Manchester studios. Selby’s varied experience before coming to British broadcasting included film-making in Berlin, advertising, freelance journalism, and technical film studio work in France and England. His knowledge of French is excellent, and he announced for some time at one of the French commercial studios. He came from Manchester to Empire announcing less than two years ago, and his easy, informal manner at the microphone is already familiar to you.

Like Selby, John Sullivan, who was educated at Stonyhurst and at Neuchatel, Switzerland, had considerable broadcasting experience in France before coming to Broadcasting House at the end of 1938. He tells me that his most impressive experience there was when he gave a commentary on the Eucharistic Congress at Lisieux, which was attended by Cardinal Pacelli, now his Holiness the Pope.



The year-old appointment of Henry Straker was of special interest to listeners in South Africa, and a link between the Empire Announcers’ room and you who listen so many hundreds of miles away. Straker was from 1935 to 1937 History and English Master at the Diocesan College, Rondebosch, Cape Province, and subsequently Announcer-Producer at the Cape Town Station of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Naturally enough, he likes announcing Transmission IV [5.25pm to 11pm, aimed at Africa and Canada -Ed] best of all, and, judging by correspondence, you in South Africa have not forgotten him. He plays tennis, hockey, and squash, collects antiques, and sings (baritone)

The two other voices which you hear are those of V. D. Carse and R. S. Wessel. Dick Wessel, as his name suggests, is of Danish extraction, although he was born in England and educated at Beaumont College, Windsor. He spent two years learning languages in Denmark and Germany before he returned to England to work in the City. He had been four years in the tobacco trade before the attractions of broadcasting induced him to throw up his job and to apply for the post of announcer at Broadcasting House. Where literally hundreds fail, he was successful, and, in his own words, he got the work he wanted and liked it from the beginning. He designs furniture and is a keen photographer.



Before he started broadcasting in May, 1938, Carse had a varied and adventurous career. Quickly tiring of printing and advertising, he signed on as apprentice on the four-masted barque the s.s. Archibald Russell, one of the largest of the big square riggers built in England, for a nine months’ trip to Australia and back. After an eventful voyage, he returned home — only to leave again as an ordinary seaman on board the R.R.S. Discovery II. During the voyage, he qualified as an A.B. A member of the British Graham Land Expedition to the Falkland Islands, after four years’ absence, he returned to London. He started work in an office, but found it uncongenial and soon gave it up for broadcasting.

I hope you now have some idea of the young men whose voices you hear. They are all enthusiastically interested in their job and in you.


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