An Uncertain Birth

In 1922 broadcasting was beginning to blossom over Europe and the popularity of Britain's first station at 2MT at Writtle in Essex demonstrated the public demand for broadcasting services to be established all over the country. The greatest driver was however from the USA where it was realised that vast sums of money could be generated from broadcasting. In Britain there was pressure from the radio manufacturers for the Post Office, (who controlled the airwaves) to open a dialog for the creation of broadcast stations. On the other hand, the British military wanted to ensure that their communication networks would not be adversely affected by broadcast, as there was likely to be a shortage of available transmission frequencies. In some quarters public broadcast was viewed as a frippery not to be encouraged. The established press and entertainment industries were also nervous about competition - some newspapers even wanted to set up their own stations. 

Meanwhile, over the water, America being ahead of the game, had been suffering from a dose of radio anarchy - Too many stations chasing too few broadcast frequencies with resulting interference. Britain and continental Europe needed to learn from the mistakes of others. 

In April 1922 the government Imperial Communications Committee were deliberating on setting up a broadcasting service. The following month the Postmaster-General (the Post Office having control of British telephony) Frederick Kellaway announced to the House of Commons he would adopt the recommendations of the committee: 

For the first time it was proposed that broadcasting stations should be set up in or around eight areas in Great Britain, Plymouth being on the list. Who should set them up was another problem, should there be several independent firms or should alliances be formed? From the Post Office perspective, it would be impossible to manage many independents simply because of a shortage of frequencies and the likelihood of interference. Alliances were to be encouraged, and the manufacturers got together with a view to forming two broadcasting companies. Due to vested interests and a number of master patent issues surrounding Marconi, this was to fail. With continuing encouragement from the Post Office who by this time favoured a single co-operative, the various groups came to agree on a single enterprise in August 1922. The manufacturers raison d'étre being that they should not gain any profit from broadcasting itself, only from the resultant sale of equipment. 

By October the draft 'Articles of Association' for the new company had been ratified and it was 'full steam ahead' for the first three stations, Marconi in London, Western Electric in Birmingham, and Metropolitan Vickers in Manchester, to go on-air. It was decided to open the stations on November 14th and 15th before all the details had been agreed – the British Broadcasting Company as it had been named, wasn't issued with a license until 23rd January 1923. 

From a regional perspective, doubt was creeping in about the viability of a main station for Plymouth serving Devon and Cornwall. With the challenges of topography and the expected cost of the station £20,000 versus the expected income from licences in the area – things were looking a bit bleak. The Admiralty did not help things, nervous at the prospect of sharing the ether with broadcasters. Up until February 1923, decisions were being deferred. In Spring '23 it was decided to substitute Bournemouth as the 'south coast' station. By the summer Plymouth had the news that it was to be near the top of a list of 'relay' stations to be set up to boost coverage. 

'Old George' and Plymouth's first Wireless Broadcast Station.

The town had a flourishing Wireless Society and radio amateurs who were keen to experiment and contribute to the new 'art of wireless'. In early summer '23, Messrs R. Eaves and G.E. Prance were setting up a licenced station with the call sign 5DJ on the 440 metre band. Within an approximate 15mile radius 'listeners-in' could hear experimental programmes of music, talk and even children’s programmes. Gwyther Prance a local impresario and manager of the Palace Theatre, gathered together local musicians and both sides gained valuable knowledge with microphone technique.

On the 1st July 1923 they made their most ambitious programme with a local quintet the 'Don's Concert Party', introduced by Mr H. Blackburn. Facilities were of course primitive and they asked for listeners to provide feedback on the transmission. Sadly, they were disappointed by the apparent apathy of the 'listeners-in' which damaged their enthusiasm to mount other programmes.

At the end of the month the 5DJ team visited the Marconi station at Poldhu, now experimenting with short wave telephony. An opportunity was made to test out coverage in Cornwall from the three stations in Birmingham, Manchester and London which had test transmissions. A fuzzy and fading Birmingham could be received but absolutely nothing from the other two. They returned having picked up some useful tips which could be applied to their own equipment.

During the autumn their Post Office licence was extended to allow for more power and removal of time restrictions. This enterprise, a lobby from the Plymouth Wireless Society and Lady Astor the local M.P.  all helped to keep the proposed Plymouth station 'on the BBC map'.

It should not be underestimated how useful 5DJ was to be to local broadcasting. Local performers had an insight into performing in front of a microphone and  programme makers a knowledge of technique. Mr Prance was destined to make a valuable contribution directing musical performance for the future 5PY station.

Why 'Old George' you may ask? Gwyther Prance was known by this nickname worldwide by his amateur radio friends.

Say Hullo to 5PY

Originally it was envisaged that the BBC main stations could 'stand-alone' with their programming. It was soon realised that financially it was better to set up a network of stations which could share programming to avoid duplication, and that 2LO, the headquarters of the BBC was best placed to provide most of the programmes. If the other stations could be connected together, then they could either take the London programme to broadcast from their own transmitter, provide their own programme for transmission locally and to the other stations, or 'opt-out' from the London programme and transmit a local programme for local audiences. This was to be known as 'Simultaneous Broadcasting' within the BBC. 

Several hurdles had to be overcome before the BBC relay stations could come into existence. These were chiefly technical:

Firstly, reliable lines were necessary to carry the main programme feed from 2LO in London to the outlying stations.

By 1923 the Post Office (with technical input from the Western Electric Company) had land lines which could carry music quality signals over hundreds of miles.

Secondly, cost effective low power transmitters and studio equipment were necessary to make local broadcasting viable.

In 1923 the Western Electric Company (USA) had arguably the best catalogue of broadcast equipment in the world, but it was very expensive for the British market. Under the leadership and skills of Captain H. Round of the Marconi company, equipment including microphones were developed which could be installed at reasonable cost throughout the country. A station at Sheffield was used to trial equipment and provide a template for the relay stations.

It made good business sense too, for as Peter Eckersley described in his book ‘The Power Behind the Microphone’,

 For a capital outlay of £2000 and an expenditure of around £1500 p.a. in some districts 20,000 new licences could be secured in the first year, doubling in the second. After saturation point had been reached £25,000 p.a. revenue could be reached. The BBC by no means received all the revenue but even if it received half, the enterprise was highly profitable

On the 2nd January 1924 permission was given from BBC head office for the construction of station 5PY.

Peter Eckersley, the brilliant chief engineer of the BBC had formulated a plan for the roll-out of the new stations. Later in his career he recalled the process, 

 ….the routine became standardised. A date was fixed, a senior official usually Mr Reith, was booked to do the honours. The Mayor, the Corporation, and some local notables were asked to the party, some to make speeches, some to just ‘support the mayor’. Harold Bishop, assistant chief engineer of the BBC would go in advance to make all the preparations. He had to hustle the contractors, supervise the installation of our gear, see the hired palms were standing to proper attention, make preparations for the junketing, test the quality of the transmission, ensure the proper functioning of the local telephone lines and rehearse the engineers to carry out all the proper routine of the ceremony”. 

The amazing thing, and in total contrast to contemporary ability, was the speed at which new stations could be on the air. After the initial go ahead, sites could be acquired, transmitters and studios built, staff recruited and programmes planned within 12 weeks! In our current age most institutions could barely organise an initial planning meeting with that timescale.....

Back with 5PY - Harold Bishop, Peter Eckersley's assistant had arrived in the town during the second week of January, tasked with finding suitable sites. Following a further visit to finalise arrangements, the press was informed on the 1st February that the Sugar Mills site at Mill Lane would house the new transmitter. Athenaeum Chambers, close to George St was chosen to accommodate the studio.

The BBC had decided early on, that existing buildings should be used for the suspension of aerials wherever possible, as it saved the cost of masts. In that respect the old redundant Plymouth Sugar Refinery chimneys behind the market were the obvious choice. 

The Chimney Transmitter takes shape

Plymothians were soon made aware of an exciting prospect in store when steeplejacks were seen hoisting aerials up the chimney stacks behind the market buildings. By the end of February 1924 aerials were up and ready.

In The Town Centre

Imagine the scene - here we are in the heart of the busy entertainment quarter. The Studio is beginning to take shape and the first employees are being recruited....... 

The scene in George Street ......continue walking past Derry's Clock and take the first road on the right- Athenaeum Lane, opposite the grand colonnade of the Theatre Royal. A few yards down, on the left are the rather uninspiring  Athenaeum Chambers. 

The Original Home of the BBC in Plymouth

Keeping to the lefthand pavement, we pass by the large wooden doors which before the twenties accommodated the 'Western Morning News' paper stores, and then we venture into the Chambers lobby.  

Following the corridor inside, we take the rickety stairs up to the first floor - welcome to 5PY!


ECKERSLEY, P.P. (1941) The power behind the microphone. Jonathan Cape: London.