On the 4th July 1950, Radio Free Europe – founded the previous year to transmit uncensored information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain – completed its first broadcast. Although the station was uncensored in the sense that it shared information that was suppressed within the Communist Bloc, it’s important to remember that it was still a propaganda tool founded and principally funded by the United States government.
The task facing the journalists who worked for RFE was daunting. Since they broadcast to states that suppressed a range of information and news, the gathering of intelligence to provide broadcast material was an enormous challenge. They often relied on risky contact with émigrés and people who had traveled behind the Iron Curtain for eye-witness accounts, and closely monitored print and electronic media from the communist governments. It’s even been suggested that the quality and quantity of information was so comprehensive that the communist governments themselves used Radio Free Europe to gain information about what was happening within their own countries.
However, RFE was still fundamentally a broadcaster that promoted anti-communist ideas and was therefore a significant threat in the countries it targeted. The USSR tasked the KGB with establishing expensive radio jamming facilities to try to block broadcasts, while in 1981 a terrorist group funded by the Romanian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu detonated a bomb at RFE’s Munich headquarters.
Despite these challenges Radio Free Europe and its partner station Radio Liberty continued broadcasting, and even after the end of the Cold War has continued to broadcast to countries where a free press is not established.
On the 5th February 1924 the BBC ‘pips’ were broadcast for the first time. Five short pips signal the five seconds leading up to the hour, with a slightly longer pip marking the start of the new hour. Although now largely inaccurate as a result of the inherent delay in the encoding, transmission, and decoding of digital radio broadcasts, the pips are still a part of many BBC radio programmes.
The BBC successfully broadcast the chimes of Big Ben for the first time at New Year 1924. This led the Astronomer Royal at the time, Sir Frank Watson Dyson, to suggest that time signals could be broadcast more regularly. Having convinced BBC boss John Reith, the Royal Greenwich Observatory fitted the pendula of two mechanical clocks with electrical contacts that sent a signal to the BBC every second.
The equipment that generated the pips moved from Greenwich in 1939, but the pips are still known officially as the Greenwich Time Signal. The name was even kept after the Greenwich Time Service stopped transmitting the pips in 1990. Since then, the national BBC stations have generated the pips themselves using an atomic clock in the basement of Broadcasting House.
Due to their use as a time signal, the BBC doesn’t allow programmes to broadcast the six pip sequence for any other reason, and used to strongly discourage broadcasters from ‘crashing the pips’ – that is playing any other sound at the same time. Although this rule is now less rigorously enforced on most stations, some Radio 4 listeners still wait with baited breath to hear a presenter accidentally talk over them.
Desert Island Discs is Britain’s longest-running radio programme.
Devised by the English radio broadcaster and producer Roy Plomley in November 1941, each episode of Desert Island Discs features an interview with a celebrity who imagines that they have been cast away on a desert island with only a limited number of home comforts. In the early years they were permitted to choose eight songs to take with them, although a few years after the programme’s inception castaways were also allowed to take one book and one luxury item, in addition to a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and an appropriate religious or philosophical work such as the Bible.
Plomley was commissioned to create the new radio programme by the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. Just two months after he pitched the idea, he found himself in the bomb-damaged studio at Maida Vale conducting the very first interview with popular entertainer Vic Oliver who chose Chopin’s Étude No.12 in C minor, “Revolutionary”, as his first piece of music.
The first series was originally commissioned to run on the BBC Forces Programme for eight weeks but, excluding a break between 1946-51, has remained on air for 42 weeks a year ever since. Plomley himself presented the programme until his death in 1985, in which time he recorded 1,791 episodes. He was succeeded as presenter by Michael Parkinson.
Desert Island Discs still features the same theme music, “By the Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates which is overlaid with sounds of herring gulls to conjure up the feeling of being by the sea. Some listeners, however, continue to take issue with this sound effect since herring gulls are not known to congregate near tropical islands.
On the 30th October 1938, Orson Welles directed and narrated a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds as part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Despite its relatively low audience figures, the broadcast became famous for causing mass panic amongst American citizens.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air was a series of weekly one-hour radio plays created by Orson Welles and broadcast on the CBS Radio network. The War of the Worlds was the seventeenth episode of the radio show, and was adapted by American playwright Howard E. Koch who is probably best known for later co-writing the film Casablanca. For War of the Worlds Koch took the general story arc from H. G. Wells’ original novel but substituted 19th Century Europe for 20th Century America, changing the names of locations and personalities to ones that were more familiar and contemporary. Amazingly he was only asked to write the script a week before the broadcast.
Before the live broadcast itself had finished on the night of the 30th October, CBS began to receive telephone calls from concerned listeners. Announcements were made before, during and after the performance that the events were fictitious but it was clear that these warnings went unheeded by many. Although the listening figures were relatively small, news of the alien invasion spread through a country nervous about impending war. Within hours of the broadcast the billboards in New York’s Times Square flashed with reports of mass panic caused by the play, although subsequent research suggests that the panic was nowhere near the scale claimed at the time.
On the 18th October 1922, the British Broadcasting Company was established. Originally established as a private consortium of radio manufacturers to secure the first broadcasting license in the UK, the company later became the British Broadcasting Corporation when it transferred to government ownership under the Postmaster General, the ministerial position that was responsible for the postal system and telecommunications.
In the early 1920s, the UK’s radio set producers were keen to expand their market. At the time the government only granted occasional ‘experimental’ radio licenses, which meant that there were large periods when the airwaves were completely silent. This was no use to radio manufacturers themselves who needed broadcasts in order to make their products worthwhile.
As more and more requests were submitted for the ‘experimental’ licenses, the government declared its decision to instead grant a single broadcasting license to a consortium of the UK’s leading radio manufacturers. The six companies held an equal amount of shares in the new venture, which hired John – later to become Lord – Reith as its first Managing Director.
The new broadcasting company was funded through a royalty on the sale of radio sets sold by the member producers, and by a license fee. However, the number of amateur electronics enthusiasts who began building their own sets meant that the income did not produce adequate funds. Consequently the member companies found themselves making a loss, which contributed to their desire to extricate themselves from the arrangement. By the time the BBC had begun its first experimental television broadcasts in 1932, the company had been publicly funded for five years.
At 7am on the 30th September 1967, the words “… And, good morning everyone. Welcome to the exciting new sound of Radio 1” launched the BBC’s new popular music station. Created to compete with the successful offshore ‘pirate’ radio stations that had been outlawed by an Act of Parliament, Radio 1’s target demographic has continued to be the 15-29 year old age group, and so the music it broadcasts has continuously evolved throughout its history. While “Flowers in the Rain”, a song by The Move, was the first to be played on the new station you would never hear it on Radio 1 now!
The first voice on the station – that of DJ Tony Blackburn – had first been heard on the pirate stations Radio Caroline and Radio London. Having moved to the BBC earlier in 1967 his cheery presenting style made him the perfect person to host the breakfast show, which he did until 1973. However, his own dislike of heavier rock music made him unpopular with some listeners who were disappointed that the BBC had managed to get the pirate stations banned but then didn’t fill the hole in the airwaves with anything equivalent.
Adding to the complaints from listeners, the existence of so-called ‘needle time’ meant that Radio 1 featured more DJ talk than the pirate stations. This legally imposed limit on the amount of commercial music the station could play was initially a problem for the station, but it led to a large number of live broadcasts and recordings being made that have – over time – become prized in their own right.