How the BBC Finally Reached the Ears of the British Empire

It was December 19, 1932, when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) first broadcast an international transmission. They called their new service Empire Service for obvious reasons.

Using shortwave radio technology, the British could finally keep the entire empire apprised of the goings on in London and elsewhere.

One could say it was the dawn of a new day, but there were already stations using shortwave radio for boosting international signals.

This, however, was the beginning for one of the world’s most venerable media outlets, and at the time, of the world’s leaders: the United Kingdom, more known at the time as the British Empire. This was the beginning of the future of broadcasting

BBC Beginnings

Dame Nellie Melba Broadcasting |

The first broadcasts from the BBC were emitted in the summer of 1920, sent out from the Marconi factory in Chelmsford. One of the first sounds they broadcast was the smooth sounds of Dame Nellie Melba, a famous Australian soprano of the day.

While the military had their reservations about this BBC interfering with radio transmissions, the people of England rather enjoyed it. But, as these types of things are wont to go, the pressure from the military shut down operations for two years.

In 1922 when they reopened due to an enormous request for licensing and 63 petitions from wireless societies. The governing body of broadcasting at the time, the General Post Office (GPO) made a decision.

The GPO would allow one license, under the name British Broadcasting Company Ltd. This new BBC would fund broadcasts by collecting royalties from approved receiver sales.


Sir John Reith | BBC


At the Colonial Conference of 1927, the British Government entertained the possibility of using shortwave to extend their broadcast reach.

There was only one problem with this fancy new technology. It wasn’t free to produce. Also, there was no room in the budget for this sort of thing. There were barely above water at that point.

Despite these challenges, the director of the BBC at the time, Sir John Reith, insisted they push forward with adopting this technology. His plan was to shuffle the money being paid by existing British listeners, carving out a teeny-tiny budget to get started.

They would get the ball rolling by broadcasting a limited spectrum of content, not the most stunning broadcasts, but it would be something at least. If the new service survived a low budget and poor broadcast content, then they could go from that point.

Going Global

JH Whitley | BBC

It was a Saturday, at 9:30 in the morning when the first blast hit the international airwaves. The first voice was that of chairman JH Whitley, followed by Reith.

The first parts of the empire to hear the broadcasts were Australia and New Zealand, but four other broadcasts would go out that day to other regions.

Although they sent out the transmissions in the morning, the recipients heard them in the evening. They weren’t quite as limited to the intended areas either.

Proof that everything is weird down there, some folks in Australia picked up the West Indies service better, while some in New Zealand tuned in to hear the West Africa broadcast.

Early Broadcasts

King George V | BBC

In time, the BBC stopped identifying which region they’d targeted for the broadcast. That way listeners didn’t feel they were listening to the incorrect broadcast. They played music, mostly, but included events like cricket and tennis.

Once they proved that they could make it viable, the man at the head of the Empire Service pushed for more money to fund a better service. By the following year, he’d doubled the budget twice.

By 1934, the BBC organized an Empire orchestra for the broadcasts. The popularity of connecting the world implied some sort of future where people would connect across networks as easily as using a pocket device of some sort…

The big historic event went down long before budgets and regions expanded. It was only six days after the first transmission that they broadcast a Christmas message; the first ever Royal radio broadcast featuring King George V.