The history of Radio Times

'To flick through the covers of Radio Times over the past 90 years is to watch a popular history of Britain unfold...'

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Radio Times was born in 1923, after John Reith (the BBC’s first director-general) received an ultimatum from the Newspaper Publishers’ Association:  pay up, or NPA publications won’t carry radio listings.  Despite the embargo’s short lifespan it was enough for Reith to conceive the idea of the BBC publishing its own magazine solely dedicated to radio listings – hence the first edition of The Radio Times, ‘the official organ of the BBC’, brought to news stands on 28th September 1923.

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Radio Times was initially a joint venture between the BBC and publisher George Newnes Ltd, who produced, printed and distributed the magazine.  However, in 1925 the BBC assumed editorial control and by 1937 had taken the entire operation in-house, where it has remained ever since.   As the magazine grew in popularity, it established a reputation for engaging leading writers and illustrators of the day – the covers from special editions of this early period are recognised as design classics.

It wasn’t just about radio for very long.  From 1928, Radio Times announced a regular series of ‘experimental television transmissions by the Baird process’ for half an hour every morning.  Finally in November 1936, with the start of the first 405-line high-definition service, Radio Times became the world’s first television listings magazine.

Two pages a week, at the back of the magazine, were originally devoted to TV listings, but this soon increased – by January 1937 Radio Times published a lavish photogravure supplement for readers in the London area able to receive transmissions from Alexandra Palace (the first home of the BBC Television Service).  By September 1939 Radio Times was giving three pages a week to television, but transmissions then ceased on 3September when war was declared, ‘in order to prevent enemy aircraft from using its signal as a directional beacon’ – and the nation turned again to the wireless.

‘Broadcasting carries on!’ announced the first wartime Radio Times, though there was only the one channel – the Home Service – to inform, educate and entertain through the dark years ahead.  By 1944 paper rationing had reduced the magazine to 20 pages of tiny print on thin paper, but despite the disruption of war not a single edition was missed.

Post-1945

Broadcasting boomed in the years immediately following the war, and Radio Times with it, announcing the introduction of the Light Programme, the Third programme, and the return of TV.  Radio Times began producing various regional editions to meet the needs and changes of different geographical and broadcasting areas, recognising the TV was the medium of the future.  This was marked in 1953 when the television listings were moved to the front of the magazine and integrated with day-by-day radio listings.  The BBC considered also registering ‘TV Times’ as a name, but the then general manager of BBC publications thought that television wouldn’t catch on and rejected the idea.

Competition arrived in 1955, in the form of new channel ITV.  Despite their new rival the BBC retained exclusive rights over the publication of its own listings, and ITV with its regional subsidiaries did the same, launching their own titles like TV Times, The Viewer and Look Westward.  Consequently the only way to have full listings details was to buy two magazines, so Radio Times’s peak weekly circulation of 8.8m only declined slightly.  Television increasingly became the subject of the cover image, and in 1957 Radio Times moved its television listings to their own, separate section at the front of the magazine, before radio.   In 1960, the ‘programme week’ (previously from Sunday to Saturday) changed to the now-familiar Saturday to Friday.

Colour arrives

When BBC2 began transmitting in 1964 Radio Times expanded its TV listings as the new channel spread out across the country.  This channel became Britain’s first colour channel in July 1967, and Radio Times featured ‘colour’ annotations against respective programmes in the listings.  The now-iconic cover, usually only in colour at Christmas and for other special events, became printed in colour on a regular basis.  See, for example, the cover of 28 September 1967 with a classic 1960s ‘dolly bird’.

At the end of the 1960s Radio Times had a young new editor in Geoffrey Cannon, who modernised the magazine and gave it the distinctive italic title (variations of which continued to stay on the cover for over 30 years).  Radio Times moved confidently through the seventies and introduced local radio listings as the BBC launched these across the country.   Special editions were produced to mark events like broadcasting anniversaries, royal celebrations and the starts of high-profile new series. 

In the 1980s, new printing methods replacing newsprint and metal meant that Radio Times could be published in more, brighter colours.  Its popularity climaxed in 1988 when the Christmas edition sold an astounding 11,220,666 copies – a feat that goes down in history and the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest-selling edition of any British magazine.

Market competition

For years newspapers were only allowed to carry programme schedules for the day of publication, so the BBC and ITV retained their exclusive rights over their own weekly listings.  However, other publishers began to challenge this monopoly and in 1990 the Broadcasting Act allowed them access to this previously-denied information.  This led to a burst of rival listings magazines, and Radio Times faced its biggest challenge – to reinvent itself and survive in a now highly-competitive market.  Under the direction of editor Nicholas Brett the magazine responded with expanded listings to cover all channels, celebrity and expert columnists and new-look features.

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Irrespective of competition Radio Times remains the most comprehensive, authoritative and quality listings guide on offer, devoting ten pages to TV per day.  In November 2011 BBC Magazines (including Radio Times) was sold to the Immediate Media Company, where the change in ownership marked a new chapter in Radio Times history – but no change to the publication or the high standards of editorial quality.  Under the editorship of Ben Preston Radio Times sells almost a million copies every week in six regional editions, and has a popular website that attracts up to 3 million unique users a month.