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Tuning into nature in interwar Britain: biology and natural history on the BBC

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The history of science in the mass media of early 20th-century Britain remains relatively unexplored. In particular, the place of radio within a broader assemblage of mass media technologies, including print and film, deserves closer attention. Science broadcasts were fundamental to the BBC ’s commitment to ‘public service broadcasting’, and programmes about natural history, biology and agriculture appeared frequently on the BBC ’s schedule practically from its inception.

Natural history broadcasts were an ideal vehicle for education and were often the focus of children’s programmes and School Broadcasts. Of these, David Seth-Smith’s ‘Zoo Man’ features were perhaps the most popular. The BBC ’s output during this time also included adult talks about the life sciences by Julian Huxley, J. Arthur Thompson, Charles Elton and E. Kay Robinson, among many others. On some occasions, these broadcasts sought to experiment with the possibilities offered by new technologies, such as Ludwig Koch’s birdsong recordings, or the cellist Beatrice Harrison’s famous nightingale broadcasts.

This paper argues that these broadcasts, which reached millions of listeners every week, were an indispensable feature of the cultural space occupied by the life sciences in interwar Britain. Situating scientific knowledge as an indispensable characteristic of modern citizenship, they helped to shore up late-imperial Britain’s self-styled scientific hegemony. By selecting representative examples of natural history and biology broadcasts from interwar Britain, this paper will explore how scientific knowledge was produced and circulated on radio at this time.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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