Main content

Earliest editions of Radio Times magazines now available online

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome Producer

Tagged with:

Radio Times is one of the country’s best-known magazine titles, and its pages hold records of a large proportion of the history of broadcasting in the UK - including virtually all BBC programme listings from 1923 onwards.

For the first time, we are now releasing the complete 1920s magazines online to the public, as part of the BBC Genome Project.
The BBC has in the last few years used the scanned and processed listings from the issues of Radio Times from 1923 to 2009 to create the BBC Genome database. This database containing more than five million programme listings is available to the world community. It is intended to become a comprehensive record of all BBC programmes, but it is not yet complete.

There are errors generated by the scanning process, which we have invited the audience to edit and improve from our launch in October 2014. We hope that in releasing the full 1920s magazines online, we will enable our crowd-sourcing editors to make great inroads into correcting the text of Genome in that decade. A new toggle functionality also means that editors can easily switch between the BBC Genome listings and the original magazine scan, to compare them and make correction easier.

The earliest issues of Radio Times were witness to great changes in the country. Britain was recovering from the most costly war it had ever fought, not least in terms of the number of deaths of combatants. Women had gained the vote (at age 30 in 1918, lowered to 21, in line with men, in 1928). Motor cars were gradually becoming more affordable and major road and house-building schemes increased mobility and improved living conditions for millions.

Broadcasting itself had a major social effect. Wireless could be received on a range of devices from the more expensive wooden cabinet models down to the crude crystal set, in which you hunted for a signal using a wire known as a 'cat’s whisker’. Even when things got a bit more sophisticated, many could and did build their own receivers (and wireless components were widely advertised in the 1920s issues).

Radios for public use were also provided in pubs and village halls, and for the first time a direct method of instant communication became widespread. From the outset, there were radio stations in all the major population centres of the UK, meaning almost the whole country could hear the same talk, music-hall turn or piece of music at the same time, and there was BBC programming generated in all the regions, as well as from London.

The new service was a great and popular novelty. At first the separate stations had their own programmes for the greater part of the time, especially because the low power of early transmitters made it hard to share programmes. As the powers-that-be were reassured that the BBC signals would not interfere with other users, particularly the armed forces, it gradually became the norm for the greater part of broadcast programming to be networked.

The content of those early Radio Times had many similarities to the magazine now, with the listings pages, previews of forthcoming programmes, letters pages and advertisements. There were columnists too, with the BBC’s General Manager (later Director-General), Lord Reith, writing regularly (though not in issue one).

Many other prominent people wrote for Radio Times, as they also flocked to broadcast over the airwaves, and there are articles by literary men like Bernard Shaw and Arnold Bennett, and politicians such as Ramsay MacDonald and Lord Balfour, as well as experts in music, current affairs and radio engineering.

The design of the magazine has changed considerably over the years. At first it was not particularly adventurous and had a rigid layout. For a good while the cover consisted of the large masthead, a list of the BBC stations, and an editorial article. The masthead also depicted the BBC regional stations, indicating the BBC’s intention to be a nationwide organisation from the start.
By the end of the decade the magazine’s design had loosened up, with more illustrative matter – photographs and drawings, and even some modernist art creeping in, such as the 1929 cover promoting the National Radio Exhibition.

Radio Times had been founded in response to the newspaper industry’s refusal to print BBC radio listings for free. Once set up, the magazine was a success and appeared without fail during the 1920s, missing only one week during the General Strike of May 1926. No national newspapers were printed during that period, except for the government-published British Gazette, which was set up to provide basic news during the strike period.

The BBC itself came into its own meanwhile, as the sole independent provider of agency-compiled news for 14 days, fending off the possibility of being taken over by the government, as Radio Times acknowledged when it published again. At the start of the next year the BBC, at that point a company became a corporation under Royal Charter, but retained its independence. Radio Times didn’t miss another issue until the fuel crisis of 1947.

Readers can access the magazines by searching for individual listings and clicking on the link which says "view listing in magazine", or by clicking on the "issues" tab at the top right of the website. This will give a list of all Radio Times magazines by year, and you will be able to scroll through complete 1920s issues this way. 

Andrew Martin is Specialist Researcher, BBC Archive

Tagged with: