“Anyone driving west from Washington DC towards the Allegheny Mountains will arrive before long in a vast area without mobile phone signals. This is the National Radio Quiet Zone – 13,000 square miles (34,000 sq km) of radio silence. What is it for and how long will it survive?
As we drive into the Allegheny Mountains the car radio fades to static. I glance at my mobile phone but the signal has disappeared.
Ahead of us a dazzling white saucer looms above the wooded terrain of West Virginia, getting bigger and bigger with every mile. It’s the planet’s largest land-based movable object – the Robert C Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) – 2.3 acres in surface area, and taller than the Statue of Liberty.
But it needs electrical peace and quiet to do its job.”
The story continues on the BBC News site, but I would encourage you to listen to the five part radio documentary series on BBC Radio 4 first. Green Bank, WV, is certainly one part of the planet where a shortwave radio listener would be quite happy: residents have virtually no radio interference or obnoxious electrical noises that plague the rest of the modern world.
Capt Leonard Plugge was the driving force behind Radio Normandy in the early 1930s. He created the International Broadcasting Company in 1931 as a commercial rival to the British Broadcasting Corporation by buying airtime from radio stations such as Normandy, Toulouse, Ljubljana, Juan les Pins, Paris, Poste Parisien, Athlone, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. IBC worked indirectly with Radio Luxembourg until 1936. World War II silenced most of Plugge’s stations between 1939 and 1945.
Tuning In, a history of early radio in Britain, will be broadcast November 3rd on BBC Radio 4. If you don’t live in the UK, you can listen live on the Radio 4 website where they will also post an archive of the show. (Note that some archived shows are only available for a limited time.)
The press fulminated, the enthusiasts were frustrated, and the radio manufacturers fumed. Despite the fact that Marconi had invented radio before Queen Victoria had celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, radio in Britain took another 25 years to begin an official service to listeners. But when, on November 14th 1922 the British Broadcasting Company’s station at Marconi House radiated to an awaiting nation “This is 2LO calling” for the first time under the company’s name, it marked the start of the first and most distinguished public-service radio station in the world.
As part of the celebrations to mark nine decades of the BBC, historian Dominic Sandbrook explores the long and involved pre-BBC history of radio in Britain, how Britain’s broadcaster got going and developed into an institution dedicated to entertainment, education and information, discovers why Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba was involved, and how the improbably-named Captain Plugge made his first British commercial broadcast from the roof of Selfridges department store in London. From Marconi to Savoy Hill via an old army hut in Essex, the story of the early radio in Britain.
This is a fascinating Radio 4 documentary about a BBC service that typically had a target audience of one individual. Before the proliferation of telecommunications in the 1990’s, the BBC’s SOS message service acted as a communications link of last resort for people who needed to be urgently connected with loved ones.
This radio documentary reminded me of the fact that, even in our information age, radio can interact with a large audience of listeners who are doing everything from working to driving in a uniquely efficient manor.
Radio 4 used to broadcast SOS messages – “could Mr and Mrs Snodgrass, believed to be travelling in the Cotswolds please ring this hospital where their auntie is dangerously ill”.
Eddie Mair wants to know more about them. He hears from listeners whose lives were dramatically changed through the SOS service. These short messages were transmitted regularly on The Home Service, and later Radio 4, for much of the 20th century. They appealed for relatives of dying people, often on holiday and thus, before mobile phones and internet cafes, uncontactable, to return home before it was too late.
Eddie invited readers of his Radio Times column to send in their recollections of the SOS Message Service, and little did the PM Presenter expect such a rich response of vivid memories, first person experiences and in one case, unexpected consequences as a result of the broadcast.
Some of these remarkable testimonies are told, in understated, haunting and even cheery ways in this narrative tribute to radio, and a nation, – “as it was”. Best summed up by the tale of a six year old girl in the North East who while staying with a relation in 1958, was hospitalised with a very serious illness. She survived and tells Eddie her story. In the days of very few domestic telephones, the BBC’s SOS message brought her parents to her bedside from London courtesy of an observant member of the public who heard the message and recognised the car number plate that had been announced.
The SOS Service, was the vision of John Reith, the first General Manager, and later Director General of the BBC. But its heart was the listener, as Eddie reveals.
What is it about radio that has made it so durable, and able to coexist not only through the age of television, but the age of new media too? As social networking giant Facebook prepares to float itself and raise an astonishing £5bn, what has enabled radio to stand its ground?
[…]Radio can be made at a fraction of the cost of television, meaning that programme-makers, DJs and entrepreneurs can all have a crack at it. Commercial broadcasters as well as the BBC value it as an incubator for future TV talent. Added to which, radios themselves are cheap, and all over the place: by people’s beds, in the bathroom, in the car.
“Despite the fact you think we’re a visually saturated culture, there are all sorts of places where you get radio and nothing else. The technology of radio is cheap, simple and idiot-proof, and older listeners in particular are going to be very reluctant to let it go,” says [Mark] Damazer.
[…]There is a confidence among many of those who work in radio that what they do will carry on. We remain attached to radio and its rhythms, to the hum and the sound of it. And we get attached to the people who present it, when we don’t violently take against them. Radio is personal.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Another article filed under “why radio?”