The Changing World: The BBC’s educational response to the economic crisis of 1931

Jones, Allan (2013). The Changing World: The BBC’s educational response to the economic crisis of 1931. In: History of the Media in Transition Periods, 4-6 Sep 2013, Catholic University of Portugal/Lisbon, ECREA – European Communication Research and Education Association.


In Autumn 1931 and Spring 1932, at a time of global and national economic crisis, the BBC subsumed all its adult education radio broadcasts under the title The Changing World. The series was described in promotional literature as ‘an attempt ... to face up squarely to the present situation, and to provide a survey of the many changes in outward circumstance, and in the evolution of thought and of values, which have brought into being the world as it is to-day.’
The Changing World comprised 144 broadcasts, each lasting around 25 minutes. The broadcasts were presented by eminent figures, such as the poet T. S. Eliot, the writer Harold Nicolson, the scientist Julian Huxley, and the economist William Beveridge. All talks were transmitted at ‘prime time’ in the early evening, and were intended for general listeners. In addition, associated pamphlets were published by the BBC in which speakers developed their thoughts.
The series was avowedly based on the premise that the contemporary crisis was a singular historical episode, calling for special consideration. Its roots lay in the cataclysm of the First World War, but it was also a manifestation of the many conflicting philosophies which ran through public life: socialism versus capitalism; nationalism versus internationalism; science (or secularism) versus spirituality; and modernism versus classicism. The crisis was seen as pervading most areas of cultural, creative and economic life, such as politics, the arts, science, and education.
In another sense, though, the series was very much a product of its time. Broadcast radio, and in particular public service broadcasting, was barely ten years old, but in that short time it had developed from a specialist, minority pursuit to a cultural and educational resource in the lives of most of the population. This paper argues that The Changing World therefore represents a coming -of-age of radio – a realisation among its staff that it was especially fitted to tackle momentous topics on behalf of the public. The series marks a growing confidence among broadcasting practitioners in the medium, and a growing self-confidence in themselves as professional intermediaries between the public and the intellectual world.
The talk draws on original, unpublished archive material relating to the series, and on associated publications. Although no sound recordings of the series survive, many of the talks were published. Extracts from the talks give an impression of the approaches and styles, and internal BBC documents indicate the ambition and scope of the producers. Reviews and comments also indicate the reception of the series. The paper also locates The Changing World in the context of the BBC’s own historical development, and its sometimes uneasy political position as a quasi-autonomous body which was nevertheless subject in various ways to government pressure.

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