Arthur Richard Burrows was British broadcasting’s multiple pioneer. He was the first journalist to be employed by the nascent British Broadcast Company in 1922, its first director of programmes for its first London radio station 2LO, the first person to compile and present a news bulletin for the BBC, The BBC’s first ‘Radio Uncle’ for children’s programming, and to cap it all he was also the BBC’s first Father Christmas when playing the lead part in a play specially written for the new medium of radio on Christmas Eve in 1922.
And all the while he was a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Journalists. He was a newspaperman and quintessential journalist through and through having served a five year apprenticeship on the Oxford Times.
He specialised in reporting on the new technology of radio telegraphy, telephony and all its possibilities for broadcasting. In many respects he was the journalistic prophet to Guglielmo Marconi’s world changing inventions.
The Institute can be truly proud to celebrate the fact that BBC journalism began with one of its distinguished members and Fellows. Burrows deserves some attention at the time of the BBC’s celebration of its 100 year history.
Arthur Richard Burrows was born in the centre of Oxford’s University district in 1882, but he was by no means the off-spring of Britain’s elite. For his father Alfred was one of the porters of Corpus Christi College- the effective man-servants and butlers to the students. His mother Anne was the daughter of a keeper of the university parks.
Arthur had to leave school at the age of 17 on the death of his father and initially earned a living teaching elementary science to evening classes at Oxford City Technical School.
His interest in cycling led to an introduction to the editor of the Oxford Times, a five year apprenticeship in local newspaper journalism, and qualification as a reporter.
By 1911 he was writing for Fleet Street publications such as The Standard specializing in science and technology.
Burrows was always the pioneer and, indeed, accurate prophet on radio’s potential in using the human voice through telephony by wireless.
By 1912 he was one of the first journalists reporting on the significance of amateur wireless. In 1914 he was appointed news editor of the new Wireless Press Service of the Marconi company.
During the Great War he collected and translated enemy propaganda telegraphic broadcasts and distributed them to government departments.
He also prepared a nightly telegraph news bulletin from the Marconi station at Poldhu, Cornwall, to naval and merchant ships at sea.
In 1918 he saw action in France with the Middlesex Regiment and after being invalided became publicity manager for Marconi. There he pioneered voice radio and was part of the team responsible for Dame Nellie Melba’s famous broadcast in June 1920- said to have been heard as far away as Persia.
He was at the very centre of spectacular wireless newspaper projects on ocean-going liners travelling across the Atlantic and connecting Fleet Street newspapers with the first session of the League of Nations assembly in Geneva.
He was the manager for Marconi’s 2LO London radio station and introduced its daily one hour of programming by ringing out the Westminster chimes on a set of tubular bells.
When the BBC was formed with 2LO becoming its London centre, Arthur Burrows was the first Director of Programmes, and the writer and presenter of the first news bulletin on 14th November 1922.
According to the BBC ‘he read each bulletin twice – once quickly and once slowly’ – and asked listeners to say which version they preferred.
He later wrote: ‘I am prepared to assert that there is no more exacting test of physical fitness and nervous condition than the reading of a news bulletin night after night to the British Isles.’
Arthur Burrows wrote the front cover article on the first page of the first issue of The Radio Times 28th September 1923 and the intro and first paragraph is testament to what a superb journalist he was:
‘What’s in the Air? Hello everyone! We will now give you The Radio Times. The good new times. The Bradshaw of Broadcasting. May you never be late for your favourite wave-train. Speed 186,000 miles per second; five-hour non-stops. Family season ticket: First Class, 10s. per year.’
Written as though it was spoken and literate. Broadcasting news writing at the very best and from the very first.
Two descriptions of the great esteem in which he was held. First by his colleague L Stanton Jefferies, the BBC’s first musical director:
‘My immediate superior in the early days was Arthur Burrows, known to many, as “Uncle Arthur.” He was head of Marconi Publicity, a charming man, easy to work with and encouraging. He became Director of Programmes at the inauguration of the B.B.C. in November 1922, and eventually went to Geneva as head of the International Wireless Bureau. We were the first announcers, and he nearly always helped during the “Wireless Concert” age. A mellow voice that was particularly suited to the old O’Connor microphone.’
And Guglielmo Marconi himself wrote the foreword to Arthur Burrows’ 1924 book The Story of Broadcastingand said:
‘I am pleased that Mr. Burrows, who made early and singularly correct predictions and who has been so intimately associated with his popular application of wireless science, has placed on record the story of broadcasting from its inception, dating back, as he sates, to the first S O S at sea. I concur with the author of this book in the belief that broadcasting, properly handled, will make a material contribution towards greater understanding and amity between Nations, the cementing of home life and the happiness of the individual.’
Arthur Burrows died in 1947 at the age of 65 shortly after the BBC celebrated its silver jubilee. He had rejoined the corporation in 1940 and finished the Second World War as Director of Broadcasting at the Ministry of Information.
The Chartered Institute of Journalists is rightly proud that he was a Fellow of the Institute and a life-long member who was responsible for founding and starting broadcast journalism in Britain.