BBC Transcription Service 

10 June 2022


Cover of Ariel for April 1957

From Ariel, the house magazine of the BBC, for April 1957

Several hundred BBC transcriptions are broadcast each year by stations of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, and over Canadian Broadcasting Corporation networks. Large numbers are also broadcast by Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Guiana, British Honduras, Ceylon, Cyprus, Falkland Islands, Fiji, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Ghana, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Kenya, Leeward Islands, Malaya, Malta, Mauritius, Nigeria, North Borneo, Northern Rhodesia, Sarawak, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somaliland, Southern Rhodesia, Tanganyika, Uganda, and the Windward Islands. In India and Pakistan, owing to the emphasis on vernacular broadcasting, the number rebroadcast annually is smaller. In the U.S.A. over seventy individual stations subscribe to the Transcription Catalogue, and records of programmes selected by them are mailed direct from London. In addition the New York Office of the BBC supplies many transcriptions for use by the major American networks over several hundred stations from coast to coast. BBC transcriptions are supplied to broadcasting organizations in many foreign countries including Austria, Burma, Ethiopia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. During the coming year it is hoped to extend the supply of programmes to foreign countries considerably.

Since under British law no record of a broadcast may be made without the consent of the performer and the owner of copyright, the terms under which transcriptions are produced are covered by formal agreements between the BBC, artists, artists’ unions, owners of copyright, and others. These agreements not only fix scales of payment which in certain cases exceed the cost of a domestic broadcast, but also place certain restrictions on the use of records which vary according to the type of programme produced and the country in which the transcription is broadcast. Broadcasting stations using BBC transcriptions, however, are liable for the payment of performing fees for all copyright music included in the programmes.

Dollar Gain

Malcolm Frost

Malcolm Frost

Performing fees accruing from the reproduction of British works included in our programmes represent a considerable gain, much of it in dollars, not only to the composer, but to the national income. Not only do composers welcome transcriptions. Many artists find that apart from the advantage of extra fees, the world-wide publicity encourages the sale of their commercial gramophone records on which they draw royalties.

It is impossible for the BBC Transcription Service to ignore the competition from other transcription services and, to some extent, from commercial long-play records. This competition is in many ways salutary since users of transcriptions are becoming increasingly more critical of the intrinsic quality of programmes, technique, including balance, and the general technical quality of the recording and pressings. Those broadcasting organizations which have gone over to FM transmission are naturally most critical of technical standards. For these reasons all programmes which are marred by line noise, interruption, distortion, noisy disc inserts, poor balance, must be summarily rejected by the Transcription Service. To avoid these risks we rarely take programmes over line outside the London area, but record on site. The advent of commercial long-play records has affected our selection of music programmes considerably. A station which may no longer be interested in a transcription of a symphony concert recorded in a studio because the works may be available on commercial LP’s, may be glad to have the same programme recorded from, say, the Proms, the Edinburgh Festival, or from Aldeburgh. Such a programme will have the authentic atmosphere of a major musical event, which does not exist in the case of a commercial LP or a BBC studio performance. For the same reason we also tend, in the case of studio performances, to concentrate on new or lesser-known works and interpretations which may not be available on commercial LP’s. Many of our music programmes will be broadcast to 500 or 600 stations in the Commonwealth, in the U.S.A., and in European and other foreign countries. They will thus be critically judged not only against the best local programmes but against other transcriptions and commercial records. Not only programme staff, but also our recording engineers must keep abreast of the standards and output of our competitors. Because of the special requirements of the transcription market, the need to maintain the highest standards, and certain difficulties over copyright works, many music programmes are produced specially for the Transcription Service by T. M. O. — Ivor Walsworth, or by Maud Hamill who looks after our light music.

How do we select programmes included in Transcription output? This is a question I am most frequently asked, especially by those who feel that their programmes have been summarily or haphazardly rejected. No broadcasting organization is under any compulsion to include BBC transcriptions in its own output. It follows, therefore, that in our selection of programmes we must carefully study the requirements of the market. We are in regular touch with our customers by correspondence, they frequently visit us at Maida Vale, and we carefully watch the sales graph of every programme. In addition, before committing ourselves to the cost of a major series of programmes, or even a highly expensive individual programme, we may take soundings by post or cable of some of our major users.


People crowded around a boardroom table

Transcription Service Programme Planning Meeting.


Special Interest Requirements

A man at a record player

E-i-C F. W. Chignall tries out a LP disc.

Furthermore, we encourage our major users to study the advance copies of Radio Times, which are in many cases sent to them by airmail, and to notify us by cable of their special interest in a programme. We divide our English output into nine main categories: Actuality, Children, Features and Drama, Music Light, Music Serious, Religion, Schools, Talks, and Variety. Each category of programmes is the special responsibility of one assistant who keeps in close contact with his opposite numbers in the supply departments and in the Regions. The advance programme schedules of all output departments, both in London and the Regions, are carefully studied by the assistants, and from these schedules a preliminary selection of programmes of likely interest to the Transcription Service is made. Certain programmes may be specially recommended to us by producers and others. This preliminary selection of programmes is reviewed at a weekly departmental meeting, chaired by H. T. S., when a further process of elimination takes place. By this time we may have seen scripts, or we may know that we shall be unable to obtain contractual clearance for transcriptions. Those programmes which survive this further scrutiny are ear-marked for recording on tape at St Hilda’s or in the Regions. The recording is subsequently auditioned by one or more assistants, whose reports are available to H. T. S., accompanied by an engineering report on technical quality and suitability. Before a final decision is taken the programme may be auditioned by H. T. S. or A. H. T. S. and in certain cases by other senior officials in the Overseas Service. Domestic audience research figures mean little to the Transcription Service. Many programmes which have high audience research figures here have virtually no market overseas.

Once a programme has been selected, full details are printed in the Transcription Catalogue sheets, which together with a blank order form are sent by airmail to all our customers. These Catalogue sheets contain information which can be used for press publicity, and are sometimes accompanied by illustrations. While we wait for orders any necessary amendments are made to the programme. These may involve editing, new presentation, and in a small number of cases new productions. At the same time the Programme Executive Unit, under Miss Fleming, clears Transcription rights with Programme Contracts and Copyright Departments. In the meantime the completed programmes are transferred by the engineers, under E-i-C — F. W. Chignall — from tape to 10 in. or 12 in. long-play discs, ready for one or other of the commercial factories which process our records. The Kardex Section, under Bob Denyer who also runs Despatch, now collates the returned order forms from the customers. Once the total demand is known the process of manufacture begins and our order for pressings is based on the number of requests from subscribers. To avoid losses from surplus stock prior knowledge of demand is essential before we order records from the factory. Back from the factory the records are packed in special cartons, complete with necessary invoices which are later used by Accounts, and accompanied by continuity sheets, copyright details, and conditions of supply, the records are shipped to their various destinations, sometimes by surface and sometimes by air freight.




While BBC transcriptions are financed out of Grant-in-Aid, with very few exceptions all subscribers contribute to their cost. Charges are reviewed annually. In some cases an annual contribution entitles a subscriber to receive any or all of the programmes issued. Smaller stations pay only for programmes selected individually. Apart from the basic English Transcription Service, a small number of specialized transcriptions are issued each year, both in English and in certain foreign languages in collaboration with the European Services and the Overseas Regional Services. These include English by Radio, Colonial Schools, Lernt Englisch, and a limited number of programmes in German, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. The Transcription Service also acts as a distributing point for the dispatch of all recorded programmes specially requested and paid for by overseas broadcasting organizations.

If any reader of Ariel wants to know more about Transcription output, a bound copy of the Catalogue is available in the B.H. Library, or in the office of overseas producers in Regions. If they want to know still more, write to me and I will be glad to arrange for a discussion group and tour of St Hilda’s.


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