9. Radio and TV

I am of the BTV generation (Before TV) and my grandfather was Before Radio. Now radios are part of mobile phones no bigger than a pack of cards and TV pictures may be viewed on their tiny screen.

My mother talked about her family sitting round a metal washing-up bowl used to amplify sound from a ‘crystal-set’, the first primitive radio, which we all had a go at making, with varying degrees of success.

Radio programmes saw our parents through the war and beyond: Workers Playtime, Henry Hall’s Guest Night, ITMA, Woman’s Hour, Take it From Here and others long forgotten. For me it was Listen with Mother, The Goon Show, Round the Horne, Radio Luxembourg and the Top Twenty, to name just a few. There is something about imagining the characters and scenes that television will never do for me.

Radio sets themselves relied on things called valves (tubes in the US) to convert the radio signal into sound from a loudspeaker. The sets were big, got quite hot and were not always reliable. They were tuned to a station using a dial which had a list of stations and a pointer. Much later when FM, Hi-Fi and stereo were invented then special indicators showed when you were exactly on the correct frequency.

Broadcasting in stereo led to sets with two speakers which combined with record players became radiograms.

Initially portable sets were either powered by batteries the size and weight of two house-bricks, but when the transistor was invented then the sets shrunk to the size of the batteries that powered them plus a tiny speaker or headphones, much like now.

There was a problem: as the number of stations increased, they began to overlap and quality was lost. AM (Amplitude Modulation) had been the system from the start, but was the source of the problem. When FM (Frequency Modulation) took over reception became clearer and tuning more precise, but the downside was, and is, that the range of transmitters is limited and AM is still better for long range listening. Now we are being bombarded to change to DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting). True it can be clearer, but reception not always good, indeed in some places impossible. It seems that the UK government rushed into an unproven system which is not as good as it should be.


However television did come along and although broadcasting had begun in 1936 sets were not common until the 1950s, the coronation being that point in time for many people. Until very recently all TVs had a Cathode Ray Tube to produce the picture, which meant that early TVs were sometimes ‘deeper’ than they were wide. The tube was circular although the picture was rectangular so the cabinet masked the unused part of the screen. Of course it was black and white and seldom more than 12” across, but we loved it. Posh folk had polished wooden cabinets often with doors to hide the screen when not in use. Screens became more rectangular and shorter as time went by, but the cabinet was cubic until some bright spark came upon the idea of letting the tube stick out of the back so it all looked a bit more streamlined.

Of course initially there was only one station (BBC) which only broadcast in the evening and closed at or before most folk’s bedtime. ITV came later and advertising hit viewers in their own living room, but still broadcasting ended at ~11pm with ‘The Epilogue’, a religious programme on ITV or the National Anthem on BBC. An announcer would remind you to switch-off: if you didn’t a loud tone would force you to do so; when you did switch off the picture ‘collapsed in on itself’ ending with a white dot at the centre which gradually faded away as we watched in fascination.

BBC 2 arrived in 1964, colour TV started in 1967, but not much else until digital broadcasting began in the 1990s. Cable, satellite and Freeview though the aerial allowed viewers to watch as many channels as they could afford and a limited number free.

Finally, for now, came the ‘flat-screen’ making it possible, by modern digital electronics, for a TV to be so thin it can be hung on the wall and no-one wanted their old tellies any more. Smart TV with direct internet and email access are already in the shops and who knows what next?


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