Monday, 30 November -0001

Radio Review: 14 September

Louis Barfe recalls an age when radio transmitted urgent messages to its listeners

Written by Louis Barfe
Louis-Barfe-newBWThe announcers on BBC Radio 4 are a big part of what makes the network special. So when I heard the news that Harriet Cass and Charlotte Green are leaving next year, having taken voluntary redundancy, I nearly dropped my mug of coffee in shock. I live in hope that both will be back now and again on a freelance basis.

These days, announcers no longer have SOS messages as part of their responsibilities. From 1923 to the early 1990s, these were an important component of public service broadcasting. Before the mobile phone, they were an attempt to alert the uncontactable to the fact that relatives were at death's door. Like so much to do with the BBC, the impetus came from John Reith.

Eddie Mair explored the phenomenon in an absorbing documentary last week, having written about the messages in the Radio Times last year, and received an avalanche of response.

One of the questions asked was, 'What happened once the message had gone out over the airwaves?', because follow-ups were never broadcast. Despite this, the BBC took a close internal interest in the outcomes. As early as the 1930s, the Corporation had thoroughly researched the effectiveness of differing types of message. Calls for missing persons tended to be a waste of time, so they were dropped.

Mair spoke to Harriet Cass, who began her BBC career as a studio manager in 1974, and she explained the system: all other avenues of communication had to have failed. Calls were handled by the newsroom and 'Dangerously ill' was the preferred expression, which usually meant 'dying'.

In one particularly affecting case, a man told Mair he had heard a message concerning his mother, who had fallen in front of a Tube train at Colliers Wood station. On her son's arrival at the hospital, she explained that it had been a suicide attempt. 'It was one of five attempts she made,' he explained, 'and on the fifth attempt, she got it right.'

The subject of this programme demanded sensitivity, but a light touch. As ever, Mair pitched it just right, and listeners are encouraged to send any other SOS stories to him at PM. Mair has been spotted standing in for Paxo on Newsnight lately, and doing so rather well. It will be a sad day if the wireless ever loses Mair to TV.

And Now An Urgent SOS Message, Radio 4, Tuesdays at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm.


BBC Radio 2 has commissioned a 50-part series called The People's Songs to run weekly in Steve Wright's afternoon show throughout 2013. The slot will be hosted by Stuart Maconie and will be an independent production by Smooth Operations.

Follow Louis on Twitter: @LadyWireless or email him at:

Louis's blog is on

Forgot your password?
Click to read our digital edition

Boarders Dormitory Master-Mistress
We are looking to appoint a Dormitory Mistress/Master for 5 nights per week, weekday evenings and nights only, term time. (35 weeks). [...]


Housekeeper to Headmaster
We have an opportunity for an experienced live-out housekeeper. You will provide a cleaning and hospitality service for the Headmaster and his guests and help to ensure the household runs efficiently. [...]


Full Time Housekeeper, Nanny
We are looking for a full time, live-out housekeeper/nanny. We are a relaxed young couple living in a large country house, and will have one newborn baby. [...]


Experienced Carer, Companion, Housekeeper needed
Our elderly mother needs a live in carer/companion on a part time basis. Must be warm hearted, calm & compassionate, with a good sense of humour. [...]


Cook, Housekeeper wanted
Good cooking skills required to cater for light meals for the Principal and a small staff, as well as occasional lunch/dinner parties. [...]




What the stars have in store for you this week.2017

Capricorn Aquarius Pisces Aries Taurus Gemini Cancer Leo Virgo Libra Scorpio Sagittarius

Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter