Step up to the microphone: 100 years of British Radio…

In the previous two episodes of this mini-series of articles I have considered how technology has determined the progress of radio for the past century.

Read here – because I am aware that technological determinism is regarded by some (not me) as academic heresy.

And in the second part you will find my thoughts on modern buzz-words – such as “podcast”. It is in my opinion, to use current parlance, old stuff re-badged.

But, in this third part of this series I want to consider the microphone. This is the business end of radio as far as us broadcasters are concerned.

When we’re trained as novices and initiates into the world of radio we’re told to “address” the microphone.

It’s as if a special guest has come close into our immediate physical space. It is, indeed, this very thing. Read on.

But first, watch in wonderment. This is a complete masterclass in how to “address the mic”…

Sometimes the art of radio presentation is just that: it’s a finely honed intimate performance.

By the way, if you did watch this clip, you’ll observe how – at one point – he puts his music playout direct to TX. That allows him to pre-rec his phone call interview with the competition winner. He then switches the desk back to live mode and plays the audio out, adding a layer of music and drum roll SFX. Superb.

“I want a million different voices” © 2007 B Springsteen

Here at home, the pinnacle was for me the Breakfast Show on Radio 2 with Terry Wogan – on and off from the early 70s to the late 00s. He knew exactly how to “address the microphone” in his own particular style, and draw his audience into his surreal world. He even had the BBC virgins dancing on the roof of BH as the sun rose…

As for the BBC itself, it is celebrating its centenary in 2022. It recently published this – about the microphone that “entertained the world”:

So, the BBC Marconi Type A is a real contender. Click here to read this Wiki article for a US perspective. And look at this video for a French/European angle.

Coles 4038

The other classic BBC microphone, and one that I’ve often sat in front of to read the news, is the Coles BBC microphone… It’s reassuringly expensive, built in Britain, and still available to purchase new after almost seventy years:

Just think: I could buy a second hand car for that price. But – of all things – one of the enterprising audio companies elsewhere around the world hasn’t missed a trick.

Behringer BV4038

This copy is proudly bearing the same model number, and comes with a USB connection. And it’s a tenth of the price.

This is quite simply historic nostalgia that has gone digital. The very thought of it. Indeed.

By the way, and as a dismissive side-note, the “mic drop” meme of the late 2010s was just that: a social media artefact created from nothing of any cultural and social significance and foisted upon the collective consciousness. Émile Durkheim would’ve written volumes.

“But now all the stations are silenced” © 1980 Strummer/Jones/Simonon/Headon

I’ve already shared my thoughts about current-day words to describe audio output. You can read about it in this article. Remember at the same time that the BBC has led the field in the modern art and craft of “listen-again” radio. In my youth the best we had was a DIY cassette recording of the Sunday Chart Show.

Now we can either have listen-again, or perhaps you want to call it a “BBCiPlayer” or even “BBCSounds”. It’s again been ground-breaking engineering by the Beeb that’s created this stuff.

“Hello, hello, turn your radio on” © 1992 Guiot/Levy/Fahey & Shakespears Sister

Elsewhere, both DAB and DRM broadcast systems were developed with the deep involvement of Beeb engineers. DAB (digital audio broadcasting) I’m sure you know about. But DRM was a Beeb project too.

A pilot was launched on the south coast in 2007 in the Plymouth area. It was on 855kHz which was a former medium wave frequency of BBC Radio Devon.

I have one of the DRM (digital radio mondiale) receivers in my collection. There’s more info on the industry website

DRM is these days popular in India and other countries with large land-masses to cover. Broadcasters also offering it include Spain, Britain, New Zealand and Romania.

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” © 1977 C McVie & Fleetwood Mac

But then, radio, and the BBC in particular, has always attracted the visionary technology operators.

Within the first 18 months of helping to launch the BBC, Cecil A. Lewis was already thinking about the Company offering multi-channel services in stereo (Lewis, p. 132, 137-9). He was the first director of programmes at the Beeb. I’ve previously written about him here. He was correct in his prophecies but missed the timescales by a few decades.

It took until after the Second World War for the Home, Light and Third to come into being. Stereo BBC Radio 3 began in the early 1960s. And only in the last twenty years or so have we got all of Radios 1 to 6 and some Extras too, along with the Asian Network.

And throughout the twentieth century, change has continued. Here’s the IBA successfully making a tech topic deathly dull. See if you can manage to watch this to the end. “Polarisation of VHF Aerials” Who knew?…

And even today, there’s trade shows for techies… Follow this link and enjoy.

It’s interesting to note that one radio station is here thinking about how its shows will look on the telly or a YouTube channel.

Convergence? Perhaps after three decades of talking it’s finally about to happen.

Meanwhile, I recall Friday nights during late 1988 and ’89 on Yorkshire TV watching The James Whale Radio Show in a simulcast from Radio Aire.

It was an interesting show, with the content suiting both James’ outlook on life and his post-pub audience.

You may find clips on the web, but be warned: it’s not edifying watching/listening by today’s standards.

In the 90s I produced a short series of live Sunday OB shows with Whale. I’ve written about our time Out to Lunch here. In contrast, that was quality Beeb output.

“And it smells like heaven. I say, Roadrunner once” © 1976 J Richman

The Modern Lovers and Jonathan – who left us this quote – were mainly considering the scent of the pine trees in the dark. For me, it’s the burnt, dusty, smell of warm radio valves in the corner of my lounge. In this respect I’m with the artist Ed Ruscha. Follow this link to discover one of my favourite aquisitions by the Tate Modern in London: And then you can read about this work of art in my book, Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture, published recently by Bloomsbury Academic.

And as a reader of this website, you can have a special preview of chapter one here:

In other ways, the listener at home could also become obsessed with technology – just for the sake of it perhaps. Here’s an edition of the BBC’s Monitor programme from 1959, called “The Audiophile”

Which reminds me, I need to buy a new anti-static wipe to clean my vinyls before putting the needle in the groove. The tweeter and crossover unit can wait…

“Turn it up! Just a little bit! So you know it’s got soul! Radio!” © 1970 Van Morrison

And finally, my laugh-out-loud moment from listening to BBC Radio 4 continuity announcements. No, seriously. From February 2009, it’s this moment. A classic warning – at a quarter past two in the afternoon. Shocking it was.

And that really is how to do a warning about unsuitable content… This audio clip is, by the way, from my own personal archive. And you can hear more about the tradecraft of the continuity announcer teams just here. It’s a special edition of R4’s The Media Show from December 2021.

Oh, and answers to the lyrics please in the comments box below. Tell me the song titles I’ve included in this article, and which one has nothing to do with radio…

4 thoughts on “Step up to the microphone: 100 years of British Radio…

  1. I wish they would bring back radio shows. There was a Golden Age of radio shows, that was prolific to listen to when I was younger. Some of the shows disappeared. Others morphed onto the “silver screen”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent – as ever, Martin.

    The section regarding Continuity Announcers prompts me to include a link here to a clip here I produced when working for Bravo TV back in the mid-90s. I had carte blanche producing promos at the channel back then: it was a left-field kind of station and they loved (and funded) any and all the filler material I made for them. This clip was purely self-indulgent and not for transmission – I wanted the character to go on to further things on the channel (and it worked: he did), but the response of the Channel Controller on seeing it for the first time in his office was magic: “HELLS TEETH!!!” he exploded, “This CAN’T have gone out… did it???”

    The voice was the wonderful David Tate.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s