A century of good coverage

An exhibition on the history of the Radio Times reveals much about the changing state of the magazine industry

With radio still in its infancy, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was founded in October 1922, broadcasting for the first time on November 14, from the seventh floor of Marconi House on London’s Strand with the call sign 2LO. Whilst it initially broadcast for just a single hour each day, by the spring of 1923 the BBC’s first director-general John Reith faced an ultimatum from the Newspaper Publishers Association. The NPA stated that if the BBC did not pay a substantial fee, all of the association’s member publications would refuse to carry radio listings.

The embargo, although short-lived, offered Reith time to consider creating a dedicated listings magazine and on September 28, 1923, the first edition of the Radio Times, “the official organ of the BBC”, was published. Nine decades on the magazine’s history is being celebrated in Cover Story: Radio Times at 90, an exhibition at the Museum of London curated by Jim Gledhill.
Running chronologically, the exhibition consists of enlarged reproductions of key covers and a range of supporting material, from an original copy of the first issue and artwork, to historical documents – including an original production drawing of a Dalek from the 1960s – and film archive clips.

Originally, the Radio Times was a joint venture between the corporation and George Newnes Ltd which produced, printed and distributed the magazine. (The BBC took full control in 1925, bringing the magazine in-house where it remains to this day.) The exhibition opens with the original masthead artwork by an unknown designer, and a copy of the very first issue. Rooted in the vernacular, the cover displays a single black and white photograph of Arthur R Burrows, director of programmes accompanying the lead story, What’s in the air? The article begins: “Hullo, everyone! We will now give you The Radio Times. The good new times. The Bradshaw of Broadcasting. May you never be late for your wave-train. Speed 186,000 miles per second; five hour non-stops. Family season ticket: First Class, 10s per year.”

With the publication of the first Christmas special on December 21, 1923, we see a move towards full-bleed colour covers. The Radio Times masthead – formed of a map of the United Kingdom bounded by an aerial array – is deconstructed leaving only the distinctive logotype, combined with an illustration typical of the period showing an idealised family at home listening to the radio. The biggest step forward in the magazine’s cover designs, however, came a decade later when, in the 1930s, it embarked upon a paradigm shift towards modernism.

There is Stanley Herbert’s May 18, 1934 cover with its single coverline “Whitsun Number”, for example. It depicts a stylised gentleman walking through the British landscape, surrounded by bluebells and spring lambs, with a radio strapped to his back. John Gilroy, who was best known for his designs for Guinness, created the cover for the October 9, 1936 “Humour Number” – the black and white line artwork is exhibited alongside the final cover. Artist Christopher Nevinson’s original painting, which formed the cover for the May 7, 1937 issue celebrating the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, is also on display.

With the advent of the second world war, the modernist approach to cover design – each with an independently distinct logotype – gives way to a far more conservative approach and to printing in purely black and white. And where the modernist era was dominated by graphic illustration, photography now becomes the dominant visual element.

With the BBC and the Radio Times playing a significant part in war propaganda, at the outbreak of the conflict the magazine’s staff were relocated from their central London offices to the Waterlow printing plant in suburban Park Royal, which was viewed as a safer location. However, as shown in an original 1941 Luftwaffe Stadtplan von London map (one of many pieces of ephemera included in the show) issued to the German bomber crews who flew night raids over the capital, the plant is clearly marked as a potential target. In the lower left corner of the map it is ringed in red and marked “171” with the corresponding key on the right reading: “Waterlow’s Grossdruckerel (Bild Grossblatt 12)”.

Whilst the Radio Times had begun to mention “experimental television transmissions by the Baird process” as early as 1928, it wasn’t until the November 2, 1936 issue, and the start of the first ‘405-line’ high-definition service, that the magazine became the world’s first television listings magazine. At first a mere two pages a week sufficed, but this had changed dramatically by January 1937 when the magazine began to publish a “lavish” photogravure supplement for readers in London who could pick up transmissions from Alexandra Palace.

In 1955, competition appeared on the horizon in the form of the TV Times. Like the Radio Times, which had continued with its conservative approach to design in marked contrast to the modernist period of the 30s, it was produced in black and white only, but marked its arrival in the marketplace with the use of a vibrant magenta as a second colour. Despite this new challenger, the Radio Times continued along its chosen path until 1960 when the increased competition led to a revamp of the magazine by Abram Games.

The designer had produced a number of covers for the magazine during the 1930s and 40s, as well as the BBC’s first animated on-screen television identity in 1953, the first of its kind in the world (officially known as the Television Symbol, it was often referred to as the ‘bat’s wings’). Yet despite the modernist structure that Games applied to his new Radio Times identity, the design was short-lived and the magazine was revamped once again, largely unsuccessfully from a design perspective, in 1962.

Games’ redesign and the version that followed lacked the contemporary highs of the modernist era, and the magazine became ever more tired. But in July 1967, BBC Two became Britain’s first colour television channel and colour annotations were utilised in the Radio Times alongside programme listings. Of greater significance was the use of colour on the magazine’s covers, a process which had previously been reserved only for Christmas and other special occasions.
However, by the end of the decade the Radio Times was showing its age and, facing increased competition from the TV Times, the BBC took the initiative to look outside the corporation and to the young art director David Driver and editor Geoffrey Cannon, who were hired to transform the title from cover to cover. Driver established a clean and rational approach to the magazine’s design and created a distinctive new logo with elegant swash capitals that, in one form or another, would last for over two decades.

During this period there are covers that in terms of quality, equalled those not seen since the modernist era. “The Daleks are back!”, states one cover line, over an illustration of the Doctor and a Dalek by Frank Bellamy, possibly best known for his work on the Eagle’s Dan Dare comic strips. In fact, looking through copies of the Radio Times from the early 1970s, it appears to read like a Who’s Who of contemporary illustration. (Incidentally, Dr Who has featured on more Radio Times covers than any other programme; while Queen Elizabeth II is the most featured individual.)

For the illustration on the June 15, 1986 cover featuring Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, the editorial team turned to Mark Thomas who had created the TV series’ title sequence – creating one of the most iconic covers of the period. Whilst this era is marked by its strong use of illustration, the Radio Times’s art directors utilised photography frequently and with equal power. The magazine’s art department formed a proving ground for a raft of young designers who were to carve out significant careers in editorial design, such as Robert Priest, Derek Ungless and Martin Colyer.

For years, the newspapers could only carry programme schedules for the day of publication, and the BBC and ITV retained exclusive rights over their own weekly listings. But this monopoly was challenged by other publishers, and under the 1990 Broadcasting Act they were granted access to this information. So as the twentieth-century drew to a close, the market began to change once more, with increasing competition from ever more sources, as newspapers began producing TV and radio supplements, and other publishers entered the market with weekly titles.
It was this period that designer Mike Dempsey touched upon in 2011 on his superb Graphic Journey blog, in a post entitled Sign of the Times, which generated much debate amongst editorial designers. Whilst Dempsey makes many valid points about the remarkable period under Driver, who left the magazine in 1981, the market had changed dramatically and the Radio Times needed to adapt and face the new competition head on. A redesign in the late 1990s by CDT (Dempsey was not involved), which sought to realign the magazine, brought a new sans serif logo and structure to the title. But the overall effect was marked by a blandness that lacked personality and was quickly abandoned.

In 2001 Shem Law was appointed as design director and introduced a more robust visual aesthetic that was better suited to the now complex multi-channel marketplace and the more celebrity-driven approach that had become a major driving force for such magazines. Whilst earlier decades had seen illustration and photography used in equal quantities in the magazine, Law moved towards a greater use of the latter, sharing values with the celebrity titles that the Radio Times now found itself competing with.

Whilst we can look back at the Driver era with admiration, comparing the challenges that Law and his team face with the earlier period is difficult – in the same way that comparing Driver’s era with the modernist approach of the 1930s is. Each period presented new challenges to the editorial designer. We could say that the 1930s was far more innocent and that the 70s saw competition from a single weekly title in the form of the TV Times. But for Law it was not simply the challenge from a plethora of weekly TV magazines that he faced, or the vast range of TV channels now available, but the increasing significance of the digital era that we were entering.
And whilst Law opted for greater use of photography, he does not rely upon photography alone. He creates pace in the covers across the year, mixing in illustration from time-to-time with great and powerful effect. In a 2005 cover, Law looked back to a vintage photograph of the Daleks crossing Westminster Bridge to create a bold and striking election special edition with the coverline “Vote Dalek!”; while for the February 11, 2012 Call the Midwife issue, he turned to Thomas (of The Singing Detective cover) to produced a bold period illustration. For the recent issue celebrating the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Law opted for a child’s illustration of the happy couple, smiling from inside a golden carriage, which distinguished the magazine from the myriad other covers in the marketplace, all of which opted for a more conservative photographic route.

In Cover Story, Gledhill carefully represents the visual history of the Radio Times across its nine decades and the key cultural markers of the period. Visitors are able to trace the magazine’s design evolution from the very first issue rooted in the vernacular, through the modernist era and onwards into its contemporary form. Through these covers we can witness both a changing visual approach and attitude as the magazine responds to evermore complex markets.

Wayne Ford is a designer and creative director (@wayneford). Cover Story: Radio Times at 90 is at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN until November 3. More details at museumoflondon.org.uk

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