Ariel Reconnaissance: Uncovering the Origins of the BBC’s Internal Communication – Source of the Month (May 2024)

In our eighteen months of study, no archive has rivalled the BBC’s behind-the-scenes insights into internal communication strategy. Spanning 1927 to 1989, its archive holds a collection of minutes and memos that tell a story of how the initiation of a magazine in 1927 evolved into a major organisational operation. An almost continuous run from 1945 to 1989 give us a detailed insight into the gradual process of change. The former Head of Internal Communications & Engagement Matt Eastley gave us his insights into the changes since this date.

While magazines and videos show us the final output of internal communication, minutes and memos uncover the hidden side of organisational strategising and decision-making. The collection reveals changes that were considered but never pursued. The absence of archival evidence of verbal communication can lead to an overemphasis on the importance of written communication. The minutes and memos offer a counterbalance to this through occasional allusions to other channels of internal communication.

This two-part blog post is the story of internal communication at the BBC, told not through the magazines but through the minutes and memos. Throughout the narrative, there is an ongoing struggle between a top-down, management-driven vision of internal communication and a more inclusive and independent conception. From the dominance of magazines to experiments with new technologies and formats, the BBC’s journey reflects broader societal shifts and technological advancements.

Experiments with Staff Magazines, 1927-1945

A new era in internal communication at the BBC began in 1927, when the Control Board took the decision to begin a company magazine called The Saveloy, acting upon a suggestion from a meeting of engineers. The term ‘internal communication’ was not yet in use, but the concept is evident in the decision-marking, with minutes from this year talking of a need to foster better liaison between the provinces and the head office and to foster unity and information-sharing across disparate locations.

Internal communication had become a priority due to the growth in numbers and geographical spread of BBC staff and the professionalisation of the broadcasting industry, accompanied by an increased focus on worker welfare in society more generally. The Saveloy was seen as supporting existing worker welfare measures. The Chief Engineer, who was involved with the Sports and Social Club, said that a magazine had the potential to boost his club’s activities. The Saveloy was also seen as an opportunity to improve cohesion among staff and to improve engagement. It was decided to fill two-thirds of the magazine with light, entertaining content.

Magazines would come to dominate internal communication for most of the century, but there was uncertainty about this course at the time. Concerns were raised about the magazine’s sustainability due to its limited audience of approximately 1,000 personnel, the decision to proceed highlighted the BBC’s commitment to improving internal cohesion. Even so, there were limits to the sum of money that the BBC was prepared to put into the project, meaning the magazine could not be offered to staff free of charge. Much of the discussion in the first couple of years revolved around pricing, seeking to balance affordability with recovering the production costs of The Saveloy. Early hopes over the frequency of the magazine had to be managed to make the costs work.

The magazine’s content was also a contentious issue. Some voices pushed for lighter, more entertaining content as a means to increase readership, while others were concerned that it might detract from the magazine’s potential to serve as a serious platform for organisational communication. Ultimately, a decision was made to maintain a predominant focus on lighter content, reflecting a strategic choice to prioritise engagement over purely professional communication.

The Saveloy did not prove sustainable as a project. The first issue was released in 1928, followed by a second in 1930. No other copies survive, so these may well have been the only issues. In 1936, a new magazine called Ariel began which would prove much more long-lasting. An absence of minutes and memos leave a gap in the story at this point. After the Second World War, however, there is a continuous run up to 1989 that allows a detailed exploration of internal communication at the BBC.

Front cover of the first issue of Ariel from June 1936.

Post-War Recovery, 1945-53

The years following the Second World War were a period of recovery for the country in general but also for organisational communication. The situation posed practical constraints for the BBC. Paper rationing initially necessitated a reduction in the size of Ariel to approximately twenty pages. By the end of the decade, with the easing of rationing, the magazine had doubled in size again.

The strategic debates after the Second World War highlight tensions between editorial independence and management oversight that would keep reemerging throughout the magazine’s history. During the war, control of Ariel had been transferred from the BBC Club (a social club for staff) to the BBC management. By the end of 1945, however, the decision was taken that it would revert back, and that official management representation would be removed from the editorial board. This initiative aimed to make the magazine more representative of staff interests and to limit direct management interference.

The actual degree of independence would not seem to be as great as this decision implies. Many decades later, as next month’s blog will describe, management influence over the magazine remained a point of controversy. Certainly, there was some hesitancy about relinquishing control in 1945. Ultimately control was handed to the BBC Club but the minutes also discussed the possibility of having a magazine published officially by the management with a staff-centred character. A memo from the Deputy Director-General on 12 September said there should be ‘understanding with the Editorial Board that a representative would attend [meetings] on particular points’. The memo suggested the Staff Association, a representative body that negotiated with the management, should produce a separate magazine of their own to cater more directly to their specific needs.

The strategy began to place a greater emphasis on engaging and community-oriented content. By 1948, the editorial of Ariel began to feature personal notes about the achievements of prominent members of staff and the magazine introduced updates on former staff members, furthering the magazine’s role in keeping the BBC community connected. Continuing the historic link between communication and welfare, the publication started providing explanations about the BBC Pension Fund to clarify changes and benefits for employees.

The early 1950s saw continued innovation in the format and content of Ariel. The frequency of publication was adjusted several times in response to budgetary considerations and the desire to maintain high-quality content. In 1951, the editorial board received a letter from an advertising agency. Although rejected, the possibility of introducing adverts to Ariel was given consideration. Unevenness between the coverage of different regions was also a concern at this time. In 1952, it was decided to include two regions per issue to ensure that all were covered across the course of each year.

The Strategising of Internal Communication, 1953-60

The minutes reveal 1953 as a turning point for internal communication at the BBC. A highly strategic tone begins to be clearly articulated, resonating with twenty-first century discourses. May’s Source of the Month is a memo from 11 June 1953 outlining leadership and communication issues to be discussed at a General Liaison Meeting:

1. Identification of all those in authority throughout the Corporation with Management. So often a decision is given over as one that has been laid down at high level for which no responsibility is taken. This “we and they” attitude is to my mind prevalent in the BBC. It is essential that management should be regarded as one throughout the Corporation and that a Head of Section, Head of Department or Controller or anyone in authority should identify himself with whatever decision he is making known. He should never say that he thinks that one course is right but “they” have decided the other.

A corollary of this is that those in authority throughout the Corporation should have the fullest opportunity of airing their views on appropriate matters so that they can with the greater sincerity support decisions. The more they have, so to speak, participated in the decision the more will they feel able to identify themselves with it. Strong feelings and views must have an outlet and those in authority holding convictions on matters outside their control should not be discouraged from representing their views and should not be made to feel that by so doing they may make a nuisance of themselves and thereby lose promotion at some future date. They should be told firmly enough, of course, when the final decision has been reached.

2. Communications. Related to 1. above is, to my mind, a certain weakness in the effectiveness of internal communications within the Corporation. Reasons for high level decisions are often unknown by staff even close to the centre and could with great benefit be handed down through the various chains of command. Conversely, those taking decisions throughout all levels of the BBC often fail to my mind to make sufficient use of the ideas given from first-hand knowledge of those below. After all, no-one knows quite so much about the job as the man actually doing it, and every chief should collect the wisdom from his subordinates, discouraging some ideas but crystallising others into appropriate action. This is leadership of a particular kind, and does not preclude the more straightforward direction, when that is appropriate; but consultation of this kind has the great merit not only of using the experience and wisdom that can otherwise remain untapped but of creating a sense of participation amongst subordinates.

In fact, a freer flow of two-way communications seems to be needed, starting from the top and flowing right down through the various levels of the Corporation. It is difficult to apply to the complex nature of the Corporation any hard and fast procedure, but encouragement of the principle would I think be a useful first step. A fairly reliable measure of the effectiveness of communications in an organisation is the strength of the “grape vine”. Where the “grape vine” is strong, communications are usually weak. There are of course various possible other remedies such as the proposal of a management magazine or the issue of more explanatory notices on the boards, but the radical solution to my mind lies much more along two-way verbal communications right down the management chain of command.

In 1954, Ariel changed significantly in nature. There had been discussions the preceding year about the creation of a new management magazine that was to be modelled on an example from British European Airways. To avoid duplication and keep costs down, it was instead decided to amalgamate the new magazine with Ariel. The period also saw efforts to make content more inclusive, with the introduction of a feature called ‘Out to Pasture’. It covered staff retirements and career changes, although the choice of name caused some controversy.

The reimagined Ariel was accompanied by a number of changes in format. To provide more timely updates and engage a broader audience within the BBC, Ariel switched from quarterly to monthly in 1956, with each issue reduced in length. The following year introduced a ‘Picture of the Month’ feature for the front cover, which it was hoped would refresh its appearance and make it more engaging. In 1959, thematic supplements were initiated, the first of which focused on the theme of ‘the cold war on the air’.

A strategic priority of this new Ariel was greater input from BBC staff in the content of the magazine. From 1956, it began including small advertisements from staff members, with the hope of making the magazine more engaging and readable. The following year, a new comments section was added in which staff could express their views of BBC programmes. At the same time, an annual competition for short stories and poems by staff was introduced. In 1958, the idea of a staff photograph competition was discussed, although not pursued.

Key to this staff engagement was the first questionnaire of Ariel readers. Carried out in 1959, it gathered feedback and suggestions about the content and distribution of the magazine. The idea was also raised of including staff representation in board meetings. The suggestion was that prize-winners from the questionnaire could be invited as representatives to board meetings as part of an experiment to strengthen the membership of the board with direct input ‘from the floor’.

Another focus at this time was improving coordination between different channels of communication. In 1960, the placement of press releases on notice boards was suggested to keep staff informed about BBC policies and major announcements. It was advised that the timing of these should align with the coverage of the stories in Ariel to ensure staff received information concurrently with the public.

By 1960, internal communication was established as a strategic priority at the BBC. The Ariel magazine of this era had moved on substantially from the experiments with The Saveloy of 1928. It now had a greater degree of editorial independence, offered opportunities for staff input, and ran features designed with engagement in mind. As the 1953 memo demonstrates, it was now seen as playing a role in a broader need for improved leadership and communication. The changes of this period set the foundation for a greater integration of internal communication with wider organisational operations in the following years.

Sources

Collection of BBC minutes and memos.

BBC Written Archives Centre, BBC/CORP/PERS/R49 and BBC/CORP/R78.

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