BBC London Celebrates 100 years: Mediumwave station 2LO

On Thursday May 11, 1922, the second radio broadcasting station in England was inaugurated by the Marconi company in London under the official callsign 2LO.  Wednesday May 11, 2022 forms the exact one hundredth anniversary of that historic radio event that set a pattern for radio broadcasting in many other countries around the world. 

The 2LO aerial on Marconi House on the Strand. Photo: BBC 100 website.

The first radio broadcasting station in England was 2MT, also a Marconi station that was installed at Writtle quite near to the Marconi radio factory at Chelmsford, just three months earlier.  For a period of a little over one year, the two Marconi experimental radio broadcasting stations, 2LO London and 2MT Writtle, were both active somewhat simultaneously, though generally on two different and non-conflicting broadcasting schedules.

However, at one early stage, both stations were on the air simultaneously for half an hour each Tuesday evening, from 8:00 pm till 8:30 pm.  As a result, the Marconi company received 200 letters from annoyed listeners who urged 2LO to choose another time for their programming because they wanted to listen to 2MT instead.

The new broadcasting station 2LO was installed on the top Seventh Floor of Marconi House on the Strand in London with both the studio equipment and the transmitter in the same room.  The antenna system on the roof was made up of two aerial cages of four wires each, suspended from two 50 feet tall masts 100 feet apart.  The station began with just 100 watts on 350 m 857 kHz.

The BBC 2LO transmitter at Marconi House. Despite 22,500 volts running through the transmitter, the only attempt at health & safety was a flimsy metal barrier and small ‘Danger’ signs visible at the back of the picture. Photo: Science Museum blog

Initially the Marconi 2LO was on the air for an hour each day.  However during that hour they were required to maintain a rotating 10 minute schedule, with 7 minutes of programming followed by 3 minutes of silence, during which time the operators were required to listen for any important or urgent incoming messages.

Along with many other major countries throughout the world, the radio scene in England back then was also gaining momentum in development.  Representatives from many differing radio organizations in England, held a series of meetings in an attempt to pave the way for adequate nationwide radio coverage.  Out of the meeting in London on October 18, 1922, a new combined radio organization was formed, the British Broadcasting Company, with the intent of taking over all radio broadcasting activities in the United Kingdom.

Less than one month later, the six month old Marconi radio broadcasting station in London, the famous 2LO, was taken over as the key station for a nationwide radio broadcasting network.  The inaugural broadcast from the BBCo 2LO in London was staged on the evening of Tuesday November 14, (1922), and by this time, the Marconi company had already installed a larger and more powerful transmitter, at 1½ kW.  The station location was still the same, on top of Marconi House on the Strand.

The opening program under the BBCo began with a bulletin of news, read first at normal speed by Program Director Arthur Burrows, followed by his reading at a slow speed so that listeners could take notes.  A weather forecast followed, together with other items of information and recorded gramophone music. 

Soon afterwards, during the early part of the new year 1923, the 2LO studios were transferred into an already established building at nearby Savoy Hill, just off the Strand.  This ornate building was constructed in 1889 for medical usage, though it was subsequently taken over by the Institute of Electrical Engineers who offered accommodation to the BBCo for the installation of radio studios.

Savoy Hill, the BBC’s headquarters from 1923 to 1932. Photo: BBC Genome blog.
Studio 1 at Savoy Hill after it had been remodelled in 1928. Photo: BBC Genome blog.

Then in February (1923), Marconi himself wrote a letter to the radio staff at Writtle, ordering that station 2MT should close.  Thus ended the short one year lifetime for England’s first historic radio broadcasting station, though it was subsequently reactivated occasionally for a few special broadcasts.

In November 1925, the transmitter facility for the BBCo 2LO was transferred from Marconi House on the Strand to the 16 year old Selfridge Store on Oxford Street.  That building was constructed under the auspices of American born Harry G. Selfridge who transferred his extensive retail experience from Chicago to London, where he built the second largest customer shop in the United Kingdom. 

At one stage this remarkable structure housed the largest retail book shop in the world; it had a roof garden, together with a small lake on which customers could row a canoe; and on four separate occasions, it was listed as the best retail shop in the world.

Two years later again (1927), the original British Broadcasting Company was granted a Royal Charter, and it became the more familiar British Broadcasting Corporation, the subsequently world renowned BBC.  Then two more years later again (1929), the old 2LO transmitter, the third that was on the air under that callsign, was replaced by a new mediumwave transmitter at a new location, Brookman’s Park, some ten miles north of Central London. 

Brookmans Park transmitter hall with 2LO transmitter on the right. Photo: BBCeng.info

The old 2LO transmitter was switched off, disconnected and simply abandoned, gone for ever. Yes, almost, but not quite.  A quarter century later (1954), a senior BBC engineer was visiting the Brookman’s Park transmitter station, and unintentionally he came upon a junk pile of old electronic stuff.

Upon making enquiry, he discovered that the junk pile had originally been the third mediumwave transmitter on the air under the historic callsign 2LO.  The old dust covered transmitter parts were reassembled, and it was again activated, at low power, due to safety considerations. 

It is now on display as a historic exhibit on the second floor of the Science Museum at South Kensington in suburban London.  The Science Museum is one of London’s premier tourist attractions with more than three million visitors each year.

Marconi 1.5kW transmitter, Marconi Company Limited, Chelmsford, 1922. Used by the BBC London station 2LO between 1922 and 1925, as rebuilt c.1954 incorporating some non-original but contemporary components. Photo: Science Museum Group Collection.

Other Radio Broadcasting Stations with the famous LO Callsign

The old historic 2LO radio broadcasting station in London with its three different consecutive transmitters was on the air for a total of just eight years.  However it made such an impact, not only in London, that other radio broadcasting stations in other parts of the world wanted to use that same callsign LO. 

The original Marconi station was awarded the callsign 2LO in 1922, and it was indeed the second radio broadcasting station in the United Kingdom.  The number 2 was one of the originally recognized radio identifications back then for a local radio broadcasting station in England.  The LO obviously identified the city of London, but in pronunciation, it could also be recognized as the English language greeting, Hello.

Just one year after the London station was inaugurated, a radio operator in Sydney Australia was granted approval to identify his experimental radio broadcasting station as 2LO.  The owner was Len Schultz, and his station was on the air in suburban Lane Cove.  The Len Schultz station 2LO in Sydney was inaugurated on September 21, 1923, though it was on the air for less than one year.

However three years later, Len Schultz became the Chief Engineer for the better known mediumwave station in Sydney, station 2GB, and he designed and constructed their first transmitter.

In 1924, another new commercial radio broadcasting station was ready for launch in Sydney, and they originally planned to identify as 2LO.  That station was owned by Farmer and Company and it was installed in their large departmental store in Market Street.  However that station was inaugurated under the subsequently better known callsign 2FC.  These days, this station is the ABC Radio National 2RN with 50 kW on 576 kHz.

Control room at 3LO Studios, Melbourne, Victoria, c1928. Photo: ABC Archives flickr account.

Over in the city of Melbourne in Victoria, there was indeed another LO mediumwave radio broadcasting station.  That station with the callsign 3LO was inaugurated on October 13, 1924, and these days it is another ABC unit with 50 kW on 774 kHz. 

Beginning in 1928, station 3LO was noted on shortwave over a lengthy period of 60 years under six different announced callsigns; 3LR, VK3LR, VLR, VLG, VLH and Radio Australia.  The ABC shortwave station at Lyndhurst was closed in 1987.

Next we go to the Australian island of Tasmania, where we discover that there was an attempt to launch a new commercial mediumwave radio broadcasting station in the state capital Hobart back in the year 1924.  The station first requested the callsign 7AA, but that was rejected.  However, due to the fact that their very first transmitter was previously on air in Melbourne under the callsign 3AR, they then requested the callsign 7AR for their new commercial station in Hobart. 

That was rejected also, so next they asked for the callsign 7LO, and that also was ejected.  So next they requested 7ZL, a callsign with no meaning that was at the end of the English alphabet, and finally, that was acceptable.

Commercial station 7ZL was taken over by the ABC in 1932, and these days it is on the air as ABC Radio National 7RN with 10 kW on 585 kHz.

Over in Africa there was another LO station, and that was VQ7LO in Nairobi Kenya, a radio broadcasting station with a callsign that looked like it was simply an amateur hobby station.  In August 1928, the Nairobi Broadcasting Station was inaugurated, and it was on the air from transmitters that were also used for international and regional communication. 

Their transmitter facility contained shortwave and mediumwave transmitters, and they were on the air under the callsigns VQG and VQ7LO, which were in use according to the service they were carrying: Mediumwave, shortwave, communication or radio programming.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of May 8, 2022

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