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Mystery of BBC Radio’s First Broadcasts Revealed 100 Years On

Indians at UK - Mystery of BBC Radio

The BBC is celebrating the centenary of its first official broadcast – a news bulletin that included a court report from the Old Bailey, details of London fog disruption, and billiards scores. It was broadcast by London station 2LO, but new research shows many early BBC moments came from northern England. Manchester station 2ZY aired the first children’s show and introduced the first regular weather forecast. Birmingham’s 5IT station broadcast the first “official concert” The BBC that began broadcasting at 6 pm on 14 November 1922 was not the British Broadcasting Corporation of today. It was in fact the British Broadcasting Company and was made up of separate stations around the country operated by different companies.

London 2LO was run by the Marconi company. Manchester’s station was operated by Metropolitan-Vickers. However, in these early days fe,w records were kept of what was broadcast. But new research on the BBC’s very early days has been carried out by Steve Arnold, a self-confessed Radio Times obsessive. His tricky task was to try to piece together the BBC’s schedules before the Radio Times – so named as it listed the times that the new medium’s shows were being broadcast – was first published in September 1923.

He explained he found information in “gossip columns [in regional newspapers] mainly, people saying we listened to this last night and this is the only record of some of these things”. Now, using sources from archive documents and newspapers, Steve has begun to piece together a picture of what the early BBC was doing. He says the Manchester station, which operated out of Trafford Park, seems to have been the best organised. “It looks as though the Manchester station is probably the origins of the BBC as much as the Marconi 2LO station (in London),” he said. “They seem to have had a far more professional approach. There’s a lot more documentation and it seems they knew their onions. I’d love to know more.”

The record of Manchester’s pioneering children’s programme reveals that on 15 November 1922, Miss A Bennie, known as The Lady of the Magic Carpet, read The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde. One excited listener wrote: “I first clapped the phones to my ears, a recitation was in progress, and then a voice announced ‘Now, children, listen to this lovely fairy story’.” Algy’s Priceless Piffle, featuring Victor Smythe, was a pioneer of radio satire and again, came from Manchester. Manchester also broadcast, according to the Liverpool Echo, the first variety acts on 24 November 1922, two months before 2LO’s first official variety programme, Veterans of Variety.

Indians at UK - Mystery of BBC Radio

The importance of the BBC in Manchester also lay in how far it reached. At the beginning it could only be heard in an area around 25 miles from Trafford Park. However, over the next few years the signal was relayed to other transmitters in Liverpool (6LV), Leeds/Bradford (2LS), Hull (6KH), Nottingham (5NG) and Stoke-on-Trent (6ST). Other services covering the UK were also set up in the months after the first broadcast in November 1922. In Glasgow, 5SC opened on 6 March 1923 and broadcast excerpts of an opera. Cardiff’s 5WA broadcast the first full performance of a new orchestral opera on 30 May 1923.

The BBC has been celebrating its centenary over the past month with a series of events and special programmes, which launched on 18 October – as that was the 100th anniversary of the date that the BBC was officially created and named. As it found its way on air in the early months, there was much in the way of experimentation. Even the first bulletin on 2LO 100 years ago was repeated. That was because bosses asked for it to be read twice, once at normal speed, and then again at half-speed before listeners were asked to say which speed they preferred.

Indians at UK - Mystery of BBC Radio

Ten decades later, the BBC now has 10 UK-wide radio networks, a further two national radio services each in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and 39 local radio stations across England and the Channel Islands. That is on top of TV services broadcasting in the UK and around the world and an extensive range of digital services.

Indians at UK - Mystery of BBC Radio

Subtitles, audio described content and signed content are offered to serve BBC viewers with accessibility needs but, based on that very first piece of viewer feedback in 1922, none of the programmes offer the opportunity to listen back at half-speed. Some of those early radio moments will be rebroadcast from 18:00 GMT on BBC Radio 4 as the station’s Six O’clock News marks exactly 100 years since the evening the BBC first took to the air with its own Centenary Bulletin.


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