How to Listen to the Radio: The BBC’s 1930 Manual for Using a New Technology

BBC Good Listening

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A com­par­i­son between the inven­tion of radio and that of the Inter­net need not be a strained or superf­i­cal exer­cise. Par­al­lels abound. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool that first drew the world togeth­er with news, dra­ma, and music took shape in a small but crowd­ed field of ama­teur enthu­si­asts, engi­neers and physi­cists, mil­i­tary strate­gists, and com­pet­ing cor­po­rate inter­ests. In 1920, the tech­nol­o­gy emerged ful­ly into the con­sumer sec­tor with the first com­mer­cial broad­cast by Westinghouse’s KDKA sta­tion in Pitts­burgh on Novem­ber 2, Elec­tion Day. By 1924, the U.S. had 600 com­mer­cial sta­tions around the coun­try, and in 1927, the mod­el spread across the Atlantic when the British Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (the BBC) suc­ceed­ed the British Broad­cast­ing Com­pa­ny, for­mer­ly an exten­sion of the Post Office.

Unlike the Wild West fron­tier of U.S. radio, since its 1922 incep­tion the BBC oper­at­ed under a cen­tral­ized com­mand struc­ture that, para­dox­i­cal­ly, fos­tered some very egal­i­tar­i­an atti­tudes to broadcasting—in cer­tain respects. In oth­ers, how­ev­er, the BBC, led by “con­sci­en­tious founder” Lord John Rei­th, took on the task of pro­vid­ing its lis­ten­ers with “ele­vat­ing and educa­tive” mate­r­i­al, par­tic­u­lar­ly avant garde music like the work of Arnold Schoen­berg and the Sec­ond Vien­nese School. The BBC, writes David Stubbs in Fear of Music, “were pre­pared to be quite bold in their broad­cast­ing pol­i­cy, mak­ing a point of includ­ing ‘futur­ist’ or ‘art music,’ as they termed it.” As you might imag­ine, “lis­ten­ers proved a lit­tle recal­ci­trant in the face of this high­brow pol­i­cy.”

In response to the vol­ume of lis­ten­er com­plaints, the BBC began a PR cam­paign in 1927 that sought to train audi­ences in how to lis­ten to chal­leng­ing and unfa­mil­iar broad­casts. One state­ment released by the BBC stress­es respon­si­ble, “cor­rect,” lis­ten­ing prac­tices: “If there be an art of broad­cast­ing there is equal­ly an art of lis­ten­ing… there can be no excuse for the lis­ten­er who tunes in to a pro­gramme, willy nil­ly, and com­plains that he does not care for it.” The next year, the BBC Hand­book 1928 includ­ed the fol­low­ing cas­ti­ga­tion of lis­ten­er antipa­thy and rest­less­ness.

Every new inven­tion that brings desir­able things more eas­i­ly with­in our reach there­by to some extent cheap­ens them… We seem to be enter­ing upon a kind of arm-chair peri­od of civil­i­sa­tion, when every­thing that goes to make up adven­ture is dealt with whole­sale, and deliv­ered, as it were, to the indi­vid­ual at his own door.

It’s as if Ama­zon were right around the cor­ner, and, in a cer­tain sense, it was. Like per­son­al com­put­ing tech­nol­o­gy, the wire­less rev­o­lu­tion­ized com­mu­ni­ca­tions and offered instant access to infor­ma­tion, if not yet goods, and not yet on an “on-demand” basis. Unlike Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, how­ev­er, British com­mer­cial radio strove might­i­ly to con­trol the ethics and aes­thet­ics of its con­tent. The hand­book goes on to elab­o­rate its pro­posed rem­e­dy for the poten­tial cheap­en­ing of cul­ture it iden­ti­fies above:

The lis­ten­er, in oth­er words, should be an epi­cure and not a glut­ton; he should choose his broad­cast fare with dis­crim­i­na­tion, and when the time comes give him­self delib­er­ate­ly to the enjoy­ment of it… To sum up, I would urge upon those who use wire­less to cul­ti­vate the art of lis­ten­ing; to dis­crim­i­nate in what they lis­ten to, and to lis­ten with their mind as well as their ears. In that way they will not only increase their plea­sure, but actu­al­ly con­tribute their part to the improve­ment and per­fec­tion of an art which is yet in its child­hood.

It seems that these lengthy prose pre­scrip­tions did not con­vey the mes­sage as effi­cient­ly as they might. In 1930, BBC admin­is­tra­tors pub­lished a hand­book that took a much more direct approach, which you can see above. Titled “Good Lis­ten­ing,” the list of instruc­tions, tran­scribed below, pro­ceeds under the assump­tion that any dis­sat­is­fac­tion with BBC pro­gram­ming should be blamed sole­ly on impa­tient, sloth­ful lis­ten­ers. As BBC pro­gram advi­sor Fil­son Young wrote that year in a Radio Times arti­cle, “Good lis­ten­ers will pro­duce good pro­grammes more sure­ly and more cer­tain­ly than any­thing else… Many of you have not even begun to mas­ter the art of lis­ten­ing. The arch-fault of the aver­age lis­ten­er is that he does not select.”


Make sure that your set is work­ing prop­er­ly before you set­tle down to lis­ten.

Choose your pro­grammes as care­ful­ly as you choose which the­atre to go to. It is just as impor­tant to you to enjoy your­self at home as at the the­atre.

Lis­ten as care­ful­ly at home as you do in a the­atre or con­cert hall. You can’t get the best out of a pro­gramme if your mind is wan­der­ing, or if you are play­ing bridge or read­ing. Give it your full atten­tion. Try turn­ing out the lights so that your eye is not caught by famil­iar objects in the room. Your imag­i­na­tion will be twice as vivid.

If you only lis­ten with half an ear you haven’t a quar­ter of a right to crit­i­cise.

Think of your favourite occu­pa­tion. Don’t you like a change some­times? Give the wire­less a rest now and then.

All maybe more than a lit­tle con­de­scend­ing, per­haps, but that last bit of advice now seems eter­nal.

via WFMU

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles’ Radio Per­for­mances of 10 Shake­speare Plays

Hear Vin­tage Episodes of Buck Rogers, the Sci-Fi Radio Show That First Aired on This Day in 1932

Dimen­sion X: The 1950s Sci­Fi Radio Show That Dra­ma­tized Sto­ries by Asi­mov, Brad­bury, Von­negut & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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