A lesson from radio history…

Yorkshire in January 2021 – A field

I was reading a PhD thesis last night. Don’t ask, but I was enjoying it. And was struck by how the BBC had been thinking about the apocalypse that is this current widespread health crisis as long ago as 1960. That’s exactly sixty years ago. It’s also long before we’d even started writing about how 2020 and 2021 were the new normal, or that we were living in exceptional/extraordinary/strange/odd (delete as appropriate) times. BBC managers were, in 1960, thinking about how to set up local radio – and why. It was a completely new concept in Britain, and they were having to invent the format from scratch. They carried out an internal closed-circuit experiment in several towns and cities using seconded staff to see if the idea was a good one. In the event it was, and BBC local radio started in 1967 in England.

Anyway, sixty years ago BBC bosses thought that local radio might be useful if there was a health epidemic and all the schools had to close. Who would have come up with such a thought in 1960? And who would have known that in 2020 and 2021 we’d be living through just such a situation? As I write, our living room table has been transformed into a classroom. There’s pink safety scissors, glue sticks, pencils and felt-tip pens everywhere.

But this topic of discussion from the BBC archives has fascinated me. The senior producers thought local radio had some function as a provider of educational material. In the event, each BBC local radio station appointed an Education Producer in the late 1960s and 1970s. I never quite knew what their job was, except they very rarely worked on the breakfast show with me. They mostly produced the weekly schools’ quiz show, specialist music and ethnic language programmes, and gave talks in classrooms to explain what local radio was all about. If you ever worked as an Education Producer in BBC Local Radio, please do get in touch and we can add your story here [Editor’s note: see below for an update].

The historical traces came to light as I was reading Matt Linfoot’s PhD thesis from the University of Westminster in London about the history of BBC local radio. It’s available to read here. I commend it to you.

Education covered three distinct areas: schools broadcasting, further education (which also included adult education) and higher education. The first two had their own departments within the BBC, so anything involving schools and curricula needed to be negotiated through the relevant staff. The other area relied more on links and partnerships with bodies at a local level. However, it is evident from the experiments that education provision as a whole did not meet expectation. Schools Broadcasting already existed on the networks as nationally produced content. The Head of Schools Broadcasting thought local output could be most effective for say geography, history and local government. There were also opportunities for talks by local experts and “star‟ teachers. There might even be a call for “radio lessons” if there was an epidemic or school closure due to bad weather.

Linfoot, 2011, p. 101

Matt Linfoot spent hours in the BBC Written Archives Centre just outside Reading, west of London.

The archival source mentioned in the quotes above was a memo from the BBC Head of Schools Broadcasting to the Head of Educational Broadcasting, with the title, “Local Broadcasting, 9 September 1960”. It’s in the BBC Archive Centre at the shelf-mark Local Radio Educational Policy R99/9/1.

So, “radio lessons if there is an epidemic”. Well exactly. Yes. There is – right now. And it’s pleasing to see that the Beeb is doing today just was it said it might do sixty years ago. That’s an example of great foresight and planning.

Although, after the 1960 experiments I’m not quite sure what happened to the idea of making educational programmes about local government topics especially and exclusively for broadcast on BBC local radio. I know of one council leader, now passed away, who used to use his Authority’s five-year local plan as a ‘riser’ for his computer screen. I doubt if he’d ever read the document which ran to a couple of thousand pages. I also have memories of covering local government committee meetings on late reporting shifts, and of reading through council agendas in an attempt to find a story to write up for a news bulletin. But they are anecdotes for another time.

Editorial note: Since publishing this article I’ve been contacted by a number of former BBC staff. Thank you for your comments and memories. One colleague informs me that, “The concept of the ‘seconded teacher’ lasted into the 1990s on the local radio stations where I worked. In Carlisle we had a dedicated curriculum-based 30 min slot at 0930 weekdays during termtime until around 1980. In subsequent years it was about covering education topics and reflecting school activities in the daytime sequences.”

Another ex-Beeb staffer, Martin Ward says, “Although the son of a teacher – and married to a teacher – I have never been one myself. I followed a journalism path into broadcasting and was in the right place at the right time, being offered the role of Acting Education Producer at BBC Radio Sussex covering for the incumbent who was away on attachment. At Sussex I was largely in charge of overseeing production of community programmes such as ‘Turn it Up’ (Youth Programme), ‘On Parade’ (Boys and Girls Brigade), ‘All About Dogs’ (guess what?), ‘At the Wheel’ (Motoring), ‘Listen and See’ (prog for blind and partially sighted), ‘Business & Industry’ (local business) plus various local history projects (both features and full-length docs). Most of these progs occupied most of Sunday afternoons. Sussex didn’t have a seconded teacher at that time.”

Martin adds, “In 1986 I was asked to apply for the Education Producer’s job at the soon to be launched BBC Essex – which I subsequently got. Essex was, I think, the last station to appoint a formal Ed Prod, and there was a marked difference in approach to how the role was used there compared with other stations. There was a determined move away from the formal educational role the older stations and many of the items that would have had their own identities elsewhere were instead packaged for tx in mainstream progs, they might also be run as a short series. The only exception was the Youth Prog (Revolver) which went out early Saturday evening.”

Other Education Producers to mention include June Harben at BBC Radio Birmingham (producer of ‘East in West’) and Keith Yeomans at BBC Radio London. Greg Ainger from BBC Radio Leicester was one of the pioneers of programmes for the Asian community. He himself had been expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin whilst working as a volunteer in schools. He understood the feelings of many Ugandan Asians who subsequently settled in my hometown of Leicester – where I started my own professional career on the wireless.

And finally, this article was originally based on Matthew Linfoot’s PhD thesis about the early history of BBC Local Radio. If you want to read more about radio history, Liam McCarthy has written his PhD thesis on the development of Asian broadcasting in BBC Local radio – specifically in Leicester. You can read it here.

For a view from the commercial radio sector, D.P. Allen has researched the birth pains of BRMB in Birmingham and Beacon Radio (which served Wolverhampton and the Black Country) for his PhD theses. You can read that here. That’s a lot of academic material to look at. Each one is very readable. Let me know what you think.

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