Tonight’s BBC radio… in 1964 

31 July 2019 tbs.pm/69358

It’s Friday 31 July 1964 and the Radio Times gives us a look at what was on the BBC’s three radio services. Things worth noting include:

  • The BBC Light Programme has the largest reach of any broadcasting in the UK at this time. For many, it’s still the ‘default’ network for entertainment, with television second. For households without television – and these were still common – it’s the primary source of news and entertainment. Even for people with television sets, there was no television beyond schools programmes in daytime during the week.
  • There’s still a separate licence fee for radio-only households, although the price is included in the TV licence if you bought or rented a television set, so two licences were not required. The radio licence was abolished in 1971.
  • The degree of ‘streaming’ for different audiences is low: there’s talks, drama and comedy on the Light and music on the Home Service. Listeners are expected to move between the services much as viewers would with television, picking a programme to hear on one service, then tuning to ‘the other side’ for something else. This style of ‘appointment to listen’ kept creeping back into BBC radio, despite attempts to enforce streaming in 1945, 1957 and 1967. Even now, evenings on BBC Radio 2, completely swamped by television, are often of this character.
  • The ‘streaming’ elements are often reported as being that the Light was for the working classes, the Home for the middle classes and the Third for the upper classes. This isn’t really true. The aim of the three networks was to try to reach everybody, but provide a default service for each listener depending on interest, educational attainment, class, region and background. Thus a university professor would be expected to default to the Third, but also to drop in on items of interest in the Home and find something to tickle them on the Light. Similarly, the factory worker was expected to default to the Light, but head to the Home for in-depth news and occasionally drop in on the Third to learn something new or to expand an existing hobby. It’s very easy to put everybody in this period into little boxes, all knowing their place, but the BBC wasn’t interested in furthering this 1930s stereotype (the mixing of every class and background during the war had made the idea seem ludicrous) and listeners could be trusted to find their own levels of comfort.
  • The BBC managed this odd form of streaming by making the Light and the Home both compete with each other for audiences and also to have common junctions and cross-promotions to make it easier for listeners to switch between the two. For instance, look at 7pm (which is also the time the Third proper comes on air) – the Light has half an hour of news, current affairs (newsreel) and sport. The duty announcer would flag to the listeners that there was variety over on the Home filling this exact slot. Meanwhile over on the Home, the announcer is busy introducing the variety programme whilst letting listeners know that the news is on over on the Light.
  • Another way of doing this was for programmes on one of the more popular networks to get a repeat on the other. For instance, the Kenneth Horne-led ensemble comedy Beyond Our Ken was aimed at and popular with listeners to both the Light and Home. It premiered on the Light on Saturday at lunchtime and got a repeat on the Home on a weekday evening.
  • There’s one simulcast on the Light and the Home today (and every weekday). It’s Music While You Work at 10.31am, a programme of upbeat, fast-paced tunes begun in 1940 on the Home Service for factory workers, designed to keep up morale and, more importantly, boost efficiency. It was so popular that it was carried on the BBC Forces Network – a direct ancestor of the Light Programme – and people had got used to it being on both. And on both it remained until 1967. The 10.31am start time, by the way, is to allow for a news bulletin – originally only on the Light (which did news on the half hour) but now also on the Home, although the bulletin is not shared.
  • Competition from the off-shore ‘pirate’ stations has begun to change the way BBC radio is planned. The Light is increasing its music output to try to keep the youth and housewife audience; but with no extra ‘needle time’ for records, it remains the job of various BBC orchestras to play versions of the popular songs. This increase in music pushed more talks on to the Home Service, already full up thanks to having schools programmes in term time during the day, which began to squeeze their musical output. Next year, the BBC would start using the daytime frequencies of the Third Network, heretofore silent except for occasional sport, to host the Home’s classical music on the new BBC Music Programme. Bit by bit, this pushed the networks much closer to what we formally got in late 1967: four much more streamed networks.
  • The Home Service of this time is regionalised. That didn’t just mean opting out for local news: each region was its own Home Service, independently planned with the option of dropping back into the largely non-regional sustaining service from London. Different regional management took different decisions on scheduling depending on what they felt their listeners wanted or needed. There’s quite a lot of drift on the three ‘National Regions’, for instance, especially in Wales and Scotland where there are two languages to cater for. At 6pm, the South and West region gets a full 45 minutes of news and current affairs, both national and regional. Midland and North listeners get just five minutes of regional news before putting on some records. This regionalism would die away over the course of the 1970s as more BBC Local Radio stations came on air, culminating in the Home’s successor BBC Radio 4 ‘going national’ in 1978 with the exception of some FM opt-outs for regional news in areas without their own BBC station.
  • The cricket at 12.30pm and 4pm is displacing something else the Home Service did – taking programmes from the regions and putting them out nationally, or just as common, swapping with other regions, much like ITV until the 1990s.

Light

  • There’s no ‘drivetime’ in the UK at this point: people listened to the radio when they got up and perhaps at work, but not while travelling because most people still didn’t own a car. Nobody would be antisocial enough to listen to a radio whilst on the train, tram or bus, not least because most people still bought a morning and an evening newspaper and read those during their commute.
  • This lets the Light Programme ease people into their day, rather then the now-common chivvying-along of the population, with the weather, the news (in that order) and then light music, including almost two full hours of Jack Coles leading the BBC Midland Light Orchestra and a couple of invited bands, filling the time until a long weather forecast at 8.55am.
  • A smidgin of needletime – 55 minutes – at 9am as Pete Murray, a mainstay of Radio Luxembourg, introduces Housewives’ Choice, a request programme. The music therefore was quite catholic, ranging from swing to jazz to pop to light to classical, depending on what people had written in on a postcard and asked for that day.
  • At 10am is Reginald Dixon on his theatre organ in Blackpool, where he has been sitting, primed and ready every day, since 3 September 1939.
  • Soap opera The Dales, previously Mrs Dale’s Diary, had begun in 1948 and ran until 1969, when it was replaced by Waggoners’ Walk, gets its daytime repeat from yesterday evening at 11.15am. It’ll be back at 4.15pm for a new episode. The series was said to be a favourite of the Queen Mother, who in the early 1980s said she listened everyday so she could keep up with what the middle classes were thinking. We’re saying nothing.

  • 2pm sees Woman’s Hour, a Light Programme staple since 1946. It wouldn’t move to Radio 4 until 1973.
  • Whilst ball-by-ball test match and international cricket found a home on the BBC Sports Service on the Third Network’s frequencies during the daytime, other sports (and lesser cricket matches) ran on the Light and the Home. They would be pushed almost entirely on to BBC Radio 2 in the 1970s and wouldn’t find a proper home until the then-Radio 2 medium wave frequencies were hived off into BBC Radio 5 in 1990.
  • Children’s Hour each day at 5pm in the Home Service had come to an end in 1961, and provision for children pushed on to the Light. The replacement was Playtime at 4.35pm, which was various people (Val Doonican today) playing records. Hardly the full service children had previously received, but indicative of how much kids preferred television to radio and just weren’t listening any more.
  • Roundabout was the closest thing to a drivetime show the BBC did. Introduced in 1958, it played a mixture of records, recorded features, sketch comedy and newsy items. It was originally designed as easy listening for people just home from work, but was moved from 5.30pm to 5pm to catch the small but increasing number of of people listening in cars. As such, it began with a series of traffic reports before getting on to the meat of the programme. It would run until 1970 on Radio 2, by which time the traffic reports were interspersed throughout the show.

  • The Archers (6.45pm) had started in the Midland Home Service in 1950, and gone national on the Light in 1951. It also got a repeat at 12.40pm on the Home, except, as today, when preempted by sport. It would move over to the Home Service entirely on 2 January 1967 ahead of the reorganisation of the networks later that year.
  • Information Please at 840pm comes from a long line of BBC radio programmes that got listeners to send in questions to be answered by experts, philosophers and/or celebrities, starting in 1940 with the Forces Programme’s Any Questions? – later renamed The Brains Trust. This is the first episode of this series, which would run until 1968, and was a successor to What Do You Know?
  • The Light closes at midnight, but after doing so would pop back on air for the Shipping Forecast on 1500 metres before going off air again until the morning.

Third

  • The BBC Third Network was a bit of a ragbag, consisting of several different services sharing the frequency. The BBC Third Programme was founded in 1946 as a speech-based, highbrow service running in the evenings only. In 1957 it gained the heavier classical music output of Home Service. The spare capacity during the day was slowly put to use as time passed, with ball-by-ball cricket (BBC Test Match Special), adult education (BBC Study Session), and weekend sports from the Light (BBC Sports Service). Each of these was seen as a separate radio station on the frequencies of the Third Network. When it was necessary to make a distinction between the Third Programme and the other Third Network ‘stations’, the non-Third Programme items were referred to as ‘Network Three’. Confused yet?
  • In 1965, the remaining space on the Third Network not used by Network Three was gradually filled up with the BBC Music Programme – again seen as a separate station. At the time of reorganisation in 1967, the whole lot became BBC Radio 3, with the separate names dying out, except for that of the Third Programme. By 1970, the former Music Programme had swallowed the network whole, with the Third Programme’s speech output moved to BBC Radio 4 and everything else left on medium wave: most classical music listeners listened on FM.
  • BBC Study Session is not explicitly named today, perhaps because the 6.30pm programme is trying to pretend not to be adult education. With cars becoming ever cheaper, the motorway network growing larger and British Railways being run down under Dr Beeching, driving was starting to be something more and more people did. Specifically, more and more working class people… and the great and the good began to worry whether such new drivers truly grasped the rules of the road. The Ministry of Transport asked the BBC to run more programmes about driving, especially safe driving and motorway use, and began to heavily advertise in peak time on ITV to encourage drivers to take more care. They were probably right to: the death toll on the roads in the UK was terrifying, with crashes and the mowing down of pedestrians – especially children – becoming a common front page news item in the press.
  • The Proms get 2 hours and 40 minutes of the Third Network’s precious time, with the 20 minute talk on US segregation clearly designed to be disposable should there be an overrun. Indeed, it looks like Down with Philosophy! had taken a similar hit on 9 July.
  • The Proms are not exclusive to the Third Network. The majority of the concerts this year run on the Home Service, with the First and Last Night shows running on the Light.

Home

  • The South and West Home Service is on air for 17 hours and 5 minutes today. Of that time, 3 hours and 54 minutes is given over to music, mainly the classical that would move to the BBC Music Programme next year, but also some lighter gramophone records. That’s going on for a quarter of all the Home’s airtime.
  • The Today programme is in two parts, at 7.15am and at 8.15am. On the basic (London) Home Service, that’s half an hour and then 25 minutes; in the regions, only 20 minutes and 15 minutes. Nobody would want to sit through three hours of news and politics at this time of a morning, would they?
  • That said, the linking (on the basic, at least) between each item – the papers, Lift Up Your Hearts (now Thought for the Day) and Yesterday in Parliament – is done by presenter David Brown rather than by handing back to continuity, so it’s more cohesive than the listings suggest.
  • Another example of the flow of programmes between the networks at 11.30am: Background to India was first heard in the Third Network six months ago. The more flexible, ad hoc nature of Network Three also shows up here: the programme was originally in a 25 minutes slot on the BBC Study Session, leaving the Home to pad the final 5 minutes with an interlude.
  • At 7.30pm we’re discussing the long-running campaign to reverse the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th century and allow ramblers to walk through unused countryside. It wouldn’t get anywhere until Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 in England and Wales and a similar Act in Scotland in 2003. There’s still no right to ramble in Northern Ireland.
  • The day finishes at 11.45pm after half an hour of piano music – needletime restrictions again. We’re used to thinking of BBC Radio 4 as being news-heavy (not the same thing as the rolling news on 5live) so it’s interesting how they go off air without even a news summary. If you want to catch up on the latest happenings at home and abroad, there’s 5 minutes of news at 11.55pm on the Light. Other than that, you’re going to have to search out the BBC General Overseas Service on various frequencies in Europe.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Nigel Stapley 1 August 2019 at 8:33 pm

Up with this sort of thing! I’ve always felt that the radio services haven’t been covered as extensively as they should. It’s fascinating to see how programmes (and programme types) which were assoicated with one specific network post-67 were all over the shop before.

Kif Bowden-Smith 3 August 2019 at 2:50 pm

Thanks Nigel. We have happily published radio history stuff over the years and will continue to do so. It mystifies me that it is not as popular in hits terms as our tv history uploads. Pre 1973 radio and especially pre 1967 radio is a baby boomer thing of course and my age group can discuss it all day!

Tina King 6 August 2019 at 2:44 pm

By October 1964 the broadcasting hours of the BBC Light Programme would be extended by the BBC in agreement with the unions and the Postmaster General.

BBC Light Programme would start the mornings earlier at 5.30am Mondays to Saturdays, with a 6.55am start time on Sundays. The Light Programme would conclude its day at approximately 2.02am seven days a week.

These extensions to their broadcasting hours would have been useful to the early morning risers and the late night workers and insomniacs.

However with the increased broadcasting time, it meant there would be more music needed with very little increase to the needle time restrictions, so the BBC orchestras, bands and other bands/orchestras would have been used even more to make up for the Scrooge like allowance of records played each day on the programme.

Joey 6 August 2019 at 3:20 pm

I wasn’t around then, but I’ve always been interested in what my elders.and forebears listened to, and watched, back in their day. So much so that I’ve avidly listened to things like The Goons, The Navy Lark, Take It From Here and Much Binding In The Marsh with eager ears. Shame the same can’t be said about TV of the same era, thanks to the practice of erasing and reusing video tapes.

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