Radio history provides lessons for broadcasting policy-makers

The way radio developed in its infancy has parallels with today. NIck HIgham delves into the history books for a lesson on digital TV. Nick Higham is BBC Television’s media correspondent.

Next month the BBC celebrates its 75th birthday. The British Broadcasting Company (as it then was) started broadcasting on 14 November 1922 – and there are lessons for broadcasting policy-makers today in the circumstances of its creation.

The Company was formed by a consortium of wireless set manufacturers, which believed (no doubt correctly) that the public wouldn’t go on buying their new-fangled technology unless they had something to listen to.

Some of the wireless manufacturers had already been running their own radio stations – the Marconi company’s 2LO in London and 2MT near Chelmsford were the most famous – but the BBC was formed to take them over at the behest of the Government, which was anxious to avoid a repetition in Britain of the mistakes made in the US.

By May 1922 there were more than 200 radio stations broadcasting in the US – but many were interfering with one another because the country lacked a proper system of licensing and frequency-allocation. Britain’s Postmaster-General wanted one, or at most two, broadcasting companies in Britain so as to avoid the same thing happening here – and went so far as to suggest to the consortium of manufacturers that they appoint a former Post Office official as their first chairman to make sure they did the right thing.

The decision to hand over broadcasting to a monopoly was not uncontroversial – particularly since the BBC itself risked being dominated by one of its major shareholders, Marconi, which (by virtue of the fact that its founder was the man who’d discovered wireless) held the majority of patents in the new technology.

Elaborate arrangements had to be negotiated to ensure that Marconi didn’t keep the patents to itself, or release them on unfair terms to rival manufacturers.

There was also concern on the part of the newspaper publishers, who feared competition from the new upstart medium. Some, like the Daily Mail’s proprietor Lord Northcliffe, were far-sighted enough to see its potential – and indeed the Daily Mail in 1920 had been responsible for sending Dame Nellie Melba, a singing superstar of the era, up to Chelmsford to perform in a Mail-sponsored broadcast on 2MT. The event attracted enormous publicity – and played much the same role in turning wireless from a gimmick into a potential mass medium as the 1952 Coronation played for television a generation later.

One newspaper, the Daily Express, applied for a broadcasting licence of its own, but was turned down. The rest took to lobbying behind the scenes, with considerable success.

The newspapers imposed strict conditions on the new medium.

For one thing, the BBC, although it was allowed to carry news, couldn’t broadcast it in advance of the newspapers. On the new company’s second day on air there was a general election; Lloyd George was thrown out and a new Conservative Government led by Stanley Baldwin came to power. The BBC broadcast results as they came in – but stopped sufficiently early in the evening to ensure that the bulk of the results appeared first in the next morning’s papers.

For another thing, there was to be no advertising on the BBC. This aversion to commercialism chimed with the principled position of some of those involved in the very earliest days of broadcasting, including the BBC’s first general manager, John Reith (and, interestingly, several pioneers on the other side of the Atlantic: it was David Sarnoff of RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, who first described broadcasting as a “public service” with a duty to inform and educate as well as entertain, and was opposed to his radio stations carrying commercials).

But the principal reason the BBC carried no advertising was because of opposition from the newspapers, which feared a loss of revenue. The quid pro quo was that the BBC should receive half (initially) of the 10/- licence fee payable to the Post Office by owners of wireless receivers.

Three-quarters of a century on, the newspaper proprietors’ fears look rather silly. The newspaper industry is still pretty healthy, despite competition not only from the BBC but from a huge advertising-supported commercial broadcasting system. Competition in the media, we have learnt, develops the market.

We have also learnt that it is possible to ameliorate the worst effects of monopolies – with a bit of Government intervention. In the early days of broadcasting, Marconi’s pioneering work, and the patents the company held as a result, made it a technological gatekeeper akin to BSkyB today. The government’s solution: knock heads together, and get the industry to pool the technology. The result was a rapid growth in a market where common standards obtained (the number of wireless receivers increased from about 50,000 in the autumn of 1922 to 600,000 by the middle of the next year).

And as for those who look at the new technology of digital broadcasting and wonder what on earth people will want to use it for – if, that is, they’ll want it at all: they should remember the early days of wireless, and the fact that, if the BBC hadn’t deliberately set out to invent broadcasting in order to sell its shareholders’ equipment, we’d still be thinking of radio as an interesting but fundamentally useless technological blind alley.

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