100 Years of Radio: When it all goes wrong – a broadcaster’s fear of failure

This article is part of a regular series of monthly features about the joys of radio. However, this edition brings details of a warning from the early days of British radio. It’s from 1931, when the BBC’s broadcast headquarters was a series of rooms on the upper floors of a back-street building down by the River Thames in London. More on that in a moment.

Radio – done properly – should be exciting, a bit dangerous, challenging… and live. But that seat-of-the-pants experience (for both the broadcaster and the listener) brings with it a fear of failure.

Go on, admit that you listen to late night phone-ins to see if a caller tries to say a swear-word and so triggers the 7-second delay to make a jingle fire in for no apparent reason and the subsequent filling for time by a confused and rattled presenter as they reset the profanity delay system (This hyperlink takes you to some useful equipment. Other delay systems are also available…).

And admit, too, that you’ve enjoyed blooper tapes made by industry insiders. For years these samizdat cassettes were handed around and copied by staffers who enjoyed giggling at the malapropisms, double entendres and gaffes by otherwise professional-sounding presenter colleagues. More about these too, later in this article.

Remember, as well, that live broadcasting involves an obsessive interest in timekeeping.

It was the railways in the mid-19th century that introduced standard time to Britain (Bristol is around ten minutes behind London) in order that the trains could set off and arrive at the correct time. You can read more in one of my previous articles.

And in the 20th century the BBC (eventually) realised that listeners wanted to hear their favourite shows at the correct time.

The pips (GTS to you) were first heard on the BBC in the winter of 1922 and early 1923, generated (is that the right word?) by an insouciant on-duty BBC staffer in the studio hitting a set of tubular bells at the top of the hour.

Then later in 1923 electronic time signal “pips” were taken (stolen/re-broadcast?) from France as they were transmitted across Europe from the Eiffel Tower.

Soon afterwards the Greenwich Observatory generated its own pips and sent them down a circuit to BH.

These days an atomic clock in a spare back room of the Beeb does the business. Even so, Arthur Askey spotted in 1942 that the fixation and preoccupation with timekeeping was getting out of hand, and he satirised the BBC’s pomposity as the nation’s new timekeeper in his film Back Room Boy. Again, follow this link to read more.

I recall my years as a presenter in the 1980s and 90s (before computers) on BBC Radios Derby and York, where I’d mastered the art of subtraction in base 60.

(Darts players, in a similar fashion, have the ability to subtract from 501 – in base 10 – with rapid accuracy…)

It was essential to work out whether your record would end cleanly at 59’54” to allow the pips to play out. Tip: Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” is exactly 3’00” long, it ends naturally, and works really well up to the news at the top of the hour. I’ve previously written about running orders here: click this link.

An old hand like myself can easily moan that presenter playout software these days is so highly developed that it can automatically schedule your show to end cleanly at the top of the hour. It even “micro-stretches” tracks to fill up the time. This link tells you how one playout software system can be configured to do this.

My feeling – deep down in my heart – is that this has taken all of the nervous subtraction skills out of the DJ’s hands. I’ve written about automation in a previous article.

But this obsession with time is nothing new. The 1931 story I mentioned earlier encapsulates how radio professionals wrangle with the minute and second hands of time; the hours just sitting there like empty vessels waiting to be filled.

It goes something like this. Imagine a befuddled but amiable expert who seems more at home in his ivory tower, tinkering with his inventions and his big ideas.

Then imagine what would happen if this professor was invited to give a live talk on the radio. It couldn’t go wrong. Could it?

The author Norman Hunter wrote a story for the BBC’s Children’s Hour called “The Professor Does a Broadcast”.

It was read live in late November 1931, by someone Hunter credited as AJAX, several times on different transmitters (there was no easy way to record stuff in those days and a repeat meant another live broadcast).

Most times it went out around a quarter past five in the evening. If you know who AJAX might have been, drop me a line.

This episode of Children’s Hour was listed in the Radio Times as number ten in the series “The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm”. https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/05505d5f46e54ff3a239615d9e13c7cc It also appears as chapter ten in the book version.

Those radio broadcasts were the start of a long and successful writing career for Norman Hunter.

His Branestawm books remain in print even today, and in recent years comedy stars such as Harry Hill and Charlie Higson have attempted to revive the character for modern TV audiences (to some mixture of success, as in my opinion the book with the pictures by W. Heath Robinson remains the best version).

The story was an introduction for boys and girls to the new media world of radio – inhabited and made by grownups – given to them as the daily broadcasts known as “Children’s Hour”.

And this year of 1931 was when the BBC, at only nine years old, was growing rapidly as it recruited more and more producers, engineers and announcers.

Building work was going on at the soon-to-be new headquarters at the top of Regent Street opposite the Langham near All Souls Church.

In the meantime, the Beeb was crammed into a series of airless rooms on the upper floors of an office block, which it had sub-let from the Institute of Electrical Engineers on Savoy Hill. It was – and still is – a somewhat dingy back street near the posh hotel of the same name, and a stone’s throw from the smells wafting up from the Embankment and (in the 1920s) the dirty River Thames.

Norman Hunter’s short stories in the Professor Branestawm series each followed a similar format. The narrative was of misadventure and misunderstanding as the bumbling professor made mistakes which had unfortunate consequences. In “The Professor Does a Broadcast”, he was invited “to do a broadcast”, giving it a sense of some physical chore rather than a creative process. A friend advised the professor,

“They only let you have so much time to broadcast, I believe. Suppose you hadn’t finished, and they turned you off for the Children’s Hour or something.”

Indeed, Hunter extracted humour from the fact that the absent-minded professor was unable to to talk coherently without digressing, and couldn’t work out exactly how long his script was. My rule of thumb: three spoken words per second; again a base 60 calculation.

In another scene, speaking to a colleague in the hallway of the radio station, an announcer complained:

“He’s due to broadcast in a few minutes. The time is now exactly twenty-seven and a half minutes to five.”

…making the joke that on-air speech was a peculiar form of the everyday.

The story ended with the professor reading his talk so fast that he had to repeat it in order to fill up the time slot.

Written by an author who had experience of the broadcast industry, it suggested that live radio was full of hazards and problems, often involving people trying – and failing – to keep to time. Hunter, very cleverly, presented a deeply satirical commentary on the Corporation.

There’s the OCD of the presenters worrying about the time, the challenge of producing live guests who – frankly – hadn’t got a clue, and the general propensity of the new medium of live radio broadcasting to the millions across the country to descend into chaos at the slightest opportunity.

And it wasn’t just the Beeb in the early thirties. Don’t forget the European stations: Sottens in Switzerland, Paris, Normandie, Toulouse and Limoges in France, Luxembourg (of course), and Athlone in Ireland.

Norman Hunter was telling children about this new medium of radio (media studies avant la lettre) and ridiculing it too.

The BBC has always been strong at mocking both itself and the rest of the radio industry. Indeed, in my new book I devote some time (er, do I mean “space”?) to discussing shows such as W1A, Radio Active, Alan Partridge and others. Details here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/radios-legacy-in-popular-culture-9781501360435/

And you can read a portion at this link: https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com/viewer/61c091c75f150300016f10af

This Norman Hunter I’m referring to is not the Leeds United and England footballer (1943 – 2020), but the author who lived from 1899 to 1995. He wrote and published dozens of books during his lifetime.

His last was published in 1983. He is also credited in his Wikipedia entry as being an advertising copywriter and a stage magician. Truly versatile.

His children’s stories have been enduringly popular, with the last of the Professor Branestawm series published in the early 1980s and numerous TV adaptations (Thames TV, 1969; BBC, 2014 and 2015). A new radio version of five of his stories was broadcast by the BBC in 2001. None of these, however, featured the “Professor Does a Broadcast” story. Do track it down and read it for yourself. You’ll enjoy it.

And if you’re interested in finding out how other authors have written about radio for the young generation, then I have some suggestions for you. All of these are included in my new book.

There’s Richmal Crompton from 1945 with “William and the Brains Trust”.

That’s where the young – and forever naughty – William declares that the Home Service (now Radio 4) programme The Brains Trust is so boring that he would never want to listen to it. (It was in some ways the forerunner of Radio 4’s Any Questions? which is with Chris Mason – at the time of writing the chair of the show – certainly not boring. It’ll be good to see Mason step up as he becomes the Beeb’s new political editor).

More recently, there’s a couple of children’s books written by the ex-Virgin Radio DJ Christian O’Connell about Radio Boy (2017 and 2018) and his online station live and direct… from the shed in his back garden. I’ve read both and I recommend them. Buried deep in the narrative, O’Connell takes a sly dig at the restricted playlists of some commercial stations (think Galaxy and Capital) where the same track seems to come on again after only ninety minutes and the FM signal has so much compression it becomes uncomfortable to listen to for any length of time.

You may also care for some particular radio-related episodes of Bob the Builder (2008) and Hey Duggee (2020) – each of which examines the subject of broadcasting in a more contemporary (and animated) form. Serious lessons are to be learned in these programmes. That’s why an academic like me has included them in my book (we really do sit around watching cartoons in between giving lectures…)

There’s hundreds more examples between the covers. My work for Bloomsbury Publishing has been described as, “An important new source for radio historians. The perfect book to celebrate the one hundred years of radio broadcasting”, by Hugh Chignell, the Emeritus Professor of Media History at Bournemouth University on England’s south coast.

And, of course, there is my personal favourite (fictional) comic moment when things really do go wrong. This is Ivan Brackenbury the hospital radio DJ played by Tom Binns. This stuff can happen. Really. It’s just I don’t have my recordings of my mistakes any more… Honest.

And if you’re wondering where you can find what we call in the radio industry “blooper tapes”, well in some of the far reaches of the internet you can discover samples. But please be warned: some – if not all – are in less than “the-best-possible-taste” (1944-1995 © K Everett). This will get you started…

If you are easily offended by broadcasters making mistakes and cussing, then please avoid clicking indiscriminately on any detailed search engine results.

2 thoughts on “100 Years of Radio: When it all goes wrong – a broadcaster’s fear of failure

  1. Good stuff Martin. Enjoyed all the history. I wonder if you’ve considered flagging up your book and blog to Radio Today, I imagine they’d be interested. Blessings for Easter.


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