Today (November 14) in London History – First BBC Broadcast

The first regular broadcast from the British Broadcasting Company (as the BBC was then called) was made on November 14th, 1922. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Those of you like me who speak with a twang – who have chewy diphthongs – who are American, are going to be proud of this one.

The BBC. Nothing more British than the BBC. It’s synonymous with this country. It’s much loved and admired. It’s the gold standard of public service broadcasting.

But sure enough, there were a couple of Americans who made something of a difference right at the beginning. 

Something of a difference to the very signature of the BBC. 

Here’s the Yank-inflected tale. When the BBC started broadcasting its call sign was 2LO (LO stood for London – 2LO because 1LO was the Post Office call sign). Anyway, broadcasts would begin with the announcer saying, “this is 2LO, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company. 2LO calling.”

Now as it happens, one of the nine directors on the Board of the BBC was an American from Illinois named Henry Mark Pearse. He was the Managing Director of the American Company Western Electric. Lived in Kensington. I tracked him down. One of these days I’ll toddle along there and photograph the place – it’ll be fun to say, “you know the guy who gave us ‘this is London’ – this is where he lived.”

So, yes, the American on the board of the BBC – Midwestern-born (Illinois) Henry Mark Pearson gave us – well, gave the BBC and the BBC gave the world – London Calling. The very call sign that we’ve helped ourselves to for this podcast. Which is fair enough, I think, because London Walks is to walking tours in London what the BBC is to broadcasting.

Anyway, the American Henry Mark Pearson cut through all the nonsense, one day he up and said to John Reith, the Director General of the BBC – in those days the role was officially the Director Manager –  Pearse said to Reith, “why don’t you drop all that rigamarole about 2LO, why not just London Calling?”

Reith said, “I wasted no time: I went across to a telephone; gave the order to Burrows [that would be Arthur Burrows, the BBC’s first announcer] for immediate implementation everywhere. The Post Office must have noticed it; nothing was said. London calling.”

And as for the other bit of American input to the BBC signature, Reith summarised the BBC’s purpose in three words: inform, educate, entertain.  It’s a century later now but that three word apothegm – inform, educate, entertain – remains part of the BBC’s mission statement to this day.

But it wasn’t Reith who coined that phrase. The inform, educate, entertain apothegm was the brainchild of the American broadcasting pioneer David Sarnoff.

He came up with it in 1922, as it happens. 1922 – a century ago. The year we’re concerned with in this podcast. 

November 14th, 1922 to be precise.

The first regular broadcast from the British Broadcasting Company (as it was then called) was made on November 14th, 1922.

Now, to be sure, that broadcast didn’t come out of the blue, so to speak. Well, I guess it did in a sense.

But the point is there was quite a long gestation period. About 25 years or so. Back into the last years of the 19th century and Guglielmo –is that how you pronounce it? –Guglielmo Marconi, the physicist and inventor of wireless transmission – doing the necessary spadework.

An interesting biographical note in passing, because of his surname we think of Marconi as being Italian. Which he was. But he was also Irish. His mother Annie was the daughter of Andrew Jameson of the notable Irish family of whisky distillers. 

Anyway, Marconi’s work was a necessary precursor to broadcasting. And there just generally had to be at least the beginnings of an infrastructure. Not just transmitters but sets, receivers.

And the process had to be brought along, improved, brought up to an acceptable standard.

I’m put in mind of the demonstration of wireless broadcasting that was carried out just a month previously. On October 2nd, 1922.

It was an attempt to broadcast across the Atlantic. A station in Newark, New Jersey attempted to converse with Selfridges in London. 

In the words of the Telegraph report, “a few hundred people gathered at Selfridge’s to hear the outcome of the experiment. But beyond the fact that one or two thought they heard the voice of a woman singing the result was entirely negative.”

Were they dismayed? Downcast? Not a jot. In fact, two days previously there’d been a British Wireless Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall in Westminster, It had been officially opened by the M.P. Sir Henry Norman, who’d waxed ever so eloquent about the “wireless wonders” that were in the pipeline. Sir Henry said, “broadcasting has come, and this exhibition marks its advent. There are those who look upon it as a new fad or a passing stunt that will amuse people for a time and then will be dropped like ‘ping pong’ or ‘put-and-take’. They are wrong. It is destined to become as integral a part of our social life as the ordinary telephone is today. The receiving set will be as familiar and general a household object as the gramophone. I am convinced that few of us have yet imagined the scope and importance of the application of wireless telephony.“We are celebrating the birth of what is destined to be one of the most striking scientific social events of the century. In a few weeks the radio programme of the day will be the chief topic of conversation. People will say when they meet, ‘Clara butt tonight at ten. Then, you know, we have George Robey at 6.30. Tomorrow Rudyard Kipling recites a new poem. On Sunday morning we shall ask, ‘Shall we go to church or listen in at home to the Bishop of Birmingham? Then there will be Einstein on his theory.”

Well, first reaction: Sir Henry was right. Second reaction: ping-pong wasn’t dropped. Third reaction: Put and take though did go the way of all flesh. I hadn’t heard of it.

The all-seeing, all-knowing Mr Google tells me Put & Take was a craze that enveloped the world in the 1920s and 30s. It was, His All-Knowingness tells us, seen everywhere in games, newspaper stories, songs, plays, movies, punchboards, and reform movements to outlaw the spinners and games.  It’s heyday was in 1921 and 1922, exactly when Sir Henry was predicting great things for radio. 

Little did he know, huh?

But anyway, we’ve all been waiting breathlessly for that first-ever BBC broadcast. Let’s get to it. 

Appropriately enough, that first broadcast came from Marconi House. In the words of Sir William Noble, the Chairman of the British Broadcasting Company, “At the beginning broadcasting will be conducted purely from a social point of view. Each evening there will be given a brief synopsis of the world’s news, prepared by the four press agencies who are acting together to supply the company with such a synopsis twice nightly. Then the Meteorological Department of the Air Ministry is supplying us with two weather reports. It may be that we shall arrange for a third report, but that has not yet been fixed up. The first of the two reports will be given directly the station opens, at 6 pm, and the other between 9 pm and 10 pm. In addition to this news there will be concerts, instrumental and vocal, and it may be that later we shall arrange for speeches written by popular people to be broadcast.

So news and weather. At 6 pm and at 10 pm. No switching on Radio 4 in the morning. That was in the future. 

For me the most interesting thing about the position the BBC’s top man staked out – the Beeb’s opening broadside as it were – was the way he bent over backwards to curry favour with the newspaper world. Broadcasting was the new kid on the block. And it certainly wasn’t swaggering or boasting. It made every effort to put Fleet Street’s mind at ease. Broadcasting said to Fleet Street, “not only are we no threat to you, we’re going to be good for you.”

Let’s put the mic in front of Sir William Noble again.

He said, emolliently, “We want to work smoothly with the newspapers, and we want to act in such a way that broadcasting may be an incentive to the public to buy more newspapers. We hope that many people will take up broadcasting who otherwise might not take a great interest in the world’s news, and that, by giving them a brief synopsis of events, we shall whet their appetite for news and thus induce them to buy more newspapers. I repeat that we want to do everything possible to help the newspapers and to get them on our side, so that we may be mutually helpful. It is for that reason that we are not giving long reports.”

It’s almost craven, isn’t it.

Anyway, on that note, time for a Today in London recommendation.

All Soul’s – the beautiful Nash Church in Langham Place – is often described as the BBC’s church, because it’s right next door to Broadcasting House.

And sure enough, All Souls has quite an active programme of events, lectures, workshops, concerts, etc.

Maybe have a look at their website.

The one that caught my eye was the Joy to the World concerts – matinee and evening – the All Souls Orchestra will be giving on December 3rd. As they say in their little write-up, As the sporting world will be competing in Qatar, the All Souls Orchestra invite you to join them in celebrating the birth of the world’s Saviour with carols and music from around the world.

The evening will feature guest musicians and speakers representing different countries sharing how different parts of the world mark the moment in history.

Gets my vote. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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