On this date in 1922 the British Broadcasting Company (later Corporation) was founded by a consortium, to establish a nationwide network of radio transmitters to provide a national broadcasting service. Radio broadcasting took off after World War 1 with stations like KDKA Pittsburgh broadcasting the November 1920 US Presidential election results and later the Baseball World Series. The U.S. went radio crazy with Stations launched at such a rate that by 1924 there were some 530 of them and radio receiver manufacturing was a booming business.
Britain’s first live public broadcast from the Marconi factory in Chelmsford took place in June 1920. It was sponsored by the Daily Mail’s Lord Northcliffe and featured the famous Australian Soprano Dame Nellie Melba. The Melba broadcast caught the people’s imagination and marked a turning point in the British public’s attitude to radio. However, this public enthusiasm was not shared in official circles where such broadcasts were held to interfere with important military and civil communications. By the autumn of 1920 pressure from these quarters and uneasiness among the staff of the licencing authority, the General Post Office (GPO) was sufficient to lead to a ban on further Chelmsford broadcasts.
But by 1922 the GPO had received nearly 100 broadcast licence requests and moved to rescind its ban in the wake of a petition by 63 wireless societies with over 3000 members. Anxious to avoid the same chaotic expansion experienced in the United States, the GPO proposed that it would issue a single broadcasting licence to a company jointly owned by a consortium of leading wireless receiver manufactures, to be known as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. John Reith, a Scottish Calvanist, was appointed its General Manager in December 1922 a few weeks after the Company made its first official broadcast. The Company was to be financed by a royalty on the sale of BBC wireless receiving sets from approved manufacturers and by a license fee.
The financial arrangements soon proved inadequate. Set sales were disappointing as amateurs made their own receivers and listeners bought rival unlicensed sets. By mid 1923 discussions between the GPO and the BBC had become deadlocked and the Postmaster-General commissioned a review of broadcasting by the Sykes Committee. The Committee recommended a short term reorganization of licence fees with improved enforcement in order to address the BBC’s immediate financial distress, and an increased share of the license revenue split between it and the GPO. This was to be followed by a simple 10 shillings license fee with no royalty once the wireless manufactures protection expired. The BBC’s broadcasting monopoly was made explicit for the duration of its current broadcast license, as was the prohibition on advertising. The BBC was also banned from presenting news bulletins before 7pm, and required to source all news from external wire services.
Mid 1925 found the future of broadcasting under further consideration this time by the Crawford committee. By now the BBC under Reith’s exceptional leadership had forged a consensus favoring a continuation of the unified (monopoly) broadcasting service, but more money was still required to finance rapid expansion. Wireless manufacturers were anxious to exit the loss making consortium with Reith keen that the BBC be seen as a public service rather than a commercial enterprise. The recommendations of the Crawford Committee were published in March the following year and were still under consideration by the GPO when the 1926 General Strike broke out in May. The strike temporarily interrupted newspaper production and with restrictions on news bulletins waived the BBC suddenly became the primary source of news for the duration of the crisis.
The crisis placed the BBC in a delicate position. On one hand Reith was acutely aware that the Government might exercise its right to commandeer the BBC at any time as a mouthpiece of the Government if the BBC were to step out of line, but on the other he was anxious to maintain public trust by appearing to be acting independently. The Government was divided on how to handle the BBC but ended up trusting Reith, whose opposition to the strike mirrored the PM’s own. Thus the BBC was granted sufficient leeway to pursue the Government’s objectives largely in a manner of its own choosing. The resulting coverage of both Striker and Government viewpoints impressed millions of listeners who were unaware that the PM had broadcast to the nation from Reith’s home, using one of Reith’s sound bites inserted at the last moment, or that the BBC had banned broadcasts from the Labour Party and delayed a peace appeal by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Supporters of the Strike nicknamed the BBC the BFC for British Falsehood Company. Reith personally announced the end of the strike which he marked by reciting from Blake’s “Jerusalem” signifying that England had been saved.
The BBC did well out of the crisis which cemented a national audience for its broadcasting and was followed by the Government’s official acceptance of the Crawford Committee recommendations transferring the operations of the Company to a British Broadcasting Corporation established by Royal Charter. Reith was knighted and on 1 January 1927 becoming the first Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
While the BBC tends to characterize its coverage of the General Strike by emphasizing the positive impression created by its balanced coverage of the views of Government and Strikers, Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History and the Official BBC Historian has characterized the episode as the invention of “modern propaganda in its British form.” Reith argued that trust gained by ‘authentic impartial news’ could then be used. Impartial news was not necessarily an end in itself.
To represent its purpose and (stated) values, the Corporation adopted the coat of arms, including the motto “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation”. The motto is generally attributed to Montague John Rendall, former headmaster of Winchester College and member of the first BBC Board of Governors. The motto is said to be a “felicitous adaptation” of Micah 4: 3 “nation shall not lift up a sword against nation.”
The BBC (or “Beeb”) has, of course, become a massive broadcasting empire known internationally, with dozens of regional radio stations as well as national and local television broadcasts, the latter beloved by millions around the globe. Where would I be without my periodic doses of Dr Who or Sherlock?
Long car journeys were often made delightful by episodes of this on tape:
As a teen I woke every morning to BBC 1’s Tony Blackburn playing the latest pop hits, and did my homework on Sunday afternoons to John Peel’s mellow tones as he spun “alternative” music.
When I first moved to the U.S. I had a shortwave radio so that I could tune into the BBC World Service. I still listen to BBC radio live streaming because of its fabulous mix of programming. It’s where I go to hear commentary on the Boat Race or Carols from Kings.
Amazingly The Archers (one of the earliest radio soaps) is still going strong.
Cooking shows are, of course, a mainstay. This is a website I frequently go to for classic recipes that have been broadcast on radio and television:
Worth a look. The best of British cooking is here, classic and modern. What I like about the recipes is that they are always coming up with new twists on old favorites. Shepherd’s pie is a great example. First let me clear up a common misunderstanding. Shepherd’s pie is made with minced LAMB, not beef. With beef it is called cottage pie. The basics are a filling of minced lamb plus vegetables – often peas and carrots – with a rich gravy, and topped with mashed potato. Very simple. In fact you can use a topping of mashed potato (nicely browned under the broiler) for ANY pie filling. I make steak and kidney pies that way sometimes. But here’s a twist I had not thought of until writing this post – use mashed parsnips instead of mashed potatoes:
OK – off you go to the kitchen and expand your horizons.