The BBC isn’t just the oldest broadcasting station in the world; it’s also the largest according to number of employees. Overall, the BBC is home to 20,950 members of staff, and that only includes full-time workers.
The British Broadcasting Corporation is one of the most iconic facets of British culture. Over the years, this organisation has brought the country endless hours of entertainment, news broadcasts and information.
BBC Radio still owns the airwaves today, decades after its original conception.
Whether you’re a fan of the humour and satire on Radio 4, or you love staying up-to-date with the latest tunes on Radio 1, there’s something for everyone.
So, where did the history of BBC Radio begin?
What was responsible for giving British broadcasting its voice?
Let’s find out.
What's In This Article
What is BBC Radio, and where did it begin?
The British Broadcasting Company was originally formed on the 18th of October 1922. The organisation was created by a group of wireless radio manufacturers, including the father of radio – Guglielmo Marconi.
The British Government initially licensed the BBC Radio station through the General Post Office. At the time, the Post Office had complete control of the airwaves because the UK believed that radio frequencies were a part of the services that the Post Office provided.
Today, the country still considers radio broadcasting to be a big part of what the Post Office does.
The first BBC Radio broadcast to emerge from the enterprise came from Marconi’s studio in London, called 2LO. The first words we heard were “This is 2LO Calling” – Not exactly a top 10 hit, but iconic all the same.
In 1927, the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation and earned a complete monopoly over UK radio stations according to a Royal Charter.
The Director General of the time, John Reith focused on delivering high-level programmes for people all across Britain.
At the beginning of BBC Radio history, the BBC was an organisation responsible for managing a network of separate local stations, all connected to London via telephone lines.
These stations were based in locations around the UK, including Manchester, Newcastle, Belfast, and more. Each station could handle about twenty miles of broadcasting radius.
Initially, the BBC focused on showcasing local talent – and people appreciated the programmes. However, in the early 1930s, the airwaves grew more competitive, and the BBC decided to abandon local radio in favour of regional and national services.
The British Empire service also emerged in 1932, allowing the BBC to broadcast overseas.
By 1964, the nature of radio had begun to change. Commercial channels were in full sway, driven by the rise of new pirate radio stations that began to ring out across the British Coastline.
The British Government jumped into action by passing their Marine Offences Act, which wiped out unregulated stations by 1967, banning citizens from working on a pirate station.
One of the stations, known as Radio London, was so popular that the BBC attempted to copy it as best they could. This led to Frank Gillard – the director of the BBC at the time, creating the four basic analogue channels that still form the foundations of BBC Radio today.
The three original BBC networks, Home, Light, and Third were renamed to BBC Radio 1, 2, 3, and 4.
The BBC also hired a host of broadcasting staff that had previously worked on offshore stations, including Kenny Everett, and Tony Blackburn.
Radio reinvented: BBC Radio history
The arrival of the four primary BBC Radio stations began as a response to the changing world of entertainment.
By the mid-1960s, pirate radio stations were extremely popular, but the crackdown on these stations by official government bodies meant that traditional stations had to adapt to meet different tastes.
Only 6 weeks after the Marine Broadcasting Offences act appeared, the Home Service by BBC Radio changed into Radio 4. The Third Programme became Radio 3, and the Music and Light programmes merged into Radio 2.
The Radio 1 Channel was designed specifically to replicate the Radio London experience that so many listeners had loved each week. The BBC even got their hands on the Radio London jingle.
Tony Blackburn, the man responsible for presenting the first BBC Radio 1 show on the mornings had previously been responsible for presenting a similar show on the Radio Caroline pirate station. At the BBC’s request, Tony tried to mimic the same sound for Radio 1.
At the same time, other popular names joined the ranks, including John Peel, who had been responsible for hosting the overnight show on the “Big L” pirate radio station.
By the time the mid-1970s rolled around, Radio 1 had successfully established itself as the most popular station in the country. The channel maintained its top spot until the 2000s when Radio 2 took over with more than 15 million listeners.
Radio 4 is now the second most popular channel, with over 11 million fans.
BBC Radio history effectively created one of the best-known and most-loved sources of entertainment in the country. BBC 1 Radio has even adapted to suit the demands of the digital era, with a YouTube player, and even an impressive social media presence.
Radio 1 also has the support of the 1Xtra channel, which is home to many of the UK stars that appear on Radio 1.
While Radio 1 delivers music and news, Radio 2 is all about the entertainment. With charismatic personalities like Paul O’Grady and Graham Norton, combined with the latest music, the channel can capture the attention of its target audience all day long.
Radio 3 now gets the least attention out of all the channels, but it has a far more niche audience. The classical music and traditional shows on Radio 3 don’t appeal to the wide range of younger audience that tune into BBC Radio on their way to work each morning.
Even BBC 4 remains a strong contender in Radio history. For some, it’s the station that represents the UK, with satire and witty comedy, combined with political commentary, the Archers drama, and Desert Island Discs.
The history of BBC Radio
Facts you may not know
Since its official emergence in 1922, BBC Radio has evolved to become a pivotal part of British culture. Every day, people across the country tune in to listen to their favourite songs and shows.
It’s not much of a surprise that the BBC has been such an incredibly successful company. Until 1973, no other broadcasting organisation was licensed to run in the UK, which gave the company a monopoly over the airwaves.
In the 70s, however, commercial competition began to appear from overseas, and the BBC was forced to pursue greater growth.
In 2002, when Digital Audio Broadcasting began to grow in popularity, BBC Radio also evolved with several digital-only stations, designed to help them reach their younger, more tech-savvy audience.
BBC Radio has always been able to adapt to suit the needs of its audience and era. Here are some interesting tidbits that you might not know about the history of BBC Radio.
- The first song to appear on BBC Radio 1 was by “The Move.” The title of the tune was “Flowers in the Rain.” On Radio 2, the first song to appear was Julie Andrews singing “The Sound of Music.”
- In the opening weeks of Radio 1 and 2, when the channels were first delivered to the airwaves, weather presenter Rosie O’Day received a total of 12 complaints because she was a woman. According to listeners, O’Day’s charming voice made the weather sound more like a “fairy story,” than someone reporting the facts.
- The first Radio 1 roadshow began in July 1973, with a Land Rover pulling a caravan across a series of holiday resorts in Britain. Of course, the event has changed a lot since then. Now, we have the Big Weekend, which includes hundreds of thousands of fans turning up to massive festivals in towns like Swindon, and Middlesbrough in 2019.
- Kenny Everett was one of the most popular people on BBC Radio. During his career, he recorded various interviews with the Beatles for channels 1 and 2. Additionally, according to Everett, he was also responsible for helping to inspire some lyrics during an acid trip with John Lennon. According to Kenny, the line from “I Am the Walrus” about getting a tan from the English rain came to them after a “psychedelic” round of golf.
- Over the years, BBC Radio has banned various songs. One of the first tunes to be censored on the radio was “It Would Be So Nice” by Pink Floyd. According to the leaders of the BBC at the time, the reference to the Evening Standard newspaper went against the BBC’s no-advertising policy.
- Between the years of 1967 and 2004, John Peel delivered more than 2,000 different celebrities and artists into the BBC, to record his world-renowned Peel Sessions. Over the years, we saw the arrival of everyone from The Smiths, to Bob Marley, and Jimi Hendrix. The Fall recorded the most peel sessions of all – at a total of 32.
- Known for his charming personality and good humour, Tony Blackburn shocked the world when he fell apart live on air in 1976. Blackburn lost it after his wife of the time left him. As millions listened, Blackburn played the song “If you Leave me Now” countless times, begging for Tessa to come back to him. Tony called the act the biggest broadcasting mistake he ever made.
- Although most radio stations today include some kind of interactive element, it was Annie Nightingale who created the first dedicated request show in BBC Radio History. On Radio 1, she ran the show for 12 years, starting in 1975.
- On the 6th of December 1980, the BBC Radio 1 host, Andy Peebles recorded one of the most famous interviews in history with Yoko Ono and John Lennon. The conversation happened only 2 days before Lennon’s assassination.
- In 2011, BBC Radio 1 entered the World Record books when Chris Moyles and his sidekick Comedy Dave launched the longest-ever music show recorded by a duo or DJ team. The record was for 51 hours. However, since then, the record has been broken by Peter Van De Veire and Eva Daeleman.
How BBC Radio has evolved over the years
At the start of BBC Radio history, there were only 3 stations to choose from, the Light station, the Home station, and the “Third” programmes. Today, the BBC has 11 national domestic shows – 6 of which are available exclusively in digital format.
The primary radio stations are available in both FM and AM frequencies.
Here are the best-known stations in the history of BBC Radio:
- BBC 1: This channel mostly plays contemporary music, including the latest chart toppers. You can also tune in for news, live sessions, original music concerts, and documentaries. BBC 1 is available on 97-99 FM.
- BBC 2: This flagship station broadcasts a wide range of music and adult entertainment, including comedy shows, in-house live music sessions, documentaries, and comedy. BBC2 is available on 88-91 FM.
- BBC 3: Providing an amazing combination of culture and arts, BBC Radio 3 is best-known for its jazz, classical and world music. It also hosts documentaries and news at times too. BBC 3 is available on 90-93 FM.
- BBC 4: Probably one of the best-known radio channels in the UK, BBC Radio 4 offers current affairs, history, arts, dramas, and original in-house comedy. The service simulcasts the World Service each day too. BBC 4 appears between 103-105 FM and 92-95 FM. It’s also available across a host of digital platforms.
BBC Radio also introduced BBC Radio 5 Live in March 1994, repositioning the original Radio 5 channel from August 1990. The new Radio 5 Live channel, otherwise referred to as 5 Live broadcasts discussions, sports, news, and interviews.
There are also a lot of phone-ins available on this channel too. If you’re looking to keep track of football, and other sporting events, this would be the channel for you.
BBC Radio digital-only channels
To adapt to the increasing demand for digital radio, the BBC also created a host of DAB only channels. Here are the best-known digital channels in the history of BBC Radio:
- BBC Radio 1Xtra: The Urban accompaniment to BBC 1, which includes in-house live music, original documentaries, news and more. The service also simulcasts BBC Radio 1 channels on weekdays between 1 am and 3 am.
- BBC Radio 4 Extra: Basically what you would expect from Radio 4 – then some extra content added in. BBC Radio 4 Extra includes classic comedy, science fiction, drama, books, and more. Originally, it was called BBC Radio 7.
- BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra: This channel was designed to accompany the live events coverage and sporting news from Radio 5. You can tune in here to find more live sport from rugby to cricket.
- BBC Radio 6 Music: Created for music lovers, the BBC Radio 6 music channel includes broadcasts from a wide range of genres, including punk, rock, reggae, and more. There’s also news and live documentaries available too.
- BBC Asian Network: Intended to deliver entertainment and news to the large South Asian community throughout England, this digital radio station is available on medium wave radios, and in parts of the Midlands, the channel includes access to underground, Asian urban, and Bollywood music, as well as news and documentaries.
BBC Radio around the world
Throughout BBC Radio history, the broadcasting station has evolved into so much more than just a local source of entertainment. Now, the BBC also runs radio stations for various national regions and locations around the world.
The regional stations cover Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Each of these stations cover more local debates than the primary programmes hosted throughout the country.
Additionally, the BBC’s regional stations are best-known for their diverse variety of talk shows and debates.
World-wide, the BBC has the BBC World Service, which is the largest international broadcaster in existence today.
BBC Radio World Service is available in 27 different languages and can be found in many parts of the world through digital and analogue shortwaves, as well as podcasting, streaming, and satellite.
Due to a mandate established when the BBC decided to go worldwide, the World Service remains politically independent and free from any commercials. Additionally, the programming is entirely not for profit.
What’s next for BBC Radio?
It’s hard to deny that the way that we listen to radio over the years has changed. However, one thing seems to remain consistent throughout the UK – we always have the BBC.
These days, it’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t turn on your radio and immediately tune into your favourite BBC channel.
Though podcasts and digital streaming have increased in popularity, BBC Radio has retained its popularity, with millions of listeners around the country. There are even global fans tuning in world-wide.
The BBC recently upgraded its iPlayer Radio app to the new “BBC Sound” solution. This allows people to download any programme directly from their favourite radio station for up to 30 days after it’s been aired.
The digital age is stronger now than ever before, but the history of BBC Radio proves that the British Broadcasting Corporation is no stranger to challenges.
Whether it’s overcoming the popularity of pirate radio stations by mimicking Radio London or designing a solution that allows them to broadcast shows around the world, the BBC always has something up its sleeve.
Today, we can rely on the BBC to bring us a little bit of everything through radio entertainment. If you want to tune in and find out what’s happening in the news, listen to the latest chart toppers, or just have a laugh with the comedy on Radio 4, the BBC has you covered.
The BBC also syndicates podcast and radio content to stations and services around the globe through the BBC Radio International Business.
Programmes usually syndicated by International BBC radio include:
- In Concert live recordings from BBC Radio 1 and 2.
- Interviews with celebrities.
- Live sessions and music shows.
- Classic performances (including music from the BBC Proms).
- Spoken word dramas, readings, and features.
- Documentaries from Radio 4.
- Comedies from Radio 4.
Radio comedy continues to be one of the most popular reasons to tune into BBC Radio today for listeners across the globe. Many people consider Radio 4 to be the home of British radio comedy.
No matter how you feel about the BBC, they’ve always played a huge part in shaping the past, present, and future of radio.
Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.