bbc radio

BBC Radio: A British Institution

To mark the BBC's 100th year, Eamonn Forde explores the pivotal role the broadcaster has played in promoting and supporting new music throughout the last century.

Eamonn Forde
  • By Eamonn Forde
  • 5 Jan 2022
  • min read

The BBC’s ability to shape and support music of all stripes over the past century has been incalculable.   

It’s not immune from criticism or from being held to account — and nor should it be — but trying to comprehend what music in 2022 would look like without the colossal role played by the BBC is unimaginable.   

There’s no clearer example of the BBC’s accuracy and influence than Sounds Of. Now in its 20th year, the globally recognised annual tips list has predicted success for the likes of Adele, Stormzy, Haim and George Ezra.  

From the start of the BBC to today — all the way through this past century — are important milestones for radio, for culture and for British identity in which music’s role has been absolutely central. With the BBC’s 100-year anniversary round the corner, it is a history worth detailing.  

It was — for music anyway — a slow start, and the broadcaster was not as quick as it is today to reflect current tastes.   

The BBC’s first daily radio broadcast — on 14 November 1922, from Marconi House on The Strand in central London — was light on music and more focused on the stentorious delivery of important information. Arthur Burrows, the director of programmes, read the news and weather — repeating the news a second time in a slower voice to allow listeners to take notes should they wish. At the time, only 30,000 people in the UK held a radio licence. This grew to two million by 1926 as the radio revolution took grip.   

Music soon became the key driver of entertainment for the broadcaster. By March 1928, the BBC Dance Orchestra had performed its first official broadcast, led by Jack Payne whose signature song was the appositely titled Say It With Music. The following year, the BBC Handbook would call dance music on the radio ‘the voice of something very typical of ourselves and of this post-war age.’ Suddenly music was truly nationally available in a way it had never been before, acting as the bonding agent in shared cultural experiences — a dynamic that was to both accelerate and endure.  

The BBC’s early emphasis was very much on the live performance of music over the airwaves, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra going beyond the populist dance styles of the day to bring a more revered classical output to the BBC’s musical arsenal.   

'British music has been woven through the BBC over the last 100 years but, equally, the BBC has been woven through British music.'

The BBC shut down its TV output just before the outbreak of WWII and did not return until June 1946. Radio, however, did much of the heavy lifting in that period, with music being a key feature in the mix. It was during this era that a groundbreaking new programme titled Desert Island Discs debuted from a bomb-damaged Maida Vale Studios. Now a great British institution, an invite to be stranded on an island with eight records, a book, a luxury item, the works of Shakespeare and a Bible is widely regarded as a career defining moment.   

In a way not dissimilar to the first lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic — the BBC used news to keep the country informed during the war and it used music to salve the nation.   

This was the start of a long process of expansion and diversification of the BBC’s musical output. The Light Programme began in July 1945 and The Third Programme came just over a year later, in September 1946, offering a high brow mix of classical music alongside drama and literature. This was something the BBC was to refine over the years in its music policy — striking a populist chord but also catering for those tastes outside of the mainstream, where music was being both broadcast and narrowcast.   

The cultural changes driven through the 1960s were certainly one of the most powerful examples of the BBC taking too long to catch up with the prevailing mood, particularly amongst its younger audience.   

This reached a tipping point with the arrival, from 1964 onwards, of the pirate stations — symbolised most by Radio Caroline, Radio Atlanta and Radio London — playing the pop music of the day that the BBC was conspicuously ignoring. Their cultural impact was such that the government drew up its White Paper on Broadcasting Policy in December 1966. This led directly to not just an Act of Parliament making working for a pirate station illegal but also the formulation of the BBC’s own response — Radio 1.   

It launched on 30 September 1967, symbolically recruiting many of the leading pirate broadcasters like Tony Blackburn and Kenny Everett as a means of drawing in young listeners with an emphasis on the credible.  

'While diversification defined the BBC’s general approach to launching new stations, it was also something built into the very DNA of Radio 1...'

Radio 2 launched concurrently with Radio 1, replacing the old Light Programme and aimed at a more mature audience than the one Radio 1 was courting. In a broadcasting triptych, Radio 3 (replacing the Third Programme and focused more on classical, opera and jazz) arrived the same day, showing the BBC’s need to address multiple audiences and generations with different musical output.   

This was the moment that the BBC became absolutely central to the musical culture in the UK — amplifying established artists like never before, providing the springboard for countless new artists and introducing the nation to whole new styles and genres. It also gave artists a national base from which they could develop internationally, hothousing talent for the global market.   

Radio 1 proved the jewel in the BBC’s crown, drawing in phenomenal numbers of listeners from the 1960s onwards. It held its dominance until 2001 when it was overtaken by Radio 2 as the most popular radio station in the UK.   

While diversification defined the BBC’s general approach to launching new stations, it was also something built into the very DNA of Radio 1 in a way that was significantly more pronounced than it was for other stations in the BBC’s roster.   

The John Peel sessions and live performances ran from the inception of Radio 1 until Peel’s death in 2004 and gave a phenomenal number of important musicians a first foot up in the industry (like David Bowie, The Smiths and Joy Division) and he also played a staggeringly diverse range of acts throughout his decades on the station. Equally important in supporting and breaking new acts from the alternative scene and the underground over the years at Radio 1 were Annie Nightingale, David Jensen, Mark Goodier, Mark Radcliffe, Steve Lamacq, Jo Whiley, Mary Ann Hobbs, Huw Stephens and Annie Mac.   

On top of this were groundbreaking specialist genre-focused shows like: Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show (between 1978 and 1993) focusing on hard rock and metal; Pete Tong’s Essential Selection for dance music from 1991; Tim Westwood’s Radio 1 Rap Show from 1994; and Mary Anne Hobbs’ The Breezeblock from 1997 with its focus on electronic music.   

That commitment to new music in general and new British music in particular continues to define Radio 1’s modus operandi, illustrated best with the launch of BBC Music Introducing in 2007 to give a platform to unsigned and emerging acts as well as the Live Lounge’s evolution into a talent incubator.   

Echoing BBC radio’s reinvention and expansion into a multi-channel operator in 1967, the arrival of DAB allowed the broadcaster to create entire new stations dedicated to genres and audiences that were previously only served by specialist shows on Radio 1 and Radio 2.   

While 2022 marks 100 years of BBC radio, it is also the 20th anniversary of a major step change for the corporation. 6 Music launched in February 2002, focusing on alternative music and also mining the best of the BBC’s legendary sessions. It was the broadcaster’s first new national station in 32 years. Mere months later, in August 2002, 1Xtra was launched to initially spotlight hip-hop, R&B, UK garage and ragga. In October that year, the BBC Asian Network arrived with its mix of speech and music.   

The BBC might have launched three new music stations on the same day in 1967, but its staggered launch in 2002 of three entirely new stations has been just as profound and important.   

Responding to audience demands for more diversity in its output has been the story of the BBC from its inception. Despite having at times teetered on the edge of losing touch with its audience, the changes the BBC has brought about to the sheer range of music we hear has been remarkable. Its current focus is not just on what we hear but also how we hear it.   

BBC radio’s output has, at times, been far from perfect and it has arguably been late to pick up on key genres, but when it does get behind something, it does so with a deep and lasting commitment.   

British music has been woven through the BBC over the last 100 years but, equally, the BBC has been woven through British music. This is symbiosis in excelsis.