It was launched in a fit of pique. In January 1923, the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association announced that it would be charging the three-month-old British Broadcasting Company the standard advertising rates for publishing its radio listings in newspapers. Although the newspapers capitulated the following month, realising that not including the broadcasting schedules would affect their circulations, the BBC’s general manager, John Reith, was irritated by their attitude and it gave him an idea. On 10 September he wrote in his diary: ‘Everything is now in shape for a BBC magazine, and from various alternatives I chose Radio Times for the title.’
On the front cover of its first issue, Arthur Burrows, the BBC’s Director of Programmes, wrote in brisk, not very Reithian style: ‘HULLO EVERYONE! We will now give you the Radio Times. The good new times. The Bradshaw of Broadcasting. May you never be late for your wave-train. Speed 186,000 miles per second; five-hour non-stops. Family season ticket: First Class, 10s. per year.’ The new magazine, in which the word ‘listeners’ was enclosed throughout in inverted commas, arrived in newsagents on Friday 28 September 1923. Its print run of 250,000 copies sold out almost immediately, and within a few weeks the circulation had risen to 600,000. The Radio Times soon had an army of subscribers, the magazine being mailed out to them each week from its Addressing Department by Great War veterans with facial disfigurements – employed especially by John Reith, a scarred veteran himself. The Radio Times quickly became the most widely-read magazine in Britain and by May 1927 it had its own Braille edition.
For the novelist Anthony Burgess, then a schoolboy called John Wilson living with his parents above a tobacconist’s shop in a poor area of Moss Side, Manchester, the Radio Times offered an entry point to another world. It was, he recalled, ‘a substantial publication like a weekly Blast, only better printed, and all for twopence. Its tone was intellectual, its artwork highly contemporary; it abounded with gratuitous erudition.’ Burgess had built his own crystal radio set to hear Adrian Boult’s BBC Symphony Orchestra, and he relied on the magazine to tell him when they were on.
The Radio Times embodied Reith’s notion that radio ‘must not be used for entertainment purposes alone’ but that it should also be a purveyor of education and enlightenment. The inaugural issue had included a profile of Reith which claimed that ‘his steadfast faith in the future … ensures that broadcasting will not become a commercialised form of entertainment consisting of cheap music and cheaper thrills’. Reith had ruled that continual ‘tap’ listening, simply using the wireless as ambient noise, should not be encouraged, and so a few minutes’ silence was often placed in between programmes to allow listeners to switch off. The Radio Times duly urged listeners to prepare for a programme as if they were in a theatre or concert hall, advising them to turn the lights down and wait expectantly for it to start. The very idea of providing a week’s listings in advance was designed to create the discriminating listener. ‘Plan your entertainment in advance,’ said the advertising slogans for the magazine. ‘Choose, don’t chance your listening!’
The Radio Times assumed the same sort of educative/propagandistic role when the BBC’s television service came along in 1936. It initiated the campaign for motorists to install suppressors on car ignitions, without which television would forever have been viewed through a snowstorm of static, and it tried to drum up business for the new medium by urging ‘viewers’ to hold television parties for their non-viewing friends. ‘Only by a great expansion of the viewing habit can the present service develop—or perhaps go on at all,’ warned Ian Hunter in the Radio Times in 1938. ‘When you arrange your television parties, take care to choose an evening when there is something good on – such as a short play, a cabaret, or an outstanding personality.’
The magazine also tried to draw on the sense of esprit de corps among this tiny group of pioneers who had purchased a prewar television set. ‘A week or two ago I was introduced to a neighbour of mine,’ wrote the regular television columnist, ‘The Scanner’, in February 1939. ‘We talked sweet nothings until I said as a brother-viewer I was glad to see his roof was graced with a television aerial. A reaction of delight was immediate; it was like the meeting of two anglers.’ The Radio Times liked to identify celebrities with televisions, such as the cartoonist David Low, the dance band leader Henry Hall and the comedian Will Hay. And it awarded the title of oldest viewer to 91-year-old Mr E.C. Rolls of Walton-on-Thames, who had dim memories of the Crimean War and who, after seeing Noel Coward’s Hay Fever on Christmas night 1938, was hooked.
And yet, long after the Second World War, and in principled Reithian mode, the Radio Times tried to discourage people from indiscriminately watching whatever was on. ‘Selective viewing is essential during this period,’ cautioned the magazine before the televising of the 1948 Olympics, ‘and to help viewers in making their plans it has been arranged to announce at the end of each evening’s programme details of the events which will be televised the next day.’ For several years the Radio Times remained true to its name by printing the TV schedules, as an afterthought, at the back. Only in 1953 did it stop banishing them to a back pages ghetto, and even then the radio schedules came first. The first television-dominated cover, featuring Victor Silvester and the final of Come Dancing, did not appear until December 1955, long after it was clear television was taking over from radio as the dominant mass medium.
The Radio Times was a significant sponsor of modern graphic art in these years. ‘Its cover could sometimes startle,’ remembered Anthony Burgess, ‘– a woodcut of Beethoven in terminal agony, the huge stark legend Morning Heroes to herald the first performance of Arthur Bliss’s choral symphony of that name, a tortured Wagnerian fantasia for the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death in 1933, the announcement The End of the World to signal an expressionist drama on that subject.’ Elegant little cartoons of flappers and dinner-suited bright young things listening to radiograms were the magazine’s early marginalia. Maurice Gorham, assistant editor from 1926 and editor from 1933 to 1941, commissioned artists in great quantity; a single issue of his might contain 40-plus artworks. He got the best-known poster artists of the day to design covers, such as the Frenchman Cassandre and the American Edward McKnight Kauffer. Some of his regular artists, such as Victor Reinganum and Eric Fraser, represented the British public’s main encounter with modernist abstraction and surrealism in these years, without ever being too intimidatingly avant-garde. Fraser, a former student of Walter Sickert’s who first contributed to the magazine in 1926 and did his last illustration in 1982 a year before his death, was so omnipresent in the magazine that he virtually created its house style.
The Radio Times preferred graphic art to photographs well into the 1950s (and even after that artwork remained and remains an important part of the magazine). The effect was to claim this contemporary medium, broadcasting, as something reassuringly traditional and artisanal. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, as television spread across the land, the magazine put a series of the new TV transmitters on its covers, usually drawn by one of its favourite artists of the time, Cecil W. Bacon: concentric circles of radio waves pulsing out from the top of the mast like ripples on water, and houses with aerials on top, waiting expectantly to receive the signal. Drawing in delicate pen or scraper-board in a way that resembled wood engraving, Bacon made these new structures seem both excitingly modern and familiarly British.
‘The vulgarity of the Radio Times week by week makes me sorry I ever started it,’ complained the now 74-year-old Lord Reith in his diary for 7 September 1963. In fact, although its circulation was declining slowly from a peak of 8.5 million in the mid-1950s, the Radio Times was flourishing. It now had more pages and a new prominence given to television – in 1960, it had made the momentous decision to list the TV schedules first – and BBC television was enjoying a new era of intelligent populism under its director-general Hugh Carleton-Greene, having looked like it might be obliterated by ITV in the late 1950s. The end of the decade saw the initiation of a much-loved ritual: the Christmas double issue of the Radio Times, launched simultaneously with the first double issue of the TV Times in December 1969. Their separate covers – the Radio Times a tasteful montage of ribbons, wintry scenes and wassailers, and the TV Times Des O’Connor in a Santa hat – said much about the cultural differences between the BBC and ITV and their idea of their viewers, and carried on doing so over the years.
Since it hung around homes for at least a fortnight, and would often sell 10-11 million copies, companies clambered over themselves for advertising space in the Christmas Radio Times. Quaintly, the magazine kept up its tradition of having small display ads for walk-in baths, rubber reducing corsets and garden sheds on its back pages. In the 1970s, now remembered as a golden era of three-channel colour television in which the most popular programmes regularly drew over twenty million viewers, the Radio Times employed heavyweight columnists like Kingsley Amis, Jonathan Raban and Margaret Drabble, who wrote happily about their love of The Dick Emery Show (Amis), That’s Life (Raban) or The Goodies (Drabble). The philosopher A.J. Ayer, a Tottenham Hotspur fan, declared his love for Match of the Day within its pages.
There was, of course, a reason for the magazine’s dominance in these years. Not only did the BBC and ITV control the airwaves, they controlled our knowledge of what was on them, for both refused to allow newspapers to run listings except for the day of publication. (One might think of this as Lord Reith’s revenge, served very cold, on the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association.) The Radio Times was so definitive in its listing of programmes that many a criminal would peruse a back issue at the local library in search of an alibi. Unfortunately for them, at the Television Duty Office at BBC Television Centre they kept a ‘Master’, a copy of every Radio Times in which they noted any last-minute schedule changes and late runnings, of which there were many more then than today. Police and lawyers would thus regularly use the Duty Office to check the alibis of suspects who said they were at home watching TV when a crime took place. The BBC has recently completed a project to digitise programme listings from old copies of the Radio Times – the so-called BBC Genome project – precisely because they are the only comprehensive record of every programme it has ever broadcast, and the best way for the corporation to identify shows missing from its archive.
Only once during this period of dominance did the Radio Times properly acknowledge the existence of ITV: on its letters page, during the 11-week ITV strike in the summer of 1979. Here the magazine gave generous space to ITV viewers complaining about being ‘forced’ to watch the BBC, suggesting that, more than 20 years after the arrival of commercial competition, some families still identified themselves as ITV or BBC households. ‘We have been without ITV for a few days now, and believe me, what a boring time it has been,’ wrote Mrs E. Jackson from Formby. ‘You have two stations, I hope you never have any more.’ D.J. Thompson from Blackpool said he had switched off the BBC and been ‘thoroughly entertained by reading what might have been in TV Times’.
In November 1982 the arrival of Channel 4, which as a new channel made its listings freely available because it needed viewers, made this arrangement feel like an anachronism. The publisher of Time Out magazine, Tony Elliott, now took advantage of his midweek copy deadline to replicate the listings from the latest issues of the Radio Times and TV Times. The magazines won a court ruling against him, but Elliott began an eight-year campaign for derestriction of the listings which had the support of much of the press. As newspapers competed amongst themselves for a declining readership, they were clinging parasitically to the younger medium as a source of news and gossip and they wanted to include more television coverage. The Sun and the Daily Mirror now had double-page TV sections which were the most read part of the newspaper. Pre-publicity for programmes, from on-air trailers to newspaper previews, was also becoming more important. The arrival of the VHS tape having enabled bulk copying, one of the familiar features of the London landscape in the 1980s was the number of motorcycle couriers racing through the streets sending preview tapes to critics. In this new environment, the copyright on listings was the kind of classically cosy cartel which Margaret Thatcher – never a fan of the BBC and what she called its ‘compulsory levy’, the licence fee – had in her sights. In 1988, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd denounced what he called the ‘dotty duopoly’. The 1990 Broadcasting Act, one of Thatcher’s last major acts as prime minister, ended the copyright on listings.
In March 1991, when the new rules came into force, the circulation of the Radio Times fell instantly, and predictably, by almost half. After a legal challenge, the BBC was still allowed to advertise the magazine on its TV channels, as long as it included the disclaimer ‘other television listings magazines are available’ – a phrase that entered the common language. But while many of the cheap listings magazines that sprang up in the early 1990s are now extinct, the Radio Times is still going strong. Even in the digital, multi-channel era, it has reliably made headlines, from Ground Force’s Charlie Dimmock appearing naked on the cover, apart from some strategically placed foliage, in 1998, to David Cameron declaring his youthful enthusiasms for Tiswas, Neighbours and the daytime quiz show Going for Gold to the magazine during the 2010 general election. The magazine still attracts big-name contributors, with Antony Beevor, Julian Barnes, William Boyd and Grayson Perry all writing for it recently, and David Hockney and Peter Blake commissioned to paint covers.
The Radio Times remains culturally significant for two reasons. First, although the BBC sold the magazine in 2011, it is still strongly associated in the public mind with the corporation, which remains far more loved and respected than its commercial rivals, from Rupert Murdoch to the Daily Mail, would like to admit. Second, the habit of communal television watching has proved surprisingly resilient. The 1990 Broadcasting Act championed the idea that consumers, not the ITV-BBC duopoly, should decide what they watched, and that there should be more channels and more television for them to choose from. But despite the confident predictions at the start of the digital era about the end of ‘linear viewing’, viewers still seemed to seek out that ephemeral, undemanding togetherness created by watching the same programmes. While governments recited the mantra of individual choice, television pointed to the residual longing for a collective national life. Just as the video recorder did in the 1980s, catch-up sites and digital recorders have encouraged an element of time shifting but have not completely destroyed primetime or shared viewing. And precisely because there is so much television available and so many ways of watching it, programme makers place a high worth on family-centred television that will be watched and talked about across the nation. Radio, the decline of which people have been confidently predicting since the 1950s, is also gaining listeners. All this means that the schedules still matter, and so the Radio Times, which is partly a listings magazine and partly a celebration of the communal experience of broadcasting, also still matters.
That is what makes the Radio Times such an important historical document: it offers textual evidence of our collective national life. This is particularly true of radio’s boom years in the 1940s and 1950s, when millions listened to J.B. Priestley’s and Winston Churchill’s wartime broadcasts, ITMA and The Goon Show, or terrestrial TV’s halcyon age from the 1960s to the 1980s. But it is broadly true of the whole 90 years the Radio Times has been around: radio and TV have brought us together in a diasporic community, listening to or watching the same thing in 20 million living rooms.
Looking through decades of Radio Times covers is both a fascinating insight into changing fashions in graphic design and a primer in our recent social and cultural history, from the outbreak of war (‘Broadcasting Carries On’) to the launch of Apollo 11 (‘Target Moon’). It is rare that one comes across a face or event that is not instantly familiar, whether it be Fluck and Law’s latex models of David Frost and Richard Nixon (created long before Spitting Image), Les Dawson’s gurning features, Basil Fawlty’s imperiously folded hands or Madonna in her peroxided pomp (although it seems unlikely she ever uttered the accompanying caption, ‘Wow! I’m on Wogan!’). Adorning the cover of the Radio Times has long been the nearest British equivalent to being on the cover of Time, that definitive anointment of American celebrity.
Browsing inside old copies of the Radio Times is, by contrast, a sweetly melancholy activity, an entry into a lost world of spent effort, used-up enjoyment and forgotten boredom. Most radio and television, to which talented, energetic people devoted months or years of their lives, has left momentary imprints on our retinas and eardrums and slightly less momentary imprints on our brains before vanishing into the uncaring ether. The programme listings have united us briefly, but they are swiftly forgotten, leaving little evidence behind – except for the back issues of the Radio Times.