BBC Radio explained

BBC Radio is a service of the British Broadcasting Corporation which has operated in the United Kingdom under the terms of a Royal Charter since 1927. For a history of BBC radio prior to 1927 see British Broadcasting Company. Internally, BBC Radio is now organised under the banner of BBC Audio & Music, which also oversees online audio content.[1]

BBC Radios 1 to 6 are based in London - with the exception of BBC Radio 5 Live, now based in MediaCityUK, Greater Manchester - but programmes are also made in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester.[2] All BBC Radio channels are available on DAB radio and also on the internet in Real Media, WMA and iPlayer (aac via Flash-plugin) streams.


National (UK)

The BBC today runs eleven national domestic radio stations, six of which are only available in a digital format: via DAB Digital Radio, UK digital television (satellite, cable and Freeview) plus live streams and listen again on the Internet.

The "main" radio stations, available via both analogue (FM and AM frequencies) and Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), are:

youth oriented, mostly contemporary pop and rock music (including Top 40 singles), plus news, original in-house live music sessions, original live music concerts and music documentaries

adult oriented entertainment, wide range of music—specially adult contemporary and middle of the road, also talk, comedy, plus news, original in-house live music sessions, original live music concerts and music documentaries

arts and high culture, special-interest music (classical, jazz, world music), plus news, original in-house live music sessions, original live music concerts and music documentaries

news, current affairs, arts, history, original in-house drama, original in-house first-run comedy, science, books and religion

news, sports, talk

The new digital-only (Internet Streaming/Sky/freesat/Freeview/DAB) radio stations are:

new urban music, plus news, original in-house live music sessions, original live music concerts and music documentaries

classic comedy, drama, books, science fiction, fantasy and children's programmes

a companion to Radio 5 Live for additional sports events coverage

an eclectic mix of alternative genres including rock, funk, punk and reggae, plus news, original in-house live music sessions, original live music concerts and music documentaries

aimed at the large South Asian community in the UK (primarily a digital radio station, but available in parts of the Midlands on medium wave)


The BBC also runs radio stations for three of the nations of the UK. These stations focus on local issues to a greater extent than their UK counterparts, organising live phone-in debates about these issues, as well as lighter talk shows with music from different decades of the 20th Century. Compared to many advertising-funded Independent Local Radio (ILR) stations, which often broadcast contemporary popular music, BBC nations' radio stations offer a more "serious" alternative.

News, music, sport and talk from Scotland

Scottish Gaelic language network

News, music, sport and talk from Shetland

News, music, sport and talk from Orkney

News, music, sport and talk from Wales

Welsh language network

News, music, sport and talk from Northern Ireland

News, music, sport and talk from north-west of Northern Ireland

There are many BBC Local Radio services across England, often catering to individual counties.


BBC Radio services are broadcast on various FM and AM frequencies, digital radio or DAB, and streaming live on BBC Online (giving the stations a worldwide audience).

They are also available on Digital Television sets in the UK, and archived programs are available for 7 days after broadcast on the BBC website; a number of trials are also underway of MP3 downloads and podcasting for selected shows—see media.


Throughout its history the BBC has produced many radio programmes. Particularly significant, influential, popular or long lasting programmes include:

For more BBC radio programmes see .

History of BBC Radio

The BBC radio services began in 1922. It was licensed by the British Government through its General Post Office which had original control of the airwaves because they had been interpreted under law as an extension of the Post Office services. Today radio broadcasting still makes up a large part of the corporation's output and this is still reflected in the title of the BBC's listings magazine called 'Radio Times'.

First charter

On 31 December 1926 the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation and gained control of the airwaves under the terms of a Royal Charter. John Reith, who had been the founding Managing Director of the commercial company, became the first director. He expounded firm principles of centralised, all-encompassing radio broadcasting, stressing programming standards and moral tone. These are set out in his autobiography, Broadcast Over Britain (1924), influencing modern ideas of public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. To this day, the BBC aims to follow the Reithian directive to "inform, educate and entertain". Critics of his approach state that he was dictatorial and that he imposed a theocratic viewpoint on the broadcasting service. Reith's ideals were utterly at odds with the model of light entertainment based commercial radio adopted in some other countries (e.g. the USA).

Competition from overseas stations

Although no other broadcasting organisation was licensed in the UK until 1973, commercial competition soon opened up from overseas. The commercial competitors were for the most part represented by the International Broadcasting Company that bought blocks of airtime from radio stations such as Normandy, Toulouse, Ljubljana, Juan les Pins, Paris, Poste Parisien, Athlone, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. In the period from 1927 to 1939, light entertainment on the British airwaves was for the most part the domain of the 10 part-time English language IBC stations. By 1938 on Sundays upwards of 80% of the British audience turned their dials away from the BBC to these IBC stations which followed an American format of commercial broadcasting. They were eventually silenced by the advent of the German military taking control of their transmitters in France, Luxembourg and other countries during World War II.

American Armed Forces influence

The respite from American influence on British broadcasting was short lived. When the US military flooded Europe with troops during World War II, American-style programming followed and the BBC was forced to transmit these shows, first on the BBC Forces Programme and later on the BBC General Forces Programme, both on the former frequencies of the BBC National Programme. After the war the BBC Forces transmitters that had carried these shows were transformed into a network called the BBC Light Programme.

The original BBC stations which had been linked together to form the BBC Regional Programme were transformed into the BBC Home Service. A third part-time service was created under the name of the BBC Third Programme. For the history of these stations see Timeline of the BBC.

Empire and the world

To provide a different service from the domestic audience the Corporation started BBC Empire Service on Short Wave in 1932 originally in English but it soon provided programmes in other languages. At the start of the Second World War it was renamed The Overseas Service but is now known as the BBC World Service.[3]

Commercial radio influence

WWII silenced all but one of the original IBC stations, only Radio Luxembourg continued its nightly transmissions to Britain as a commercial radio station featuring American-style entertainment and religion.

Beginning in 1964 the first in what became a fleet of 10 offshore pirate radio stations began to ring the British coastline. By 1967 millions were tuning into these commercial operations and the BBC was rapidly losing its radio listening audience.[4] [5]

The British government reacted by passing the Marine Offences Act, which all but wiped out all of the stations by midnight on 14 August 1967. Only Radio Caroline survives.

One of the stations called Radio London ("Big L") was so successful that the BBC was told to copy it as best they could. This led to a complete overhaul by Frank Gillard the BBC's Director of Radio of the BBC output creating the four analogue channels that still form the basis of its broadcasting today. The creator of BBC Radio One told the press that his family had been fans of Radio London.

The BBC hired many out-of-work broadcasting staff who had come from the former offshore stations. Tony Blackburn who presented the very first BBC Radio One morning show had previously presented the same morning show on Radio Caroline and later on Big L. He attempted to duplicate the same sound for BBC Radio One. Among the other DJs hired was the late John Peel who had presented the overnight show on "Big L", called The Perfumed Garden. Though it only ran for a few months prior to Big L's closure, The Perfumed Garden got more fan mail than the rest of the pop DJ's on Radio London put together, so much that staff wondered what to do with it all. The reason it got so much mail was that it played different music, and was the beginning of the "album rock" genre. Big L's PAMS jingles were commissioned to be resung in Dallas, Texas so that "Wonderful Radio London" became "Wonderful Radio One on BBC".

The BBC's more popular stations have encountered pressure from the commercial sector.[6] John Myers, who had developed commercial brands such as Century Radio and Real Radio, was asked in the first quarter of 2011 to conduct a review into the efficiencies of Radios 1, 2, 1Xtra and 6 Music. His role, according to Andrew Harrison, the chief executive of RadioCentre, was "to identify both areas of best practice and possible savings."[6]

BBC analogue networks

BBC Radio 1 was launched as a part-time pop music station 30 September 1967. The BBC Light Programme was renamed Radio 2 and broadcast easy listening, folk, jazz and light entertainment. The BBC Third Programme and BBC Music Programme was merged to form Radio 3 and the BBC Home Service became Radio 4.

BBC Radio 5 was launched on 27 August 1990 as a home for sport and children's programming, and was replaced and renamed on 28 March 1994 with BBC Radio Five Live, a dedicated news and sport network.

2002 digital radio networks

With the increased rollout of Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) between 1995 and 2002, BBC Radio launched several new digital-only stations 1Xtra, 6 Music and BBC 7 in 2002 on 16 August, 11 March and 15 December respectively—the first for "new black British music", the second as a source of performance-based "alternative" music, the latter specialising in archive classic comedy shows, drama and children's programmes. BBC Asian Network joined the national DAB network on 28 October 2002. For some time the majority of listeners used Freeview, digital satellite and digital cable services to listen to these networks. In 2011, BBC Radio 7 was renamed BBC Radio 4 Extra as the service was brought more into line with BBC Radio 4.

Directors of BBC Radio

1963Frank Gillard
1970Ian Trethowan
1976Howard Newby
1978Aubrey Singer
1982Richard Francis
1986Brian Wenham
1987David Hatch
1993Liz Forgan
1996Matthew Bannister
1999Jenny Abramsky
2008Tim Davie

Note: the official title of this post has changed over the years. The most recent was in 2006 when it became "Director of Audio and Music" to reflect the BBC's online audio services.

See also

Further reading

Notes and References

  1. BBC Audio & Music
  3. History
  4. News: The Offshore Radio Revolution in Britain 1964–2004. H2G2. 31 August 2004. 22 July 2007.
  5. News: The day we woke up to pop music on Radio 1. Daily Telegraph. 27 September 2007. Imogen Carter. 30 September 2007.
  6. News: Amanda. Andrews. 28 Nov 2010. BBC enlists commercial sector help to shake up radio. The Telegraph. 2011-03-12.