Go back to article: Capturing the song of the nightingale


A newfound sense of realism in radio broadcasting was made possible by the Marconi-Sykes magnetophone, particularly its ability to create a feeling of ‘being there’. Its ability to pick up background noise, particularly in the higher frequencies, was crucial in counteracting entrenched ‘claustrophobic’ listener perceptions of space on radio. Listeners to the Nightingale broadcast were invited to act as intermediaries in the enchanting conversation between cello and nightingale, between art and nature, participating in a pleasurable process of ‘tuning their senses’ to a new perception of auditory space.

The atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding whether the nightingale would sing at all was in sympathy with the uncertainty surrounding broadcast radio and the BBC itself. Uncertainty about radio’s place in British life, and corresponding phantom pain caused by the loss of the old print-dominated information environment were, in part, ameliorated by the improved sound quality made possible by the microphone and its ability to retrieve a more familiar sense of reality. Part of Beatrice Harrison’s role as an artist was to interpret and ameliorate previous and contemporary technological trauma, the internal conflict between heart and mind that usually accompanies a loss of someone or something which has emotional value. She created a level of safety and comfort in manipulating aspects of the old environment to create innovative content for the new. These old environments – sombre music, the romance of birdsong, and auditory space – were all retrieved. Listeners were familiar with these feelings – the broadcast speaking to who the listeners already were. The trauma of overextending the human sense of hearing to the exclusion of the other senses was anesthetised by the soothing duet and how it drew upon pre-existing individual memories and the entrenched cultural image of the nightingale.  

The song of the nightingale has long inspired poets and artists. For the first time, his song became part of the content of the radio environment, taking on all of the properties of a work of art, whilst the magnetophone extended and expanded the radio environment itself. The first Nightingale broadcast, as a work of art, a new form, acted as an anti-environment which had the effect of raising the radio environment to one of high intensity, rendering it more perceptible. People thus felt compelled to begin conscious participation in this new ‘conversation’ by listening to the broadcast in great numbers, and by using older familiar media (writing about it, sending fan letters, buying gramophone recordings, and physically attending the festivals at Foyle Riding). It was these mixed euphoric, mournful and nostalgic feelings accompanying the Nightingale broadcasts which best evidenced human sense ratios in a rapid process of adaption to a new information environment created by new technology.



Samantha Blake and Kate O’Brien at BBC Written Archives, Steve Barron, Jessica Borge, Jessica Bradford, The British Library, Patricia Cleveland-Peck, David Exton, Colin Harding, Rusty Lemorande, Dr Julia Pine, Robert Seatter (Head of BBC History), Kirran Shah, Kate Steiner, Emma Thom, Paul Thompson, Dr Richard West, Stephen West, and my parents, Dr Malcolm Baird and Jean Baird.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150402/010