Public broadcasting began in Wales on 13 February 1923, with the inauguration of the British Broadcasting Company’s station at Cardiff. The Swansea station followed on 12 December 1924. Initially, everything broadcast from Cardiff was produced there, but following the introduction of simultaneous transmission in 1924, around 75% of Cardiff’s output, and a higher percentage of that of Swansea, emanated from London. By the late 1920s, about 70% of the inhabitants of Wales were able to receive the broadcasts of what became, on 1 January 1927, the British Broadcasting Corporation. With the cheapest valve set costing £6 and with the licence fee a further 10 shillings, it is unsurprising that it was not until 1935 that the proportion of Welsh households in possession of a licence reached 50%. Thus, much early listening to radio broadcasting occurred in public halls, and the enthusiasm of the listeners is proof of their delight in the new worlds which were opening up for them.
In February 1929, Cardiff became the main station for the BBC’s West Region, consisting of Wales and south-west England. Most of north and mid-Wales was beyond the reach of its transmitter, which was located at Washford on the Somerset coast. Simultaneous transmission meant that only a small proportion of the programmes audible in the new region were produced within it. The need to provide for audiences in both Wales and south-west England meant that Wales could claim a half of that small proportion. As a result, Welsh-language programmes were virtually non-existent, much to the satisfaction of the West’s director, E.R. Appleton, who argued that when ‘His Majesty’s Government decided to form a corporation for the important function of broadcasting, it was natural that the official language should be used throughout’. He expressed his delight with the West Region, which he argued represented ‘the re-creation of the kingdom of King Arthur’.

This was the context for the struggle waged from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s by the University of Wales, The National Union of Welsh Societies, the Welsh Parliamentary Party and Plaid [Genedlaethol] Cymru, a struggle much assisted by the ability of the young physicist E.G. Bowen to refute the BBC’s arguments concerning the scarcity of wavelengths. The upshot was the establishment of a studio at Bangor in November 1935, the appointment of a Welsh Regional Director (Rhys Hopkin Morris) in September 1936, the erection of a transmitter at Penmon (Llangoed) to serve the north in February 1937 and the allocation of a separate wavelength to the Welsh Service in July 1937. The BBC’s staff in Wales was expanded and by the late 1930s included such talented individuals as Alun Llywelyn-Williams, Sam Jones, Dafydd Gruffydd, Elwyn Evans, Nest Jenkins, John Griffiths, Geraint Dyfnallt Owen and Nan Davies. As they were expected to produce programmes in English and Welsh, they were all fluent in both languages. Although those lacking a knowledge of Welsh – among them Mai Jones and Philip Burton – eventually joined the staff, the preponderance of Welsh-speaking producers in the early years of the BBC’s Welsh Region was the cause of some resentment among the non-Welsh-speaking Welsh. Perhaps the new region’s greatest achievement was the creation of the concept of all-Wales news, an innovation in view of the fact that there was no such thing as an all-Wales newspaper. In Welsh, the most popular programme was Noson Lawen, produced in Bangor by Sam Jones, the BBC’s representative in the north. Broadcasts brought into existence a form of standard spoken Welsh somewhat removed from the staid language of the pulpit, a development of particular interest to Alun Llywelyn-Williams.

With the declaration of war in 1939, the BBC was obliged to transmit a unified service, partly in order to release wavelengths for broadcasts to enemy, allied and occupied countries, partly from the fear that numerous wavelengths, each transmitting its own programme, would provide wireless beams which could be picked up and used by enemy aircraft, but above all because of the urge for centralization inherent in states at war. Some Welsh-language broadcasts survived, transmitted to the whole of the United Kingdom. They included a daily bulletin of world news, which, broadcast at 5 pm, frequently scooped the English 6 pm news. The 1940 National Eisteddfod was held on the radio – three hours of transmissions on the British Home Service, which included 15 minutes apiece for the crown and chair adjudications. There was some grumbling in England against what was seen as the imposition of Welsh, but English-language programmes produced in Wales proved very popular – Mai Jones’s Welsh Rarebit in particular. In addition, the best-loved of all wartime programmes, Tommy Handley’s ITMA, was produced in Wales; the Corporation’s Variety Department moved to Bangor in 1941, causing the Liverpool Daily Post to comment that sedate Bangor ‘lost its innocence overnight with one trainful of actors’.

On 29 July 1945, 81 days after the surrender of Germany, the BBC’s Welsh Home Service was launched. Thus was inaugurated the golden age of sound broadcasting in Wales, an age which lasted until the late 1950s, by which time the majority of Welsh households had acquired television licences. Under the leadership of Alun Oldfield-Davies, Welsh director (1945–48) and Controller Wales (1948–67), the service benefited from the talents of such luminaries as Aneirin Talfan Davies, Hywel Davies and Alun Williams, and of an increasingly experienced group of sports commentators led by G.V. Wynne-Jones. The BBC annual lecture, originally launched in 1938, was revived and culminated in 1962 with Saunders Lewis’s influential Tynged yr Iaith. An advisory council for Wales was established in 1947. It was replaced by the Broadcasting Council for Wales in 1953, when Wales was recognized as a ‘national region’.

The Welsh Broadcasting Council was given responsibility for the policy and content of the Welsh Home Service. It was given advisory powers only in the case of television, which arrived in Wales in August 1952 with the opening of the Wenvoe transmitter. By 1952, parts of Wales were already served by transmitters at Sutton Coldfield (1949) and at Holme Moss (1951). Further BBC transmitters followed at Blaenplwyf, Llanfarian, near Aberystwyth (1957), Llandrindod (1961) and Llanddona (1962). Initially, the United Kingdom was provided with a single unified service, although Oldfield-Davies did succeed in persuading the Corporation to transmit occasional Welsh-language programmes during closed periods. In England, there were vehement protests against them, although all they replaced was the test card. The first Welsh-language television programme – a religious service from Cardiff – was broadcast on 1 March 1953.

The issues that arose in the efforts to create a national radio service for Wales – the link with south-west England, incomprehension in the London head office, enthusiasm for and opposition to increased provision of Welsh-language programmes – were replicated in the case of television. There were, however, two additional factors. One was the fact that the notion that the Welsh nation had an inalienable right to be a broadcasting unit had been established in 1937 and had been confirmed by the designation of Wales in 1953 as a ‘national region’. The other was the beginning in 1955 of commercial television, which from the outset was organized on a regional basis. Wales and south-western England became the responsibility of Television Wales and the West (TWW), whose service was inaugurated in February 1958 from a transmitter at St Hilary, Llanfair. However, much of the north-east was served by the Manchester-based Granada company, which began transmitting Welsh-language programmes in 1957 for an hour a week, twice the amount broadcast by the BBC. Most of the south-west and north-west was beyond the range of any ITV transmitter. In September 1962, those areas became the responsibility of Television Wales West and North (also known as Teledu Cymru). Its sparsely populated territory failed to generate the income necessary for the company’s viability and TWWN merged with TWW in January 1964.

The spur of commercial competition, the urgent pleading of Oldfield-Davies, a less centralist attitude in the BBC’s head office and the eloquent arguments of the Pilkington Committee’s Report (1962) led in 1964 to the inauguration of BBC Wales, a television service unique to Wales. As Wales was also to receive BBC 2, and as there was no commercial television service broadcasting solely to Wales, the notion arose that the BBC should also carry commercially produced programmes aimed at Wales, or at least those in the Welsh language – the kernel of the idea that came to fruition with S4C in 1982. It was an idea long resisted by the BBC, largely on the grounds of the difference between the ethos of public service and commercial broadcasting, and the fear that BBC programmes could become contaminated by advertising.

From 1964, while Wales had BBC Wales, answerable to the Broadcasting Council of Wales, Scotland had to be content with the basic BBC television service with opt-outs, transmissions over which the Broadcasting Council for Scotland had only advisory powers – a nice example of the way in which broadcasting has fuelled much of the advance in the recognition of Wales as a nation. Further evidence of that recognition came in 1965, when TWW separated the service for Wales from that for the West of England. The existence of separate Welsh services made it possible for Welsh-language programmes to be broadcast at peak hours, a development which led many of those who could not understand them to tune their aerials to receive broadcasts from England. Thus, while it was argued that the paucity of programmes in their language was anglicizing the Welsh speakers, the fact that such programmes existed at all was causing those with no knowledge of Welsh to turn their backs on anything emanating from Wales. Fears of the BBC losing viewers became more acute in 1968, when TWW lost its franchise to HTV, a company which promised significantly to increase the number and quality of programmes specifically produced for Welsh viewers.

The desire to remove Welsh from mainstream channels coincided with the campaign of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) in favour of a Welsh-language channel, a campaign which led to sit-ins, mast climbing, destruction of property and numerous jail sentences. The resulting tensions were particularly worrying to John Rowley, Controller Wales 1967–74. His period in office saw significant developments, including the beginning of BBC Wales’s colour broadcasts (1970), the establishment of the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra (1973; see BBC National Orchestra of Wales) and the use of VHF and medium wave to provided Welsh-language and English-language radio services on different wavelengths – a development which led to the establishment of Radio Cymru and Radio Wales. Rowley was succeeded by Owen Edwards, son of Ifan ab Owen Edwards and grandson of O.M. Edwards, who presided over the launching of the serial Pobol y Cwm, the full establishment of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru and the complexities arising from the deliberations of the Annan Committee. In its Report (1977), the committee recommended that a Welsh-language fourth channel should be established as soon as the necessary funding was available. The recommendation was attacked by some Welsh-language enthusiasts, among them Jac L. Williams, who opposed what he considered to be the banishment of the language to a ‘ghetto channel’. In their manifesto for the general election of May 1979, all the major parties pledged that Welsh-language programmes should have priority on the fourth channel. In September 1979, however, the home secretary, William Whitelaw, announced that the government would not proceed with the project. The protests that ensued – the blacking-out of transmitters, mass refusal to pay the licence fee and, above all, the threat of Plaid Cymru’s president, Gwynfor Evans, to fast to death and the fear of the chronic unrest which would surely have followed his demise – led the government to announce on 17 September 1980 that a Welsh fourth channel would, after all, be established (see S4C).

The remarkable history of broadcasting in Wales has caused Cardiff to be a major media centre, a significant element in the city’s vibrancy. Since the 1980s, the main challenge facing broadcasters in Wales, as everywhere, is the multiplication of both radio and television services. Local radio began in Wales in 1974 with Swansea Sound, the beginning of a proliferation of such services. Radio Wales and Radio Cymru have held their ground, although the latter has been accused of consisting of little beyond pop and prattle. With scores if not hundreds of television stations available to those with satellite or cable services, the fear is that any distinctive Welsh service, whatever its language might be, is in danger of being crowded out. Efforts to prevent this happening are crucial in maintaining and developing a Welsh national consciousness.