BBC - The Empire "Tunes In"

Perhaps “wireless” came of age in America just a bit earlier than it did in the UK, but the late-blooming Brits made up for the delay with a more mature sensibility for radio. A very ‘British’ sort of broadcasting, which in the spirit of proper communication done properly began with the Post Office.

In 1920 the Marconi Company tapped on England’s door for permission to transmit from a newly-installed station at Writtle. Now, by the Telegraphy Act of 1869 (and a subsequent one in 1904), the Post Office had the right apparent to wireless telephony by sheer virtue of its kinship with telegraphy, control over which by the government department was uncontested.[1] Thus, the Postmaster General had the power to ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on Marconi’s request. Prior to Marconi charging across Europe on his audiophilic steed, the money-hungry manufacturers of those darling crystal homesets were begging the government to permit advertisements to run and more importantly for there to be some sort of broadcasting to make for the sort of commercials the “Yanks” were having overseas with great success. Yes, all those New York Times ads were only as a thin film on a tub of cottage cheese—the Stars and Stripes had filled the airwaves with entertainment promoting the ads with almost nauseating overcrowding due to a lack of proper limitations. The Post Office did not wish to follow America’s example wherein existed, to their British observation, “aerial anarchy: too many stations crowded the waveband, some on pirated frequencies and some using stronger signals to drown out their rivals.”[2]

Marconi received his permission, but the British Armed Forces and political structures were unhappy that the “frivolous” nature of the programming jeopardized serious point-to-point communications—only a limited number of frequencies existed for use. But the war had ended in 1918 (though revolution perpetuated like a tireless factory in Russia), thus the Post Office could not continue to deny radio manufacturers what they so desired and furthermore, the radio head citizens of England who had wired themselves a very workable situation and wanted to “have something to listen to”.[3] Yet, despite a temporary ban on broadcasting and continued pressures, Marconi went on to open a station in London. But he was not the only one the Post Office granted such consent. Western Electric and Metropolitan Vickers began their own transmissions after 1922 when the P.O. “acknowledged a distinction between wireless technology which addressed designated individuals and that which addressed all and sundry”.[4] However, the individual was still the recipient of that which was made out to “all and sundry”—perhaps, this was what Lenin meant by a wireless newspaper. The news goes from print to be read by one set of eyes as they sit in their living room chairs or stand on the street corner, but millions look upon the same words; with radio, the news could be heard by one set of ears though millions would register the same sounds. And the very nature of telephony could not be thought of as less sensory than words on a page inasmuch as a phone call has greater capacity for conveying emotions and meaning than even a handwritten note.

 Thus, the Postmaster General thought it best to come to an arrangement of sorts which allowed for regulatory broadcasting that was inclusive of all the manufacturers without creating the a la America telephony-cacophony.

Its solution was to invite the leading British wireless manufacturers (six large companies and several small ones) to form a broadcasting syndicate. The service they collectively provided would stimulate the sales of the receivers they made, which the government would protect from foreign competition.[5]

The result was a monopoly dubbed the British Broadcasting Company and had 31 sturdy employees at the outset with the young Scottish engineer John Reith installed as head though what he could have truly known about the concept of “broadcasting” was dubious.[6] This primitive BBC began its wireless service on November 14, 1922—not so curiously one week after Comintern Radio had its revolutionary debut.[7] The celebrated program Children’s Hour began in 1922 and dramatic readings and music for the adult listeners, proving that form an early stage the BBC, regardless of whose interests were playing into the organization, had human connection as its principle aim.[8] Reith himself, though he was a tad green-eared and his collar too white from Calvinist starch, came to loathe Marconi’s type of frequency frivolity. He instituted a “centralized programming policy” from 1925, which eliminated the locality of content and Therefore, from the outset the BBC took a path that was much more arrow straight than the broadcasters of other countries, to either the West or the East. Propaganda wasn’t a necessity. Entertainment—too rotten. Commerciality—practically a cardinal sin. What was left, then?



Reith and Company did quite well, impressing the government with the quality of programs and assiduous management. Consequently, in tandem with the improvement of technology (i.e., the development of the loudspeaker), the audience expanded at an unbelievable rate. Perhaps, the Brits didn’t know who the listener was exactly, but they were acutely aware that the listener existed.

The country took to sound broadcasting with boundless enthusiasm: during the mid-1920s houses in towns and cities began to sprout aerials like a strange new vegetation. In 1923 the Post Office issued 80,000 licences, but in 1924 these jumped to one million, a figure which doubled over the next three years… The actual audiences were huge. After 1928 no programmes were heard by fewer than a million listeners and some attracted 15 million.[9]

No doubt, this exponential rise in demand tipped off the government: there was something phenomenal at play here, and it was necessary to be more attentive to the expansion of the wireless service and therefore its content. Reith himself believed broadcasting couldn’t just be for the monetary benefit of manufacturers; the technology was too sacred for ruinous callousness when the medium “entered both the rich person’s mansion and the poor person’s cottage”.[10] Radio was a gift. Radio should not be squandered. And the UK, with millions of citizens attentively tuning in, did not wish to squander the opportunity to connect. But without knowing who was at the loudspeaker, they had to do some imaginative constructing of the audience, not so surprisingly cutting out the listener according to the image of the general demographic of the BBC employees: educated middle-class with aspirations towards self-improvement and high moral and familial values.[11]


On New Year’s Day in 1927, a royal charter established the British Broadcasting Corporation with a specific directive to “inform, educate, and entertain”, prohibiting commercials of any kind.[12] Then, half a decade later, the BBC, housed originally at Savoy Hill, acted upon their long-standing imperialist dreams to expand their reach and influence, casting a connective net across royal territory far and wide. Thus, the Empire Service (later more appropriately named World Service) launched. But reportedly, money was an issue. BBC’s appointed Director General, naturally Sir Reith, the birther of the concept of public radio, decided to allocate a very miserly amount of ten pounds a week for the endeavor, stating with martyr-like seriousness as a true British soldier going forth to battle: “We will transmit simple programs, so that listeners can understand them easily on short waves. However, with such a small budget, these programs are unlikely to be very good or interesting.”[13]But just simply dispensing information doesn’t a listener make. How did an institution gather an audience and keep them captivated?

King George V, who took ill at 1928’s end which no doubt contributed to his resistance to the microphone, had been uninterested in the prospect of broadcasting to his subjects for the purported reason that a certain distance had to be maintained between the ruler and the ruled in order to keep the myth or mysticism of the position strong. Who else apparently thought this way? Josef Stalin. To keep the cult of personality going, he tended to avoid crowds and speaking excessively. And since George V was a cousin of former Tsar Nicholas II (to where both men bear an uncanny resemblance to each other), not so surprisingly, the British king seemed to embrace this same mentality of “mystery and grandeur”. Ply as they might, the BBC couldn’t convince the stately and traditionalist George year after year to give a few words to the public via radio. But four years into his illness, in 1932, the monarch changed his mind and agreed to address the breadth of his kingdom on the brand-new Empire Service. Thus, he started the Christmas broadcast tradition that apparently remains to this day with the BBC. His speech was written by Mr. Jungle Book himself, Rudyard Kipling, and son Edward VIII, future king, was present at the broadcasting. 

Through one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled this Christmas Day to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire. I take it as a good omen that wireless should have reached its present perfection at a time when the Empire has been linked in closer union, for it offers us immense possibilities to make that union closer still. It may be that our future will lay upon us more than one stern test. Our past will have taught us how to meet it, unshaken. […] I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all, to men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea that only voices out of the air can reach them, to those cut off from fuller life by blindness, sickness or infirmity, and to those who are celebrating this day with their children and their grandchildren, to all, to each, I wish a happy Christmas. God bless you.[15]

It should be noted that by using Kipling, lauded poet and friend of George V that he was, one of BBC’s own values blared through: the unofficial official commitment to elitism. Yes, this was the king’s speech, yes, that made it extra important and necessarily only the best could and should have written it, but the BBC took every word sent over the waves seriously—for which they have both been praised and criticized over the decades—which necessitated that content reflected their commitment to airing the “best” (subject to their definition thereof). BBC has thus been accused of practicing elitism as it is taken to mean that their programming was meant for the upper crust who purportedly preferred this “best” of any given area: music, art, literature, etc. and thereby defined the category. Broadcasts for education purposes, whether the public wanted to be educated or not (again, education according to the terms of BBC, the organ which defined what was “best” for the people) played to the ideas of Walter Benjamin, wherein a political consciousness was necessary for information to be received and become knowledge. It seemed, then, that the BBC was trying to train the public en masse and for good reason—Hitler was stirring his cauldron, the Empire needed to be secured in the minds and hearts of the citizens. Educate the people, ground them in culture, and they won’t float away or be easily consumed by the Nazi wolf. Their policy, Reith’s goal, was thus to provide not just something for everyone but everything for someone, specifically the “best”. As unfeasible and overly ambitious as this idea was, at least they had a vision. BBC tried to be a one-stop, commercial-free, educational, body-mind-spirit experience all at the turn of the dial—the “Best” Broadcasting Corporation.[16]




But the lower rungs of the population did not share this rosy view of the BBC even while the upper strata did accept and appreciate Reith’s ideas of curated, high-brow broadcasting. “[W]hat Reith and the BBC were actually positing was a third notion of democracy which was concerned neither with majority nor universal preference but with what they perceived as universal needs: for the aim was to open up to all those who had been denied them by a limited education, low social status and small income the great treasures of our culture… Reith’s BBC offered a chance of spiritual if not material enrichment, a policy which was surely less cynical than providing only what they would certainly have enjoyed but which would neither have broadened their horizons nor raised their aspirations.”[17] This argument makes the case for what would eventually come to be known as BBC’s “cultural pyramid” (later-constructed by a future Director General, William Haley), wherein there were three tiers, three channels that each took care of a different strata of the population: highbrow, middlebrow, and populist. But even after Sir John Reith departed the BBC and Robert Silvey took his place, Reith’s uni-vision, as it were, for keeping the content standards high and exposing the public—all the public—to deemed “valuable things by chance” lingered in the organization even as he denounced this pyramidical approach as undemocratic, emphasizing class division instead of unifying and treating all as equal.[18]


However, proof that the BBC wasn’t entirely off in their moral radio compass came in the form of fan mail. Yes, such tripe has been deemed by experts as far from reliable and neither sent nor received in sound judgment, but there must be something to be gleaned, some message to be derived. In 1932, approximately 11,250 letters arrived. In 1934, 13,500. In 1935, 25,000. The numbers continued to climb. And interestingly, more than 60% of these came from listeners in the United States. What does this imply? That there was a portion of the American population that preferred listening to edifying, commercial-free radio over pure entertainment, not that American domestic radio didn’t have its merits. With the hiring of Robert Silvey as director general, the BBC engaged in conducting extensive audience research, which Reith had been opposed to for a long time.[19] The Empire Service broadcast to many aloof and distant parts of the globe which were politically closed to regional research; thus, although Silvey wanted to know who the listener was far away, he had to content himself to understanding the nearby receiver. Nevertheless, for these external areas, the BBC paid close attention to letters received and returned a questionnaire to the address, hoping for a response. In this manner, with time and patience, Silvey managed to gain a picture of what the global audience required. These letters, especially the ones from non-western countries, helped spur the multilingual direction of BBC as war again cruelly conscripted nations into service. 


The BBC added the Arab Service in 1938, connecting with audiences in Palestine and Egypt, and then the Latin American service to counteract Hitler’s and Mussolini’s long-distance messaging. Thus, the BBC changed their name from Empire Service in recognition of the fact that they no longer were addressing just the people under British rule. They were truly reaching the world. The next nation under serious service consideration was the Soviet Union. But Hitler’s torpedoing through Western Europe turned British attentions to Germany. British Prime Minister Chamberlain was knee-deep in trying to negotiate with Hitler in September 1938. He flew once on the 15th to meet with Hitler, wringing empty promises out of the dictator, and then again on the 22nd. Amidst this flurry of activity, and parceling out Europe to the ultimate mad man, the appeasement champ made an appeal to the people of the UK via radio. The significance of this speech was that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs required an immediate airing of the speech’s translation to both German and French. Thus, by the end of September, the BBC officially broadcast in 8 languages total, German being especially important to counteract the Nazi propaganda in that country.[20]

As a result of the broadcast making Chamberlain’s case for appeasement, however, many who heard were filled with a mixture of disgust or confusion. Winston Churchill received letters from prominent constituents who could not believe the words that had been spoken by Chamberlain much less the titles rendered to him. “‘Chamberlain the Peacemaker’, ‘God Bless Chamberlain’ were the captions of the Gaumont British newsreel of the flight to Hitler. What a deception of the British people,” one angry constituent from Essex wrote on September 20th. Perhaps, as a result of this fan mail, Churchill made his own international broadcast on October 16, 1938, directed both to the citizens of the UK and the American people:

It is no good using hard words among friends about the past and reproaching one another for what cannot be recalled. It is the future, not the past, that demands our earnest and anxious thought. […] If ever there was a time when men and women who cherish the ideals of the founders of the British and American Constitutions should take earnest counsel with one another, that time is now. […] Alexander the Great remarked that the people of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word ‘No’. Let that not be the epitaph of the English-speaking peoples or of Parliamentary democracy, or of France, or of the many surviving liberal States of Europe. […] We must arm. Britain must arm. America must arm. […] But arms—instrumentalities, as President Wilson called them—are not sufficient by themselves. We must add to them the power of ideas.[21]


Nearly a year later, on September 3rd, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany and Winston Churchill took his place behind the microphone as the new Prime Minister.

The British Empire learned to say “no”, but more importantly, they learned to listen.


Evacuation of children began immediately. Thousands were sent abroad to America, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere, but many were dispatched to the countryside, separated from their parents. But the BBC endeavored to minister to the war-torn families the world over. Therefore, new programs arose or otherwise gained popularity, such as the variety show It’s that Man Again, a titular reference to a headline from the Daily Express referencing Hitler’s latest action; Music While You Work, the name plainly indicated the purpose of lively band music broadcast through loudspeakers at factories; and another such program called Workers’ Playtime, intending to also keep workers’ morale and productivity high. How many factories? Thousands. How many workers? Over 4.5 million. All listening to radio, whether they wanted to or not. The Brains Trust was another show that began during wartime as was the singer Vera Lynn’s program Sincerely Yours made especially for His Majesty’s fighters wherever they might be.[22] As for the evacuated youth, Children’s Hour rose to importance. On October 13, 1940, 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth gave a special address, from BBC Studios, to the evacuated youth who had been sent to America, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and more. She spoke in a darling high-pitched, albeit steady voice that likely melted the hearts of parents most and helped to unify the nation at a time of darkness:

My sister Margaret and I feel so much for you as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all…  All of us children who are still at home think continually of our friends and relations who have gone oversees, who have traveled thousands of miles… I know you won’t forget us… We know… that in the end all will be well… Good night and good luck to you all.[23]


By Michelle Daniel (12/28/18)

[1] See Crisell, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting. P. 12.

[2] See Crisell, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting. p. 13.

[3] Ibid. pp. 12-13.

[4] Ibid. p. 13.

[5] Ibid, pp. 13-14.

[6] Ibid, pp. 13, 22, 24.

[7] Ibid, p. 13. See also Nelson, War of the Black Heavens, p. 2.

[8] Ibid, p. 14.

[9] Ibid, p. 16.

[10] Ibid. p. 38. Crisell references Broadcast Over Britain (1924) by Sir John Reith.

[11] Ibid. p. 38.

[12] Ibid, p. 22. Crisell observes that the BBC’s charter has remained largely unchanged even to modern day.

[13] Some information here is shared by Seva Novgorodsev who at the time of this research is writing a history of the BBC for Russian audiences. Quotes from Sir John Reith are paraphrased and translated from Russian by author.

[14] Duranty. “The Ways of Three Dictators: Stalin Lives in Seclusion.” March 11, 1934. The New York Times.

[15] Transcript of George V’s radio broadcast. BBC. December 25, 1932.

[16] Crisell, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting, pp. 29, 35-41.

[17] Ibid., p. 35

[18] Ibid. p. 68

[19] Ibid, p. 41.

[20] Information here is from the National Archives of UK and the Winston Churchill Archives. 

[21] Taken from recording of “The Defence of Freedom and Peace” speech by Churchill on October 16, 1938.

[22] Crisell, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting, pp. 58-59.

[23] “Children’s Hour | Princess Elizabeth”. October 13, 1940. Transcribed by author from BBC Archive.

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