Sep 15th, 2021 by bbcentury
It's Christmas! (Well not now, it's Sept 2021 as I write/record this, but it was Christmas, in 1922.) Time for a 4th BBC station... the first to be constructed from scratch under the BBC banner.
Hear the voices and the troubled tale of Newcastle 5NO's shaky start, on the back of a lorry in a stableyard. Plus we'll see what 5IT Birmingham and 2ZY Manchester looked like six weeks into the BBC's being. So we'll hear from original BBC pioneers like Percy Edgar, Victor Smythe and Tom Payne as they tell us all about it.
We've also got an Airwave Memory from Leila Johnston, aka The Punk Hotelier.
New this time, below, a transcript. Of sorts...
- We mention Paul Hayes' marvellous documentary on BBC Radio Norfolk, on Nexus: Norfolk's Forgotten TV Station.
- Dead Girls Tell No Tales is the dramatisation of ITV's launch night vs The Archers special.
- The full Amateur Wireless article from Dec 30th 1922, on the Manchester Broadcasting Station in all its technical geekery, is here on our Facebook group. Do join it and join us!
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Next time: Reith begins!
Now, we've never done a transcript before. But then I just thought... I have oodles of notes each episode, so why not just post that? It's 80% of the podcast right here. So transcript fans, read on for essentially the podcast in text form (without the articles and guest bits)
LOOSE TRANSCRIPT (it's loose, so excuse spelling errors or weird word clangs):
Previously on the podcast...
Christmas 1922, and the BBC has been on the air for 6 weeks, in London, Birmingham and Manchester. But when the govt agreed this BBCo could exist, the deal wasn’t for 3 stations that already existed, but for 8! All across Blighty.
So where the blazes are they? Isn’t it time for a new pop-up radio station to, well, pop up?
Wouldn’t that be the best Christmas present a Geordie radio listener could ask for?
Let it 5NO, let it 5NO, let it 5NO!
Newcastle 5NO joins the airwaves, in time for Christmas? Just. Maybe.
Plus behind-the-scenes at 5IT Birmingham and 2ZY Manchester as we tune into Christmas 1922 – AND hear the voices of the three wise station directors of the BBC’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th stations.
Christmas Eve 1922 is where we find ourselves this episode, which is why we’ve broken out the jingling bells in our backing music! So whether it’s Christmas or not, hop on our time-sleigh set for 99 years ago – Christmas in Newcastle! On the British Broadcasting Century...
Hullo hullo, PK calling. Are we coming through clearly?
That’s how they’d start their test transmissions in 1922, and over the past 33 episodes we’ve seen how those early voices and wireless manufacturers all brought together science, art and a bit of magic to make British broadcasting a thing.
Thanks for your lovely feedback on last couple of eps, btw. We got very geeky about the studio design of Marconi House, ...thanks to Andrew Barker our Newspaper Detective, article after article has been available to us of when the printed press were invited in in late Dec ’22, so we had a lot to get across.
And we’ve got a bit more along those lines this episode, but further north. Before we get to Newcastle and the launch of their new station, there was more than just London on the dial... This episode we’ll tour the other BBC stations, and hear rare clips of each of their station directors: the 2nd BBC station in Brum, the 3rd in Manc and the 4th in Newcastle, which has yet to begin...
But we’ll begin then in Birmingham – it’ll help us appreciate their civilised environs, when you see the ramshackle joint Newcastle have to deal with.
In December 1922, Birmingham is a primitive setup... I don’t mind the whole city, but er, well, see Peaky Blinders for details.
The Birmingham 5IT station, out in Witton, was just a month or so into its life, as its first station boss Percy Edgar later recalled from a comfier space...
- CLIP: EDGAR: modern studio vs old
Back then, the station director did most things – announce, book the acts, sing, play... and Percy Edgar found it a real song and dance hiring performers who loved a song, and a dance...
- CLIP: EDGAR: 5IT studio: player-piano, platform - soubrette up and down
Well the listeners couldn’t tell – and in fact those who switch between London and Birmingham stations often find that Brum had the edge. The stations, all part of one BBC, are slightly in competition with each other at this stage. No bad thing if it encourages a boost in quality....
Boston Guardian, 16th December 1922
...Praise indeed for the Birmingham’s announcer, who likely by this point, is Percy Edgar.
- CLIP: Edgar: “Within a few weeks, Harold Casey joined me as Assistant Station Director...”
So while Percy edgar is adding to his Birmingham team with a loyal Ass St Dir, up in Manchester, another of the first 3 BBC stations, the team is expanding too.
On Dec 19th, that’s the same Tuesday when the London squad find their new home of Savoy Hill. the Manchester station also gains a new employee: Victor Smythe... He’d been interested from the start a month earlier...
VICTOR SMYTHE CLIP
Victor Smythe catches the bug in late Nov, by mid-Dec he’s applying for a job at 2ZY Manchester. On Dec 19th he starts work. In one show, he’d read the news, do a funny story, do a talk as Mr X... And when they started doing full days, he was known to be announcer from 9:30am to midnight!
Now I said earlier we’d have the voices of 3 station directors. So, alright, Victor Smythe became deputy station dir at 2ZY Manchester. The station dir Kenneth Wright, we’ve had on here before – go back to our 2ZY episode for his voice. But as deputy, Victor Smythe was a Manchester stalwart for 3 decades. So this episode, you’re getting him.
So what was 2ZY Manch like at the month-old BBC? Well just as the London station invited the press into the studio, likewise in mid-December...
Now, the long article they published was very technical. Too technical for me. Too technical for you? Difficult to say. I don’t know the threshold of our listeners. So if you want to read the full article, join our Facebook group – I’ll post a link to the article in the shownotes – join our group for more like that, and thanks Andrew Barker for sharing these articles with us.
So that’s Birmingham and Manchester that first BBC Christmas, with London, making the first 3 stations.
But the summer before, the Post-Gen in the H of C said the BBC would consist of 8 stations across the country. It was to be a broadcasting service for everyone – or at least most, though the first Chief Engineer Peter Eckersley would have plans soon enough to reach even the furthest farmer – but the tale of relay stations, and longwave, and Daventry... is all a few years away yet.
Here’s an even later Chief Engineer of the BBC, Harold Bishop – who back in 1922 was an engineer at the London studio:
CLIP: Harold Bishop Dec 24th 1922 on 5NO, then Cardiff, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Bournemouth
So yes it’s about time they built that 4th studio – the first to start life under the BBC! The first of a new plan to build stations in city centres, unlike Birmingham and Manchester, which were out in industrial works far from travel hubs, and needing artistes to travel after dark to the middle of nowhere.
You want a nearby railway station, a hotel, the bustle of a city – or at least near as 1920s cities got to a bustle – to welcome a regular turnover of guest performers. For that, Newcastle 5NO turned to W.P. Crosse’s Concert Agency, and a separate local agency to receive and transcribe the news from Reuters.
So far so good. But you also need a high point for the aerial – a giant chimney or tower of some kind.
The Marconi Company are the ones to build this, and the local station-in-waiting is promised to Newcastle’s ears by Christmas. A bit of a rush, but they rise to the challenge.
The plans begin on Dec 10th – so only a fortnight before the promised launch date. Impressive!
24 Eldon Square is rented at £250/year, that’s to be a studio and artistes’ waiting room, with 4 offices above it for the Station Director and support staff.
Peel Conner microphones are installed – not too reliable, ok for speech but can’t get the full range when music was attempted.
This is the first station to have the studio and transmitter at separate sites, a mile apart, linked my phoneline. So over in West Blandford St, the 1½ kw transmitter, there’s the stableyard of the Co-operative Wholesale Society, surrounded by horses and carts. Their 140ft chimney was perfect for the aerial.
That transmitter is the new Marconi Q type transmitter – the first of its kind, a slimmed-down version of the prototype used at London’s 2LO. The London version was vast and unwieldy and the result of lots of trial and error to get the best quality, low hum – the quality of a radio broadcast had to be more pleasant than the quality of a phone call. So London’s transmitter, while legendary and still in the Science Museum today, was a bit of a bodge job. It’s a Frankenstein of a transmitter.
So in Dec 1922, the plan was for Newcastle, then Cardiff and Glasgow, to have slimline versions of this same transmitter – now they knew it could work.
It was of course developed by our good old friend Captain H.J. Round, remember him? There at the start, giving us speech test broadcasts from Chelmsford in our first few episodes. You’ll have heard Round’s mega-talk in one of our specials, and at this point he was working a new better microphone to roll out in the New Year, having just designed these new Marconi Q type transmitters, for Newcastle and the other new stations. Round was always working on the next technological breakthrough.
As you heard from Brum and Manc, BBC station directors were normally also the main announcers – they did everything! But in station director Tom Payne’s case, he was setting up ex nihilo, building something from nothing. So he was a little out of his depth, I think it’s fair to say. London, Birmingham and Manchester had all grown out of existing wireless manufacturing companies: Marconi’s in London, MetroVick in Manchester, Western Electric in Birmingham. But Newcastle? Just a skeleton crew who’d never done this before... principally the Marconi engineer E.O.P. Thomas, and the station boss Tom Payne.
Word reached head office that Tom Payne was having troubles. December 23rd, they tried to launch...
E.O.P. Thomas, Marconi engineer puts it like this: “A hitch arose and there was no hope of connecting studio and transmitter. As a last resort I had several empty horse drays wheeled into the stable yard, chairs were placed on them and microphones connected to the nearby transmitter. The inaugural programme of 5NO was punctually carried out.”
A howling dog in a nearby kennel ruined much of the broadcast.
Thankfully next day, Christmas Eve, the link-up to the studio is fixed and Newcastle 5NO is officially launched, after this pre-show from the stableyard.
Technical limitations persist though - it restricts hours of broadcasting too, so station boss Tom Payne recalls, when dealing with Marconi engineer Mr Thomas.
Yes, Newcastle has a greater limit on time than its southern cousins.
So as we stampede forward in our tale, let’s leave Newcastle, and check in what was on air from the BBC in London for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Now we featured this in much fuller detail in our Christmas special, episode 20, but it’d be rude not to mention what was on while we’re here chronologically here.
So, the first London BBC Christmas, in a nutshell!
- Christmas Eve in a nutshell – Truth About FC, John Mayo...
Hear the fuller version of Rev John Mayo’s Christmas address, and more on Peter Pan, the 2 stations with different versions of O Come All Ye Faithful, and much much more on our Christmas special about 10 episodes ago.
Next time, Reith begins! But en route to Head Office, his first task will be a stopover in Newcastle, to inspect that station: that stableyard, that lorry, that howling dog, that Tom Payne.
Plus Reith’s incredible first day at the London office. The end of the beginning, the start of the BBC proper. Finally!
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