Where ivory towers meet the world of radio…

I’m writing this in the autumn of 2022. It’s the first time in two years that academics have gathered together for their late summer rituals – known as conferences.

There’s a whole etiquette to these things. In theory an academic conference is spread over one or two days.

It starts with a general talk from a well-known professor. This is called the plenary or keynote address. Let’s imagine it’s about “The Future of Vegetables” (don’t worry, the radio connection will be revealed shortly. Keep reading…)

The rest of the conference time is split into what’s known as parallel sessions. So, for example, in the morning there might be two sessions: one featuring three talks on carrots at the same time as the other has three on potatoes.

You, the delegate, have to decide which presentations you want to listen to. Each parallel session is around 90 minutes: time for three speakers of 20 minutes and then 30 mins of questions.

It’s often accepted that the academics will read haltingly from their work, without lifting their head to look at the rest of the room. That gives plenty of time for the audience to consider the lack-of-hair styles.

Added to which, the PowerPoint will not work properly, and each talk will keep going on way beyond the time allotted.

This means the timings, so precisely laid down by the conference organisers, go completely awry. As a result, there’s hardly any time for questions from the audience or any sort of discussion. If you’ve ever taken part in an academic conference, you’ll recognise these things.

Which is why it was a pleasure to join a gathering this September, 2022, that broke the mould.

It was called “The BBC at 100”, and as its title suggested it was a gathering of people who wanted to talk about this large cultural institution.

It all took place in the late summer sunshine of Bradford – first at the University, then at the National Science and Media Museum, and an evening dinner under the chandeliers of the Midland Hotel (the former Victorian railway-owned hotel). That’s where we were entertained by the comic and writer Paul Kerensa. Do listen to Paul’s podcasts which celebrate radio’s glorious past: https://bbcentury.podbean.com

The Bradford conference was supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, the two venues that hosted it, as well as the Beeb itself.

As to the discussions and the conference panels, the organisers had broken with tradition and allowed speakers only five minutes to introduce their research.

I’ll be honest, it was a great idea, and some didn’t quite manage the timing. I over-ran by 2’05”. You can hear me here:

I was speaking on the last day of the conference, on a panel about audiences. Hence my initial remarks in this audio clip.

My five points can be summarised as: why people in the 1920s asked, “What’s this thing called radio?” How they criticised the Beeb in the 1930s, got nostalgic for radio in the 1980s, wondered about the BBC’s self-satire of the 90s, and why Hollywood used an off-screen trick known as the Acousmêtre in the 2000s.

If you want to delve further into my research about all these things along radio’s 100 years of cultural history, and about how broadcasting has inspired writers, musicians, film producers, and other creatives, my book is out now. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/radios-legacy-in-popular-culture-9781501360435/

And since you’re looking at this, you can read chapter one – as a special promotion. Click this link, or copy into your browser https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com/viewer/61c091c75f150300016f10af .

The Bradford conference attracted academics, researchers, writers, the Head of BBC History and staff from the Beeb’s Written Archives Centre at Caversham. There was also – and this is a welcome first – members of the public and enthusiasts of radio and TV history.

It saw over 150 people draw together. Many were there in person in Bradford, but a sizeable contingent were watching and taking part online too. That is one of the technological bonuses in the post-COVID era of planet earth.

This is now known in the business as a hybrid conference. What was great was that the technicals for all this audio/video streaming side of things were taken care of by a team led by a staff member from the University of Bradford.

That he was an ex-BBC technician formerly based in South Yorkshire for Look North meant that the audio and video streaming worked perfectly, and each camera shot was perfectly framed, well-lit and with the correct white balance. (If you’ve ever been out on a job with a professional camera-person you’ll know how picky they can get about such things. And rightly so, of course.)

He even asked the audience before one session to all move up to the front so that the shot would look as if there was lots of people present. There were, it was just that we’d spread ourselves out somewhat.

Talk of academic conferences takes me back to my teenage years in Leicester. That’s where the novel Lucky Jim – a satire of provincial higher education – by Kingsley Amis was set. Even the eponymous character’s surname (Dixon) was taken from the road where Amis’s mate Philip Larkin lived at the time.

My mother and father, both students at Leicester University College, told me of the time they drank with Larkin in The New Road Inn (when it was a pub; before it’s transformation) on Welford Road, just round the corner from the university – and across the road from the (state) grammar school I would later attend.

My own Larkin memory is from July 1974. That’s when I was sent by my mum to pick up a copy of High Windows which she had ordered hot off the presses.

On the way back on the number 29 bus up London Road (coincidentally passing by the private St Francis’ Hospital run by nuns where I was born) I sat on the top deck and had a quick read of this book of poems.

As a sixteen-year-old I thumbed casually through the slim volume, until I stopped at page 30. If you know Larkin’s “This Be The Verse”, you’ll know the famous line. How, I wondered, could my mother want to buy such a book?

I’ve just retrieved it from my shelves (it’s been passed down to me). Why does the spine break and fall open at that page? Eh?

But back to the subject in hand. What was clear from speaking to fellow delegates in Bradford was that there’s a massive amount of academic research into the Beeb: its history, its culture, its journalism, its relations with government, its international reach, gender issues, and yes: audiences.

For me – as an academic cultural historian and a radio journalist – it was pleasing to see so many fellow ex-Beeb types who’ve gone on to earn themselves Masters and PhD qualifications.

I’m certain that our own personal experiences inside the organisation have helped us in our subsequent research. In a future edition of this blog, I may well highlight some of my radio and TV colleagues who’ve written doctoral theses.

I already know of work by various individuals on diverse topics – including radio scheduling, Asian broadcasting, local radio, radio drama, and regional newsrooms.

If you’re reading this and that’s you, or you have original research in a new area, drop me a message in the box below and I’ll include you and your work when I come ‘round to writing that piece.

For example, one PhD I’ve just been reading has been an intriguing historical account of the BBC’s Monitoring Service. And it contains one delightful story about how sometimes journalists are caught out by a lack of hindsight.

Since just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the BBC’s Monitoring Service has paid people to sit and listen to the radio. Sounds a great job and one that I’d like. But these staff were/are language experts tuning in to foreign stations to find out what’s being said.

Poppy in a Yorkshire Field, July 2020

During the war they were listening to both the Axis powers and the Allied broadcasters. It helped provide intelligence to the British military. The service has continued through the Cold War, and still exists today as a niche provider of specialist foreign information – both to the BH newsroom and to clients who pay for their own service reports.

This story is from: “Establishing Broadcast Monitoring as Open Source Intelligence: The BBC Monitoring Service during the Second World War.” By Laura Johnson. It’s a PhD thesis submitted in 2013 based on her research with the Imperial War Museum and the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

Apparently sometime during the Second World War the Pope gave a broadcast about nuclear power, and talked about new research into splitting the atom.

“There was a degree of ignorance throughout the Monitoring Service due to security considerations. [One of the leading monitors,] Ernst Gombrich recalled an occasion on which he asked a fellow monitor – described as ‘very intelligent’ – what the Pope had said in his recent broadcast from Radio Vatican, to which the monitor had just listened. Gombrich received a dismissive one-word response: ‘Atoms!’ Recalling the exchange over fifty years later Gombrich explained how, ‘The Pope had opened a Laboratory in the Vatican, and talked about the power hidden in the atom, which we [had] considered to be of no political relevance. How could we have known?’” (p. 161).

Sometimes the constraints of official secrets can take from us the necessary context to spot a cracking story.

And to end, whilst I’m considering newsgathering and the importance of context, here’s a new promo (September 2022) about the Beeb’s editorial guidelines. Trust is earned.

Sign up to receive these monthly articles direct to your in-box. And drop me a message if you’re doing your own research into an aspect of the BBC – or indeed of any part of the British radio industry.

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