Radio Times is a British weekly magazine which provides radio and television listings. It was the world’s first broadcast listings magazine when it was founded in 1923 by John Reith, then general manager of the BBC. It was published entirely in-house by BBC Magazines from 1937 until 2011 when the BBC Magazines division was merged into Immediate Media Company.
Radio Times was first issued on 28 September 1923, carrying details of BBC radio programmes (newspapers at the time boycottedradio listings, fearing that increased listenership might decrease their sales).
Initially, Radio Times was a combined enterprise between the BBC and the publisher George Newnes, who type-set, printed and distributed the magazine. But in 1925 the BBC assumed full editorial control, and by 1937 the publication was fully in-house. The Radio Times established a reputation for using leading writers and illustrators, and the covers from the special editions are now collectible design classics.
In 1928, Radio Times announced a regular series of ‘experimental television transmissions by the Baird process’ for half an hour every morning. The launch of the first regular 405-line television service by the BBC was reflected with television listings in the Radio Times edition of 23 October 1936. Thus Radio Times became the first television listings magazine in the world. Initially only two pages in each edition were devoted to television. However, in January 1937 the magazine published a lavish photogravure supplement and by September 1939, there were three pages of television listings.
Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 and television broadcasting ceased. Radio listings continued throughout the war for a reduced service, but by 1944, paper rationing meant editions were only 20 pages of tiny print on thin paper.
After the war television resumed and the Radio Times expanded too. Regional editions were introduced. In 1953 the television listings, which so far had been in the back of the magazine, were alongside the daily radio schedules. During the mid-50s Radio Times covers featured television rather than radio more and more, and on 17 February 1957, television listings were moved to a separate section at the front; radio listings were relegated to the back.
By the 1950s Radio Times had grown to be the magazine with the largest circulation in Europe, with an average sales of 8.8 million in 1955.
Until the deregulation of television listings in 1991, the Radio Times carried programme listings for BBC radio and television channels only, while the ITV-published magazine, TVTimes, carried television programme listings for ITV and, from November 1982, Channel 4. Today both publications carry listings for all major terrestrial, cable and satellite television channels in the United Kingdom. A number of similar magazines, from independent publishers, also exist. Separate television and radio magazines began to be published from 1 March 1991, when the Radio Times and TV Times lost their duopoly to publish programme listings. However, the Radio Times still lives up to its name by being the most comprehensive source of UK radio listings in print, and also since the edition of 22 May 2007 has carried two extra pages of TV listings per day as part of a slight tweak in the publication’s format, bringing it up to ten pages of listings per day in total.
Radio Times is published on Tuesdays (its publication day having gradually moved forward from Fridays over many years) and carries listings for the following Saturday through to Friday (this began in 1960, before which issues ran Sunday to Saturday; the changeover meant that Saturday 8 October 1960 was listed twice).
Since Christmas 1969, a double-sized issue has been published each December containing listings for two weeks of programmes. Originally, this covered Christmas and New Year listings, but in some years these appear in separate editions, with the two-week period ending just before New Year. The cover of the ‘Christmas Number’ (as this issue came to be called) dating from the time when it contained just a single week’s listings, usually features a generic festive artwork, atypical for the magazine, which since the 1970s has almost exclusively used photographic covers for all other issues.
From April 2010, each day’s television listed over ten pages or five double-page spreads: two pages of reviews of highlights (“Choices”) followed by two pages of terrestrial TV listings (one column for daytime television, and five columns for the evening television), then six pages of listings for digital channels.
Before digital channels became commonplace, a terrestrial day’s television was sometimes spread over up to three double-spreads mixed with advertisements, but this format was phased out when independent publishers were allowed to publish television programme schedules.
After television listings were deregulated in 1991, there was strong criticism from other listings magazines that Radio Times was advertised on the BBC (as well as on commercial channels), saying that it gave unfair advantage to the publication. The case went to court, but the outcome was that as the Radio Times had close connections with the BBC it would be allowed to be advertised by the BBC; however, it must be a static picture of the cover, and that the clear disclaimer “Other television listings magazines are available” be given (leading to the phrase entering common public usage for a time).
By the early 2000s, advertisements for the publication had become sparse on the BBC. The Radio Times has not been promoted on BBC television and radio channels since 2005, following complaints by rival publications that the promotions were unfair competition.
There are several regional editions, which each contain different listings for regional programming. All editions carry variations for adjoining regions and local radio listings.
The number of English regional editions has been reduced since the 1990s due to there being fewer variations in the schedules, such as the Yorkshire version was absorbed by the North East version in September 1993 and later added the North West version in August 2007.
The most recent of these was in August 2007 when the Midlands and London/Anglia versions were merged. The exception to this process of merging is Wales, which used to be part of a larger Wales/West (of England) version, mirroring the HTV region.
From 2 June to 21 December 1990, the programme page headings were deep pink for films, dark blue for television (including the channels BBC One in vermilion and BBC Two in mint green) and a medium turquoise for radio. The day was also shown inside coloured block halfway down the side of each page, which had a different colour for each day (radio listing pages were using colour-coded logos):
- Saturday: Red
- Sunday: Orange
- Monday: Magenta
- Tuesday: Chartreuse
- Wednesday: Purple
- Thursday: Salmon
- Friday: Green
However these colours were slightly different from those that were adopted on 22 December 1990, through until 29 October 2004:
- Saturday: Red
- Sunday: Sapphire
- Monday: Amber
- Tuesday: Indigo
- Wednesday: Green
- Thursday: Rose
- Friday: Turquoise
On 3 September 1994, the pages had the day’s name going vertical and lasted until 13 April 2001 (shortly before Easter), which saw the new cover font and the programme pages reverting to having the day running across the top of the page horizontally. The channel logos arrived in 1991, when they started covering all channels, but went with the revamp on 25 September 1999, which also changed the primetime listings from two narrow columns (four channels) to one wide column (Channel 5 and regional variations), and the layout that continues to this day:
- BBC One: Lilac
- BBC Two: Viridian
- ITV: Light grey
- Channel 4: Black
- Channel 5: Yellow (from 30 March 1997)
Before 1997, the regional variations were at the bottom of the relevant channel listings.
On 30 October 2004, the colours were later changed the day’s listings for Tuesday in lavender, Wednesday in mint green, Friday in navy blue, and from 10 April 2010, the Sunday colour was changed to navy blue and the Friday colour was changed to indigo.
When the magazine was a BBC publication, covers had a BBC bias (in 2005, 31 of the 51 issues had BBC-related covers). Doctor Who is the most represented programme on the cover, appearing on 29 issues (with 35 separate covers due to multiples) in the 49 years since the programme began.
Most covers consist of a single side of glossy paper. However, the magazine often uses double or triple-width covers that open out for large group photographs, while events such as Crufts or new series of popular programmes are marked by producing several different covers for collectors. Sporting events with more than one of the Home Nations taking part are often marked with different covers for each nation, showing their own team. The second series of Life on Mars, meanwhile, was marked by the Radio Times producing a mock-up of a 1973-style cover promoting the series, placed on page 3 of the magazine.
In April 2005, a double-width cover was used to commemorate the return of the Daleks to Doctor Who and the forthcoming general election. This cover recreated a scene from the 1964 Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth in which the Daleks were seen crossing Westminster Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament in the background. The cover text read “VOTE DALEK!” In a 2008 contest sponsored by the Periodical Publishers Association, this cover was voted the best British magazine cover of all time.
Each year, the Radio Times celebrates those individuals and programmes that are featured on the cover at the Radio Times Covers Party, where framed oversized versions of the covers are presented.
In recent years, Radio Times has published and sold packs of reproductions of some of the Christmas covers of the magazine as Christmas cards.