The final moments of the BBC Home Service took place during the final moments of Friday 29 September 1967; David Dunhill, the announcer, made reference to the soon-to-be Radio 1 DJ (and soon-to-be disgraced) Chris Denning having just appeared on BBC2’s ‘Late Night Line-Up’ wearing a T-shirt bearing the words ‘Death to the Home Service’, yet Dunhill assured listeners that the process of rechristening the following day would be akin to being ‘like a bride on the eve of her wedding; we go on being the same person, we hope; but we’ll never again have the same name’. It was a fittingly cosy analogy and one that seemed entirely in keeping with the image the Home Service had in the public imagination – one that typified everything antiquated and irrelevant about BBC radio to the generation tuning in to the pirates.
It wasn’t merely the addition of Radio 1 to the mix and the rebranding of the established three stations that spelt the death-knell for the Home Service; the imminent onset of BBC local radio would also rob it of one of its traditional functions. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the BBC had merged its National Programme and Regional Programme radio stations and the result of the marriage was the Home Service, based in London but peppered throughout the day with regional opt-outs from either Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow or Belfast – depending where you were listening. This hallmark of the station survived the birth of Radio 4 until the countrywide spread of local radio made it redundant; the last such opt-out on Radio 4 was in Devon and Cornwall as late as 1982.
After the war, the reorganisation of the BBC’s radio network that saw the arrival of the Light Programme removed many entertainment shows from the Home Service, though the station continued to host the likes of ‘ITMA’ as well as ‘The Goons’. In fact, for all its reputation as a carrier of serious news programming, the Home never entirely lost its entertainment elements, with adventure serial ‘Dick Barton’ especially appealing to young listeners who had their own show in ‘Children’s Hour’; sitcoms such as the long-running ‘All Gas and Gaiters’ and ‘The Men from The Ministry’ even lasted into the station’s incarnation as Radio 4. Factual mainstays that could also be classed as entertainment like ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’ survived the transition too and are still with us, as are news and current affairs institutions such as ‘Today in Parliament’, ‘The World at One’, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ and, of course, ‘Today’.
As we have already seen with Radio 2 and Radio 3, many of the changes that occurred when the BBC stations were renamed were essentially superficial. For one thing, daytime Radio 4 was lumbered with its most unwanted inheritance from the Home Service during its early years, BBC schools broadcasting. Glancing through the musty pages of a Radio Times issue from November 1969, just two years into Radio 4, the station’s morning and afternoon schedule has schools programming from 9.20am till noon, then following ‘Listen with Mother’ at 2.00 there’s a further hour of it – an arrangement that’s all-but inconceivable to a modern-day R4 listener. This state of affairs frustrated more than one Radio 4 controller, though the schools service ironically provided my main contact with the station in the 70s.
By the beginning of the 1973/74 term, schools (as well as adult education programmes) had switched to Radio 4’s VHF wavelength; at a time when most in long pants were still listening on Medium Wave, it freed-up the schedules at last and facilitated the transfer of ‘Woman’s Hour’ from Radio 2 to what seemed to be its natural home. The next big change came in November 1978, when all four national stations shifted around the dial; Radio 4 swapped places with Radio 2, moving from Medium to Long Wave. The change also marked the beginning of 4 as a truly national station with the end of all-but a tiny few regional variations and the debut of the late lamented ‘UK Theme’ to open proceedings every morning; meanwhile, the Shipping Forecast sailed into a more conducive harbour at the same time.
It had taken a decade for Radio 4 to emerge from the long shadow cast by its predecessor, but it appeared to have finally managed it; by the 80s, more listeners were beginning to tune in to FM, which accelerated the relocation of schools broadcasting to the new Radio 5 in 1990. Perhaps the last lingering legacy of the Home Service remit had been dispensed with at last. The FM and LW versions of Radio 4 only temporarily go their separate ways today with ‘Test Match Special’ and ‘Daily Service’.
For my generation, and the generations after, names like the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme have a quaint, monochrome magic to them, belonging as they do to a lost, post-war 50s world that disappeared before our time. Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, on the other hand, have always sounded contemporary. All four stations predate me by just a couple of months, so it’s no wonder. Of the four, I cannot deny Radio 4 is my preference and has been for around a decade, though I acknowledge it can be far from perfect.
There’s a tendency to over-egg the ‘right-on’ pudding on occasions; equally, whenever those hideous words ‘The Kardashians’ threaten to gatecrash the environs of ‘Woman’s Hour’ or ‘Front Row’, I switch to Radio 3. Radio 4 produces many superb programmes on pop culture (Saturday evening’s ‘Archive on 4’, for example), but there are already enough – more than enough – media mouthpieces for the afterbirths of Reality TV without R4 following suit. It’s supposed to provide an alternative with a brain rather than half of one.
After Radio 2, Radio 4 is the most listened-to station in the country, which is impressive considering what a radical counterpoint it can be to the overabundance of what the Americans refer to as Top 40 stations. The thought that the erudite interlude of ‘In Our Time’ can attract more listeners than some waffling wanker on Crass FM – the sort of white noise that serves as the in-car soundtrack of taxi-drivers – gives one hope that all is not lost. Fifty years old today, Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 appear to have provided a cradle-to (not quite) grave listening experience for my entire lifetime; and that lifetime would have very been different without them. Many happy returns.
© The Editor