Broadcasting into the void… (part one)

One reason why I like listening to the radio is that – more often than not – it’ll offer me something I’ve not heard before. That’s particularly true in the realm of popular music.

So, these are some notes from the archives – past echoes reverberating in these curious times. This article, and the one that follows, chart some thoughts about what we hear on the radio. My ideas come from the work preparing my book, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury Academic. It’s a cultural history of British radio based on the music, movies, art, poetry, novels and paintings made by creative people who’ve been inspired by the radio. If you’ve got a favourite radio song, drop me a line in the comment box below – and look out for my book.

Later I’ll have quotes and observations from such radio pioneers as Arthur Burrows (The BBC’s first director of programmes) and Peter Eckersley (the first engineer-in-charge), as well as Val Gielgud (the first head of drama) and Stephen Fry (in a radio comedy by Mark Tavener, just to bring things up to date a bit). Each one represents the thoughts of of a broadcaster trying to work out who was listening – and why.

My most recent example of what I shall call “the listening effect” was last week, when I heard a great song by a Christian musician from Belfast called Brian Houston. The track made me sit up for two reasons. It’s a muscular roots-blues number with a lovely grinding guitar, and it has a title that’s grammatically incorrect. I forgive him. Just this once.

The pay-off line right at the end of this song is, by the way, both glorious and true. My point is that without the radio station UCB1 playing it, I would never have found out about this track. That is, in my opinion, part of radio’s public service in the UK.

Music streaming services are fine, but they tend to offer up, through their algorithms, stuff you already know. They are more than likely to be merely “suggestions based on my previous…”, which is of course OK, but it doesn’t expose me to the unexpected.

Only public service broadcasting can do that. I’ll return to that phrase in a moment. My one great example of this is the late John Peel of the BBC.

It was he who introduced me to a whole host of musical acts that I would otherwise never have experienced.

The tip of the list goes: The Cure, Viv Stanshall, The Undertones, Ivor Cutler, The Smiths, Stiff Little Fingers, the Jamaican band Culture (see below for a video treat…), and Talking Heads.

It goes on, but I’m guessing music is such a personal thing that you’d switch off pretty quickly if I continued with my list.

My taste is, I assume, not your taste. That throw-away comment about “personal taste” is, in fact, the key to what I think public service broadcasting has become over the past one hundred years.

John Peel played music that he liked; not what an algorithm or a listener research survey told him would go down well with his audience.

Indeed, the journalist Sukhdev Sandhu recently reckoned that “the BBC, never seemed sure whether he [John Peel] was a marvel or a menace”.

So, I’ve been enjoying David Cavanagh’s book about the old Peel shows. The track listings and contexts have re-ignited some deep memories for me. I commend the book to you. [Other online vendors are available]

But let me get back to that point that John Peel was quietly and determinedly listening to and playing stuff he liked.

Indeed, perhaps he had little regard for the radio audience tuning in to his show on Radio 1 in those days between 10 and midnight, Monday to Thursday.

Whatever, millions were enthralled by the music he and his producer put on air. I’m so old that I can remember, in the late 70s and early 80s, when his show would end with the pips and the station would cut to the Radio 2 midnight news.

I’d be listening with my friends in one of our student bed-sits, and one of us would leap up to turn off the FM radio before any more sweet music sounds polluted our punk sensibilities. Instead, we’d line up an LP by Pere Ubu, The Clash, or The Replacements in order to retain the requisite atmosphere.

John Peel, it seems, was not alone in broadcasting into the unknown. I’ve spent these past few weeks reading various historical sources that have suggested the people who made public service radio (and later TV) programmes in Britain sometimes had little or no idea who their audience was. The crucial phrase is “public service”. You can read the most recent definitions and research papers by the UK’s regulator OFCOM here.

Photo (C) Martin Cooper

It originated with John Reith and the BBC in the early 1920s. It was, in its time, a new and revolutionary concept. The idea was that radio was a public utility, a service, for all. It was – if you will – like gas, electric or water: available to everyone.

So, the BBC would provide a public utility of music, news, entertainment and information. In return the listeners would pay a licence fee. With just one radio channel in those days the Beeb had to make decisions about what to broadcast and when.

How much classical music? When should dance band hits be played? What about edifying talks, religious services, news, quizzes, chat shows, and the lot? How many, when, and in what order? Scheduling is still a hot topic of debate.

Indeed, in the 1920s the BBC was inventing the very idea of radio broadcasting itself: how to make programmes, how to talk into a microphone, how to schedule shows throughout the broadcast day, and so on.

But the problem was that these radio transmissions were going out into the ether, with little or no idea of what the listeners thought about any of it. At least in the theatre you could see the audience and the reactions on their faces. Radio had no such luxury of instant feedback (I’ll mention radio AIs, also known as Appreciation Ratings, in the next article in this series).

This lack of knowledge was something that was certainly borne out by the fact that the BBC did not have a dedicated audience research department until 1936, and only kept records from 1937.

So, you may well ask, does it matter that a public service broadcaster – set up as a corporation by Royal Charter in 1927 – should be somewhat vague about who it was broadcasting to?

Certainly, from 1933 to 1939 – and then from 1946 onwards, Radio Luxembourg’s English service, as a commercial station, sold both sponsored programmes and spot 30” commercials to advertisers with the assurance that people would, for example, be listening. The ones who actually wanted to drink Ovaltine (“mothers love it, kids ask for it by name”), or wash their clothes in Daz (“it ain’t right until it’s Daz white!”) or even Omo (“adds brightness to whiteness”).

Radio Luxembourg was using all the audience profiling techniques currently in use in the USA in the inter-war years and applying it to its English language service with gusto.

Indeed, Independent Local Radio – otherwise known as ILR, the commercial radio industry in Britain from 1973 to the 2000s – gradually developed tight formatting and limited music playlists from the 1990s onwards. In doing so it was responding to research into the habits of its audiences.

Later, commercial radio in the UK was allowed to relax its public service output to become a business that was rarely local – and was evidence of one sector of the radio industry that sought to super-serve its audience in order to deliver them to the advertisers.

But what about the BBC? In the next part of this article I’ll explore comments and reactions from early Corporation staff, and find a certain continuity of wonderment about who was actually listening to this stuff. I’ll use quotes from radio staff from the 1920s right through to the 1980s and beyond into the new millennium. In the meantime, drop me a message about your favourite radio shows – and about surprises you’ve encountered when you’ve been listening.

And now for a music treat. This is the title track from Culture’s first LP, originally released in 1977, and here interpreted by Joseph Hill‘s son Kenyatta in 2019.

7 thoughts on “Broadcasting into the void… (part one)

  1. Excellent article, Martin. And you’re right about the engagement with music that is engendered by listening to a presenter who playswhat he/she wants to, rather than follow a playlist. My biggest influendce was Kenny Everett on Capital Radio, on Saturday lunchtimes back around 1980 – who incorporated a vast array of music into the time we spent together.

    I look forward to what you write next – and that book! (Incidently, this article would make a very good radio programme of its own…).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed a double bill of two consecutive great programmes on Radio 4 on Saturday night just gone: ‘The poet laureate has gone to his shed’ – featuring Armitage chatting to Prince Charles, followed by a fascinating ‘Archive on 4’ about Tolkien…
    I didn’t listen to John Peel, but know I would have loved his show too…

    Liked by 1 person

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