On the 25th April, the day after Easter Monday, as the British troops called in reinforcements and declared a state of marshal law in Dublin, the Irish volunteers made the first broadcast from the post office on Sackville Street, using the same point to point technology to make a diffused message in the hope that their message, the declaration of an Irish republic, would reach the American press (Marshall McLuhan). In the same year, an employee of the Marconi Wireless Telegraphy Company of America called David Sarnoff would suggest to his bosses the possibility of radio becoming a “household utility” much as the piano had been; and so began the domestification of the radio at the very moment of the realisation of its revolutionary potential.
The formation of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922, at the suggestion of the Post Office, was largely a pragmatic attempt both to appease the commercial interests of the wireless manufacturers and to suppress the possibility of unrestrained amateur broadcasting. It was the BBC’s first Managing Director (and, later, first Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation), John Reith, who would articulate the philosophy of public service that would come to define the BBC’s mission (with true missionary zeal) in terms of universalism and national unification. Reith’s universalism was threefold, as Georgina Born explains,
First, universal availability: a national service meant that the entire population of the United Kingdom should be able to receive a high-quality broadcast signal. Second, there was a commitment to a form of social and cultural universality, in that the BBC undertook to produce both a regional and a national programme service. The audience was conceived both as a unity and as socially and culturally diverse. The BBC was to be an impartial arbiter, assessing the various constituencies and tastes and responding accordingly. Third, there was a universality of genre in the policy of mixed programming from the outset, BBC radio broadcast a wide range of genres each day and week, including news, talk, sports, drama, religion, light entertainment and a variety of music – both popular and classical.Reith’s universalism was centred around a concept of “the best of everything,” conceived as politically neutral and, ultimately, transparent, but which was to prove highly flexible given the different articulations of subsequent Director-Generals. The drawing together of the diverse strands of audiences and programming in the specific manner undertaken by the early BBC was thus responsible for a “new kind of public, commensurate with the whole of society, which it brought into being.” .
They listened eagerly, and to their amazement heard a human voice coming from their instruments – someone speaking! Then a woman’s voice rose in sound. It was uncanny!
Briggs, A., The History of Broadcasting in The United Kingdom Volume I: The Birth of Broadcasting, 1961, London: Oxford University Press;
Cardiff, D. & Scannell, P., ‘Broadcasting and National Unity’, in Impacts and Influences: Essays on Media Power in the Twentieth Century, Curran, J., Smith, A. & Wingate, P. (ed.s), 1987, London: Methuen, pp.157-173;
Morales, C., ‘Radio From Beyond the Grave’, in Radiotext(e), Strauss, N. (ed.), 1993, New York: Semiotext(e), pp. 330-2;Scannell, P. & Cardiff, D., A Social History of Broadcasting – Volume One 1922-1939: Serving the Nation, 1997, Oxford: Blackwell;
Seaton, J., ‘Broadcasting History’, in Power Without Responsibility, Curran, J. & Seaton, J., 1981 ,London: Routledge.