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Radio 4 Extra: 90 x 90

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Nick Baker 16:58, Friday, 9 November 2012

Editor's note: At 5.33pm on Wednesday 14 November BBC Radio will be coming together to mark its 90th anniversary live with Simon Mayo from London's Science Museum. Here, Nick Baker, talks about how Radio 4 Extra will be joining the celebrations. PMcD

90 by 90

For the last few months I have been working on 90 90 second programmes to celebrate BBC Radio's 90th anniversary. These miniatures celebrate, calibrate and curate the diversity of radio in its widest form in the BBC's 90th year - serious, funny, evocative, personal, provocative, and they'll be heard across all radio networks. Each represents one year of the 90. They say "hooray for radio" in 90 very different ways. But delving into the BBC archive isn't always straightforward, because the idea of preserving radio programmes wasn't always popular.

Picture the scene: It is 1922, the year of the BBC's birth. In a wood panelled conference room in London, a group of pipe-smoking executives, some still Edwardianly bearded, (not the women, because there aren't any) are discussing the future of the world's greatest broadcasting institution. The chair speaks up: "It is imperative that we initiate a system whereby all our "wireless programmes" as we might call them, are recorded, preserved, catalogued, archived, and made available to our listeners whenever and wherever they should desire to listen to them, forever and a day. All our improving "programmes" should be made available upon MP3 devices and smart telephones, as well as upon the inter-net, whenever that might arrive. Those in favour?"

Hindsight, especially in black and white, is a wonderful, though deceptive thing. The reality is the new BBC faced an uncertain future when it was born, with very little recorded at the outset, and a history of gaps, oversights and under-archiving. Initially, nobody saw the value of keeping stuff, when there was so little stuff to keep. But there's no point wagging an accusing finger at the past. It took a while for the BBC to realise the wireless had a history worth preserving. It had other things on its mind. The General Strike. The Second World War. The on-air resignation of Dave Lee Travis.

Instead, we must celebrate some of the heroes and heroines of the archive. So, enter Mrs Slocombe! One of our 90x90, the one dated 1937, features the voice of a visionary BBC employee, Marie Slocombe, remembering her boss asking her to throw away a load of old BBC records, only to find herself having to bin the voices of George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, Anthony Asquith and others. She refused, and started to collect audio treasure. She was a pioneer of the archive, a woman who saw the future. And realised the importance of the past.

Nick Baker is the Producer for 90 x 90 on Radio 4 Extra

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