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Radio recordings: social history

The British Library's radio collections provide an invaluable primary resource for both media and social history students, teachers and researchers.

Since the 1920s radio has narrated, mirrored, influenced and sometimes directed social change in the UK. Many of the pivotal developments which took place during the Second World War and its aftermath were accompanied by new attitudes and approaches to feature programming and can be explored through the pioneering work of producers such as Laurence Gilliam and Jenifer Wayne (among the first to use specially recorded actuality and oral history), D. G. Bridson (who also explored the dramatic and musical possibilities of the genre), the experimental, politically motivated work of E. A. Harding, and the influential social critiques of Joan Littlewood and Olive Shapley.

These early features derive from both the BBC's National Programme and its various Regional services, allowing comparison of their differing broadcasting policies and priorities, as well as the individual styles, innovations and motivations of the programme makers. Many, such as The Classic Soil (1939) and A Week in Chalet Land (1948), provide a valuable insight into social conditions before, during and after World War 2. Others, such as Opping 'Oliday (1934), and Dinner is Served (1935) were among the first to allow ordinary working men and women to speak for themselves, tentatively initiating an enduring tradition of interview-based programming. 

Later landmarks include Charles Parker's famous 'radio ballads' (1958-63), which blended oral history, actuality and specially-recorded folk music; and The Long March of Everyman (1971-72), Daniel Snowman's 26-part 'pictorial history of the British people'. The Charles Chilton Collection (catalogue no: C1186) includes most of the famous BBC producer's dramatised features of the 1940s-90s, many having a socio-historical, musical or literary flavour. The oral history strand culminated at the close of the century in the colossal Millennium Memory Bank project, from which the BBC's The Century Speaks (1999) was derived, the original unedited interviews being preserved only at the British Library.

After 1973, social study features also became staples of many of the new British independent local radio stations. They are often more reflective of regional history and local social concerns, such as BRMB Radio's acclaimed 10-part series on the history of Birmingham, Reflections – A City Remembered. Many are to be found within the ILR Programme Sharing Scheme collection, accessible via the Soundserver, and in the Capital Radio (catalogue no: C628) collection. Some of the most accomplished independent radio and BBC regional programming of this type is converging in the Sony Radio Academy Awards Collection (catalogue no: C279), which has preserved all programme submissions to this prestigious annual competition since 1986.

Accessing the collection

To access sound and moving image material:

  • Use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.
  • The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.
  • The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.
  • Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.
  • The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

Further information

Paul Wilson
Curator, Radio
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7446
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441