In this section we track the history of BBC Radio. On this page we look at Radio 4 and its predecessors. On other pages: Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 5/5 Live, digital radio, local radio and nations radio. We also have old schedules for a number of BBC radio stations, and a look at the history of the Radio 1 Top 40 show.
BBC Radio 4
Radio 4 can trace its history right back to the dawn of BBC radio broadcasting in 1922, when the British Broadcasting Company took over Marconi's London station 2LO. In the following years, local stations were established in cities across the UK. From 1923, a system of 'simultaneous broadcasting' allowed some programming to be shared between the various stations.
In July 1925 the BBC's high power experimental station 5XX moved its transmitter site to Daventry in Northamptonshire, which radiated mostly the 2LO output on long wave, and thus became in effect the first national radio station.
5XX was replaced by the National Programme in March 1930, with an additional transmitter site at Brookman's Park, to the north of London. At the same time the local stations began to be replaced by variants of the Regional Programme, a process which took several years. However, they were not to last long. Upon the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the National and Regional Programmes were merged to form the Home Service. Regional programming resumed in the Home Service once war was over on 29th July 1945, with London acting as the 'basic' Home Service. The other regions were South and West, Midland, Welsh, Scottish, North and Northern Ireland. The latter shared a frequency with the North until January 1963.
In 1955 the BBC's three radio networks became available in higher quality for the first time when VHF transmissions began in the South East. Curiously, they were arranged on the waveband in the order Light - Third - Home - meaning that twelve years later the stations were renamed, they appeared in numerical order! VHF transmissions were soon extended across the country.
The breakfast programme Today started in 1957, though it began as a gentler affair than it would later become. At the start of 1967 The Archers moved to the Home from the Light, though the Home had already been broadcasting daily repeats for some time.
The Home Service became known as Radio 4 in September 1967, though to ease the transition, for the first year announcements were 'This is the Home Service on Radio 4'. The radio networks were still not as clearly defined as they would be to come, and Radio 4 broadcast more music programmes than it does today.
That all changed in April 1970 when the Broadcasting in the Seventies report came into effect, which saw the network start to become more centered around news and current affairs. For example, cosy magazine shows such as Home This Afternoon were out, and in came PM, (also called PM Reports at times) and The World Tonight, joining the other daily current affairs sequences Today and The World at One. Meanwhile Radio 4 lost most of its music programmes to Radio 2 and Radio 3, but gained more talk and discussion programmes from those networks, notably Any Questions?. Woman's Hour moved to Radio 4 from Radio 2 in 1973.
Regional programming was still a part of Radio 4's output, but following Broadcasting in the Seventies, and due to the spread of BBC Local Radio, in most parts of England this was reduced to a few regional news bulletins throughout the day which, from September 1972, were available only on VHF. The exceptions were East Anglia and the South West which had their own regional breakfast shows, as BBC Local Radio had yet to reach these areas. Regional output was more extensive in the nations of the UK, where the network was known as Radio 4 Scotland, Radio 4 Wales and Radio 4 Northern Ireland.
The BBC's AM frequencies were reorganised in November 1978, and Radio 4 moved from medium wave onto Radio 2's former 1500 metres LW frequency. This enabled the full Radio 4 service to be heard right throughout the country, and as such was now known as 'Radio 4 UK'. To accompany the change, the 'Radio 4 UK Theme', composed by Fritz Spiegl, would now be broadcast at the start of each day's broadcasting.
The frequency changes also allowed the former opt-out services in Wales and Scotland to expand into stand-alone stations in each of those nations. Regional news bulletins on Radio 4 ceased at the end of August 1980, apart from in the South West where the last regional programmes aired at the end of 1982.
A series of schedule changes in 1991 included the movement of Woman's Hour to mid-mornings from its long held early afternoon slot, to the accompaniment of many complaints from listeners. Demonstrating how much radio forms part of people's daily routines, even what might seem like a relatively minor change, such as moving the afternoon repeat of The Archers from 1.40pm to 2.00pm in another round of schedule changes in 1998, prompted further complaints.
Radio 4 has occasionally experimented with its daytime programming, but rarely with much success. In 1977 Today was cut in half, with the more lighthearted Up to the Hour filling in the remaining airtime. In 1984 a new three hour sequence on Thursday mornings was launched - Rollercoaster was presented by Richard Baker, and promised 'entertaining and provocative conversation'. It disappeared after its experimental six months was up. Then in 1994 Radio 4 introduced a new daily hour-long magazine show, Anderson Country, presented by the popular BBC Radio Ulster broadcaster Gerry Anderson. The programme differed markedly in style to what Radio 4 listeners were used to, and complaints flooded in, describing its 'chatty phone-in formula' as 'drivel'. Following Anderson's departure in 1995, the programme continued as The Afternoon Shift, before being quietly dropped in the 1998 schedule reshuffle.
Radio 4 is now the only national BBC network to continue to transmit on both FM and AM. Over the years, this has allowed Radio 4 to broadcast different output across the two wavebands. In the 1970s and 1980s, AM was considered to be the 'main' outlet, and so it was the minority programming, such as schools and adult education, that went out on VHF. In 1990 educational programmes were handed over to the new Radio 5.
Upon the outbreak of war in the Gulf in January 1991, the BBC took the unprecedented step of relegating the main Radio 4 service to AM, in order to broadcast rolling news on the FM network. Nicknamed 'Scud FM', the service gave the BBC the idea of establishing a permanent continuous news channel on radio. As Radio 4 would soon be their only national network with a 'spare' waveband, Radio 4 LW was earmarked to be the home of the new station.
However protests from Radio 4's loyal listenership quickly saw off that threat, and instead it was Radio 5 that would be sacrificed. Radio 4 LW continues to broadcast most Radio 4 programming, opting out only for the Daily Service, Yesterday in Parliament and, to the annoyance of expatriates abroad who want to hear the main Radio 4 service, hours of ball-by-ball cricket commentary on Test Match Special.
In April 2006, despite protests from listeners, the 'Radio 4 UK Theme' was heard for the last time, to be replaced by a 'pacy news briefing'.
For decades, the Home Service and Radio 4 had been home to children's programming. Children's Hour dated back to the earliest days of radio broadcasting, but was axed (under the name For the Young) in 1964. Listen with Mother catered for younger children, which became the shorter Listening Corner in 1982. Radio 5 became the new outlet for children's programmes in 1990, but following its demise in 1994, they found their way back to Radio 4 again. However, by 2009 research showed that the Sunday evening children's show Go 4 It was in fact listened to by an audience with an average age in their fifties. Before long, it had been axed - the last time a children's programme aired on the network. Radio 4 remained home to what was now the BBC's only broadcast schools programming, which was broadcast on its digital outlets between 3 and 4 in the morning, until June 2018.
Most of radio's longest running programmes are broadcast by Radio 4, although not all of them began there. The Daily Service is Britain's longest running radio programme, having started on 2LO and 5XX in January 1928. Any Questions?, Desert Island Discs, Woman's Hour, Round Britain Quiz and The Archers are amongst the programmes to have notched up over 60 years on air.
Although news and current affairs forms the spine of Radio 4, it continues to broadcast an eclectic range of speech programming on every topic under the sun, with documentaries, discussions, plays and readings. It is also now the only home on national radio for scripted comedy, following Radio 2's abandonment of the genre, and over the decades has given birth to many successful comedy shows and characters, from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy to Alan Partridge, that later crossed over into television.
Although Radio 4 does not broadcast its own programmes 24 hours a day, for many years its frequencies have been used to transmit the World Service during nighttime hours.
From our YouTube channel,a look at the history of the Greenwich Time Signal. This was broadcast simultaneously on Radio 4 and BBC2 on 18th December 1993 as part of Arena Radio Night.