I took some News trainees round Broadcasting House in central London the other day. I was trying to get them to imagine how new and utterly undefined broadcasting was in the early days. How did you know how to build a new broadcasting centre, when hardly anyone else had ever done it? Colonel Val Myer (the architect of Broadcasting House) did of course look across the Atlantic to the US model when he made his first stab at the so-called 'Top Hat' design for the building, but otherwise, he was moving largely into unknown territory.
After that, broadcasting went in leaps and bounds. What created the biggest impact? the trainees asked me. War I answered. WW2 utterly changed the face of the BBC, defining its objective journalistic role with sharp clarity and turning it to face the wider world with a very different focus. When war broke out in September 1940, there were eight BBC foreign language services; at the end of the war, there were 48. It's also hard to believe in our times of 24-hour, global news that on one day in 1924, I think, the BBC was able to report that there was no news to announce today!
And so to other milestone moments. This year sees the 75th anniversary of BBC's first hi-definition TV service in November. Before that date, there had been experimental attempts, the struggle from a low-definition snowstorm on a screen towards something more watchable, and all this activity against the backdrop of an international race to be the first across the viable TV line. Preparations are now underway for different ways of bringing that big anniversary TV story to life, working especially with our wider UK partners such as the National Media Museum and BFI.
Of course our storytelling will feature some of those ''TV Greats' moments - the creation of Television Centre, the first ever purpose-built TV building in the world; the advent of colour that caused temerity in some viewers - would it adversely affect their eyes?!; Doctor Who, the longest running sc-fi series in the world, and always in a state of constant reinvention; Morecambe & Wise with its record-breaking Christmas audience of 28 million viewers; Live Aid, the first global pop/charity phenomenon; right up to the present moment and its connecting, global technologies.
When the BBC began broadcasting, it searched for a metaphor for this new airborne magic… the broadcasting powers-that-be raided Shakespeare and the Bible, to give us the statue of Ariel (from The Tempest) on the front of Broadcasting House, and inside the Art Deco foyer, the parable-inspired figure of The Sower, casting his seed democratically into the listening air. What, I wonder, will be the metaphor for the next 'brave new world' of broadcasting?
Robert Seatter is Head of BBC History