Science, the 1930s and the BBC: competition and collaboration

Jones, Allan (2010). Science, the 1930s and the BBC: competition and collaboration. In: Broadcasting in the 1930s: New Media in a Time of Crisis (part of “On, Archives!” conference), 6-9 Jul 2010, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.



The 'social relations of science' movement grew to prominence in the 1930s. Its story has been told by McGucken (1984), MacLeod and MacLeod (1976), and Werskey (1978) among others. The movement consisted of predominantly left-wing scientists who held that science could and should be applied to the alleviation of social problems, and that a rationally planned society was more just, and more efficient, than one operating on laissez-faire principles. In their view, the potential of science for social improvement was being frustrated by reactionary and vested interests. Part of their mission was to educate the public in science and rational thought. Mass media such as radio were attractive for this function.
This paper looks at the social relations of science movement in relation to science broadcasting on the BBC during the 1930s. During the first half of the 1930s, several 'science and society' broadcasts were given on BBC radio, often by scientists associated with the social relations of science movement, such as physicist Patrick Blackett and mathematician Hyman Levy. These talks will be outlined, as will the BBC's 'Changing World' series of broadcasts which were a direct consequence of the economic crisis of 1930/31.
The paper argues that despite the known liberal sympathies of many of the BBC Talks staff during the early 1930s, 'science and society' talks were regarded by them, and especially by science producer Mary Adams, with suspicion. This was not so much because these talks presented controversial politics (although there was an element of that), but because they were regarded as 'poor radio'. The paper argues that BBC production staff used criteria for assessing broadcasts based on their own developing sense of the professionalism of public service broadcasting. The profession of broadcasting embodied, in the view of BBC staff, the distinct skill of knowing what the audience could cope with and how best to present it. This skill was the exclusive preserve of the professional broadcaster.

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