As I explained in the Sunday National, it was most certainly not the first radio broadcast in Scotland, as 5SC, the call sign of the new Glasgow BBC station, was beaten to it by six weeks by 2BP, the Glasgow-based station which was set up for radio broadcasting at the time of the Scottish Motor Show which ran from January 24 to February 3, 1923 in the Kelvin Hall.
Still it would be churlish not to acknowledge the corporation’s historic anniversary, so today and next week I am going to look at the history of the BBC in Scotland.
I will start by examining the early history of the Beeb, which began, as so often in the UK, with a committee.
The General Post Office (GPO) had been in charge of all radio in Britain since before the First World War, issuing both transmissions and receiving licences.
The British Broadcasting Committee negotiated with the postmaster general, the Liberal MP Frederick George Kellaway, and this committee then morphed into the British Broadcasting Company.
Back then the BBC was a commercial body, the British Broadcasting Company, put together by six private firms, and formally established in October 1922, five months after the coalition government under prime minister David Lloyd George had signalled that it wanted a regulated national broadcaster.
According to the BBC’s archive, a meeting was held on October 18, 1922, at the Institution of Electrical Engineers and there were representatives present from over 200 radio manufacturing firms.
The BBC history records: “The assembled manufacturers were told that an agreement with the Postmaster General had been reached and the meeting welcomed the creation of the new British Broadcasting Company.
“The first chairman of the British Broadcasting Company was Lord Gainford. The first directors of the company were: Major Basil Binyon (Radio Communication Company); John Gray (British Thomson-Houston); Godfrey C Isaacs (Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company); Archibald McKinstry (Metropolitan-Vickers); Sir William Noble (General Electric) and Henry Mark Pease (Western Electric Company). Two independent directors were elected by the smaller firms: Sir William Bull, Conservative leader of London’s Unionist MPs, and WW Burnham.”
So far so very British. The committee had become a company run by the great and good, and among its assets were the apparatus from the first radio station 2MT and the first London station, 2LO, both begun by Marconi, so that the first BBC broadcasts came from 2MT and 2L0 – the company had no staff at the point and used Marconi engineers.
The government’s remit for the company was to set up a nationwide network across the UK of stations and transmitters, mostly owned by the “Big Six” member companies, that allowed the company to quickly achieve the government’s aim of a national broadcasting service.
The first investments were by the Big Six themselves, though they also got a “cut” from the receiving licences sold by the GPO without which nobody could listen to a radio.
There was an immediate drive to expand the company and, using the GPO telephone lines, linkages were made to new Manchester and Birmingham stations which soon began broadcasting – indeed, they were in place for the company to broadcast the results of the General Election on November 14, 1922, the first time that such widespread political coverage took place.
Interestingly, the Conservatives won that election and Kellaway went off to become the boss of Marconi – the Westminster revolving door into commerce is clearly not a new Tory phenomenon.
The man then put in charge of the government department dealing with this new creature was the paymaster general and future prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who would make arguably the most famous of all BBC broadcasts: the declaration of war against Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939.
The company took a giant leap forward in December 1922, when it appointed the Scottish engineer John Reith as its managing director.
I have written before about Reith, who stood 6ft 6ins tall and wore a permanent threatening scowl, largely the result of being shot in the face by a German sniper during the First World War.
After a successful career in engineering, Reith had transferred to the civil service, working for Conservative MPs, and was in the right place at the right moment.
He had no experience of broadcasting – but then very few people did at that time. He was an excellent public speaker, however, and most impressive of all to the directors who interviewed him, Reith had a plan for the new national services that he later summed up as “to inform, educate and entertain”, known as the Reithian Principles.
Reith wrote later in his diaries: “The fact is I hadn’t the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was. I hadn’t troubled to find out.
“If I had tried, I should probably have found difficulty in discovering anyone who knew.”
It probably helped Reith, a son of the manse from Stonehaven, that the chair of the interviewing panel was Sir William Noble from Aberdeen, a former GPO telegraphy engineer. Reith was appointed on December 14, 1923, and became one of the company’s four employees.
Nothing in Reith’s experience as an engineer and industrial manager had prepared him for what he now faced. He later wrote: “I was confronted with problems of which I had no experience: copyright and performing rights; Marconi patents; associations of concert artists, authors, playwrights, composers, music publishers, theatre managers; and wireless manufacturers.”
His priority was to expand the company’s reach and in a few weeks he had overseen the construction of new stations in Newcastle and Cardiff. He was already thinking about his native land, and Glasgow in particular.
He had lived in the city when he worked at the Beardmore heavy engineering concern, and was confident Glasgow was the correct place to start the BBC’s Scottish service.
The GPO gave the new station the call sign 5SC and allotted a wavelength of 415m for its transmissions which would reach up to 75 miles for people with the most modern radio receivers.
The potential audience numbered only in four figures, going by the number of GPO receiving licences issued at that stage – but it was a number that would rise dramatically.
Planning permission was obtained in January 1923 for a transmitter to be sited at the Port Dundas electricity supply station.
Glasgow Corporation approved the company’s plan, which also involved converting the top floor of Rex House at 202 Bath Street – there is a commemorative plaque to mark the spot – into a studio, using some of the equipment bought from the private 5MG concern that had ‘‘filled in” before 5SC started operations.
There was just a small concert room/studio, a control room and a waiting room.
On February 20, Reith appointed the Edinburgh-born Herbert Carruthers, a 31-year-old pianist and organist, as station director for 5SC – the advert in The Scotsman stated that the company wanted “a young and versatile musician” and Carruthers was certainly that.
Though latterly a church organist in Glasgow, he had many connections to the classical music community and was quickly able to put together a small studio orchestra of about a dozen musicians.
The original plan was to “go live” on March 19 but the BBC had its biggest broadcast from the Royal Opera in London before that date and wanted as many listeners as possible. So Carruthers was given just two weeks to put together a schedule for the first broadcast and there was precious little time for rehearsals.
ON its 90th birthday, BBC Scotland wrote of the event: “The first broadcast, at 7pm on Tuesday, March 6, 1923, began with a pipe band playing the popular folk tune ‘Hey, Johnnie Cope’.
“John Reith, the BBC’s general manager, then bent to the microphone and announced that 5SC, the Glasgow station of the British Broadcasting Company, was calling.
“As a Scot, it was a proud moment for Reith, whose legacy of public service broadcasting remains with the BBC to this day.”
We’ll see next week how Reith and the BBC in Scotland developed but I have researched that historic first broadcast and it’s a much more interesting story than the Beeb suggested 10 years ago.
For a start, the second person whose voice was heard on 5SC was company chairman Lord Gainford, the former Liberal MP and postmaster-general. I am hugely indebted to the excellent website Scotland On-Air for the rest of the programme on that opening night.
It records that Gainford gave “a short inaugural address, during which he read out messages from dignitaries who were unable to attend, including the prime minister, Mr Bonar Law; the Lord Provosts of Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Perth; and the Principals of the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. It was then left to the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Sir Thomas Paxton, to officially declare the station open.”
You can see that Reith was wanting as much as possible of Scotland represented on the opening night of 5SC, and the emphasis was very much on Scotland and its place in the British Empire.
Scotland On-Air continues: “At 7.15 the station orchestra performed a selection of Scottish melodies. Then, at 7.55, there was half an hour of vocal performances by members of the Royal Carl Rosa Opera Company (Miss Eva Turner, Miss May Lymburn, and Mr Horace Vincent).
The listener was told both at the beginning and end of each item not only the name of the piece of music, but also of the singer, the duplication being for the benefit of those who come in during the performance.
“At 8.25, Sir Donald MacAlister, the principal of Glasgow University, delivered a five-minute speech in which he hailed the work of the Glasgow professor William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) who, 70 years prior, had predicted a practical method of generating electric oscillations, which passed unnoticed at the time, but whose prediction had today been fulfilled.”
The first Scottish news bulletin was broadcast that night after 5SC took a break at 9.05pm to pick up the London service, and after a final burst of music, the station closed down with a rendition of God Save The King.
There was no great press coverage the following day as many newspaper proprietors saw radio as a threat to their outlets, but the Evening Times – forerunner of The National’s sister paper the Glasgow Times – interviewed Herbert Carruthers, who told the paper of his aims for 5SC. He said: “We are out to cater for all tastes in Scotland in the way of entertainment.
“We intend to broadcast a judicious blend of light and classical music, together with the best and most popular vocal and instrumental items. I also hope to procure the services of outstanding lecturers, who will chat to listeners for 10 minutes on themes of live public interest. In the early evening I hope to get the ear of the children and to make friends with them through
“There are great possibilities for wireless broadcasting. To elevate the public taste in music, to popularise the most instructive of lectures
and speeches, and to give the public the best in entertainment will be
It was a bold declaration, with the Reithian Principles obviously already in force, and Carruthers was as good as his word.
5SC broadcast each evening from 5-11pm and the earliest programmes were a mix of news, music of different types, lectures and on the second day of broadcasting, 5SC began its children’s stories, starting the children’s service which would become a mainstay of BBC Scotland for many years afterwards.