This page was first published in September 2013, updated April 2021.
In spring 1923, John Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, received an ultimatum from the Newspaper Publishers' Association - pay a fee for inclusion of radio listings or they will no longer be carried.
The threat didn't last for long, but it was enough to germinate the idea of a dedicated listings magazine -The Radio Times, The Official Organ of the BBC - and the first edition appeared on the September 28, 1923.
Initially a joint venture between the the BBC and publisher George Newnes Ltd, who produced, printed and distributed the magazine, BBC took over editorial control in 1925, and by 1937 the entire operation had moved in-house.
The Radio Times has always been more than just a list of programmes, and contributions from leading writers and illustrators of the day have ensured that many editions are now highly sought-after.
The Radio Times saw and embraced the advent of television and as early as 1929 it announced a regular series of 'experimental television transmissions by the Baird process' for half an hour every morning.
When the first 405-line high-definition service started on November 2, 1936, the Radio Times marked the occassion with a specially commissioned cover by Eric Fraser for the 'Television Number' - a highly collectable edition, now available in digital form for the first time.
The London regional pages were given over to coverage of the Television service until January 1937, when the lavish photogravure Television Supplement was included for a percentage of readers in the London area who could pick up transmissions from Alexandra Palace.
By the time war was declared in September 1939, three pages a week were devoted to television, but the service was closed down for the duration to prevent the possible use of Television signals as a homing device by the enemy.
As the war progressed, paper rationing reduced the magazine to 20 pages, but the mix of listings, articles and illustrations continued by maximising what space was available and reducing the type-face. Just like the Windmill Theatre which 'never closed', the Radio Times was published every week throughout the war, even producing additional editions for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF).
Post-war there was a steady expansion in broadcasting, and RT flourished with it, announcing the introduction of the Light Programme, the Third Programme, and the return of television. The number of regional variations of the magazine grew to meet the demands and the production of the magazine became more complex task.
1953 is seen as the turning point of British Television, with the Coronation the focal point of the switch in dominance between television and radio. This was reflected in the Radio Times as television listings were incorporated into the day-to-day view rather than as a separate section at the back.
It was also at this time that it was suggested that the name TV Times should be registered, but the notion was rejected by the general manager of BBC publications who didn't think television would catch on! This was only two years before the launch of Independent Television.
Competition had arrived, but the BBC retained sole rights to the listings of their channels (and the ITV companies followed suit), so until 1991 if you wanted to know what was on all channels you had to buy two magazines, and it wasn't until 1968 that the ITV companies unified their listings under the TV Times title.
For three successive years in the mid 50s the Radio Times produced Annuals - the first of many occassional special editions that have appeared over the years.
By 1957 the dominance of television was secured and television listings took pride of place at the front of the magazine, and nudged radio from the front cover more often.
The sixties saw some marked changes to the magazine - the first, in 1960, was a move to a Saturday-Friday programme week (since issue 1 the week had started on a Sunday). The second was the launch of BBC2 in April 1964 and the gradual roll-out to the regions. (A detailed explanation of this can be found on radiotimesbacknumbers.com). This was Britain's first colour television channel and after the launch of colour in July 1967 programme listings started to appear with the annotation 'colour' alongside.
The last major difference was the regular use of colour on the cover. Spot (or single) colour had been in use for Christmas editions for some while, but by the end of the decade full colour was normal.
The marketing power of Doctor Who was also discovered during the 60s and there were no less than 6 special covers.
The seventies started with a new editor, a new masthead design, a Doctor Who cover each January for first 4 years and a steady increase in regional editions as BBC Local Radio stations launched across the country. There were more 'one off' specials, to commemorate a new TV series or an anniversary and the magazine grew in size with more colour throughout.
In 1983 the web-offset method of printing was used for the first time, and the magazine became brighter and more colourful - gone were the sludgy greys of newsprint and black hands from leafing through. This may have been a contributing factor for the Radio Times gaining a place in the Guinness Book of Records in 1988, when the Christmas edition sold a staggering 11,220,666 copies, making it the biggest selling edition of any British magazine in history.
Change was inevitable, and in 1991 the duopoly on listings - the BBC and ITV retained sole rights for their own programme listings - was about to end. Suddenly the two TV listings guides were able to publish the other channel listings, and other publishers could do the same. Satellite broadcasting was also added into the mix, and suddenly there were a dozen or so magazines all fighting for the same readership.
The Radio Times is unique in still offering what the title suggests, radio times, and has embraced the digital age with additional listings covering the BBCs digital channels, both television and radio, and also exists on-line at www.radiotimes.com.
External linksRadio Times
The UKs oldest listings magazine - nearly 100 years old and still going strong.BBC Genome
Searchable listings digitised from the Radio Times covering 1923 to 2009.History of the BBC Website
Fascinating facts and details of the UKs oldest broadcaster, incorporating all Pre-war Television material created for this website.
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This website has been produced with the permission and support of the Radio Times and financial support from the Shiers Trust (2008, 2010 awards).
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