Warning: the following Beeb-orientated material contains mentions of butchery, brothels, and breaches of health and safety. As well as sheep…
However, this is not a “listicle”; I detest such things because they are the squalid evidence of lazy journalism.
This writing will not ask “What did the radio ever do for us?” This article will not have ten paragraphs – all in no particular order – designed to bring a wry/slight smile to your face, dear reader.
Indeed, just like the idea that “the revolution will not be televised”, this article is defined by what it isn’t. Which is an excuse to include a link to a Gil Scott-Heron track at the end of this piece.
Instead, this is a homage to specific radio staff. I have spent a lifetime as a Beeb journalist and presenter, and I know from first-hand experience the debt I owe to my engineering colleagues. Without their efforts I would have been a mere whisper in the void.
Cecil Lewis was one of the original BBC radio professionals. He was the first director of programmes – before anyone actually knew what that job might involve.
In his book, Broadcasting from Within (1924, p. 72) he pays tribute to the engineering staff. After all these years, I can’t argue with his point of view.
I’ve written more about C. A. Lewis (as he preferred to be called) here: https://prefadelisten.com/2021/09/15/broadcasting-into-the-void-part-two/
Meanwhile, I have gleaned much of the material in this present article from a BBC book written by Edward Pawley, called BBC Engineering 1922-1972.
I’ve included the page numbers in case you want to read for yourself; and please note that I present these topics here without independent verification.
If you have more information on any of the points, please drop me a line in the comments box below. Particularly the bits about the geese and the warm frogs… Seriously.
Behind the somewhat austere title of his book, published in 1972, Pawley includes some delightful revelations about how radio engineers have – perhaps – always made it up as they went along.
Let me share some of the historical high points of one hundred years of trying to keep the studios on-air and the PPM needles waggling.
Notes from a 1972 BBC Engineering book…
1 – TRANSMITTERS
Valves, used in amplifier circuits both in the reception and transmission of radio, by their very nature generate heat. Just ask an electric guitarist how warm their amplifier gets after prolonged playing.
So, transmitters have had to have cooling systems installed from the very early days of radio. Apparently, frogs became an unintended problem at Daventry in the early 1930s (pp. 33-4).
They loved the warm water but got caught up in the cooling mechanisms. Not nice. Par-boiled probably.
Only years later did someone have the bright idea of building a closed water-cooling system that kept small wildlife out.
Larger livestock were also a problem (pp. 83-4). As time went on, the transmitters and the cooling systems got bigger – particularly the shortwave ones of the late 1930s onwards.
That’s when one Beeb engineer came up with the idea of a sheep ramp. Just in case they fell into the cooling water ponds, again at Daventry. Wet, warm sheep. Nice.
Meanwhile in the 1950s, at a remote Norfolk transmitter site employees had to endure a gaggle of geese walking through their wooden hut – which served as the staff office and equipment store – each evening on their way back to their nests. The ducks, that is. Not the engineers.
And finally, on the subject of transmitters, the Beeb in the 1920s and 30s always employed an assistant engineer whose sole job was to hit his boss’s arm (pp. 83-4).
It wasn’t some quaint S&M ritual but was rather a precaution just in case the EiC (engineer in charge) accidentally rested his hand on a metal casing that had high tension electricity running through it. The junior was there to save the life of his boss.
I’ve only once seen an engineer working on live stuff. That was the time when I spilt coffee down a BBC Mark 3 desk.
I carried on with my show while he swapped out faders one and two (the gram deck faders, on the left of this picture).
I was back fully functioning in ten minutes. Both of us survived – although I got shouted at for spilling liquid down the on-air mixing desk.
In my defence I tried to point out that I took my coffee without milk or sugar. It didn’t help; the shouting continued.
2 – STUDIOS
Talking of mixers, the first ever audio mixer was probably built by the BBC engineering team in about 1925 (p. 43).
It was designed to mix the Big Ben chimes at midnight to fade up behind a live dance orchestra.
Neat solution because that way the show’s producer didn’t have to worry about the musicians finishing on time.
The audio mixer is of course now a DJ staple. And remember that without this there would be no Disco Stu.
And from the sound archives, courtesy of a former Bush House staffer, here’s a link to audio of Stanley Unwin talking his usual nonsense.
“Professor” Unwin had a long comedy career on TV and radio in Britain, but he started work as a transmitter engineer with the Beeb.
In this clip he’s talking about the “Type B mixing desk” and explaining what “clean feed” is. This is essential listening for radio industry insiders. You’ll get the joke straight away.
Meanwhile, in the early days technology was somewhat limited.
The Greenwich Time Signal (aka The Pips) is a BBC institution. Today the tones are generated by an atomic clock in the basement of Broadcasting House.
But according to Edward Pawley’s book (p. 50) for the first two years from 1922 to 1924 the pips at the top of the hour were done by hand, on either a piano or on a set of tubular bells that had been left in the corner of the studio.
3 – BROADCASTING HOUSE, W1A
Broadcasting House in London is the art deco flagship headquarters of the Beeb which opened in 1932.
A lot of thought went into that building. For example, as the interior walls were going up someone had a bright idea to check that the studio doorways were going to be wide enough so that grand pianos could be wheeled in and out (p.105).
A sensible idea if you had to change studios. Once the dimensions were known, the doorways could then be built and installed.
So, a small team of carpenters constructed a life-size balsa-wood mock-up of a piano in their workshop downstairs.
There was just one problem: it was too big to get out through the workshop door.
In other BH news: The original freehold deeds of Broadcasting House have certain restrictions as to what kind of business can be carried out on the premises: no meat slaughtering, no medical surgery, and no brothel (p. 105).
I make no comment. But isn’t it odd that you never see these things being done in the courtyard on The One Show on BBC1? Just saying.
Elsewhere, the BBC’s engineering department was involved in creating the standard musical pitch (440Hz for note A). It was established after a world conference at BH in May 1934 and was ratified internationally just before the start of WW2 (p. 124).
Oh, and if you thought that Radio Caroline in the 1960s was a ground-breaking moment in history, then you’re wrong. The first recorded prosecution for illegal radio transmissions was on 27 August 1924. Berkhamsted: the true spiritual home of pirate radio, eh? Ed Reardon would be so proud. This clipping from The Wireless World (3 Sept 1924, p. 662) explains some of the details.
4 – ON THE ROAD
Microphones have always been sensitive beasts. They’re meant to be. But some early attempts to stop mic rattle included in 1924, or thereabouts, setting the mic in cotton wool in a biscuit tin to prevent rumble (p. 62).
Another early attempt to waterproof a microphone – especially when used on OBs during the temperamental British weather – was to wrap it in cotton wool (again) and then put it in a football and seal it up with rubber solution (p. 60).
That’d stop the rainwater, but I’m not sure what it’d do to the sound quality. Later weatherproofing methods included the use of condoms. Apparently.
And a modern staple of radio – both local and network – is the OB vehicle. Such things have a long history. The first outside broadcast vehicle was probably built by a couple of engineers at Leeds in 1924 (p. 60).
Having spent the last 35 years of my life in God’s own county, I know that where Yorkshire goes others must follow.
Apparently, the West Riding OB transmitter and radio gear were packed into a Triumph motorbike and sidecar… It was another example of Beeb Engineering improvisation.
5 – RADIO AT WAR
During WW2 the BBC moved many departments to an out-of-town base – away from the nightly bombing raids on the capital (p. 225).
It was Wood Norton, a country house and grounds near Evesham, that was to become a temporary home for various departments including Engineering, Monitoring, Music, Schools and Drama.
BBC Engineering Training is still there.
During the war the house and grounds didn’t have an air-raid siren installed, but instead “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” was played over Tannoy speakers on the estate as the signal to take cover and shelter – down in the woods today….
And Edward Pawley gives fulsome praise to the heroics of engineering colleagues in Europe. When Radio Luxembourg was taken over by German forces, a wily station engineer encouraged the Nazi’s to try some target practice by shooting at the transmitter valves he’d lined up outside on a brick wall (p. 292).
They enjoyed this: shattering the glass bulbs and unwittingly disabling the station for Nazi use.
Immediately after liberation by the Allies, the same engineer dug up a set of spare vales that he’d secretly buried in the grounds, at the beginning of the war, all those years before. The station was quickly back on air.
So, this has been just one version of the history of 100 years of radio.
Edward Pawley was well placed to see some of these events, particularly the more recent ones.
He himself worked for BBC Engineering and is given footnote credits by Asa Briggs in volumes four and five of his History of Broadcasting series of books.
Mark Coleman, an American journalist, writing in 2003 about the development of the recorded music industry – from the wind-up gramophone to mp3 streaming – observed that, “Technology to a large extent determines what we hear and how we her it” (p. 1).
The same has been true of the radio industry – from cat’s whisker, to valve receiver to transistor radio to phone app.
What has impressed me throughout is how broadcasting and listening has changed and adapted with the technology. Or is it the case of technology adapting to the medium? I’ll leave that one for you to ponder. I’ll explore more about this in part two of this article. Coming soon.
In the meantime, I’m surrounded by what is politely referred to as “legacy” technology as I sit and write this: CD players, cassette machines, MiniDisc recorders, analogue mixers.
Unkind friends might call it junk that is in desperate need of taking to the recycling centre. I wouldn’t.
At work I’ve used Uhers, Revox tape machines, chinagraph and razor blades (yes, no health and safety in the 1980s). These days an iPhone with an xlr mic adapter does the job just fine – even for live two-ways.
And I’ve seen radio evolve from medium, long and short wave, to AM and FM, into DAB, online, podcasting and on-demand.
If these things fascinate you, do look at other material on this website – including these pieces about tech determinism, about radio technology and more.
And finally, as promised. That classic track from Gil Scott-Heron.
The radical poet and singer had a troubled life – and death.
But one of his most striking legacies was this song, from 1970 and ‘71, at the height of the Richard Nixon years. It is, I think, still relevant today for so many reasons.
Listen carefully to the controlled anger.