Today is the BBC’s 100th birthday. But after a century on air, its next few years are likely to determine whether the BBC survives in a recognisable form by the end of the decade.
When the BBC came into being in the aftermath of the first world war, it was to solve a commercial problem. British industrialists were trying to sell radio receivers to the general public, but no one wanted to hand over money for an expensive piece of kit if there wasn’t anything to listen to. A group of manufacturers led by Marconi came together to seek approval from the government and created the private British Broadcasting Company – later reformed as a less overtly commercial Corporation – to produce suitable content.
BBC transmissions began in November 1922, when it took over Marconi’s existing medium wave 2LO station, broadcast from a transmitter at the company’s headquarters on the Strand in central London. (The same rooftop is now a bar called Radio.) Many things have changed since then, but others have not: The first programme included a report on a speech by Andrew Bonar Law, a newly appointed Tory prime minister struggling to retain control of his fractious party who would last just a few more months in office.
Other news items included a report on a robbery, the sale of a Shakespeare folio, and the weather. (It was foggy.) According to the BBC, the broadcast was read twice – once at normal speed, once at half speed – with listeners asked to say which they preferred.
A century later, the BBC continues to reach tens of millions of people with similar radio broadcasts – including, for at least a few more years, using medium wave transmissions that would be recognisable to its founders. But it can no longer rely on its privileged dominance of limited broadcast spectrum to reach the public.
Jim Waterson, The Guardian (2022-10-18)