And Now an SOS Message

The BBC has invited people to make suggestions for messages to be sent to the future.

My own is directed at the Queen in 2022 as she prepares to celebrate her platinum jubilee on the throne:

‘For goodness sake, don’t let Paul McCartney sing at the celebration concert.’

It’s all part of the plans for 14 November to mark the 90th anniversary of the first BBC radio broadcast in 1922. Radio United will bring together all sixty BBC stations to simultaneously broadcast the same three-minute compilation of listener contributions to an estimated 120 million people across the globe.

But to be honest, my main interest in the BBC this week has been in their messages from the past after I listened to  And Now an Urgent SOS Message on iPlayer the other day. (It was still there when I last looked, but you might need something like Tunnel Bear if outside the UK)

It tells the story of the SOS messages that used to be such a part of radio news and yet no-one can say exactly when they vanished from the airwaves. It was probably some time in the late 1990s.

John Reith in 1922

John Reith in 1922

They were introduced in the very early days of the British Broadcasting Company (as it was then) with the first an appeal to find a missing boy in March 1923 and the idea was at the instigation of the otherwise cold and detached John Reith himself.

I remember them mostly as a way of contacting the close relatives of someone who was seriously ill, but at one time they were used for all sorts of things.

For example, there was an appeal for a wet nurse for twins born in Norfolk and an urgent attempt to track down someone who had bought two parrots from a pet shop whose owner had subsequently died of psittacosis. (Nothing to do with me!)

The BBC carried out research and found that appeals for witnesses and missing persons were not particularly successful, but that around half of the messages concerning serious illness produced results, so that is what they decided to focus their attention on.

It was the very essence of public service broadcasting with the resources of an entire broadcasting network targeted at just one listener. And not only that, it was evidence based too.

If they were around today, no broadcaster could resist turning the stories of the SOS messages into a melodramatic docu-soap, but the BBC flatly refused to do so. Each message was only ever broadcast once and the outcome never commented upon as this would be prurient and not considered suitable for the purpose of entertainment.

That some of those stories form the basis of a BBC ‘entertainment programme today came about because the presenter wrote about the message service in his Radio Times column and was contacted by people eager to share their recollections.

Of course, they were ultimately overtaken by other means of communication, but somehow the world seems sadder without the SOS message, even if I’ve only now noticed their absence. Below is the last minute or so of the programme which includes some of that archived SOS announcements.

[sc_embed_player_template1 fileurl=”″]

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • Arctic Fox 13th September 2012

    I’ve never heard of this before – perhaps they could bolt it on to Crimewatch or Watchdog or some similar programme? Interesting though.

  • Roger Green 13th September 2012

    tell the Queen to tell Harry to keep his pants on.

  • Brain Pudding 13th September 2012

    Do you think Mrs Mary Dibble was the spouse of that intellectually challenged cop in “Top Cat”? Regarding messages for the centenary, I’d just like the BBC to play either John and Yoko’s “Give Peace a Chance” or Birdseye’s “Give Peas a Chance”.

  • Jan James 13th September 2012

    Here in California, and maybe the rest of the country ?, we have “Amber Alerts” for missing children. They’re no only on radio and TV, but they are also immediately to digital signs on the freeways, so people who are driving along can notice and report it if they sight a perpetrator’s car. It seems like there are often good results from this method.

    I disagree with Roger. I appreciate Harry (who doesn’t appear to actually be very hairy) without his pants, thank you.

  • Mr Parrot 13th September 2012

    YP: Officer Dibble, a truly dedicated public servant!

    Jan: Roger’s message was to the future and you may not feel that way about Harry in another fifty years time!


Your email will not be published on this site, but note that this and any other personal data you choose to share is stored here. Please see the Privacy Policy for more information.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: