The Days Before Rock and Roll
British radio before the Caroline era

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Radio is over one hundred years old. By the early twenties, technology progressed from simple Morse code to being able to transmit speech and music internationally, with a signal accessible to anyone possessing a home or commercially made radio set.

The UK government concluded that this was such a powerful means of mass communication that it would have to be in state control. In 1927 The British Broadcasting Corporation was formed. This organisation can best be described as an extension of the British Civil Service. Raising revenue by charging a licence fee to every home possessing a radio, the Corporation was given the duty to provide programmes of news, speeches, lectures, educational matter, weather reports, concerts and theatrical entertainment. This format was a government edict, not a matter of audience research The UK population had to pay but had no say over what they got for their money.

By 1930 there were five million radio sets in Britain, all unavoidably tuned to the BBC, but demand existed for more light hearted and popular styles of programming. 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. What is interesting is that while these programmes were perfectly legal, and while no doubt BBC transmissions were covering the continent just as readily as the continental stations were reaching the UK, the attitude of the BBC and the government was implacably hostile.

Radio Normandy

Increasingly the British population tuned to Radio Lyon or Normandy, Radio Athlone, Mediterranee and of course Radio Luxembourg. The government put pressure on British newspapers not to print programme schedules of the overseas stations and persuaded royalty organisations to overcharge them for permission to play recorded material. The BBC were encouraged not to employ any artist or presenter who had worked on a continental station.

In the absence of any other reason to explain this hostility it seems that the government were anxious to suppress any means of mass communication over which they had no control. In 1936 a committee looking at all aspects of radio broadcasting stated, 'Foreign commercial broadcasting should be discouraged by every available means.'

All the same, 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 1.7 million pounds sterling per annum, a substantial sum for those days. When war broke out in 1939 the practice of commercial broadcasting into the UK obviously ceased. For many years thereafter the BBC had their monopoly again and delivered programmes aimed at boosting the morale of the population and keeping industry running with 'sing along ' music programmes and comedy, broadcast over factory tannoy (loudspeaker) systems.

In the fifties the cult of the 'teenager' began to emerge with the appearance of American style 'teddy boys' copying role models seen on American imported movies. With this came American music; rock and roll, blues and rhythm & blues were copied and then modified by young British artists. Opportunity for hearing such music on BBC radio was limited to a Sunday afternoon review of the current charts and a Saturday morning programme, 'The Saturday Skiffle Club,' (later the Saturday Club after the skiffle craze ended.) These 'shows' were hosted by established BBC presenters in the style of a headmaster presiding over a schoolboys picnic.

The only other way to hear modern popular music was to tune to Radio Luxembourg, the only 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 when the propagation conditions changed. Even then it faded in and out for long periods. This notwithstanding, Luxembourg was hugely popular.

Station air time was block booked in fifteen minute or half hour slots and taken up entirely by the major record labels of the day; Decca, Capitol, E.M.I., Parlophone etc... Only their own signed and recorded artists could expect any air play. In order to showcase as much of their product as possible DJ's such as Jimmy Saville would play only one minute of each new release, linking each with a quick fire introduction.

In the early sixties then, all was fairly comfortable for the BBC with their state monopoly and Luxembourg with their commercial monopoly and yet more and more talented British groups and artists were modifying and Anglicising imported music and then developing their own song writing skills. How could this music be put before the public.

Around this time there arrived in London one Ronan O'Rahilly, the tearaway son of a well known and wealthy Irish family. O'Rahilly possessed a number of pertinent qualities; a back ground of generally getting what he wanted, a quick and lateral thinking brain, a maturity and presence which belied his tender years and an Irish naivety which gave him no knowledge or regard for the accepted way of going about things.

Intending to become involved in film making he actually gravitated to the music scene, managing new young artists. But nobody would record his artists and nobody would give him air time. Clearly this could not be tolerated.

Although it seemed unlikely, as Ronan wrestled with this problem, for the BBC and Luxembourg and indeed for all European Radio, everything was about to change.

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