How the world was circled by a band of steel 

16 June 2022

Exactly 50 years ago a radio service, for expatriate Britons who ruled those parts of the map which were coloured pink, began



It was a nightmare to use – but the Blattnerphone was what made the Empire Service


Masthead of Ariel

From Ariel, the BBC staff newspaper, for 3 November 1982

“THROUGH one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled this Christmas Day to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire … I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all, to men and women so cut off by the snows and the deserts or the seas that only voices out of the air can reach them.”

King George V, making the historic broadcast which began an unbroken half-century of worldwide Christmas messages by three monarchs.

He was speaking on the BBC Empire Service, just six days old. The year was 1932.

It was slightly over 10 years since the BBC itself had come into being. But if Sir John Reith, its first Director-General, had had his way, King George’s broadcast would have happened years earlier. Reith, of course, had a good record of getting his own way — but the difficulties that had to be overcome, before the Empire Service went on the air, were almost overwhelming.

“The marvels of modern science” accounted for two major problems. Broadcasting overseas required totally different conditions and technology from broadcasting at home. And in the 1920s the technology was not there.

The national and regional programmes went out on medium wave. But this was unsuitable for an overseas service. Short wave — which reflects back off the ionosphere and so can leapfrog large distances — was what was needed. But then in its early stages, it was subject to distortion and fading and reception quality was unacceptably poor. It was the late 1920s before an acceptable service was feasible.

Another difficulty was the huge time difference between different parts of the Empire. Opinion in the BBC was overwhelmingly in favour of broadcasting live, both as a stimulus to artists and as a matter of pure principle. But nobody denied that an Empire Service would entail recording. You couldn’t bring performers into the studio in the middle of the night and transmit live programmes at different times to different parts of the globe. But the recording systems available in the 1920s were costly to use and produced poor-quality reproductions.


Hardly pretty – but very effective: the Blattnerphone.

It was not until 1931 that the BBC began using a machine which overcame these two objections. It was the Blattnerphone, which recorded on reels of steel tape. It was a nightmare to use — if the steel broke or the heavy reels flew off the spindles, as was not unknown, the tape would uncoil like a broken spring and lash out in all directions. Editing or repair was a welding job. But the quality was acceptable and the recording could be “wiped” and the tape reused.

It was the Blattnerphone that made the Empire Service viable.

“I am enabled to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire,” said the King, that Christmas Day. All through the 1920s when arguments raged about a possible Empire Service, nobody questioned that that was just what it should be: a service aimed specifically at the large numbers of expatriate Britons who administered British rule in those parts of the world coloured pink on the maps.

By the late 1920s, indeed, there were broadcasting services in many parts of the Empire, some run on BBC lines or set up with BBC help. But elsewhere — in Africa for example — there were no radio stations. And Britons abroad, tuning their imported short-wave sets to the “voices out of the air”, were loud in their disappointment that those which spoke their native tongue nearly always did so with American accents. In the 1920s it was the USA which was the great pioneer of short-wave radio.

By 1927 the wishes of their employees overseas had filtered through to the Colonial Office and the Dominions Office and these were in favour of an early start to a service for the Empire. But they were not the only government departments involved. The Home Office, the India Office, the Post Office and the Lord Privy Seal’s Department all had their own — and different — views. So did the Treasury, which was concerned with the really intractable problem — finance.

Then as now, the BBC was funded through the licence fee, which was at that time collected by the Post Office and passed on to the Treasury, which handed the BBC a percentage. Reith argued that licence-fee payers at home would not benefit from the new service and should not pay for it. He favoured financial contributions from the Empire itself. The Treasury was determined that the British taxpayer should not be asked to bear any part of the cost.

The Colonial Office — which administered the smaller and, in general, less developed parts of the Empire — was finally brought round to the view that a levy on colonial receiving-set licences should be raised to pay, at least in part, for a BBC Empire Service. But the Dominions — countries like Australia, South Africa, and Canada which had their own broadcasting services — naturally looked with disfavour on suggestions that they should also help pay for the BBC’s.

Meanwhile, in 1927, experimental broadcasts to the Empire began from a transmitter at Chelmsford, owned by the Marconi Company. It wasn’t ideal: it radiated on only one wavelength and the aerials weren’t directional. But it helped spread the idea of a new service. Powerful British press interests still restricted home news broadcasting, but an agreement had been reached about news for Britons overseas and the Chelmsford experiment carried a regular news bulletin, supplied by news agencies.

By 1930 Reith was able to submit detailed plans for an Empire Service to the various Ministries concerned. These were later modified to a more modest and economical scheme. But still there was stalemate. Even if the service could be funded, eventually, from overseas, the Treasury would still have to finance it initially. In particular, a transmitter to relay the new service could cost around £50,000 [£3.3m now, allowing for inflation – Ed]. And the Treasury was not, in the deepening financial crisis of that time, in the least likely to stump up.

Paradoxically, it was the financial crisis that finally broke the stalemate. The BBC, like everyone else, was asked to accept cuts in 1931 — a “voluntary contribution’, by accepting a lower percentage of the licence fee. Reith proposed instead that the BBC should pay for the Empire Service out of an unreduced budget.

This created a curious situation: many Government ministers approved the proposal but none would come out and say so in open debate. But Reith was sufficiently encouraged to go it alone. The Board of Governors approved the expenditure for two transmitters at Daventry, and they were built within nine months. On November 14, 1932 — 10 years to the day after the first BBC transmission on 2LO — tests began. The Empire Service opened five weeks later.


A transmitter mast and the king

A composite picture put out to publicise the Empire Service in November, 1935.


It began with a staff of four and no budget. The transmissions — two hours a day broadcast five times for five different time zones — were mostly repeats of domestic programmes. This was actually what overseas listeners wanted to hear. But the service caught on — the King’s broadcast brought in large numbers of listeners — and the hours were increased to 14½ a day with a weekly budget of £100 [about £7,150 today]. This was a big sum by comparison with the £10 that the first week’s programmes cost!

Meanwhile one of the founders of the Empire Service, Malcolm Frost, was sent by Reith on a tour of the Empire. Part of his purpose was to promote the new service — but he also carried a collection of disc recordings of BBC programmes, for sale to overseas broadcasting organisations. It was an effort to prevent such stations “pirating’’ the new BBC transmissions. So Transcription Service began.

Malcolm Frost was one of four men who guided the new service through the 1930s. At its head was Captain — later Sir — Cecil Graves, who had been Deputy Director of Programmes and was eventually joint DG. The other two came from the Regions: J.C.S. Macgregor, an announcer in Edinburgh, came down to head the growing Empire News, and from Manchester came J.B. Clark, who later, as Sir Beresford Clark, was Director of Overseas Services for 13 years.


Among the pioneers



Under these four the Empire Service, responding to a growing audience in North America and other parts of the English-speaking world, broadened its outlook. They saw, too, the start of foreign language broadcasting.

But responsibility for the growth of the service into its present scope and prestige rests with another man — a man prompted — indeed obsessed — with a vision of Empire. Like many of Reith’s appointments, he had seen military service. Like many of the politicians who bedevilled the growth of overseas broadcasting during the 30s, he understood its potential for conveying propaganda. During the 1920s, while the arguments about the Empire Service were being carried on, he was becoming increasingly influential in political circles, and he came to power within a few months of that December day in 1932 when the Empire Service began.

His name was … Adolf Hitler.


Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Friday 17 May 2024