Music on the radio in Britain, 1930s-1950s

Vintage radio in a plywood box with large dials and a display showing different frequencies

© iStockphoto.com/Rolf Bodmer

Radio listeners in Britain today are accustomed to a situation in which the main provider, the BBC, broadcasts programmes over a huge range while a number of smaller commercial companies compete for its audience in particular areas, most notably music.

BBC domination has a history as old as the organisation itself and indeed in its early days no direct competitor was allowed to broadcast within the country. This contrasted strongly with the situation in the US, where no single station dominated and all of them were commercial organisations. The BBC's position gave it the opportunity to influence and even dictate public taste, and as far as music was concerned, that taste was conservative. In later years the BBC would be the channel by which many new sounds were broadcast. But it didn't start off that way and its dominance was challenged despite government rules.

The first challenge came from stations outside the UK. By 1930 there were five million radio sets in Britain but listeners had little alternative but to tune in to the BBC. Demand however existed for more programming of popular music - especially for dance band music and hot jazz. To exploit this a private company, the International Broadcasting Company (IBC) was set up. It hired air-time from overseas stations and transmitted popular programmes aimed at the UK market from Radios Lyon and Normandy, Radios Athlone, Méditerranée and Radio Luxembourg. These programmes were perfectly legal - the BBC itself was transmitting to the continent - but the attitude of the BBC and the government towards the IBC was continuously hostile.

Nevertheless the British population tuned to these stations in increasing numbers. The government put pressure on newspapers not to print programme schedules of the overseas stations and persuaded royalty organisations to overcharge them. The BBC was encouraged not to employ any artist or presenter who had worked on a continental station.

Anxious to suppress any means of mass communication over which they had no control the government set up a committee in 1936 to look at all aspects of radio broadcasting. It reported that "Foreign commercial broadcasting should be discouraged by every available means." Yet still the overseas stations flourished.

By 1938 Radio Luxembourg had 45 per cent of the Sunday listening audience against the BBC's 35 per cent and advertisers were spending £1.7m per annum, a substantial sum for those days. Some programmes consisted simply of records, whilst others were pre-recorded in London and sent to Luxembourg for broadcasting. When war broke out commercial broadcasting into the UK ceased (Luxembourg's transmitters fell into Nazi hands). The BBC regained its monopoly and delivered programmes - such as 'Music while you Work', broadcast over factory loudspeaker systems - aimed at boosting morale and keeping industry running.

With the 1950s and the cult of the teenager came new American music. Rock 'n' roll, blues and rhythm and blues were copied and then modified by young British artists, but opportunity for hearing such music on BBC radio was limited to a Sunday afternoon review of the charts and 'Saturday Skiffle Club' (later 'Saturday Club'). These shows however were hosted by established BBC presenters and failed to capture the youthful essence of the music. As elsewhere popular music lovers in Liverpool were largely taken for granted by the Corporation and force-fed a diet of Light Programme blandness.

The only other way to hear modern popular music was to tune to Radio Luxembourg, the one cross-border broadcaster to the UK that had been able to restart operations after the war. The Luxembourg signal could only reach the UK after dark and even then it faded in and out. Notwithstanding, Radio Luxembourg was hugely popular.

Station air-time was block-booked in 15 and 30 minute slots and taken up entirely by the major record labels. On these programmes only the artists signed to these labels would be aired. In order to showcase their product DJs such as Jimmy Henney, Keith Fordyce and Jimmy Savile would play only one minute of each new release, linking each with a quick fire introduction. So by the late 1950s many young people tended to listen to Radio Luxembourg for new sounds.

So important had Radio Luxembourg become to the youth of Britain by the early 1960s that it forced the BBC to investigate its own activities. A 1963 report eventually led to the arrival of both Radio 1 and local radio in 1967.