It’s the BBC’s 99th birthday! Well it was on the day I wrote this: November 14th 2021.
At 6pm, on this day in 1922, Arthur Burrows gave the first BBC news bulletin, reading it once fast and once slow, asking ‘listeners-in’ to let him know which they preferred.
To celebrate Auntie Beeb entering her 100th year, I’ve made a bit of a labour of love – a special episode of The British Broadcasting Century podcast summarising the 36 episodes I’ve made so far – the Prehistory of the BBC, from Marconi to Reith in 45mins.
Below are the podcast notes, including a fairly complete transcript, so if you don’t listen, you can read…
On the podcast episode, you’ll hear the story of – and voices of:
- First teenager to listen to the radio in his bedroom Guglielmo Marconi
- First major broadcast engineer Captain HJ Round
- First broadcast singer Winifred Sayer
- First voice of the BBC Arthur Burrows
- First regular broadcaster Peter Eckersley
- First BBC pianist Maurice Cole (the most wonderful accent, “off” = “orff”)
- First BBC singer Leonard Hawke (although WE know from episode 28 that the Birmingham and Manchester stations broadcast music the day before – but the BBC didn’t know that)
- First slightly terrifying boss John Reith
That’s a lot of firsts. Plus more recent voices – hear from these marvellous experts:
- Professor Gabriele Balbi of USI Switzerland
- Marconi historian Tim Wander (buy his book From Marconi to Melba)
- Radio historian Gordon Bathgate (buy his book Radio Broadcasting: A History of the Airwaves)
Oh and exactly one year from now, for the BBCentenary, I’ll be performing my one-man play at the Museum of Comedy. It’s called The First Broadcast. Tickets are on sale now for The Museum of Comedy, either November 14th 2022, or earlier, April 21st. Other dates/venues will follow.
In it, I play both Britain’s first regular broadcaster Peter Eckersley, and this man – first voice of the BBC Arthur Burrows…
Meanwhile on the podcast, here’s an approximate transcript of what you’d hear…
- Marconi himself appeared on the BBC in 1936, playing himself in a reconstruction of when he first sent Morse code across the Atlantic in 1901…
- Those are Marconi’s last recorded words before he died, there with his assistants Pagett and Kemp, though Kemp was played by an actor. They’re recreating the moment when they sent Morse Code from Poldhu in Cornwall to Newfoundland, 2000+ miles away. Prior to that 255 miles was the wireless record.
- Marconi was always outdoing himself. As a teenager he’d sent radiowaves across his bedroom – a transmitter and receiver ringing a bell. Then outside, asking his assistant across a field to fire a gunshot if the wireless signal reached him. Then over water. Then… in 1896 the 21yr old Marconi came to England. The Italian army weren’t interested in his new invention, so he thought he’d try the influential engineers of London. I think it’s that decision that set London and the BBC as the beating heart of broadcasting a couple of decades later.
- There was a magical moment where Marconi strode into Toynbee Hall in East London, with two boxes. They communicated, wirelessly, and he simply said: “My name is Gooly-elmo Marconi, and I have just invented wireless.” That’s a drop mic moment. If they had a mic to drop.
- Others played with this technology. In December 1906, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden managed to make a very faint speech broadcast for ships near Brant Rock Massachusetts – making the first entertainment show for radio. He played a record, Handel’s Largo, played O Holy Night on violin, and read from Luke’s gospel, chapter 2. Well it was Christmas Eve.
- This was actually my way in to this whole radio story. I wrote a book on the history of Christmas, called Hark! The b of C. So I researched Fesseden’s Christmas entertainment first… and also the first BBC Christmas of 1922. When I read that the Beeb had 35,000 listeners at that point, but 4 employees, I had to know who these 4 employees were! I started digging. When I discovered that 2 of those people had an on-air feud, one of them was John Reith, an arguably immoral moralist, and the 4th was soon sacked by him… I thought, there’s a book in this. So as I research and write that, I’m podcasting as I go on the BBCentury. I love that this medium of podcasting owes so much to those early pioneers… and I’m no engineer. For me, it’s all about the characters. We’ll get to the BBC pioneers soon enough, but Marconi, he was one of those characters.
- Through the 1910s, business was booming for Marconi, but he still saw radio as a two-way thing – we ‘radio’ for help. Marconi took the credit for radio’s use in catching criminals – Dr Crippen, who’d escaped on a ship across the ocean. And saving lives, onboard Titanic. Soon every major vessel carried radios and a Marconi operator – for a fee of course. He made his money in sending messages, the world over, between two people. The broadcast aspect was an accident – a pitfall of radio being too ‘leaky’. So the first listeners were actually called ‘listeners-in’ – the messages weren’t intended for them.
- So it was at a more amateur level – the radio hams – who’d be experimenting with ‘broadcasting’. Britain’s first DJ, technically, was a woman called Gertrude Donisthorpe in WWI. Her husband Horace was the eager experimenter, an army wireless trainer by day, and at night the couple would cycle to a field near Worcester, he’d set up one side, her on the other, and she’d play records and recite rhymes just for her audience of 1 – her husband, to see if it worked. She’d cycle across the field to see if it had, often finding he’d cycled off to tell her via a different route. As they progressed, they started transmitting limited wireless concerts for some local troops. And they were popular. Radio amateurs enjoyed what they heard, when they could hear it. There was demand for wireless entertainment… just not much supply.
- But the engineers like those at the Marconi Company, were continually strengthening and improving the technology. Marconi’s right-hand man Captain Round for example…
- No fan of red tape… this Churchill lookalike, round face, cigars and no-nonsense… joined 1902, genius… designed radios… especially for aircraft… Jutland direction-finding… But Captain Round is a name to watch.
- After the war, 1919, just months from the birth of broadcasting, The Marconi Company still had no real interest in radio as an artform or entertainment or anything other than point to point messaging. Apart from one person, their Head of Publicity, Arthur Burrows…
- In 1918 Burrows wrote: “There appears to be no serious reason why, before we are many years older, politicians speaking, say, in Parliament, should not be heard simultaneously by wireless in the reporting room of every newspaper office in the United Kingdom. . . . The field of wireless telephone, however, is by no means restricted to newspaper work. The same idea might be extended to make possible the correct reproduction in all private residences of Albert Hall or Queen’s Hall concerts or the important recitals at the lesser rendezvous of the musical world. . . . There would be no technical difficulty in the way of an enterprising advertisement agency arranging for the interval in the musical programme to be filled with audible advertisements, pathetic or forcible appeals—in appropriate tones—on behalf of somebody’s soap or tomato ketchup.” We’ll come back to Arthur Burrows.
- Around the same time in America, future radio mogul David Sarnoff sent a memo referring to a “radio music box”, that could “listeners-in” could have in their homes, playing the music broadcast by wireless stations, that were cropping up, especially in America, and a steadily increasing rate.
- In Britain, Captain Round of the Marconi Company continued to experiment. Rightly medalled after the war, he switched his attention from using radio to find enemy ships, to using radio to transmit the human voice further and stronger than ever before. This meant tests.
- Now the nature of radio, the quirk of it, is that it’s not private. You can’t experiment without anyone with a set listening in – and since the war there were more and more ex wireless operators and amateur radio “hams”. So as Round experimented, in Chelmsford at the end of 1919, with his assistant William Ditcham, across Britain and even into Europe, people heard him. Ditcham had to read out something into his microphone – just the candlestick part of an old telephone. Ditcham would begin by addressing those listening – the ‘leaky’ nature of these radio experiments meant the engineers actually used those cheekly listening in to find their range and signal strength. So Ditcham would begin: “MZX calling, MZX calling! This is the Marconi valve transmitter in Chelmsford, England, testing on a wavelength of 2750metres. How are our signals coming in today? Can you hear us clearly? I will now recite to you my usual collection of British railway stations for test purposes… …The Great Northern Railway starts Kings cross, London, and the North Western Railway starts from Euston. The Midland railway starts from St Pancras. The Great Western Railway starts from…”
- Railway timetables! And they were a hit. Mr Ditcham became an expert is this new art of broadcasting, before the word was even invented. He noted: “Distinct enunciation is essential and it’s desirable to speak in as loud a tone as possible!”
- Word spread. Letters to newspapers said how much radio amateurs were enjoying Ditcham and Round’s wireless experiments… but the content could do with being a bit more exciting. How about a newspaper?
- So in January 1920, William Ditcham became our first broadcast newsreader, literally reading the news, from a paper he’d bought that morning. Well, he’d sit on it a day, and read yesterday’s paper… The press might have a problem with their copyrighted news being given away for free. And thus begins the rocky relp between broadcasters and the press. It’s worth keeping them on side…
- In Jan 1920, there are 2 weeks of ‘Ditcham’s News Service’ – that’s Britain’s first programme title. That gains over 200 reports from listeners-in, as far as Spain, Portgula, Norway… up to 1500 mi away. So the transmitter is replaced, from 6kw to 15kw. Ditcham ups his game too. Throws in a gramophone record or two. 15mins of news, 15mins of music. A half hour in total – that seems a good length for a programme – really it was what the licence allowed, but it’s clearly stuck – at least till Netflix and the like mean programme length has becoame a little more variable, a century later.
- Then in Feb, there’s live music – just a few fellow staff at the Marconi Works in Chelmsford, including Mr White on piano, Mr Beeton on oboe and Mr Higby on woodwind.
- At Marconi HQ, Arthur Burrows, that publicity director who wrote of possible wireless concerts and ketchup sponsors, he gets behind this in a big way. He heads to Chelmsford, supports Ditcham and Round, and even joins the band.
- And you know who else joins the band…
- …from the neighbouring works building – Hoffman’s Ball Bearings – a singer, Miss Winifred Sayer. Now as she’s not a Marconi employee, she needs to be paid… so she’s radio’s first professional
- Previous broadcasts had been a little luck of the draw, but this one, well it would be nice to tell people it’s going to happen. So Captain Round sends out the first listings – the pre Radio Times, radio… times… you can hear Winifred Sayer and the band: 11am and 8pm, Feb 23rd till March 6th That memo goes out to all the Marconi land stations and ships at sea. The first song Winifred sang was called Absent – she later called it a “punch and judy show”, and enjoyed her ten shillings a show. As she left, the MD of Marconi’s said to her: “You’ve just made history.”
- So, we have radio, right? Not so fast! The fun is just beginning…
- The press, you see, were worth keeping on side. The Daily Mail got wind of this. Arthur Burrows, that publicity chap and radio prophet, he became friends in the war with Tom Clarke, now editor of the Daily Mail. And the Mail loved a novelty. They’d sponsor air races and car dashes and design-a-top-hat competitions. Radio was right up their fleet street.
- But they’d need a bigger singer than Winifred Sayer from Hoffman’s Ball Bearings. They wanted to see how big an audience there’d be for broadcasting – a word just coming into use, a farming term, about how you spread seed, far and wide, scattershot, never quite knowing how far it reaches, and whether it will be well received and grow into something. So the Daily Mail fund one of the world’s biggest singers: Dame Nellie Melba – of Peach Melba fame. She was over in England at the Albert Hall doing some shows, so for a thousand pounds – enough to buy a house – she came to Chelmsford. Outside broadcasts didn’t exist at the time, given the size of the kit. Ditcham and Round prepared the Chelmsford Works building, although that involved a small fire, a carpet Melba rolled away as soon as she saw it, and a microphone made from an old cigar box and a hat rack. Arthur Burrows gave Madame Melba a tour when they weren’t quite ready… She took one look at the 450ft radio mast and said “Young man if you think I’m going to climb up there, you are greatly mistaken.”
- She broadcasts on June 15th 1920, and it’s a huge hit, despite a shutdown just before finishing her last song. Captain Round makes her do it again, without telling her of the shutdown, by simply asking for an encore.
- Arthur Burrows gives the opening and closing announcements, instead of William Ditcham, because this has been Burrows’ dream. Broadcast radio concerts. So what next? It spanned Britain, reached Madrid, parts of the Middle East…
- But it’s too successful. The Air Ministry finds planes couldn’t land during the concert. It dominated the airwaves. So despite a few extra professional concerts from Chelmsford that summer – opera stars like Lauritz Melchior, and Dame Clara Butt – the govt step in and shut all radio experiments down.
- Arthur Burrows finds himself at sea, literally, that summer, demonstrating radio to the press on the way to an interionational press event… but without govt backing, journalists now see radio as maybe a means to communicate newsroom to newsroom. Ditcham’s news and Melba’s music seem to be all that broadcasting amounted to.
- For 18 months, nothing. Radio amateurs, and indeed Arthur Burrows at Marconi, petition the PostmasterGeneral to reconsider. And finally… it worked.
- Because while the ether had fallen silent in Britain, it continued in Holland, a bit in France, and in America radio is booming. Not wanting to be left behind, the British govt say ok, you can have one radio station. The Marconi Company is granted a permit. But much to Burrows dismay… the job lands on the desk of another person I want to introduce you to… Peter Eckersley
- Eckersley was with the Designs Dept of the Aircraft Section of Marconi’s. His team had helped create air traffic control; Eckersley had been there in the war for the first ground to air wireless communication, and now in their spare team, his team in a muddy field in the village of Writtle in Essex, not far from Chelmsford, would have to fit this broadcasting malarkey in in their spare time, for an extra pound a show, not much.
- It was odd. Radio amateurs wanted it. Burrows the Marconi publicity guy wanted it. Eckersley and his team couldn’t give two hoots about it – in fact they celebrated when the govt banned radio 18 months earlier, as finally the airwaves were clear for them and their serious work, instead of constant blinking opera from Chelmsford.
- But it’s Eckersley’s job, to start Britain’s first regular radio station: 2MT Writtle. And from Feb 14th 1920, for the first few weeks it sounds pretty normal. They play gramophone records, chosen by Arthur Burrows at head office. Burrows has arranged a sponsorship deal – not with ketchup with a gramophone company, who provide a player so long as it’s mentioned on air. Peter Eckersley’s team of boffins break the gramophone player. There was a live singer – the first song on the first regular broadcast radio show was the Floral Dance, though the Times called it only “faintly audible”. It is not a hit. For 5 weeks this continues, bland introductions to records, a live singer or two. And Peter Eckersley, the man in charge, goes home each night to hear the show his crew put out on the wireless. Until week 6, when he stays, for a pre-show gin and fish and chips and more gin at the pub. Then he… runs down the lane to the hut and reaches the microphone first! And he starts talking……
- Eckersley talks and talks and mimics and carouses… He plays the fool, plays the gramophone records, off-centre, or covered in jam…
- …the strict licence meant closing down for 3mins in every 10, to listen for govt messages, in case they have to stop broadcasting. Eckersley doesn’t shut down for 3mins. The licence limited them to half an hour. Not Eckersley. Over an hour later, he stops. And sleeps it off. Next day, his team gather round and tell him what he said.
- Our man Arthur Burrows gets in touch. A stern admonishment! Burrows’ dream of broadcasting, had been dashed on the rocks by Eckersley, a man drinking, on the rocks. But accompanying Burrows’ angry missive came a postbag of listener fanmail. “We loved it” they said. “Do it again.” Burrows was a lone voice against Eckersley’s antics, so the following Tuesday, and every Tuesday in 1922, Peter Eckersley seized the mic again and again.
- Demand for radio sets boomed. Ports stopped receiving ships when Peter Eckersley was on. Parliament even closed their sessions early to hear him. He was our first radio star. And he helped spawn an industry.
- Burrows is still fuming, but there is no greater demand for radio. So he applies for a 2nd licence, for a London station – let’s do this radio thing properly. 2LO in London is granted that licence, and Burrows isn’t taking any chances – HE will be the primary broadcaster.
- Poetry readings, sports commentary, opening night boxing match. Later in the summer, garden party concerts. And as Burrows is a publicity and demonstration man, many of these broadcast concerts are for private institutions, charity events, a chance to show what broadcasting can do.
- Other wireless manufacturers other than Marconi’s express an interest, they ask the PMG for a licence to broadcast too. MetroVick in Manchester, they want in, so the PMG says fine. Kenneth Wright is the engineer at MetroVick who gets the job of launching in Manchester.
- Wright continues in Manchester… Eck continues in Writtle in Essex… Burrows continues in London…
- But Eckersley mocks Burrows. In fact people write to Arthur Burrows saying how much they enjoy his broadcasts on 2LO London, but could he stop broadcasting every Tuesday evening for the half hour Eckersley’s on, cos listeners want to hear Eckersley lampoon Burrows. For instance, Burrows played the Westminster chimes in the studio – this is 18mths before Big Ben’s chimes would be heard on the BBC. So Eckersley outdoes Burrows by finding all the pots, pans, bottles and scrap metal he can, and bashing it all with sticks. Messy chaos! He loved it.
- He’s another, retold by Eckersley and Burrows themselves, some 20 years apart… You see, both would close their broadcasts with a poem.
- All through the spring and summer of 1922, each broadcast is still experimental. Official broadcasting hasn’t quite yet begun – because no one knows if there’s a future in this. In fact the Marconi Company largely thought all this was one big advert to show consumers how easy wireless communication is, and how they should all pay Marconi’s to help them send point-to-point messages.
- But the bug grows. The press want in. The Daily Mail apply for a licence for to set up a radio station. They’re turned down – it would be too powerful for a a newspaper to have a radio station. It only took Times Radio 100 years…
- In Westminster, the PostGen is inundated by applications for pop-up radio stations. He can’t just keep licensing all of them. What is this, America?! Arthur Burrows…
- In May 1922, the PostGen says to the wireless manufacturers, look. I can’t have all of you setting up rival radio stations. But I will licence one or maybe two of you. Get together, chat it through, work out how you can work together.
- For a while, it looks like there will be two british Broadcasting companies – a north and a south. Kenneth Wright…
- …but after weeks, even months of meetings, primareily with the big 6 wireless firms, an agreement is struck.
- …You may wonder where Reith is in all this. Wasn’t he meant to be the fella who started the thing!? He arrives when the BBC is one month old. For now, he’s leaving a factory management job in Scotland, settling down with his new wife, having moved on from a possibly gay affair with his best friend Charlie… and he’s about to try a career in politics. He’s never heard of broadcasting at this stage. But for those who have, in the summer of 1922, Parliament announces there will be one broadcasting company, funded by a licence fee…..
- One British Broadcasting Company. Marconi, MetroVick, Western Electric, General Electric and so on… each will have one representative on the board of this BBC, and then broadcasting can continue, they’ll all sell wireless radio sets, and to fund the operation, there’ll be a licence fee.
- The name ‘BBCo’ is coined by one of the wireless manufacturer bosses in one of those meetings, Frank Gill, who notes in a memo before the name ‘broadcasting company’, the word ‘British’. A few lines down, he’s the first to write the word ‘pirates’ regarding those broadcasting without a licence.
- But there’s one more hurdle to conquer – news. That takes some time to iron out with the press, and finally it’s agreed that us broadcasters will lease the news from them, for a fee, and no daytime news, to ensure readers still bought papers.
- The press and the broadcasters still have an uneasy relationship, so whenever you see the newspapers having a pop at the BBC, know that the Daily Mail sponsored the first ever broadcast with Dame Melba, they were turned down for a radio station when they applied, and for years they were annoyed this radio upstart was trying to steal their readers.
- With the starting pistol sounded, Arthur Burrows gets his dream: he’s convinced his employer, the Marconi Company that radio isn’t just about sending messages to individuals, it’s about reaching many listeners… or better still, it’s still about reaching individuals, just lots of them. Flash forward to Terry Wogan’s sad goodbye from his Radio 2 Breakfast Show. “Thank you for being my friend.” Singular. Radio – even podcasts like this – still speak to one listener at a time. I make a connection with you. Arthur Burrows and Peter Eckersley, were among the first to realise that.
- But which of them would launch or join the BBC? The wild unpredictable Eckersley, who created demand for radio, and was still mocking Burrows in his field hut in an Essex village? Or the straight-laced Arthur Burrows, who’s prophesied broadcasting for years?
- I think we know the answer to that. Playing it safe, The Marconi Company kept 2LO as part of this new British Broadcasting Company, as well as 2ZY Manchester under MetroVick, and a new station in Birmingham, 5IT, run by Western Electric. Marconi’s would also build new stations, in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, and more, growing in reach and ambition.
- But it starts in London, on November 14th 1922, with a souped-up transmitter, rebuilt by good old Captain Round, the Marconi whizz who helped start it all. Arthur Burrows is before the mic, achieving his dream, to see broadcasting come to fruition. There are no recordings of that first broadcast, but we recreated it…
- The next day, the Birmingham station 5IT launches – they quickly bring in the first regular children’s presenters, Uncle Edgar and Uncle Tom. An hour after they launch, Manchester 2ZY starts under the BBC banner, with more children’s programming there, plus an early home for an in-house BBC orchestra.
- When the jobs go out for the this new BBC, bizarrely after it’s actually launched, there are just 4 employees hired before the end of the year, and Burrows is first, a shoo-in for Director of Programmes. John Reith applies for General Managership, having tried a bit of politics, but been pointed towards the BBC advert by his MP boss. On arriving, one of the first things he says is: ‘So what is broadcasting?’
- As for Peter Eckersley, he continues at 2MT Writtle, every Tuesday evening into January 1923. The only non-BBC station to share the airwaves till commercial, pirate or… well there’s Radio Luxembourg but that’s for a future episode. But Eckersley too is ultimately convinced to join the good ship BBC. And all it takes is an opera, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House in January 1923 – one of the first outside broadcasts.
- A penny drops for Eckersley, and he realises the power and potential of this broadcasting lark. Reith convinces him to stop his frivolous Tuesday show in Essex, and offers him a job as the BBC’s first Chief Engineer. And here Eckersley prospers, giving us new technology, nationwide broadcasting, the world’s first high-power long-wave transmitter at Daventry, he brings choice to the airwaves, with a regional and national scheme. Without Burrows, without Eckersley, without Reith, British broadcasting would look very different.
- There’s one other name, among many, I’m particularly enthusiastic about: Hilda Matheson. An ex-spy who becomes the first Director of Talks, who reinvents talk radio and gives us the basis for Radio 4 and speech radio and indeed podcasting, you could argue, as we know it. She’s a fascinating character – part of a gay love triangle with the poet Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf. She’s the only BBC employee allowed to bring a dog to work.
- And so much more, we’ll unpack on the British Broadcasting Century podcast, plus the Pips, the Proms, the Radio Times, and everything else you know and love, tolerate or loathe about British broadcasting today.