100 memories: radio in the rear view mirror

So, 2022 was the centenary of the British Broadcasting Corporation (née Company).

Have the celebrations marking events in 1922 passed by unduly quietly? In this article I’ll mention a couple of contrasting views about radio broadcasting’s first one hundred years.

I’ve spent the last four decades in the industry, and like many of my generation the radio holds a special place in my memory – both as a listener and as a journalist/presenter.

The British Royal Mint issued a commemorative 50p (US$0.61) coin in October 2022. Symbolically that was the cost of a radio receiving licence back in the day.

The coin, a collector’s item, cost me UK£14.00 (US$17.11). It arrived six weeks later.

That’s a waiting time equivalent to almost half a season of Radio 4’s Friday night comedy show The News Quiz. Go on, look it up if you want to check my facts…

Elsewhere, in various parts of the print media, tributes to the BBC at 100 have been mixed, in my opinion. And on-air, if you’ve taken the trouble to search the listings, you’ll’ve found some fascinating archive programmes.

For some contrast, compare these two: the BBC at 100: Radio Times (acknowledged, for long-standing historical and editorial reasons, to be pro-BBC) versus The Economist (a free-market-supporting newspaper)…

And whilst we’re thinking about the remembrance of things past [© M. Proust/trans. Scott Moncrieff, 1922], one abiding Beeb memory I have is of mixing radio packages with the Corporation’s Sound Effects discs (and yes, it was vinyl in my day).

Well, now I find that they’re out there on the web (strictly for own-use only, of course).

This means that you too can sit in your front room in Bingley, Gomersal, Heckmondwike, Wath on Dearne or Kirkbymoorside in Yorkshire and sample the delights of three minutes of “Outdoor market, Cliza, small town in central Bolivia with livestock noise, also some muted chatter and traffic noise”.

It’s on CD BBC ECD57 with a duration of 3’56” if you really need to know.

I think I can now admit that an occasional radio feature of mine, perhaps about the state of the Malton livestock market did – sometimes – have the sounds of cholitas going about their daily business whilst deep in the background the llamas let out their mournful cries…

I recall one unfortunate colleague who was caught out, however.

He was preparing a story about the new arrival of a restored steam engine at a local heritage railway line.

As the TX deadline approached, he quickly dubbed on some SFX to his report (after all, the locomotive hadn’t arrived and gone into service at that point).

The radio station received a letter of complaint a week later: “Did you not know that was the sound of a pre-war Great Western Railway loco, when it should have been a London and North Eastern (also pre-war) one?”

Yes, anoraks and gricers of the world unite over a misplaced BBC sound effect.

Perhaps one unintentional long-standing tribute to British public service broadcasting has been the classic Mike Myers/Austin Powers’ song:

This is the best tribute E.V.E.R.

And, was that a Bangle I could see in this video? Typical how he doesn’t realise that BBC-TV five, six or seven don’t exist. OK, so BBC Heaven might. Perhaps.

Let me now offer some things from the archives, and two items from 1932. They may be unrelated; only their date of publication joins them.

But whatever, they do say something about the BBC in that era and perhaps speak to some of the issues and concerns floating around the media world in Britain in the 2020s.

The freshly minted ten-year old BBC had just moved into its new building, Broadcasting House – at the top of Regent Street in London. That was when this warning appeared in the 1932 BBC Handbook about paying your radio licence:

Ten shillings is, of course, 50p in modern money. And to think I paid 14 pounds for my coin, mentioned at the start of this piece… That’s an unlikely comparison of 28 years of licenced-listening in old money.

And from W. H. Auden, the York-born poet, in a poem published in February 1932,

“And standing aloof like a blasted tree / was the gaunt Director of the BBC”

The English Auden, p. 448.

This is two lines from a long, seven-page, poem called “A Happy New Year” which puts into sometimes humorous and satirical verse the events in England, Europe and the USA of the time. Read also my companion article about other mentions by Auden of radio and the wireless as it was known in those days.

Some of the references Auden makes are now rather obscure, but at the same time you can feel his unease at the rising tensions in Europe and the political challenges beginning to appear from the far right.

W.H. Auden gets a mention in my new book. He’s one of hundreds of poets, songwriters, filmmakers, novelists and TV scriptwriters who’ve been inspired by the radio.

You can pre-order the paperback version of my book here. Some creatives, like Auden, are sceptical – others have praised the medium over the years.

I examine almost all broadcasters in Britain, not just the Beeb. There’s pirate, hospital, community and ILR in there too. Fab 208/Luxembourg gets a mention as well.

You can read the first chapter – for free – by clicking this link.

And before I forget, at the time of writing, over fifty libraries around Europe and the world have purchased a copy and have it on their shelves (real or virtual, or both). So thank you. See the current list of them here: https://www.worldcat.org/title/1285369128

In addition, I recently stumbled across a video that evoked in me a memory of commercial radio in its prime. This is from the early 1990s. It’s a video of LBC from 1992. That’s some time after I did an overnight shadow shift producing material for Bob Holness and Douglas Cameron on the following morning’s breakfast show.

From 1973 to 1989 LBC was based at Gough Square just off Fleet Street. It had the excited feeling of the BBC newsroom, without the Oxbridge formality and hierarchy. This video shows the station after it moved to Crown House in Hammersmith.

My other connection is that I was trained by one of the original LBC mavericks Fred Hunter – after he jumped ship and set up shop at the London College of Printing on the Elephant and Castle roundabout, just south of the river.

My audition to join his course involved me pretending to commentate on Charlie Chaplin’s funeral procession as Fred and I looked out of the tower-block window at the drab London scene below.

Later Fred told me that he took me on because I didn’t fit the image of a typical Oxbridge graduate. I was chuffed by his view of me, and pleased that I was one who was breaking stereotypes.

In a similar manner, when BBC Local Radio stations were in their prime they were all very much separately organised and programmed by each manager.

For example BBC Radio York – when I joined – had its own freewheeling attitude during the 1980s. “More Hits More Memories” was one of the US-tinged sung jingles. Read more here.

I presented the weekday 12 to 3 show, which included at one o’clock “The Now News Hour – never more than three minutes away from the headlines”. Or as another jingle shouted: “More Hits More Headlines”.

The format was simple. Three minutes (max) of news/talk, followed by a classic pop song. We’d hack down the BBC news interviews from 3’45” to 1’20” and the whole hour would rock along. Great stuff. Who, I ask, is daring to do exciting radio these days?

Elsewhere, I do enjoy finding examples of satire about radio in Britain. The BBC’s comedy department over at Radio 4 has a proud tradition of not taking both itself and the radio industry in general too seriously. I’ll write more about that in a future article.

For example, I’ve long been a fan of BBC Radio 4’s Ed Reardon’ Week. And I recall a special evening of repeats on Radio 4 Extra with some ad-lib satire from Christopher Douglas in character as Ed.

Series 7 episode 4 was first broadcast in 2011. It was about a disastrous reunion of staff who worked on a fictional children’s TV show called Parsnip Junction.

This classic Reardon episode was rebroadcast on BBC 4 Extra around 2016 or so, during an evening dedicated to old programmes from the long-running series.

Since each comedy half-hour was – and is – always 27’00” it needed three minutes to fill to time on 4 Extra, so Ed Reardon in character was the perfect option.

Here’s what he had to say – in a semi-ad-lib style – about network radio.

“You’re listening to Radio 4 Extra, the station of choice …for those who prefer the world as it was prior to 1982… It’s also a safe haven for those fleeing the likes of Clare Balding or Stephen Fry on Radio 4, or from an unexpected “puzzle corner” on Radio 3. The other day I had to retune very hastily indeed from Radio Five Live after an over-familiar weatherman told me to “take care!” I accidently stumbled across three hours of ambient smugness on 6 Music…”

No-one, and no station, is spared in this rant. Imagine it delivered in Reardon’s disdainful voice and you get the idea of the satire evoked here.

So, what drives you away from a radio station? Is it false sincerity? Is it banal chatter? Is it relentless repeated “music of your life” tracks? Let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.

And while I’m in grumpy mode, let me share three clichés which have been bouncing around at almost every meeting of media people I have attended of recent weeks: “Going forward” (pointless and self-explanatory), “What’s the take-away?” (likewise: banal), and “The deep dive” (a favourite of radio documentary/podcast producers). Do, I wonder, get free nose clips and a rubber swimming cap with every episode?

Each phrase is repulsive to my ears, and after the manner of Ed Reardon makes me want to be physically sick. I’m so grateful that both his show, and the delectable W1A on BBC-TV have beaten me to satirising such phrases.

Let me just switch topic slightly and contend that journalism is about speaking truth to power. I’ve written about this in a separate article.

But I’ve just come across a moral dilemma that is quintessentially representative of our modern times. It’s the need for humanity in this Anthropocene era to lie to itself.

Yes, not anymore is it the sin of telling fibs to your partner, the landlord, or the neighbours. Now it seems that we’re lying to ourselves.

Whatever next? I found this picture on the internet of an item for sale.

Think of it as an adapted phone charger – with a special mission to deceive.

It’s a cradle for your mobile phone. But instead of just sitting there on your kitchen table or beside your bed, it swings your phone from side to side.

Why? Well, it’s to fool your health and fitness apps into thinking that you are walking or running about.

But why on earth would you want to lie to yourself like that? The Economist newspaper, reviewing this very same bit of charging equipment said,

“[This] device is ingeniously depressing… such cheating is pointless but not uncommon.”

The Economist, print edition, November 5 2022, p. 73.

All of which, I find remarkable. Why spend a couple of hundred on a mobile phone, or on a fitness device that straps to your wrist, and then try to dupe it?

Isn’t the whole point to monitor your own health? Unless, of course, you are a nerd who wants to impress:

And before I forget, a recommendation and a thank-you.

Post is the, er, post-twitter new kid on the block. Click here to find out more https://post.news/?r=m3PoN.

I heard of it from Julian Simpson, the creator of some truly innovative radio drama. I’ve written about his work here and here. He said recently about Post:

Post is in beta, so there is a waiting list, but I’d advise anyone interested to sign up now, if only to secure your username into the future. Post is shonky and unreliable, because it’s an early-Beta, but it shows an awful lot of promise. It looks great, is easy to use, and has some nice tricks up its sleeve to deter people from abusing the platform. I suspect this, rather than Mastodon, could be the true successor to Twitter.

I’ve signed up and at the time of writing am beginning to find my way around. I’m at https://post.news/martincooper if you want to say hello.

Like many people, it seems, I never got on with Twitter. I found too much abuse (of others, not me; I never posted anything of consequence).

I’m also investigating Mastodon but, like Twitter, I find it all a bit confusing. In this little micro-world they’re not ‘posts’ or ‘tweets’; they’re ‘toots’. Oh dear…

Let me know how you get on. I’m at https://mastodon.world/@pfl.

Meanwhile, here at PreFadeListen I’d like to say thank you: for both your support and your subscribing (click the link and add your e-mail if you haven’t done already – you’ll get a new article from me each month about the radio and media industries in Britain).

Thank you for reading these articles, and for your comments.

This web resource about radio has grown steadily every year since it began in 2018. We now reach a record number of page views and visitors from around the world every day. Here’s to the future.

One thought on “100 memories: radio in the rear view mirror

  1. Fred. The best. My audition was similar. Told me I had a place before we started ( I suspect for similar non Oxbridge reasons ) and said let’s just have a chat for a while so they think I’m grilling you.

    Liked by 1 person

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