Broadcasting into the void… (part two)

This is a series of articles about what broadcasters think of their audiences. In part one I established that, probably, radio producers haven’t really got much of a clue. In fact, some of what they do has been based on guesswork – for almost one hundred years. You can read that first article here – and I’d welcome your opinions.

I discussed how I loved to be surprised by new music on the radio – played by a presenter who had chosen their own tracks rather than ones selected by a computer programme. I talked about how the BBC, from its earliest days, developed the notion of public service broadcasting.

In the Netflix and Amazon Prime era this has become a concept that’s come in for questioning. You can read the UK’s media regulator OFCOM’s recent research here. And you can download OFCOM’s 2018 paper here.

In the next article, part three of this series (due to be published shortly), I’ll examine comments from the end of the century onwards – about radio producers and their audiences. But let’s, for a while, go back in time to read some quotes from the first BBC directors – all men.

It was a gendered profession in the early 1920s and one where many staff had military backgrounds after serving in the First World War. It’s one reason why the Beeb’s management structure has always reminded me of being like an army’s chain of command.

Here’s some notes from the archives and some suggestions from professionals about their work. They seem to admit they’re pretty clueless about who they’re actually broadcasting to. Cecil Arthur Lewis, was the BBC’s organiser of programmes.

On air he was known as Uncle Caractacus, a member of the Children’s Hour team. In other words, he had two jobs: one as a children’s presenter and another as a senior company director.

Just like BBC Local Radio of the last 40 years, you had to turn your hand to everything.

In my own case, I’ve rigged OBs, reconfigured patch-bays, read the news, interviewed an archbishop, tidied up the newsroom, been manhandled by Mrs Thatcher’s minders, presented the lunchtime show, and opened the local Women’s Institute garden fete.

Anyway, back to C. A. Lewis. On page 65 of his 1924 book, Broadcasting from Within, he says: “we have striven [in the first 12 months] to give the public what, we believe, it wants, and so shall we continue.”

I think the emphasis here is “what we believe…”

In other words, this really translates as: “We haven’t got a clue. So perhaps we’ll try a bit of comedy, and some light orchestral music – how about Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream? That’s fairly ‘safe’ isn’t it?”

From my own experience of working in radio from the 1980s onwards I admit that a lot of what we did – and still do – is based on guesswork. But, in fact, what comes out of the radio loudspeaker at home is none the worse for that.

Remember that in the 1920s this was the early days of radio broadcasting, and so professionals were working out for themselves how it all connected together.

Nobody had ever had to cope with an unseen audience before. Only the movies came close to this situation, but even they could quickly – and relatively easily – measure their success by totting up the box office receipts.

So, it is significant that these radio comments by Lewis are reinforced by the opinion of one his contemporaries, Captain Eckersley. Peter Eckersley was an interesting character from the early years of the Beeb. Until 1918 he had served as a wireless operator in the Royal Flying Corps.

After the war ended he joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co, and was later appointed the first chief engineer of the British Broadcasting Company/Corporation.

He also appeared on-air. By all accounts he loved being in front of the microphone. From 1922 onwards he could be heard reciting poetry, telling jokes and (he says) “attempting” to sing. In fact, he was something of a popular presenter.

Later, in 1929, he was forced to leave the Corporation when it was found out that he had been named as “the other man” in a set of divorce proceedings. Adultery was something that went against the Reithian principles of the broadcaster in the inter-war years. You just couldn’t be a BBC man and do such things.

Eckersley eventually married the woman in question, once both original couples had finally legally divorced. But the men of morals at the Beeb (John Reith in particular) frowned upon the whole business. Instead, Eckersley left the Corporation under a cloud, and began to work on the idea of cable radio (a forerunner of cable TV). He later found freelance engineering work in Europe – where radio was an expanding business.

Eckersley wrote his memoirs of his time at the Beeb in the 1920s and used the book to offer his own trenchant criticisms of the radio service. One or two of his comments about his former employer are somewhat bitter. Others are rather misguided.

But on page 59 he does make one important point: that, “No one, least of all the BBC officials, knew if the public wanted a broadcasting service.”

The reason, quite understandably, was that radio like this had never been done before.

Imagine if you were presented with a new technology and were then asked what you wanted from it. Did you want it to sing, or dance, or tell you a story, or what? And which songs did you prefer? What about the ones you didn’t much care for? Was it, maybe, time for some more Mendelssohn perhaps? Maybe not.

Instead, until the mid-1930s the Company, and then the Corporation, relied on listeners’ letters sent into each programme as well as correspondence to the listings magazine, the Radio Times. Not exactly scientific sources upon which to base crucial decisions involving the commissioning and production of programmes…

  • This link will take you to the digitised on-line Radio Times from 1923 to 2009. It says there’s almost ten million listings to explore. Now that’s a thing.
Asa Briggs (1965) The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. II, The Golden Age of Wireless, OUP, p. 259

The broadcast historian Asa Briggs later concluded that BBC staff of the time did indeed think this type of audience information from listener correspondence alone was inadequate.

Val Gielgud (the brother of actor John) was the Beeb’s first head of drama. He was 14 years old when the First World War started, so was one of the few not to have had military experience. You can read more about him in my forthcoming book Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Gielgud is quoted here as saying, “I cannot help feeling more and more strongly that we are fundamentally ignorant as to how our various programmes are received…”

The killer quote is when he says he feels as if he’s “broadcasting into a void.”

Eckersley, Lewis and Gielgud represent three senior BBC employees from the 1920s and 30s. A fourth key member of the Beeb from this era was Arthur Burrows.

He was the man who read the first ever radio news bulletin: a trained journalist and the first director of programmes for the Company.

He was also, by the way, “Uncle Arthur” as far as the Children’s Hour audience was concerned. It was another case of holding down two jobs at the BBC in the early days.

In 1924 he wrote The Story of Broadcasting. On page 114 he lamented the fact that he knew so little about his audience. He also recognised that in comparison to Britain, American radio stations had already begun detailed research into their own listeners’ attitudes.

Burrows, p. 114

The conclusion I draw is that, for these four senior staff members, the question of who was listening in the 1920s and early 30s was a real quandary. For them to admit to not knowing the answer raised a major problem for the new medium of radio.

But I want to go on to suggest that this uncertainty persisted in the industry for decades, despite the eventual development of advanced audience research techniques in Britain.

In part three of this series of articles “Broadcasting into the void” (available shortly; stay tuned), I’ll look at evidence from the 1960s to the present day that suggests we’ve always been unsure of our audiences.

I’ve got quotes from producers at the BBC in Leeds in the 1970s and 80s, from Stephen Fry as a (fictional) cynical controller of Radio 2, and from Charlie Harper of the UK Subs. It’s an eclectic mix, but each has things to say about what’s been coming out of their radios – and about the audiences.

Even today, we’re still not fully confident that we actually know who’s listening to us: what they think and what they’re up to. Indeed, in a recent article I wrote about the strange case of BBC Radio 4 from the 2000s:

It was in 2009 when the last children’s radio show was heard on mainstream BBC radio. It was called Go for It and was a 30-minute broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at a quarter past seven on a Sunday evening. Slightly red-faced executives dropped it when audience figures suggested the average listener was a man in his early 50s.

https://prefadelisten.com/2020/10/21/pop-stars-become-djs-old-presenters-never-die-and-the-joys-of-childrens-radio/

So, what are you listening to right now? Is it live (currently called “linear”) radio, or do you subscribe to a podcast or two?

Let me know your views, your listening habits, and what you love and hate on the wireless. Do you, indeed, feel that sometimes radio stations are broadcasting into the void? Why?

But to close, I offer John Peel and his wife’s selection of a satirical song from the 1930s. It seems to sum up the contemporary disconnect between a large radio organisation and its listeners. The singer, Norman Long, was banned for this:

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