The Radio Times
It all began in spring 1923, when John Reith, the BBC's first director-general, received an ultimatum from the Newspaper Publishers' Association warning him that if the corporation didn't pay a hefty fee, none of the NPA's publications would carry radio listings. The embargo was short-lived, but long enough to give Reith the idea of publishing a dedicated listings magazine. The first edition of The Radio Times, 'the official organ of the BBC', duly appeared on news stands on 28 September 1923.
At first, Radio Times was a joint venture between the BBC and publisher George Newnes Ltd, who produced, printed and distributed the magazine. But in 1925 the BBC took over editorial control, and by 1937 the entire operation was in-house, where it has remained ever since. As the magazine got into its stride, RT established a reputation for using leading writers and illustrators of the day and the covers from the special editions of this period are now regarded as design classics.
The advent of television
It didn't remain just 'radio' times for very long. As early as 1928, RT announced a regular series of ‘experimental television transmissions by the Baird process’ for half an hour every morning. But it wasn't until 2 November 1936, with the start of the first 405-line high-definition service, that RT became the world's first television listings magazine. Two pages a week sufficed at first, but that soon grew: by January 1937 the magazine published a lavish photogravure supplement for readers in the London area who could pick up transmissions from Alexandra Palace.
By September 1939, Radio Times was devoting three pages a week to television, but when war was declared on 3 September, TV closed down ‘in order to prevent enemy aircraft from using its signal as a directional beacon’ and the nation turned once again to the wireless. ‘Broadcasting carries on!’ announced the first wartime RT, but there was only one station, the newly christened Home Service, to inform, educate and entertain through the dark years ahead. By 1944, paper rationing had reduced the magazine to 20 pages of tiny type on thin paper, but despite all the disruption of war, RT never missed an edition.
The years following the end of war saw a steady expansion in broadcasting, and RT flourished with it, announcing the introduction of the Light Programme, the Third Programme, and the return of television. RT grew to meet the need with a number of regional editions to keep abreast of the changes. Television was the medium of the future, and in 1953 its growth was recognised when the TV listings were moved from the back of the magazine and integrated day-by-day with radio. It was suggested that the BBC should register the name 'TV Times' but the general manager of BBC publications rejected the idea on the grounds that television wouldn't catch on.
In September 1955, ITV made its debut. Whilst BBC television now had competition, the corporation retained exclusive rights over the publication of its listings. The same was true for the regional ITV companies who launched their own titles, such as TV Times, The Viewer and Look Westward. (It was only in 1968 that TV Times became the single listings title for all ITV regions). In consequence, the only way to have all programme details at your fingertips was to buy two magazines and RT's peak weekly circulation of 8.8 million only declined slightly. In the years that followed, television programmes were increasingly the subject of the cover picture, and in 1957 RT's television listings were moved to a separate section, in front of radio.
The advent of colour
In 1960 the 'programme week', which for 37 years had started on a Sunday, changed to the now familiar Saturday-to-Friday. When BBC2 started transmitting in 1964, RT expanded its TV listings as the new channel spread across the country. In July 1967, BBC Two became Britain’s first colour television channel, and 'colour' annotations started to appear alongside programme listings. Moreover, the magazine’s cover, for which colour was usually reserved for Christmas and other special occasions, was printed in colour on a regular basis. The cover picture for 28 September 1967 was an early beneficiary, with a classic 1960s 'dolly bird' heralding the start of 'Radio 1 on 247'.
The decade ended with a new, young editor, Geoffrey Cannon, who overhauled the magazine and introduced a distinctive italic masthead, variations of which remained on the cover for over 30 years. Radio Times sailed confidently through the seventies, adding local radio listings as the BBC launched these across the country. One-off 'Radio Times Specials' were produced to mark broadcasting anniversaries or the start of major new series. In the 1980s, the magazine became brighter and more colourful as new printing methods replaced the old newsprint and metal type. This may have contributed to RT gaining a place in the Guinness Book of Records when, in 1988, the Christmas edition sold a staggering 11,220,666 copies, making it the biggest selling edition of any British magazine in history.
But change was on the way. For years, newspapers could only carry programme schedules for the day of publication, and the BBC and ITV retained exclusive rights over their own weekly listings. This monopoly was challenged by other publishers and the 1990 Broadcasting Act granted them access to that information. RT now faced its biggest challenge; to reinvent itself to survive in a highly competitive market. Under the editorship of Nicholas Brett, RT responded with expanded listings to cover all channels, new-look features and celebrity columnists. Since 1991, RT has been up against a host of competitors and newspaper supplements, but remains the most comprehensive and authoritative guide on offer, with ten pages of television listings per day. In November 2011, BBC Magazines Ltd, and with it Radio Times, was sold to the Immediate Media Company. The change in ownership marked the start of a new chapter in the magazine's history but not a change to the look of the publication or the editorial standards. RT, under the editorship of Ben Preston, sells almost a million copies every week in six regional editions.
In addition to the printed magazine, RT also exists on-line at www.radiotimes.com