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‘The new medium of radio: threat and healing during the early 1920s’


Michael Guida
(Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sussex)

The conditions of mass culture, mass consumption and universal suffrage of the early twentieth century raised the question in anxious professional classes of how to create an informed and cultured modern democracy, and how new forms of mass media might help in that task. The vision for BBC radio in the early 1920s was led by John Reith’s belief in enabling self-improvement for all people through access to ‘the best of everything’.

But, some saw a risk of standardization of taste and thought in radio’s mass address. Moreover, radio brought a continuous new noise into the domestic setting, potentially contributing to the neurasthenia triggered modern life and the aftermath of trench warfare. This paper explores how nature programming was used to counter such concerns, drawing on BBC archives, Radio Times, listeners’ opinion and wireless set manufacturers’ advertising. Scholarly work about the BBC’s early output rarely plays attention to natural history or to science programmes.

Radio’s connection to the mysterious ether which inspired tales of healing, both spiritual and physical, will be discussed alongside the BBC’s own propaganda about the healing qualities of radio programming itself. The status of British nature in the public mind, especially after the experience of the First World War, will be analyzed through representations in soldiers’ accounts and in War Office reports, which draw upon ideas about the resilience of the natural world, its regenerative capacities, as well as the medical and political belief that the balm of the countryside held its own intrinsic healing properties.

Both Reith and Stanley Baldwin had solidified the rural idyll as part of national ideology in the early 1920s with evocations of the sound of the nightingale, corncrake and the scythe against the whetstone. Depictions of nature on the wireless provided more than simply comforting nostalgia for the old country, they fulfilled an immediate need for peaceful, quiet relief, even ‘silence’, to which only nature could give expression.