The Scent of Pines on the Air

The BBC, 6BM Bournemouth, and a Question of Anniversaries 

Seán Street, Emeritus Professor of Radio at BU, on the centenary of the BBC...

A blue plaque, marking the location of the creation of BBC radio programmes in Dorset has been placed on Holdenhurst Road, Bournemouth. BU students attended the univeiling to promote the momentous occasion - but BU's links run deeper, as Emeritus Professor Sean Street was among the first to identify and research the origins of these BBC programmes.

In this guest blog, Sean explains his involvement:

Genesis

Anniversaries can be misleading, because big beginnings are often not as tidy as popular historians would like them to be. So it was with the birth of the BBC. To start with, there’s the date; 18 October, 1922, was in fact the day on which a group of individuals representing some vested interests of the time met to agree to the idea of a consortium, and a name: the BBC. Formal broadcasting under this banner did not actually begin until mid-November the same year. Then there is the name itself: the British Broadcasting Company, formed from a number of commercial manufacturers of radio receivers.

Wars usually push technology, and the First World War was no exception. Wireless had seen its development accelerate between 1914 and 1918, as an aid to military communication, and when the war came to an end, a large number of wireless amateurs, many of whom had been using the medium on active service, were seeking a broadcasting service to explore this new phenomenon. There was a definite commercial imperative for manufacturers, among them, Marconi, Metropolitan Vickers,  and the General Electric Company, to sell receivers, and for this, there needed to be a purpose for those receivers – namely, a regular series of programmes for potential listeners to tune to.  

In June, 1920, the Marconi Company at Chelmsford had made an experimental broadcast with the famous opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba, from its works in Essex. When, as she was being shown around, the wireless transmitter mast atop the building was pointed out to her, the great Australian diva reportedly – and probably apocryphally – exclaimed, ‘If you think I’m climbing up there to sing, young man, you are decidedly mistaken'. After that, the first months of 1922 saw further experiments from Marconi’s in the form of 2MT, a somewhat maverick operation from an army hut in the village of Writtle, characterised by the ebullient personality of Peter Eckersely, who would subsequently become the BBC’s first chief engineer. This was followed on 11 May that year by the first transmission from 2LO.

In the meantime, the British government, mindful of what it considered as the ‘chaos of the ether’ that had resulted in the United States, due to the deregulated burgeoning of commercial radio practitioners, from 1920, demanded some sort of control, at the same time ruling out the idea of one single commercial company having an overall monopoly. On 4 May, 1922, therefore, the Post Office announced to the House of Commons that ‘bona fide manufacturers of wireless apparatus’ would be given permission to establish a number of broadcasting stations throughout Great Britain, under the watchful eye of the Postmaster General. 

Thus, on 23 May, 1922, a meeting was held at the Institute of Electrical Engineers on London’s Thames Embankment, under the chairmanship of Frank Gill, the chief engineer of the Western Electric Company. Among those attending were representatives of the six companies interested in establishing a broadcasting base in the UK: Marconi, Metropolitan Vickers, G.E.C., The Radio Communications Company, the Western Electric Company, and the British Thomson Houston Company. This group was to guide the course of British broadcasting toward one service, and two days later, a name – ‘The British Broadcasting Company’ – was agreed upon and its general manager, John Reith, appointed. This was formalised on 18 October, 1922, when the BBC was legally established. Thus, the date celebrated as the birth of this great organisation, its anniversary marked down with much commemorative pomp and circumstance as an historic centenary, did not actually begin with a broadcast, but a meeting. 

On the Air

In fact, a number of stations run by the commercial companies were already on the air; Marconi’s 2LO, originally called ‘Marconi’s London Wireless Telegraphy Station’, had, as we have seen, begun broadcasting on 11 May, 1922, and Metropolitan Vickers had begun experimental broadcasts in Manchester on 16 May, 1922. The new British Broadcasting Company was established with £100,000 capital in cumulative ordinary shares. Additional financing was to be provided by the introduction of a 10-shilling licence fee, payable by all those receiving the service. The steering committee also agreed that the Post Office should be requested to approve for sale only sets made by companies constituting the BBC, as well as the sale of parts for home manufacture of sets, which would all bear a licence identification stamp.

The Company’s first offices were in Magnet House on Kingsway, London, owned by G.E.C. At the same time, 2LO, the Marconi station based in Marconi House on the Strand, was placed under the control of the company, beginning regular transmissions on 14 November, 1922. So it was that the birth of regular, organised broadcasting in Britain was a curious hybrid of commercial interests and government intervention and control.  The BBC began its initial coverage of the UK through the establishment of a series of local and regional stations, run by its commercial company members, beginning as we have seen, by 2LO, the London station, which stayed at Marconi House until 1 May, 1923, when it moved to what would be the BBC’s first established HQ, Savoy Hill, in the building of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, where that first momentous meeting had taken place, a year earlier. 

Next came 2ZY, Metrovick’s Manchester station, opening formally as a BBC broadcaster on 15 November, the day after 2LO’s first scheduled transmissions.  2ZY holds the claim to being the first UK station to broadcast a children’s programme, called Kiddies’ Corner. From there, things began to move quickly: the same day as the Manchester opening, Birmingham’s 5IT went on the air, and on Christmas Eve, 1922, Newcastle’s 5NO began transmissions, notable for its early pioneering of radio drama. Indeed, one of its associates, Gordon Lea, wrote what has been claimed to be the first book on the genre in 1926: Radio Drama and How to Write It. 1923 saw the continuing spread of the BBC, with the arrival of 5WA opening in Cardiff on 17 February. Less than a month later, on 6 March, BBC Glasgow went on air as 5SC. Another Scottish station, 2BD in Aberdeen, opened on 10 October. Then, on 17 October, 1923, at the other end of the country, the penultimate of the BBC’s stations, 6BM, Bournemouth, began broadcasting. In the positioning of these first stations, we see the idea of what would become regional broadcasting. There was to be one more station, 2BE in Belfast, which opened 24 October, 1924, but in terms of the BBC’s original plan of regional broadcasting, Bournemouth was the last, coming triumphantly onto the airwaves with the announcement: ‘6BM Bournemouth sends hearty greetings to the World: we do hope you can smell the pines!’  

6BM – the Golden Days

The studios of 6BM were at 72, Holdenhurst Road, Bournemouth, in premises over a pram an cycle shop, almost opposite where Bournemouth University’s Business Centre now stands. The transmitter was in Bushey Road, beside the North Cemetery, and the station broadcast on 387.2 Medium Wave on a frequency of 775 khz. The opening speech was given by the mayor of Bournemouth, Alderman Charles Cartwright, and the Chairman of the BBC, Lord Gainford responded: ‘We realise that with the establishment of the eighth and last station in the original agreement, we are not at an end, but only at the beginning of our labours. It is quite impossible to forecast the future of broadcasting, but all are agreed that it has unlimited possibilities. The standard of the Bournemouth programmes will have to be high.’

On the 50th anniversary of the birth of 6BM, in 1973, I was working for BBC Radio Solent, and I was invited to make a documentary to mark the occasion. At that time, I was lucky enough to be able to speak to a number of the station’s original staff; I include here some transcripts of interviews made with some of those pioneer broadcasters, among them 6BM’s engineer, R.G. ‘Tiny’ Durham, who remembered how listeners tuned in.  

People listened through headphones plugged into crystal sets, and it was quite amusing to watch facial expressions change as the mood of the broadcast altered, so suddenly a room full of people might burst out laughing for no apparent reason. The range for decent reception was about 25 miles, with 1 Kilowatt of radiated power. It was rumoured though that it was once picked up in Scotland, and I suppose there would have been a number of freak results like that, often due to climatic conditions.

In fact, the station WAS picked in Scotland, on the opening day, as it happened by a Bournemouth man, a Mr A.V. Richards who later remembered: ‘At the time I was a wireless telegraphist on board the naval destroyer HMS Spencer, tied up at Port Edgar Base, Queensferry. It was a real thrill to hear a broadcast from my home town. I lived about a mile from the Bournemouth transmitter,  and when I came home on Christmas leave that year, I bought a crystal receiver and the whole family became regular listeners.’ Mr Richards was able to relate that fifty years on, he still possessed the radio, in working condition. 

The first station director was Bertram Fryer, the chief announcer was J.H. Raymond, and the station had its own musical director in the person of Captain W.A. Featherstone, who conducted a military band as well as overseeing general music policy. His daughter, Elsie Franklin, was also employed on the station as a pianist, accompanying some of the visiting musical celebrities. A local bandleader, Fred Bacon, gave frequent broadcasts from local dance halls and ballrooms, including  the Pavilion on Westover Road, and remembered his band’s first engagement:  

We had a letter from Mr Fryer offering us a short session from 6BM, and I led my small dance band in a 20-minute session. I can picture the microphone, which was a box-like thing cradled in cotton wool on a stand, and this itself was on a very thick-piled carpet, with all and sundry being exhorted to hardly breath. You had to accept what the BBC considered to be an appropriate professional fee. Nobody argued, because everyone realised that the advertising value of being on the wireless was in itself quite something. Each pay envelope contained a very unusual amount: one pound, six shillings and three pence, and we were all a little hurt to think that pennies had to be introduced as part of a professional fee. It took hours to realise that the amount represented was one and a quarter guineas. 

Another musician, Helen Elkington, remembered her audition, attended by Fryer and Featherstone, and noticing a sign in the green room telling broadcasters to refer to ‘Listeners’ rather than ‘Listeners in’. This was an edict passed down by John Reith, the General Manager of the BBC, and the implicit message was that a ‘listener’ represented a legitimate licence-fee payer, while ‘listener-in’ suggested an unauthorised ‘evesdropper’!  

The studio was draped with curtains, and the microphone was about two feet by one foot, a box-shape about four feet away from the piano. I gave a half-hour recital, which must have run slightly short, because after what I thought was the end, I saw the engineer waving frantically at me to play something else, so I carried on with an unscheduled piece.’ The technology was fragile; in order for a piano recital to take place, the microphone would have to be moved, and this involved the station actually closing down for a few minutes while adjustments were made, the announcer exhorting listeners to ‘stay tuned.’ 

6BM developed a sophisticated policy of children’s broadcasting, with all the staff assuming new names for the purpose as radio ‘Uncles and Aunts’. Bertram Fryer became ‘Uncle Jack’, with female broadcasters and local guest artistes becoming familiar to local children as ‘Auntie Margaret’, ‘Auntie Sophie’ and ‘Auntie Lulu’ and so on. ‘Auntie Lulu’  was Louie Agnew, who ran her own concert party and was a frequent favourite among children. There was a close connection between the station and its young audience, with letters read on air, telling a lucky birthday listener for example to ‘look under the sideboard and you might find a present there.’ These live programmes had an informal air, and there seems to have been a fair amount of improvised dialogue between them, and Louie Agnew remembers encountering some early examples of BBC paternalism: 

Once or twice I was summoned for inappropriate use of the airwaves. I remember I sang the song, ‘Christopher Robin is saying his prayers’, for which I was had up on the mat by the station director for mentioning religion in the Children’s Hour.  Then again, once we were doing ‘Treasure Island’, and I thought I’d add a bit of ad lib colour by shouting ‘yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum’ off mic. The next day, on the mat again: ‘Don’t you know you must NEVER mention liquor in the Children’s Hour? Oh dear, it’s a wonder I didn’t get the push! 

A Gentle Fade

The peak years of 6BM, in common with its sister stations around the country, would have been up to 1927, when the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation under charter, with John Reith becoming its first director general. Increasingly local and regional broadcasters became ‘feeders’ to a ‘National Programme’ and ‘Regional Programme’ ultimately served, from 1925, by the giant Daventry transmitter. However broadcasting, relays and recording continued from the Bournemouth studios in one form or another until 1939. During these latter years, the role of station director was replaced by a combined chief engineer and programme representative. From 1932, this position was filled by Bill Furze-Mills, who had the task, among many others, of scheduling symphony concerts by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (later the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) under its founder and chief conductor, Sir Dan Godfrey, a larger than life character, and a great advocate both for music, and for Bournemouth itself. By 1933, these regular concerts were relayed from 6BM across the whole network, and Godfrey saw an opportunity for promotion, as Furze-Mills recalled: 

I well remember the concert held on 1 May, that year, broadcast ‘live’ from the Pavilion Theatre, when, after playing the final item, Sir Dan excelled himself by turning to the audience – and the live BBC microphones  – and saying that he hoped all the listeners around the country who had enjoyed the concert would come to Bournemouth for their holidays. This was probably the first and only advertisement for a holiday resort, broadcast for many years to come. The next morning I heard from the BBC’s director of outside broadcasts in London, who was very concerned about the possible contravention of the BBC’s licence, which forbade any form of publicity in its programmes. I had to warn Sir Dan that he must never do it again. 

During these last years, many famous names would visit Holdenhurst Road, to relay talks, reports and discussions to the BBC network, among them, one of the great pioneers of radio, Oliver Lodge, the writer H.G. Wells, and later, Richard Dimbleby, who sent his first ever report, an interview with a Wiltshire farmer and his cow, the champion milk-yielder that particular year. The end came finally on 14 June, 1939, when the station closed for the last time. When I made my Radio Solent celebratory programme in 1973, the original premises were still standing, at the end of a Victorian terrace, by that time, occupied by a children’s clothing firm. Subsequently, as the office block adjacent was developed, the foundations were undermined, and this was demolished, to be replaced by a paved and walled forecourt, and all trace of 6BM disappeared forever. 

Post Script

6BM is part of UK broadcasting history, part of the BBC’s heritage that spanned both its years as a company and as a corporation. It is an irony therefore, that the initiative for the first plaque to be placed on the site to commemorate the station’s pioneering existence, came not from the BBC, but from an independent, commercial radio station. During the 1980s, I was working for Two Counties Radio, just round the corner in Southcote Road.  A number of us on the staff were aware of Bournemouth’s rich radio heritage, and also that we were working for the first Bournemouth-based radio station since those days.

The first programme controller, John Piper, had nurtured the belief that ‘Two Counties Radio’ would ultimately become better known as ‘2CR’, and there was a kind of homage to the idea of 6BM in that thought. Once, when I was interviewing Michael Hepher, then MD of Abbey Life, occupier at the time of the office block next door to where the station had stood, I gently suggested that his firm might consider placing some form of acknowledgement on its wall. This was done, unveiled by 2CR’s chairman, Lord Stokes, so 6BM had a visual street presence in Bournemouth once again.

At some point during subsequently years, the Abbey Life forecourt was redeveloped, the building changed hands, and the original plaque was lost. So it is particularly pleasing that now, at the initiative of BBC Radio Solent, in particular, Steve Harris and the BBC’s history department supported by Bournemouth Civic Society, a new plaque to commemorate those pioneers, comes once more to Holdenhurst Road. All of which brings us back to where we started, with dates and anniversaries, and how confusing they can be. Because the unveiling of the new 6BM plaque, on 17 October, 2022, the day before the BBC’s centenary,  marked not the hundredth anniversary of the Bournemouth station’s opening, but ninety nine years since the first broadcast from the site.

Not to worry; it gives us an excuse for another centenary party in 2023. In the meantime, 6BM’s ghosts continue to haunt the imagination: Bertram Fryer, Louie Agnew, Fred Bacon and his band, Dan Godfrey and his orchestra…their sounds are still up there in the ether, spreading out, out into the atmosphere. ‘6BM calling! We do hope you can smell the pines.’