Radio Modernisms: Features, Cultures and the BBC conference, 19 May 2016

This University of Westminster CAMRI conference, in partnership with the British Library, will take place in the Foyle Suite of the British Library on Thursday 19 May 2016. See below for more information on the scope and purpose of the conference, how to register, the provisional programme, abstracts of papers and speaker biographies.

Organisers: Aasiya Lodhi, Lecturer in Radio and Journalism, University of Westminster ( and Amanda Wrigley, Research Fellow, University of Westminster (


The recent, welcome surge of academic interest in the early decades of radio broadcasting has led to a re-evaluation of the theories, methodologies and historiographies used in scholarly considerations of radio programming, personnel and audiences across the twentieth century. Not only is radio becoming more firmly situated in its proper place within the media ecology of the last century, it is also increasingly located in its various cultural, creative, educational and political ‘ecologies’. Radio as a thing experienced and made sense of by individual listeners is, importantly, receiving renewed attention (e.g. Kate Lacey’s 2013 Listening Publics), and there is a broader acknowledgement of the inherent modernism of the medium and its forms in this period, in addition to its innate intermediality.

Taking its cue from an important strand in this new wave of work (e.g. Todd Avery’s 2006 Radio Modernism, and the edited collections Broadcasting in the Modernist Era, 2014, and the 2015 Modernist Cultures special issue on radio), this one-day conference aims to interrogate emerging and pluralistic conceptions of radio modernism, especially in relation to the BBC’s radio feature programmes. As a creative nucleus, the personnel, editorial strategies and programming of the Features Department, to its closure in 1964, offer rich points of focus for British broadcasting’s complex entanglements with late modernism. Bringing together an interdisciplinary group of specialists, the conference will explore, both through close reading and examination of wider cultural contexts, notions of remediation, intermediality, broadcast vernacular, emotion, listening constituencies, spatiality, technoculture, and more, with a view to encouraging further scholarly engagements with the various interpretations and interplays of ‘radio modernisms’ in twentieth-century Britain.


The conference fee is £20 (the fee covers basic costs; no concessions are available). Numbers are strictly limited, owing to reasons of space. Please book your place via the British Library’s Box Office.


9.45am           Welcome – Aasiya Lodhi and Amanda Wrigley

Keynote Lecture
10.00am         Todd Avery, University of Massachusetts Lowell: ‘ “Not What Lord Reith Had in Mind”: Aestheticism, Modernism, and The Listener Editorials’

11.00am         Coffee, tea and pastries

Panel 1.          Programme-makers and Listeners (Chair: Anthony McNicholas)
11.30am         David Hendy, University of Sussex: ‘The Emotional Life of the Early BBC’

12.00pm         Alex Lawrie, University of Edinburgh: ‘Who’s Listening, and Why: BBC Radio Features and Audience Response’

12.30pm         Kate Murphy, Bournemouth University: ‘ “Outside the Common Round of Household Drudgery”? Modernity and Women’s Talks in the Interwar Years’

1.00pm           Lunch

Special Presentation: An Insight into the Archive
1.45pm           Paul Wilson, Radio Curator, British Library: ‘The British Library’s Radio Collections’

Panel 2.          Nations and Empire (Chair: John Wyver)
2.00pm           Alex Goody, Oxford Brookes University: ‘Nation, BBC Drama and the War in Europe

2.30pm           Leonie Thomas, University of Exeter: ‘Making Waves: Una Marson’s Broadcast Voice’

3.00pm           Aasiya Lodhi, University of Westminster: ‘ “Countries in the Air”: Travel and Transnationalism in the Radio Features of Louis MacNeice’

3.30pm           Coffee, tea and biscuits

Panel 3.          Intermediality and the End of Features (Chair: Matthew Linfoot)
4.00pm           John Wyver, University of Westminster: ‘ “The Incursion of Television”: The Intermedial Relationships of Radio Features with the Small Screen in the Late 1950s and Early 1960s’

4.30pm           Hugh Chignell, Bournemouth University: ‘Features Department: Death and Glory in the Cold War’

5.00pm           Glass of wine and summing up

5.30pm           30-minute break

Listening event
6.00pm           ‘Modernity and the Past in MacNeice’s Portrait of Athens (1951)’, introduced by Amanda Wrigley (University of Westminster)

7.15pm           Close

Warm thanks to the British Library, CAMRI at the University of Westminster and the Centre for Media History at Bournemouth University for supporting this conference.


Todd Avery, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Keynote: ‘ “Not What Lord Reith Had in Mind”: Aestheticism, Modernism, and The Listener Editorials’
As a print journal that served in part as an archive of broadcast talks by modernist writers, The Listener by definition mediated—and remediated—literary modernism. And as a magazine founded at the end of the 1920s whose editorial column habitually reflected on cultural developments, it helped reader-listeners to understand the complexities of modernist aesthetics as they grew into their third decade. In its editorials on modernist literature and culture, the Listener also registered an aesthetic and ethical tension intrinsic to modernism and to the technocultural project of public service broadcasting alike. The BBC was, of course, founded on an Arnoldian agenda of individual and social uplift through the dissemination of ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’. Histories of the BBC, however, tend to reduce the impetus to public service broadcasting’s commitment to information, education, and entertainment to an Arnoldian tendency. Aesthetically and ethically speaking, the situation was more complex; far from univocally and unproblematically endorsing that agenda, the work of early theorists and administrators like Hilda Matheson and even, to a certain extent, John Reith bears within it the traces, sometimes ghostly, sometimes bold, of another, and competing, Victorian discourse on aesthetics—namely, aestheticism. This paper explores how The Listener editorials during the tenure of Richard Lambert (1929-1939) mediate modernism for a mass listenership by registering tensions between competing versions of cultural redemption that inform modernist writing and permeate the ideological underpinnings of British broadcasting itself.

Hugh Chignell, Bournemouth University: ‘Features Department: Death and Glory in the Cold War’
The end of the BBC Features Department in 1964 is perhaps easily explained. In the mid-1950s, Features found itself hedged in by two major developments within the BBC: the unexpected flowering of the Drama department under Val Gielgud and the unwelcome arrival of popular television. The production of features waned as drama and early current affairs grew, and then the two leading figures of Features Department, Laurence Gilliam and Louis MacNeice both died in 1963: ‘the collapse of the department was inevitable’ (Whitehead, 1989, p.145). Competition, rivalry, money, alcohol and death all conspired to finish what once had been the most illustrious of radio departments.

An alternative version, however, might be that it was the inability of the department to respond to the Zeitgeist that was its undoing. While Samuel Beckett and Giles Cooper wrote radio dramas that spoke directly to post-war and end-of-time themes, Features retreated into a literary ghetto founded on translation, historical dramas and poetry, a trend led by the producers Rayner Heppenstall and Douglas Cleverdon. That both D.G. Bridson (The Bomb) and Laurence Gilliam (The Stalin Myth) attempted to break out of literary features adds an interesting complexity to the death of not only a department but a radio genre.

Alex Goody, Oxford Brookes University: ‘Nation, BBC Drama and the War in Europe
In the lead up to and in the first years of the Second World War conceptions of the British nation and notions of Britishness were negotiated imaginatively on the BBC, through radio drama (written for radio and adaptations of texts) and in features. This coincided with the development of the BBC’s interest in its audience, manifest in the founding of BBC Audience Research. The audience responses to different broadcasts contributed to the projections of nationhood that the BBC invested in, sometimes producing accounts of Britishness or connections between historical moments that rewrote the official version.

This paper will examine the ways in which BBC broadcasts negotiated national, historical identity and the war in Europe, focusing on the presentation of violence and warfare in BBC Drama and Features. Considering historical dramas (by writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Clemence Dane) and features such as Bombers over Berlin and Women Hitting Back (written by Cecil McGivern) it will explore the broadcasts themselves and audience responses recorded by Audience Research panels, in The Listener and on the letters pages of the Radio Times. The paper will reflect further on notions of nationalism and the war in Europe by comparing the output of the BBC to the more direct, propaganda response to Nazi aggression by the modernist American writer, Edna St Vincent Millay. Her dramatic poem ‘The Murder of Lidice’, broadcast over short-wave to Europe in 1942 to popular acclaim, offers a sharp contrast to the more measured broadcasts on the BBC.

David Hendy, University of Sussex: ‘The Emotional Life of the Early BBC’
Might the BBC be understood as the creation in the 1920s of a group of men and women driven less by a clear vision of broadcasting than by a complex set of moods and emotions? Here was a generation shaped by the experience of the Great War—and the various psychic ripples in its aftermath. When its members arrived at their new workplace, they brought with them a rich brew of personal prejudices, psychic wounds, and cultural anxieties. In so doing they created a distinctive ‘emotional community’—a working atmosphere that, by the end of the decade, helped make the BBC the iconic cultural institution that it was. In thinking of the BBC in this way, might we better understand its relationship with the writers and artists of the Modernist moment? This talk tries to reconstruct the ‘emotional life’ of the Corporation’s pioneering generation, and suggests that it might turn out to be fundamental to our understanding of how British broadcasting discovered its character and purpose in these formative years.

Alex Lawrie, University of Edinburgh: ‘Who’s Listening, and Why: BBC Radio Features and Audience Response’
This paper will focus on the audience response to feature programmes during the first few decades of BBC Radio. Taking as its starting point the work of BBC Audience Research, which was established in 1936 and headed up by Robert Silvey, the paper will examine how listeners responded to a range of feature programmes—although particularly those with a literary focus. Broad conclusions about listener tastes can be drawn from the questionnaires and interviews completed by Audience Research volunteers, and this paper will spend some time reflecting on this valuable material. It will also, however, focus on letters sent into the BBC by individual listeners of feature programmes, while consideration will also be made of the correspondence pages of the Listener, which represented for many years a lively space for more provocative discussion of programme content.

This paper’s investigation into listener experience will allow us to consider some important questions relating to radio modernism, such as what changes, if any, the audience feedback encouraged broadcasters to make to their scheduling; whether the majority of listeners felt that features were being pitched at an appropriate level; and what evidence can be found that listeners felt sufficiently stimulated to broaden their intellectual horizons on the basis of what they had just heard over the wireless.

Aasiya Lodhi, University of Westminster: ‘ “Countries in the Air”: Travel and Transnationalism in the Radio Features of Louis MacNeice’
In the middle stretch of his twenty-two-year BBC career, from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, the poet and producer Louis MacNeice earned a reputation as one of the ‘undisputed masters of creative sound broadcasting’—a reputation derived, in part, from a huge range of radio features that hinged on his journeys abroad. These ‘mosaic’-like programmes, as MacNeice described them, explored history and contemporary culture in countries as diverse as Ghana, Italy, India, Greece and Egypt.

Through close examination of three key overseas soundscapes—Portrait of Rome (1947), Portrait of Delhi (1948) and Portrait of Athens (1951)—this paper will consider the role and function of travel in shaping MacNeice’s transnational engagement with the radio feature as a modernist form. It will highlight how these sonic travelogues disturb conventional ideas of home, belonging and empire, as well as of the truth of the traveller’s experience. Yet it will also argue that MacNeice’s features were travelling vehicles themselves, mapping out new geospatial terrain in the radio medium and foregrounding concerns about space, distance and the crossing of national boundaries, both on the ground and through the airwaves. Tracing the travel imprint on MacNeice’s BBC output—drawing on extant sound recordings as well as on the written archives— thus allows for the transnational turn in radio-literary modernism to be delineated more sharply; a turn, which, so far, has largely been neglected in historical studies of BBC Radio.

Kate Murphy, Bournemouth University: ‘ “Outside the Common Round of Household Drudgery”? Modernity and Women’s Talks in the Interwar Years’
Women’s lives in interwar Britain have often been considered in terms of modernity. This might be connected with newly acquired citizenship through the extension of the franchise; the possibility to enter new and pioneering careers; ideas of fitness and athleticism through sport and leisure pursuits; or the impact of novel technologies, such as electricity, in the home.

However, traditional notions of what was acceptable for women continued alongside, creating tensions, often at points of divergence such as age, marital status, domicile and social class. From almost the beginning, the BBC entered this forum with its talks for women, produced by women – what approach should be taken to the perceived audience? How much should they embrace the customary? How much should inform, educate and entertain with a nod to the modern? Women’s Hour in its short life (1923-4), posed the problem through a listener plebiscite which demanded ‘“Keep us out of the kitchen!” and “Take us out of ourselves”’. This was echoed by Hilda Matheson who, as Director of Talks (1927-32), believed that broadcasting had the capacity to take women outside the confines of the home, introducing them to books, to travel, to plays, to current events, to politics. This paper focuses on the BBC’s talks aimed at women in the 1920s and ’30s and considers how conflicting notions of modernity and traditionalism were broached within the output.

Leonie Thomas, University of Exeter: ‘Making Waves: Una Marson’s Broadcast Voice’
Jamaican poet and playwright Una Marson gained access to the BBC microphone during the Second World War and she went on to produce, edit and present an extensive number of broadcasts over the course of the war. At the same time as generating content for the airwaves, Marson was connecting with influential modernist writers who were also working at the institution at the time. Marson, as poet, continued her experiments with creole and dialect language whilst simultaneously developing a voice suitable for the BBC to broadcast across the Atlantic and around Britain, creating a problematic relationship between her literary and radio work. In addition, Marson articulated to senior BBC staff the importance of creating a literary platform for Caribbean writers, Caribbean Voices, a programme that would enable the voices of West Indian writers to be heard for the first time. Yet instantiating this platform would eventually cost Marson her own voice. The tensions generated by Marson’s different voices gesture towards a heterogeneous modernism that offers a complicated history of literary radio studies.

This paper explores how Marson’s broadcast and poetic voices developed, contradicted, or enhanced each other over the course of her association with both the BBC and the prominent modernists who worked there. Closely examining the intonation of internal BBC communications alongside Marson’s poetry, this paper asks what it means for a female colonial subject to be performing multiple voices at the centre of empire at this moment.

John Wyver, University of Westminster: ‘ “The incursion of television”: The Intermedial Relationships of Radio Features with the Small Screen in the Late 1950s and Early 1960s’
Writing of the closure in early 1965 of the Features Department, Asa Briggs identifies one of Frank Gillard’s reasons for the controversial decision as ‘the incursion of television, which was developing its own features.’ ‘[Laurence] Gilliam and his closest colleagues believed in the unique merits of “pure radio” ’, Briggs continues: ‘The screen seemed a barrier.’ (The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume V: Competition, Oxford, 1995, p. 348)

Although in Briggs’ account it is unclear for whom the screen is ‘a barrier’, from the mid-1950s onwards a number of the creators of the emerging television documentary were able to transfer and transform distinctive techniques of ‘pure radio’ into highly effective visual forms. The ‘poetic’ documentaries of producers including Denis Mitchell and Philip Donnellan, employing layered voices, imaginative deployments of music and effects, and allusive juxtapositions of sound and image, developed an alternative (although always marginal) tradition to the supposedly objective approaches of current affairs and, later, verité filmmakers. And a dozen years after the dismemberment of the Features Department, Donnellan paid tribute to it in his glorious but little-seen film Pure Radio (BBC1, 3 November 1977).

Taking certain films of Mitchell and Donnellan as case studies, this paper explores the impact of radio features on television documentaries in the 1950s and early 1960s, and assesses the extent to which the screen in its intermedial relationships with ‘pure radio’ was a barrier or, in the work of certain creators, an augmentation.


Todd Avery is Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His publications include Radio Modernism: Literature, Ethics, and the BBC, 1922-1938 (2006); ‘Desmond MacCarthy and the Aestheticist Ethics of Broadcasting’ (2009); ‘The Trumpets of Autocracies and the Still, Small Voices of Civilization: Levinas and Radio in a Time of Crisis’ (2013); and several works on the Bloomsbury Group. His current research projects include a collaborative study of The Listener and a monograph on Lytton Strachey’s engagements with religion.

Hugh Chignell is Professor of Media History and Director of the Centre for Media History at Bournemouth University. He has published widely on both factual historic radio and on post-war radio drama. Hugh is a founder member of the Entangled Media Histories Network and he advises the British Library on its plans to save the nation’s sounds.

Alex Goody is Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature at Oxford Brookes University. Her research centres on the intersections between technology, literature and modernity, with a particular focus on the work of women writers. She has published a range of pieces on radio drama and modernism and she is the author of Technology, Literature and Culture (2011).

David Hendy is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Sussex. He is currently working on The BBC: A Century in British Life, which will be published in 2022 to mark the Corporation’s official Centenary. His previous books include: Radio in the Global Age (2000), Life on Air: A History of Radio Four (2007), which won the Longmans-History Today Book of the Year award, Public Service Broadcasting (2013), and Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening (2013). The last book accompanied a thirty-part BBC Radio 4 series. David has also written and presented programmes for BBC Radio 3.

Alex Lawrie is a Chancellor’s Fellow in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Her primary research interests are in intellectual and pedagogical history, middlebrow publishing, modernist literature, and interwar British fiction and the BBC. Her current project focuses on the content and impact of BBC wireless broadcasts, publications, and adult education activities relating to literature between the 1920s and 1950s.

Aasiya Lodhi is a Lecturer in Radio and Journalism at the University of Westminster. Her research interests centre on transnationalism, modernism and BBC Radio, with a particular focus on the works of Louis MacNeice and E.M. Forster. She’s a former BBC producer with a specialism in arts and foreign affairs radio programming. Her many features for BBC Radios 3 and 4 include Auden: Six Unexpected Days, Children of The Whitsun Weddings and The Lament of Swordy Well.

Kate Murphy is Senior Lecturer in History at Bournemouth University. Prior to joining Bournemouth in 2012, she worked at the BBC for over two decades, mainly as a Senior Producer on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. She completed her part-time PhD at Goldsmiths in 2011, and her thesis has just been published as the book Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Leonie Thomas is a PhD student in English, co-supervised at the Universities of Exeter and Bristol as part of an AHRC-funded Doctoral Training Partnership. Her doctoral project is ‘Wireless Women: Listening In to Forgotten Female Voices at the BBC, 1922-1955’; it explores the interaction between the voices of influential female writers and the production, broadcast and reception of early BBC radio. Leonie won the Gamini Salgado Prize for her undergraduate dissertation in English at Exeter in 2013; she gained an MA in English Literature at Bristol in 2015.

Amanda Wrigley is Research Fellow at the University of Westminster. She is a cultural historian working on British radio and television programmes which adapt and create dramatic and literary forms, with interests in adaptation, audiences and education. Her latest book is Greece on Air: Engagements with Ancient Greece on BBC Radio, 1920s-1960s (OUP, 2015); she also co-edited a volume of Louis MacNeice’s radio scripts (OUP, 2013). She is Associate Editor of The Radio Journal and serves on the UK Radio Archives Advisory Committee.

John Wyver is a writer and producer with Illuminations, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Westminster, and Director of Screen Productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company. With Amanda Wrigley, he developed the AHRC-funded research project Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television (2011-15) and he is the author of Vision On: Film, Television and the Arts in Britain (2007).