An Irishman’s Diary on radio’s early days in Northern Ireland

When GAA results and dialect words were out but drama was in

The original BBC Belfast building in Linenhall Street, which opened in autumn 1924

The original BBC Belfast building in Linenhall Street, which opened in autumn 1924

Sat, Aug 30, 2014, 01:00

In 1922 listeners gathered around their crystal sets to hear the first news broadcast by the BBC in London, which was read by Arthur Burrows. It is hard to imagine today but he read out the news bulletin once quickly, then again more slowly, asking listeners which style they preferred.

Two years later the BBC set up in the nascent state of Northern Ireland and this year marks the 90th anniversary of its arrival. The identifier call sign 2BE was allotted to the Belfast station of the then British Broadcasting Company in a converted warehouse in cramped rooms in the city centre. At the formal opening on October 24th, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, amused his audience by suggesting that 2BE stood for “the second city of the British Empire”.

Classical music programmes and plays as well as short news snippets were part of the transmission schedule. One of the staff, Tyrone Guthrie, who had come down from Oxford and was junior assistant to the head of the station, was the first to speak. Although just 24, he quickly made his mark, going on to become administrator of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre and an acclaimed theatrical director. Guthrie helped form the Station Players, providing humorous sketches in the interludes between music. He also set up the Belfast Radio Players, one of the first radio repertory companies, and was involved in pioneering experiments when wireless technology was in its infancy.

Writing many years later, Guthrie painted an atmospheric portrait of an unpleasant broadcasting environment: “Up a dark little stair, a series of poky offices, just cubby-holes, leading off a dark passage that, in its turn, led to The Studio. The funny smell of rotten eggs was merely proof of its invigorating, tonic, bracing excellence. You can imagine the effect upon the spirit of those who had to perform here – the smell, the gross, crass ugliness of it all, the neuralgic glare from the chamber-pots, and above all, the acoustic deadness. None the less, we crusaders of the ether were constantly cheered and uplifted by the thought that nobody was listening.”

Gradually more people were listening and the popularity of the new medium started to grow. A Radio League for children was formed and soon had 3,000 members. They were encouraged to take part by singing, telling stories, reading poems or playing instruments.

In 1927 the first all-Ireland theatre relay broadcast – a musical comedy – took place from the Empire Theatre in Belfast on December 13th, 1927. Hip Hip Hooradio was transmitted from Belfast via Dublin to Cork, and simultaneously broadcast through the stations in each of the cities, with the lord mayors of each city greeting each other over the airwaves.

The term for the audience, “listeners-in”, suggested they were eavesdropping on a voice speaking to them. Many were fascinated by this strange phenomenon: the radio wave which could carry voices on the air through the use of a machine.

The BBC Handbook for 1930 even gave advice on how best to appreciate the wireless: “Listen carefully at home as you do in theatre or concert hall. You can’t get the best out of a programme if your mind is wandering, or if you are playing bridge or reading. Try turning out the lights so that your eye is not caught by familiar objects in the room. Your imagination will be twice as vivid.”

The early years of the new Belfast station were difficult; the press was hostile and there were many practical and technical hurdles. Not everyone was pleased with the broadcasts and some wrote letters of complaint to the papers. Correspondence on a wide range of issues encompassed the quality of drama productions, the banality of some talks and music programmes, and the use of Ulster dialect, which many did not like.

Ten years after the Belfast station was set up, a controversial decision was taken to broadcast the results of the local Gaelic football matches on Sunday evening. This resulted in vociferous protests from unionists, with Lord Craigavon himself having to intervene. After discussion with the director general, it was decided to give up broadcasting the results on the grounds that they were “hurting the feelings of the large majority of people in Northern Ireland”.

These days broadcasting parameters have widened to a more all-embracing approach and the BBC in Belfast now covers Gaelic football, soccer, rugby and many other sports; the results though – unlike those early news bulletins – are read out only once.

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