Sound and vision blog

60 posts categorized "Radio"

07 June 2021

Recording of the week: Efe honey gathering in the Ituri Forest

This week's selection comes from Catherine Smith, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

For about two months a year in the Ituri Forest, it is honey gathering season for the Efe people of north eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. This season is an important and exciting time for the Efe, in which their energy is focused intensely on gathering honey, a favourite and staple part of their diet and livelihood.

The gathering occurs when honey is most abundant, between May and September. There are many different Efe songs and dances associated with honey gathering, performed before, during and after collection.

Climbing for honey
'Climbing for honey' by Terese Hart is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Honey gathering song [BL REF C423_1 S2 C2]

This particular group song is sung when the men are gathering honey from trees. The song is a beautifully intricate texture of polyphonic singing, hand clapping and likembe (a small lamellophone). Yodelling voices gradually emerge over the men’s bass humming. Listen closely and you can hear how the amorphous singing and humming imitates the swarm of honeybees flying around them. By ‘yodel’ we mean a vocal technique that involves alternating a ‘chest voice’ with a ‘head voice’, as recordist Didier Demolin explains in the liner notes to a CD release of his recordings.

The honey usually has to be gathered by climbing high into the trees, where the hive is often located twenty metres or more above. The men smoke out the bees and collect the honey in a basket or pack of leaves.

This song was recorded by Didier Demolin at the edge of the Ituri Forest in 1987, when the Efe were camping near the Lese villages of Ngodingodi and Digbo. The recording is part of the C423 Didier Demolin Collection and can be listened to in British Library Reading Rooms at C423/1 S2 C2.

The collection is of particular significance because the recordings were made shortly before warfare and deforestation inflicted profound damage upon Efe and Mbuti communities and their environment.

This Efe honey gathering song features in the British Library Sound Archive’s latest NTS radio programme on work songs from around the world. The show's selection also includes the songs of pearl divers from Bahrain, Somalian women singing to the rhythm of corn pounding, Scottish waulking songs and miners’ songs from Venezuela and the U.K., amongst many more.

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03 May 2021

Recording of the week: Anthony Daniels talks about C3PO and Star Wars

This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Tomorrow (May 4) is Star Wars Day, and what better way to celebrate than with a recording from the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project?

Shortly after the first Star Wars film Episode IV – A New Hope was released in 1977, some of the cast members were recorded speaking about their roles in the film for BBC Radio London. Audio recordings featuring actors Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness and Anthony Daniels are now part of the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248), one of the British Library’s radio collections, which has been recently digitized and made accessible as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Mike Sparrow (1948 – 2005) was a producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (U.K.) and his collection includes a range of recordings from his time working there, including music, interviews and topical shows.

A C3PO figurine from the Hasbro line of Star Wars toys
A C3PO figurine from the Hasbro line of Star Wars toys, posed against a black background. Image credit: Brendan Hunter, iStock Unreleased, Getty Images.

The recording in this blog post features actor Anthony Daniels (who played C3PO in the Star Wars films) talking about his famous character. Based on the information available, this interview was probably recorded either in late 1977 or 1978. In the recording, Anthony Daniels discusses his unique interpretation of the character, which differed considerably from what George Lucas (creator and director of the Star Wars films) originally had in mind. He also talks about how difficult it was to convey emotions while wearing a gold plated fibreglass suit, and about receiving fan mail addressed to C3PO!

Anthony Daniels talks about his Star Wars character C3PO [BL REF C1248/364/C4]

Download Transcript of Anthony Daniels talking about C3PO

It would not have been possible to share this recording within the kind permission of Anthony Daniels, the executor of Mike Sparrow’s estate and the BBC.

For Star Wars fans there are plenty of relevant resources in British Library collections including books, films and even musical scores, all of which can be searched for on the Library's main catalogues.

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05 April 2021

Recording of the week: An interview with Ravi Shankar

This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 2017, the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248) was the first audio collection to be preserved as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Mike Sparrow (1948 - 2005) was a radio producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (UK) in the 1970s and 1980s, and his collection includes music, reviews, current affairs features and interviews from shows he worked on. One of my favourite recordings is of Mike Sparrow interviewing Indian sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012), in the 1970s.

Based on the details accompanying the collection and from clues within the audio, it is likely this recording was made in early 1978, shortly before Ravi Shankar’s performance on 20 January at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.), in the same year. In this blog I will share some short excerpts from the recording.

Ravi Shankar playing sitar
Ravi Shankar performing at Woodstock Festival in 1969, image sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Ravi Shankar is known across the world for his teaching and performance work, and for sharing North Indian classical music with a range of audiences. In the interview he gives fascinating glimpses into this work, his well-documented association with other famous musicians (including George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin) as well as discussing how best to define and appreciate different types of classical music.

In this first excerpt from the interview, Ravi Shankar explains what a raga is.

Ravi Shankar defines raga (excerpt 1)

The sitar (a stringed instrument used Indian classical music) presents particular physical challenges due to the length of the fretboard and the method of playing, which, as Ravi Shankar mentions in the interview, results in cut fingers and callouses. In the second excerpt he describes the years of study required to develop the necessary technical and improvisational skills for performances.

Ravi Shankar describes his musical training (excerpt 2)

Throughout the interview Ravi Shankar talks about his desire to bring Indian classical music to new audiences, and reflects on the positive effects of his association with the rock and roll world, including performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (California, U.S.A.) and Woodstock in 1969 (New York, U.S.A.), where the image in this blog was taken. While performances such as these made it possible to reach younger listeners, he also expressed concern about the drinking, smoking and drug taking that took place at such festivals, activities that he thought might undermine the appreciation and enjoyment of the music.

This partially accounts for Ravi Shankar’s subsequent move away from the rock and roll music scene and when Mike Sparrow asks for further clarification, the discussion moves on to what is meant by the term 'classical music'. Their conversation can be heard in the following excerpt from the interview:

Ravi Shankar discusses types of classical music (excerpt 3)

Interview transcript

Later in the interview this theme is explored further in terms of how Western audiences react to their first encounters with classical Indian music and vice versa. Ravi Shankar talks specifically about the greater emphasis on melody and rhythm in Indian classical music, and how this can be disconcerting for listeners who are accustomed to harmony, modulation and dynamics being more central.

Mike Sparrow’s final question concerns Ravi Shankar’s (then) upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.). What might audiences expect? He responds by explaining that he often does not decide on the ragas until shortly before the performance, although avoids starting with a long one in case of latecomers, who might otherwise face waiting outside for up to 45 minutes!

It would not have been possible to share this interview without the kind assistance of Ravi Shankar’s estate, Mike Sparrow’s executor and the BBC. Many recordings of Ravi Shankar’s performances can be accessed at the British Library, as well as his autobiography and other publications describing his life and work. More details on all of this can be found searching British Library catalogues.

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09 March 2021

A Covid-19 radio archive

In September 2019 the British Library started recording radio. The Library already had a substantial collection of radio programmes, going back to the 1920s, and has been recording radio off-air – that is, from the live broadcast – since the 1960s. But this was a new project intended greatly to increase the amount of radio captured live, with a particular focus on local and community radio. Too great a proportion of community radio has not been archived in the past and has been effectively lost soon after broadcast. The National Radio Archive, as the pilot project is called, should go some way towards rectifying this significant gap in the national audio collection. What we had not calculated for was the Covid-19 pandemic, and radio’s extraordinary response to a national crisis. Broadcast Recordings Curator Neil McCowlen describes some of the Coronavirus-themed radio programmes preserved for the nation over the past year.

Some National Radio Archive stations

Some of the stations selectively archived by the National Radio Archive 

With our National Radio Archive pilot barely six months old, the world suddenly fell into the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic. Radio has often been seen as a great companion and full of friendly voices to lighten the mood, so with a national lockdown in March 2020, many turned to the radio to see them through the long days spent at home. National stations such as the BBC, LBC and talkRADIO had already documented the spread of the virus from its early outbreak in Wuhan, but now more local information was needed to give support, guidance and opportunities to help within the local communities as lockdown developed.

The National Radio Archive archives selectively from fifty radio stations at any one time (from over 700 operating in the UK). It strives to capture a good cross-section of the country’s response to the pandemic, through national stories, local news and community broadcasts to help those in need in the local areas. This output, sometimes produced at home, shows a great insight into how the communities helped each other with entertainment, support, guidance and activities to help in what was an isolating and, for some, a frightening time. The collection documents the ways in which radio delivered an immediate response to people’s needs, providing news as it happened, and giving a voice to those who needed it most.

After a year of recording since the start of the first lockdown, The British Library has recorded many thousands of news broadcasts, talk shows, phone-ins and general commentaries broadcast by UK radio stations on the pandemic, an ever-expanding reflection of not just the UK’s reaction to the pandemic, but how it has affected people across the world and the many smaller communities that live within that world. With the British Library’s complementary Broadcast News service adding television content to this archive, there is an enormously rich vein of first-hand experiences and reactions for researchers to dig into to tell them about how the world reacted to the first global pandemic for a century.

The National Radio Archive pilot records selectively from BBC network stations, BBC nations, the World Service, BBC local, commercial stations, community radio and Restricted Service Licence (RSL) stations, and internet radio. Over 110,000 programmes have been recorded since the start of lockdown as UK radio to responded with such inventiveness and immediacy. Here are three examples of this from stations whose response to the crisis has been particularly noteworthy.

Manx Radio (www.manxradio.com)

FM 89, 89.5, 97.2, 103.7, AM 1368

Manx Radio is the national commercial radio station for the Isle of Man. Because the island has an independent government, the station has access to all the local politicians with ministers appearing regularly on The Mannin Line, the daily phone-in show to answer listeners questions, plus a daily Update show that reports on the latest Covid-19 situation and Manx related news. The Breakfast Show also has Coronavirus specific interviews and local stories and news. There was also a short series recorded by a student returning to University at the start of his first year called Life as a Fresher. It is a snapshot of a unique experience of starting university life in a pandemic.

Manx Radio also broadcasts a regular Isle of Man Government Coronavirus Briefing, along the lines of the Downing Street, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Government briefings which have continued regularly into 2021 on radio and television.

Isle of Man Government Coronavirus Briefing, 9 April 2020

Manx Radio

Briefing held by Health Minister David Ashford

Isle of Man coronavirus briefing - Manx Radio - 9 April 2020 - extract

Transcript: The first is a statement the chief minister has asked me to read out on his behalf and the statement is as follows: Good afternoon. First of all I would like to thank everyone for their support and kindness over the past few days.  I have been humbled by the volume of messages.  It was important to me to keep everyone updated and I have today received my text message to say that I have tested positive for Covid-19.

Academy FM (www.academyfmfolkestone.com)

FM 105.9

Academy FM is a charity community radio station based in Folkestone, Kent. Its programme Folkestone Virus Update ran for the first months of the pandemic with local information and important messages as well as stories and interviews about life and services available in the community. The twice weekly Folkestone Status shows also contain local news and interviews, although there is a lot of music as well. The Folkestone Radio Church is a virtual church service (“When you can’t come to church, the church comes to you”).

Folkestone Virus Update, 30 March 2020

Academy FM

Councillor Jenny Hollingsbee talking about the Community Hubs set up in the Folkestone area and what they offer residents facing hardship during the lockdown.

Folkestone Virus Update - Academy FM - 30 March 2020 - extract

Transcript: The sorts of things they can do is: to provide food for those not able to get, or to prepare it, for themselves; food delivery in all the three hubs; assist with collection and delivery of food orders; collect and deliver medical supplies; walk dogs and other pets; offer to talk to someone for advice and reassurance. But it’s not limited to all of that, I mean in fact, what any vulnerable person needs.

BCB (www.bcbradio.co.uk)

FM 106.6

Community radio station BCB, or Bradford Community Broadcasting, produces an extraordinary amount of local programming. It has two hourly shows a day called About Bradford and Bradford and Beyond. These cover all important local news stories, plus messages and support for residents in the Bradford area. There are interviews with a large variety of people involved in caring and those isolated during the pandemic. Guests range from local councillors giving official advice to ordinary citizens helping the community to cope at home with ideas, support and contacts.

Programmes are also made for the elderly, mental health sufferers, carers, academics, migrants, LGBTQ+ community, gardeners, businesses, programmes on specific racial matters, environmental matters (Women and Climate), work undertaken at the University (Research Matters), local landmarks and shows on computer games and entertainment. There is also a strand of programmes made by under sixteen-year-olds, the youngest presenter being seven, sharing their experiences of life during the pandemic, including a young carers show, Who Cares. Bradford Spice provides specific programmes for the Asian and Arab communities and also has programmes in Urdu.

The station also broadcasts Democracy Now! which is broadcast Monday to Friday. This is a syndicated current affairs programme from New York and covers the US and the world’s reactions to the virus and the political response to it. With New York being the epicentre of the pandemic in America through 2020, it serves a useful role in showing how the outbreak developed in the United States.

Research Matters, 6 April 2020

BCB 106.6fm

Professor Marcus Rattray, Bradford University explains the structure of the Coronavirus.

Research Matters - BCB - 6 April 2020 - extract

Transcript: Covid-19 as we all know is a virus and viruses are really tiny, really, really, really tiny.  Some people say they’re microscopic but that's a major exaggeration.  The Coronavirus is smaller than can be seen under a regular high-powered microscope. It's around 10 nanometres long. Over 1 thousand times smaller than a human cell and a human cell itself is tiny. In our bodies we have about 37 trillion cells.

Broadcasting in a pandemic has been a great challenge for many community radio stations, existing on slender resources, run by volunteers, and with hastily-improvised recording operators as staff were in many cases forced out of the studios and obliged to produce programmes from home. It has also been challenging at times to archive such programmes. In the crisis conditions of the early months of lockdown, regular schedules were often abandoned and the metadata essential for catalogue descriptions could be difficult to locate (we often found social media to be the most useful source for programme information). Catalogue data and the brief programme descriptions that are available were also enhanced by speech-to-text transcriptions for some programmes.

UK radio’s response to the pandemic has generated much praise. A #ThankYouRadio campaign, has been launched by Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio, to mark the anniversary of lockdown, with contributions from the chancellor Rishi Sunak, health minister Matt Hancock and Dame Judi Dench. The academic research community has also taken note, Brunel University being quick off the mark with its UK community radio responses to COVID-19 project. Radio responded boldly to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the archive will greatly inform understanding of the impact the virus on UK society, for years to come.

Neil McCowlen

Broadcast Recordings Curator

Background information on this project, including a listing of all radio stations included so far, can be found on our blog post Piloting a National Radio Archive.

13 January 2021

Building a National Radio Archive - in Hastings

The British Library's National Radio Archive pilot is collaborative venture, involving curators, technologists and three software and data partners. The day-to-day work of managing the capture of programmes, however, is mostly done by one person, our Broadcast Recordings Curator Neil McCowlen. Here he describes what it has been like keeping a pilot radio archive going, under lockdown, in Hastings.

Neil McCowlen recording radio programmes

Caption: Neil McCowlen recording radio programmes at home in Hastings

On Monday 21 March 2020 a new way of working began for most areas of the British Library, as well as many other workplaces in the UK as work shifted from office to home. This threw up many challenges. This was certainly so for the newly formed National Radio Archive at the British Library. It had started in September 2019, and in those first six months a new system had been adopted to record and archive radio programmes across 50 UK radio stations. As with all new procedures and set-ups, there had been challenges and teething difficulties as all parties began to co-operate together and a good working pattern became established. However, that all changed with Coronavirus lockdown. Now, the Library’s resources became one laptop in Hastings and remote working had to be established.

The radio stations themselves had to adapt to new working practices. The national stations continued their coverage of the main news and talking points of the day, but more importantly, the general interest programming became an important way for people to find entertainment and solace during days of isolation. For many people, being confined to their homes meant a dependence on radio for a voice to listen to as they faced a long period of isolation from friends and relatives. Keeping up with national news was important, but being aware of the local situation in their areas and nearby support and guidance became a necessity.

This is where local stations, and in particular, community stations, came to the fore. At first, many struggled with their studios having to close and volunteer presenters being confined to their homes along with the rest of the population. This proved a huge problem for the National Radio Archive too, as great community programmes were suddenly disappearing from the airwaves. The published schedules of many stations still listed shows that were now no longer being broadcast and automated playlist music now took their place. Trying to discover what was actually being broadcast became a headache, especially as only one person was now monitoring all 50 stations squashed in a corner of one room in a flat nearly a hundred miles from the St Pancras office. Social media provided a way of finding out about some of the new programmes being broadcast, but often blocks of time were recorded to see what programmes might be found in those slots, as many shows were replaced by chart music.

As things settled down, a lot of programmes were being produced at home where presenters set up equipment that allowed them to broadcast from a room at home. This led to some very interesting broadcasts. Suddenly street sounds outside windows and noises around the house were heard rather than the noise free recordings made from a studio. Some stations were able to provide equipment for some presenters, others made do with programs on their personal PCs or phones. This led to a large variety in sound quality. Many such programmes were archived by the NRA to show the range of quality across all stations.

However, the most important thing was that local information and help for the community was being broadcast. Some regular programmes returned, serving branches of the community generally not covered by national and local commercial stations. Programmes devoted to mental health, carers, those living with HIV or other specific heath matters, race, age and gender specific programming and hobbies and interests were being broadcast, giving people a chance to find ways to get them through the isolation of lockdown and discover new ideas to do in the home to boost their morale. Many of these programmes were initially discovered on social media as the schedules were still incorrect in the early months of lockdown, so it was a challenge to archive these shows, but over time patterns emerged and series became easier to follow and record.

National Radio Archive management system

Caption: National Radio Archive management system

One of the most important additions to the schedules were specific community programmes linked to COVID-19 itself and the help and advice that the health authorities within the community could provide the listeners. They also gave out helplines and gave ideas for leisure and fitness activities to help during lockdown. Stations such as Future Radio (Norwich), Resonance FM (South London), Academy FM (Folkestone), All FM (Manchester), Cornwall Hospital Broadcasting Network, Calon FM (Wrexham), Manx Radio (Isle of Man) and Radio Reverb (Brighton) broadcast such programmes, and Manx Radio also had their own government daily updates, along the same lines as Downing Street were giving out. BCB in Bradford adapted their local information show and added a further show in the afternoon to give out even more local information and stories. Siren Radio, based in the University of Lincoln, even broadcast virtual lectures for the students as term time neared its end.

These were all archived, and as the lockdown continued, stations were swapped within the NRA, so that other stations responses to the pandemic could be recorded, whilst still maintaining the maximum of 50 stations that can be recorded from at any one time on the system. Some local festivals and outdoor events had to be cancelled, but they then became virtual events and were covered by the community stations, often broadcasting parts or all of the events. 24-hour marathon broadcasts were set up to raise money, and broadcasts in different languages found within the local area became available again on several stations.

As schedules had not been updated since March on many station websites, the programme information still had to be obtained from social media, causing problems with keeping on top of the broadcasts being taken. Some replaced scheduled programmes at the last minute, due to technical problems at presenters’ homes, or they were unable to record their show due to family issues. So, even the more reliable of station schedules could not guarantee to be 100% accurate. A lot of metadata became generic and detailed programme information was no longer available on shows that were previously rich in available details. Therefore, the research to find that data became more labour-intensive.

Then there were technical issues with our equipment to contend with. There would be some days when the remote access would drop out and the laptop would need to be restarted. There could be quite a gap before a connection could be re-established. Most of the time the connection was stable, but new working practices had to be adopted. Internet speeds could become an issue, with some tasks taking longer to perform than on previous days. Meetings with colleagues were held via Zoom; technical problems were handled remotely (the NRA’s main software provider, SCISYS, is based in Germany).

The main thing is that even with a new way of working, the National Radio Archive continues to grow and has an invaluable range of broadcasts across this strange period in our lives. It mirrors the nation’s reaction to events in phone-ins, interviews and the programmes produced to help during lockdown. Radio has risen to the challenge of being a valuable friend in a trying period for many and has shown ingenuity and dedication in producing helpful and entertaining material. We are proud to say that those programmes and the story of this time in Britain’s history has been captured fully by the Radio Archive and will provide researchers with a rich vein of information in the future. As it now passes 140,000 recordings, the National Radio Archive continues to gather the nation’s words and give a fully rounded picture of not just Coronavirus, but all world and national events as they happen.

Neil McCowlen

03 December 2020

Piloting a national radio archive

The new content strategy from the British Library, Enabling Access for Everyone, includes a section on COVID-19, showing how different collecting sections of the Library have responded to the pandemic. Listed among what we have collected are radio broadcasts from some sixty stations, national and regional. This is the first public report on the progress of a pilot project that officially began operations at the start of 2020, entitled National Radio Archive.

National Radio Archive graphic

The National Radio Archive pilot is part of the British Library’s Save our Sounds programme. Scheduled to run over two years, its aim is to create a digital radio archive which will preserve a representative proportion of ongoing UK radio output and make this available for research. This intervention was needed because most UK radio output was not being preserved long-term or was inaccessible for research and education. We estimate that of around 3 million hours of radio broadcast in the UK each year from 700 stations, some 92% is not being properly preserved, with only 2% being made available for potential research post-transmission. These are sounds that need saving.

In particular, we were keen to preserve some of the output of regional or community stations, whose local engagement has proven to be so vital over this traumatic year.

The pilot is exactly that - a trial service to test the parameters and capabilities of such a resource. We have gone down the route of off-air recordings; that is, recording programmes at the point of broadcast. We are capturing these from a maximum of fifty channels at any one time (some on a near-continuous basis, others on a sampling basis), taken from different broadcast streams (DAB, DVB, IP streams). The descriptive metadata likewise comes from a variety of sources: embedded in the digital signal, acquired via special arrangement with Radioplayer or added manually.

We are generating automatic speech-to-text transcriptions for a proportion of the programmes, one of the goals being to see how well such software performs on a large scale, with a rapid turnaround from capture to access, and with multiple accents.

Screengrab of National Radio Archive management system

Image caption: The National Radio Archive management system, built by SCISYS, with speech-to-text transcriptions delivered by T-Pro/Cedat85

The operation is complicated. We are still working out the best models for the selection, capture and description of the programmes. Nevertheless, at the end of the first year we have recorded over 130,000 programmes (ahead of our target of 100,000) from sixty-four stations. A list of the stations from which we have recorded is given below. It should be noted that for most stations we have only recorded selected programmes (stations we record in their entirety or nearly so include LBC, talkRadio and Times Radio).

There is no access to the National Radio Archive as yet, and when this has been developed it will be almost exclusively onsite access only, in British Library reading rooms. However, we are keen to start working with researchers who may find such a resource useful, so please do get in touch (email us at radio@bl.uk).

Further blog posts will follow, covering particular aspects of our pilot archive, including COVID-19, #BlackLivesMatter and the US presidential election.

For more information please visit the project page for the National Radio Archive.

 

UK radio stations covered by the National Radio Archive pilot during 2020

(Note that for most stations we take sample programmes, not their entire broadcast output)

BBC network

  • BBC Asian Network
  • BBC Radio 1
  • BBC Radio 2
  • BBC Radio 3
  • BBC Radio 4
  • BBC Radio 5 Live
  • BBC Radio 6 Music

BBC nations and World Service

  • BBC Radio Scotland
  • BBC Radio Ulster
  • BBC Radio Wales
  • BBC World Service

BBC local

  • BBC Radio Cornwall
  • BBC Radio London
  • BBC Radio Jersey
  • BBC Radio Leicester
  • BBC Radio Newcastle
  • BBC Radio Oxford
  • BBC Radio Tees
  • BBC Three Counties
  • BBC Radio Wiltshire
  • BBC WM (West Midlands)

Commercial

  • Absolute Radio
  • BFBS
  • Classic FM
  • Island FM
  • LBC
  • Manx Radio
  • Metro Radio
  • Radio City Talk (Liverpool, now defunct)
  • Radio X
  • talkRADIO
  • talkSPORT
  • Times Radio

Community radio and Restricted Service Licence (RSL)

  • Academy FM (Folkestone)
  • All FM (Manchester)
  • Bradford Community Broadcasting
  • BCfm (Bristol)
  • Calon FM (Cheshire)
  • Cam FM (Cambridge community/student)
  • Radio Cardiff
  • Celtic Music Radio (Glasgow)
  • CHBN (Truro hospital/community)
  • CSR (Canterbury student/community)
  • East Leeds FM (aka Chapel FM)
  • Fix Radio (community radio for building trade)
  • Future Radio (Norwich)
  • Gaydio (Manchester)
  • GTFM (Pontypridd/South Wales)
  • Oldham Community Radio
  • Panjab Radio (West London)
  • Phoenix 98 FM (Brentwood/Billericay, Essex)
  • Podcast Radio (London)
  • Radiophrenia (temporary art radio station)
  • Reprezent (South London youth-led station)
  • Resonance FM
  • Resonance Extra
  • Radio Reverb (Brighton/Hove)
  • Siren (Lincoln student/community)
  • Soundart Radio (Devon)
  • Spark (Sunderland community/student)
  • Ujima (Bristol)
  • Radio Verulam (St Albans)

Internet radio

  • Monocle FM
  • Totally Radio 

 

Neil McCowlen, Luke McKernan, Paul Wilson

12 October 2020

Recording of the week: Radio’s Holy Grail

This week's selection comes from Paul Wilson, Curator of Radio Broadcast Recordings.

Given that the surviving recordings from British radio’s first decade, the 1920s, can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that most of those are unintelligible, it was astonishing when proof finally emerged of something long rumoured – that professional sound recordings had been made of Marconi’s legendary experimental broadcast of 15th June 1920.

Featuring the Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, the event, two and a half years before the launch of the BBC, is chiefly remembered as the moment when the full potential of radio as a medium of mass popular entertainment was established beyond all doubt.

Dame Nellie Melba at Chelmsford  15 June 1920
Dame Nellie Melba photographed at Chelmsford, 15 June 1920

Britain’s first scheduled radio programmes, combining newspaper readings with performances by local amateur musicians, had been transmitted three months earlier and generated considerable press interest. So it was no surprise when, soon after, newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe offered to finance a programme designed to grab headlines around the world. The idea was simple – offer £1,000 to one of the world’s most famous singers to perform live in a broadcast of sufficient power to reach every home in Europe.

Fascinating stories are told of the prima donna’s arrival at the Marconi Company’s Chelmsford works and her oft-quoted comment to the Chief Engineer on being shown the 450 foot transmitter mast from which her voice would be radiated across Europe – “Young man, if you think I’m going to climb up there you are sadly mistaken!”

Yet one of the most remarkable innovations of the event – a set of wax disc recordings made in a Paris laboratory – was largely forgotten for the next eighty years. Historian Tim Wander eventually followed a trail which uncovered an article in a 1920 edition of the journal of the Société française radio-électrique (SFR) and, back in London, this archival photograph of the recordings being made at the SFR’s factory in Levallois-Perret, a suburb of Paris:

SFR Paris recording Chelmsford broadcast on 15 June 1920
SFR Paris recording Chelmsford broadcast, 15 June 1920 - Photo courtesy of Tim Wander

It shows the SFR engineers operating wax disc cutting lathes linked to one of three receivers set up to capture the event. Since each disc could capture just a few minutes of sound at least two lathes were needed to ensure that recording would continue on the second while the disc was being changed on the first. We can also see the heavy brass canisters used to protect the discs after recording. So fragile were the wax discs, which degraded on every pass of a playback stylus, that in reality they were only likely to survive if they were subsequently electro-plated, then re-pressed to a more durable medium such as shellac. This was an expensive business and might explain why, as far as we know, the recordings do not survive.

Or do they? And what might we hear in those long lost recordings, the ‘Holy Grail’ of British radio historians, should they ever turn up?

Most likely the hiss of the ‘ether’ was firstly interrupted at 7.10 pm by Marconi engineer W.T. Ditcham in his usual fashion:

MZX Calling! MZX Calling! This is the Marconi valve transmitter in Chelmsford, England, broadcasting on a wavelength of two thousand, seven hundred and fifty metres... Stand by for Dame Nellie Melba...

Then, perhaps, a pause as Marconi staff rushed to pull aside the specially laid carpet which the ‘Australian Nightingale’ kicked at disapprovingly for reasons unknown. Ditcham again returned:

Hallo, Hallo, Hallo! Dame Nellie Melba, the Prima Donna, is going to sing for you, first in English, then Italian, then in French.

Melba then announced her presence with a vocal ‘trill’ which also served to prime her vocal cords. Meanwhile, her accompanist Frank St Leger no doubt readied himself at the piano and the babble from the assembled throng crammed into the New Street Factory’s makeshift studio was hushed to silence.

Finally, as the Mail reported, “Punctually at a quarter-past 7 the words of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ fitted to the familiar melody, swam into the receivers” – and into the homes of astounded listeners all over Europe and the Middle East.

This studio recording of the song which Melba recorded in London eleven months later, is today the closest we can get to experiencing the sound of that first ever British radio performance by a professional musician.

Dame Nellie Melba - Home Sweet Home - May 1921 (HMV DB 351)

But this story also reinforces an important point – that sound recording alone is no guarantee that the sounds of today, or of a century ago, will be preserved for future generations. And of course that is the whole point of the Library’s Save Our Sounds initiatives.

Further reading:

Tim Wander, From Marconi to Melba: The Centenary of the First British Radio Broadcasts, TRW Publishing, 2020 (limited edition).

Tim Wander, 2MT Writtle: The Birth of British Broadcasting, 2nd edition, Authors Online Ltd, 2010.

Tuning in on the first days of broadcasting (British Library blog, 15 Nov 2012)

10 August 2020

Recording of the week: Do you know what a paternoster is?

This week's recording of the week comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Photograph of colleagues Sharon and Jonathan

Sharon and Jonathan are colleagues who work together in the Finance department of the British Library, based in Boston Spa in Yorkshire. Sharon has been employed by the library for 42 years whereas Jonathan is the newest member of the team. They discuss their experiences of work and how expectations and attitudes have changed over time. Sharon talks about what it was like to work for the British Library in the past and describes some of the old equipment that was used, including a paternoster. She also mentions the surprising lack of health and safety regulations back then which meant that employees were actually allowed to smoke inside the library buildings, something that Jonathan can’t even imagine happening now.

Sharon and Jonathan (BL REF C1500/845)

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Sharon and Jonathan can be found on British Library Sounds.

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