Tag: Savoy Hill

The place of broadcasting

Sir William Haley

The Place of Broadcasting

foreword taken from a broadcast by sir william haley, director-general of the british broadcasting corporation, on the 14 November, 1947

NO ONE can doubt any longer that Broadcasting has a place. At the end of twenty-five years it has established itself in almost every home in the United Kingdom. It has become part of the fabric of everyday life. It has had an influence on entertainment, on culture, on politics, on social habits, on religion, and on morals. It is the greatest educational force yet known. It has been used in war and in peace as an offensive and as a defensive instrument by great and small Powers…

Any celebration of British Broadcasting would be incomplete without a tribute to Lord Reith. Few men have had the opportunity to render so vital a service to their generation. No man has discharged a great responsibility with more seriousness or with higher purpose…

Broadcasting has its place in the life of nations, of the community, and of the individual. Its use between nations has been a mixture of good and evil. On the debit side there has been — and there still is — the outpouring of propaganda, the ceaseless sapping and erosion of other nations’ beliefs and morale, the misrepresentation and abuse of theoretically friendly Peoples, which some broadcasting systems undertake. On the credit side, there is the power of Broadcasting to pour out over the world a continuous, antiseptic flow of honest, objective, truthful news to which — as Hitler found during the war — the common man cannot permanently be denied access. On the credit side, too, there is the power of Broadcasting, without any unneighbourly purpose, to make the ways of life and thought of different Peoples better known to each other.

Broadcasting is not an end in itself. It will bring about a musically-minded nation only in so far as it gets people to play, and fills the concert halls. Its greatest contribution to culture would be to cause theatres and opera houses to multiply throughout the land. If it cannot give to Literature more readers than it withholds, it will have failed in what should be its true purpose. Its aim must be to make people active not passive, both in the fields of recreation and of public affairs. It will gain, rather than suffer, if it can do any of these things. For it will flourish best when the community flourishes best.

Heavily draped studios of early days

Heavily draped studios of early days

Interior of an old studio

Over the walls and ceilings of the early studios curtains were hung in seven layers, like a Victorian woman’s petticoats. Four tons of material were used to reduce reverberation; the artist’s voice sounded thin and rarefied as though he were on a mountain-top. Microphones, at the start, looked like ordinary telephone receivers mounted on columns later were slung in rubber, boxed in and moved about on heavy trolleys.

BEFORE November, 1922, broadcasting in Britain was carried on by industrial concerns in their research departments and by a few scientific amateurs only. To provide a regular service for a growing body of listeners, the Postmaster-General granted a licence to radio manufacturers to form the British Broadcasting Company, of which Mr J. C. W. Reith was managing director. Programmes began in the evening of 14 November from London (2LO) and next day from Birmingham (5IT), and Manchester (2ZY). Stations in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Bournemouth were opened within a year. Each used a power of 1½ kilowatts, and could be heard, on crystal set with headphones, at a range of twenty miles. The eight bands of pioneers worked hours without limit, in conditions of severest discomfort. Nevertheless, in a few months, 4½ hours of programmes were transmitted daily without fail to some tens of thousands of listeners. In December, 1922, the News Bulletins were read in London and broadcast simultaneously, by means of connecting land-lines, from all stations. Orchestras were assembled at each station, so far as studio space permitted. Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony was given from London in December, 1922, by seven players! The title of the second talk from 2LO was, somewhat unexpectedly, ‘How to catch a Tiger’. From Covent Garden, in January, 1923, came the first outside broadcast of opera. Plays were put on, though sound effects at first baffled producers. John Henry became the first successful wireless comedian. Relay stations were opened in 1924; next year Daventry (5XX) reached out to the further parts of Britain, carrying an alternative programme, including weather forecasts and gale warnings. When the first BBC gave way in 1926, without change of initials, high sense of service, or guiding spirit, it had won the goodwill of more than two million families.

Man at a piano, man at a microphone, woman sings into a microphone

The picture is of the very earliest days at Marconi House, showing a duet sung by Olive Sturgess and John Huntingdon into separate microphones; that above shows part of the bigger studio at Savoy Hill with soundproof listening cubicle in the corner, and the inevitable carafe of water for libations before the microphone.

The ’20s


THE ’20s



AS BROADCASTING grew in scope and favour, annual events and favourite personalities emerged. Running commentaries on the Boat Race were an early engineering triumph, the launch Magician being fitted with a short-wave transmitter in the stem. Children’s Hour had existed since broadcasting began. At five o’clock each day the ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ took the air. The first Wireless Orchestra concert was given in June, 1923, by Percy Pitt. Dan Godfrey was the regular conductor, Kneale Kelley first violin. Mr Churchill’s first broadcast was an appeal for ‘Wireless for the Blind’. Vernon Bartlett on foreign affairs became famous. Tommy Handley was as much at home with the ‘meatsafe’ as he is with its more elegant successors. The reading of his play, ‘O’Flaherty, V.C.’, by Bernard Shaw in 1924 was an unforgettable experience. The speeches of Philip Snowden revealed another master of Spoken English which was not stereotyped.


Farewell, Savoy Hill…

A commissionaire watches a man lock a big door

Sir John Reith locks the door of Savoy Hill for the last time

Farewell, Savoy Hill . . .

WHEN Parliament decided that the BBC should have a Royal Charter for ten years from 1926, a new organization, operating a modern medium, was lent the dignity and colour of an ancient form. The BBC had its own coat of arms, and flew its own flag. It directed its own activities without interference and controlled its own monies. The Charter called on the BBC to develop broadcasting ‘to the best advantage and in the national interest’. The expanding policy of the years after 1926 showed that the BBC had accepted the full measure of that charge. A high standard of musical performances was set, symphonic and operatic. Plays specially written for broadcasting were encouraged. Men and women distinguished in the Arts and Sciences were invited to the microphone. A parliamentary ban on political controversy at the microphone was raised in 1928. In 1932, the BBC began a service on short waves to the Commonwealth. It was an act of faith and of high technical skill; success was certain after King George V’s Christmas Day broadcast. The metal instrument box had grown new and more powerful wings.

Welcome, Broadcasting House!

Welcome, Broadcasting House!

THE broadcasting stream of information and entertainment could not be contained within the first broadcasting headquarters at Savoy Hill. A site for a new building was just above Oxford Circus, at the end of Portland Place. The architect’s problem was to build twenty-two studios, which would be entirely insulated from sounds, and at the same time to provide a large number of day-lit offices. The solution was found in arranging the offices as an outer shell round an inner core of studios, which were planned as a separate building. The outer shell, with its cutaway roof, took on the likeness of a great ship with its prow pointing to the heart of London. Three aerial masts on the roof expressed the function of the new Broadcasting House. Ariel, invisible spirit of the air, was chosen as the personification of broadcasting. In a niche above the main entrance, a sculptured group by Eric Gill showed Prospero, Ariel’s master, sending him out into the world. It was, and is, though no longer a dazzling white among the greys, a twentieth-century building for a twentieth-century institution.

Broadcasting House and All Soul's

Broadcasting House shortly after it was opened in 1932

Control rooms and their functions

Control rooms and their functions



IN THE earliest days ‘balance and control’ were effected by placing the artists relative to the microphone, but the original Control Rooms such as that at Savoy Hill (1) soon became necessary, following improvements in microphones, to accommodate the technicians who controlled the volume and the amplifiers required to feed the programmes to the transmitters. A little later separate rooms (2) with loudspeakers were provided for controlling programmes involving a special knowledge of music.

As the service developed broadcasting stations did not have to rely on their own resources for all their programmes, and many were broadcast simultaneously from a number of transmitters. Thus the additional functions of programme co-ordination and routeing and ‘network’ operation were imposed on the Control Room and these have tended to obscure the original function from which the name derives. The Control Room originally on the top floor of Broadcasting House, London (6) was an example of this phase, but even here separate cubicles were provided for the control of programmes of serious music and also Dramatic Control Rooms (3) for handling complex programmes involving many studios or other sources of material.



Later technical developments have obviated the need for centralizing all the amplifiers and their power supplies in the Control Room, and more recent installations have reverted to the principle of a Control Cubicle associated with each studio and separated from it by a sound-resisting window. The apparatus (4) provides nearly all the facilities available in the earlier dramatic-control rooms, and the Control Cubicles work in conjunction with Continuity Suites, where the programme services are co-ordinated and presented, and a Central Control Room, now devoted almost entirely to the operation of the networks of transmitters, the testing and equalization of the G.P.O. cables between studio centres and transmitting stations, and the handling of all the complicated technical routine inseparable from a large broadcasting organization. An example of this style of Central Control Room is that built in the war in a Variety studio in the sub-basement of Broadcasting House, London (5) to replace the original, too-vulnerable Control Room already mentioned.

This principle has proved so successful that future developments will be basically the same, but a dialling system similar to automatic-telephone practice will replace the present plug-and-socket arrangements for programme selection and distribution.

Oxford Street to Brookmans Park

Oxford Street to Brookmans Park



THE FIRST BBC transmitter was installed in Marconi House, London (1) and was the first of a number of 1-kW transmitters each located near the centre of the town it served. Soon more spacious accommodation was required, and as engineering advances had made it possible to separate the transmitters from the studios, in 1923 the head office and London studios moved to Savoy Hill and in 1925 a 2-kW transmitter was installed on the roof of a shop in Oxford Street (4). This and similar transmitters in larger towns, such as Bournemouth (3), radiated local programmes on medium waves and a big advance was the introduction in 1925 of an additional ‘National’ programme, broadcast by a 25-kW long-wave transmitter at Daventry. The next main development came in 1929 with the opening of Brookman’s Park, the first of the high-power, twin-wave ‘Regional’ stations. These each contained two separate 50-kW transmitters, one for the Regional, the other for the common National programme. These transmitters were of much improved design and were housed in glass-fronted cabinets. Increasing interference from European stations and electrical equipment made it necessary to augment the service in parts of the country. In 1934 a long-wave transmitter of the then unprecedented power of 150-kW at Droitwich took over the broadcasting of the National programme, and additional medium-wave transmitters reinforced the Regional service. Burghead, N. Scotland (2), is typical of these modem broadcasting transmitters, entirely enclosed, remotely controlled and capable of radiating 120-kW.

Series-loaded mast-radiators, which give results comparable to those of higher simple masts, were provided at Start Point in 1937 and Brookmans Park (below) in 1946.

A very tall transmitter

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