Happy Birthday, radio

Director, BBC Distribution

‘This is 2LO, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company calling. 2LO calling.’

So began the BBC’s first ever broadcast, 90 years ago, on 14 November 1922.

Reverend John Mayo marvels at Mr Marconi's invention.

In those days, the BBC was the British Broadcasting Company, founded by radio manufacturers to ensure there was something for their customers to listen to. Its first station was 2LO, in London, which broadcast via a transmitter on the top floor of Marconi House on the Strand for one hour a day. At the time, just 30,000 people held radio licences.

The news was read by Programme Director Arthur Burrows, who at first read each bulletin twice, once quickly and once slowly, and asked listeners which they preferred. Typical schedules in the 1920s included the Daily Service, the BBC Dance Orchestra, Children's Hour, and documentaries about subjects such as dressing the waxwork models at Madame Tussaud's.

The BBC soon launched more stations: 5IT in Birmingham and 2ZY in Manchester launched the next day, followed by 5NO in Newcastle, 5WA in Cardiff, 5SC in Glasgow, 2BD in Aberdeen, 6BM in Bournemouth, plus a number of ‘relays’ to other cities. The stations were connected to London by telephone lines for some ‘simultaneous broadcasting’, but tended to showcase local talent.

It would be cheaper, and possibly easier, to set up your own internet radio station today than it was to set up a ‘valve’ radio set with speakers in your home in 1922. Instead, most listeners used ‘crystal’ sets, and listened through headphones. These sets were so simple that many people made their own. However, even a very slight vibration (which could be caused by a door slamming) would de-tune the set, and listeners would have to carefully adjust their set to bring the programme back.

By 1926, more than 2 million radio licences were held. But when the European ‘Geneva Frequency Plan’ halved the number of medium wave frequencies available to broadcasters, the BBC began replacing original local transmitters and relays with six high-power ‘regional’ medium-wave transmitters (each with regional ‘opt-outs’) and one long-wave transmitter.

Commercial competition arrived as early as the 1930s, in the form of overseas long-wave commercial stations, including Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy. These were particularly popular on Sundays: an alternative to the serious and religious programming insisted upon by the BBC’s Director-General Lord Reith.

During the Second World War, the BBC ceased all regional programmes, concerned that German aircraft might use them to find their way around Britain. Instead, one schedule was broadcast across the country – the Home Service. Soldiers in barracks found its output rather heavy, so a lighter service – the BBC Forces Programme – was devised for their benefit.


Listening to the BBC at home : A family of radio listeners in 1947

After the war, the BBC reorganised its radio services. The Home Service (which retained its wartime name, but saw a return of regional ‘opt-outs’) focused on news, drama and talk. The Light Programme picked up where the Forces Programme left off, with popular tunes and light entertainment. The Third Programme promoted serious classical and contemporary music, the arts and highbrow discussions.

In the early 1960s, ‘pirate’ radio stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London began to broadcast. Based in international waters (on ships, or old sea forts), these stations were not at that time illegal, and they attracted large audiences who wanted to hear pop and rock music, a style rarely played on the BBC at the time.

In response, the BBC launched Radio 1 in 1967, employing several former pirate DJs. At the same time, the Light Programme, the Third Programme and the Home Service were rebranded becoming Radios 2, 3 and 4 respectively.

Meanwhile, the BBC began to launch local radio stations, starting with BBC Radio Leicester and spreading across England and the Channel Islands. Today, the BBC has 40 such local stations.

In 1972, the government allowed commercial radio stations to operate in the UK for the first time. The first of these ‘independent local radio stations’ was LBC in London, quickly followed by Capital Radio and a number of other stations that became legendary in the cities they served: Radio Clyde, BRMB, Piccadilly Radio, Metro Radio, Swansea Sound, Radio Hallam, Radio City, Radio Forth and so on.

In the mid to late 1970s, the Radio 4 ‘opt-outs’ for the nations were replaced by BBC Radios Ulster, Foyle, Wales, Scotland, Shetland and Orkney. Stations were created to serve Welsh-speaking audiences (BBC Radio Cymru) and Scottish Gaelic-speaking audiences (now called BBC Radio nan Gàidheal).

The BBC had begun FM radio broadcasts in 1955, and in the late 1980s the national BBC stations were broadcast on both medium-wave and FM, but certain programmes were carried on only one or the other. When it was decided that the national BBC stations should move away from medium-wave to free up broadcast space, the BBC wanted to find a home for these programmes, so in 1990 it launched its first new national radio service since the 1960s: BBC Radio 5. Radio 5 used the medium-wave frequencies vacated by Radio 2, and carried the sports that had been on Radio 2 medium-wave, the schools and children’s programmes that had been on Radio 4 FM, and the Open University content that had been on Radio 3 FM. This format was not a success, and in 1994 (following the success of Radio 4’s rolling news output during the 1991 Gulf War, nicknamed ‘Scud FM’) it was replaced by Radio 5 Live, focusing on news and sport.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 allowed for three commercial national stations: two using medium wave frequencies vacated by the BBC, and one using FM frequencies previously used by the emergency services. The FM service had to be ‘non-pop’, and was awarded to Classic FM; one of the medium-wave services had to be speech-based, and was awarded to Talk Radio UK (now talkSPORT); and the other medium-wave service was open to all-comers, and was awarded to Virgin Radio (now Absolute Radio).

Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) radio began in the late 1990s, allowing far more radio stations to be carried on the available spectrum. The BBC launched a number of digital-only services in 2002, which are now known as BBC Radio 1Xtra, BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC Radio 5live Sports Extra and BBC Radio 6 Music, while BBC Asian Network gained national DAB coverage to augment its regional MW coverage. Dozens of brand-new commercial stations were also born, and some stations that had been local reached near-national coverage.

From 2002, not-for-profit local community radio stations were added to the FM dial, and they continue to launch at an impressive rate.

Today, 89% of the UK population listen to the radio at least once a week, and they do so for an average of 22 hours. Almost a third of radio listening is through digital platforms. DAB delivers the lion’s share of digital listening; for the BBC, it delivers approximately a quarter of total BBC radio listening. Meanwhile the internet and digital TV offer additional choice and convenience to listeners.

Over the next ten years, we can expect the trend towards digital to increase, and UK radio might celebrate its 100th birthday as a digital-only medium. One thing is certain: we’ll keep tuning in.


Alix Pryde is Director, BBC Distribution



Explore an interactive timeline showcasing 90 years of innovation on the History of the BBC website. 

On Wednesday 14 November, BBC Radio marks 90 years of broadcasting by hosting a global simulcast across its radio networks – including every UK station (local, network and national) and many World Service outlets.  The simultaneous broadcast has been curated by Damon Albarn and will take place at 17:33 GMT.  More details at about this and all of our 90th programming at bbc.co.uk/reunited and on the BBC's Media Centre website

You can also listen to an interview with Damon Albarn and see the film that premiered at the Radio Festival featuring John Wilson and Damon Albarn.

The clip is taken from 90 by 90 The Full Set, a selection of short features marking some memorable radio moments.


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