What’s the value of the present, if we can’t learn from the past? The BBC at 100 years old.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah
9 min readNov 16, 2022

It’s a programme curated to provide something for everyone. From the venerable Archers — radio drama set in rural Britain with storylines across domestic abuse and abortion that gripped the nation. Then there’s the BBC’s influences in its regions and internationally; and how about how one of its favourite stations came to be — that’s BBC Radio 5.

Nestling somewhere in these celebrations of the BBC Radio 1922–2022: navigating the waves of change over the last 100 years is my own reflection in 180991, the importance of archive for Black British people and scholars, its agency and how it threads autobiographical stories and challenges representation.

Bit of a mouthful I know, that’s the academic side of it for a programme set for the University of Bedfordshire in a couple of weeks (November 26th). The short of it is a personal journey of our work, myself and co-presenter Sheryl Simms, and the impact of a radio programme made by Black people for Black people, as well as a wider audience.

Tall order! How does that work, and where to start? First a cast into a distant past in programmes primarily made for a Black audience. There was the amazing Una Marson, a radio producer and presenter during World War II on Calling the West Indies which provided a space for West Indians, servicemen, to share their stories. Marson, who was recently the subject of a documentary on BBC, Una Marson, our lost Caribbean Voice, was a respected poet feted by George Orwell, regularly working with him and TS Eliot.

What about Alex Pascal, one of the team behind getting Nottingham Carnival of the ground? He was also a pioneer in radio whose daily show Black Londoners (reported in the Guardian newspaper) proved to the BBC in the 1970s that there was an appetite and audience for stories that centred around the experiences of Black people in the UK.

Or there’s everyone’s favourite, “Uncle” — a term I use affectionately for those that knew him, Syd Burke — a radio producer/ presenter for BBC London with a talk show mellifluously delivered and deliciously called Rice and Peas.

I’ve missed several important figures out across the spectrum of radio, such as the Rankin Miss P — my apologies. And if we were rummaging around the archive of TV, you’ll find important programmes like Black on Black, Professor Stuart Hall’s It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum, and Desmonds.

Making a Radio show

The call that came to Sheryl Simms and I, seems like yesterday. It would define us in many ways. Two university grads, trying to make a career in the media. Sheryl, a presenter on BBC Rough Guides; myself, BBC Reportage and Newsnight as a Researcher.

BBC Radio London was rebranding. It had a new Managing Editor Matthew Bannister (now of BBC Radio 4’s Last Word) and a lineup of talent cutting their teeth: Chris Evans, Emma Freud and Chris Morris.

On the a.m. band it had room for a new slew of community programmes: a Jewish London, Irish London, Asian London, Gay London and on Wednesday, or was that Thursday, Black London. Some of the names of those breaking into their specialist shows will be familiar to listeners today — Jewish London’s Vanessa Feltz and Irish London’s Peter Curran.

The station wanted a talk-show that reflected 1st generation Black Brits born in the UK. We were paid the princely sum of 25, or was that 35 UKP a show. The money obviously, (emphasis on “obviously”) wasn’t important, but we had the airwaves for an hour. What went into the show as freelancers was way above our pay grade, but our passion burned and never relented.

Alice Walker, Anita Baker, Fela Kuti, Norman Beaton, Bernie Grant MP, Darkus Howe, Trix Worrell, Eartha Kitt, Suss laws and Peter Herbert from the Black Law Society, a young vivacious women remortgaging her house to set up something called the Mobo Awards, a young designer undertaking a photoshoot in Russia of his clothes struggling to break into the UK’s monopolised fashion industry. That was Ozwald Boateng.

The Jacksons, the brutal beating of Rodney King, the ensuing Riots in LA, a new commissioner for Racial Equality, Herman Ouseley, now Lord Ouseley, the state of one industry after another and its denial of Black inclusion. That was our one hour with a mixture of music, often live. Thank you Omar.

And then nothing! By nothing, the programme’s format after 18 months forcibly came to an end. Sherly went back to TV programming. I emigrated to South Africa to witness the transition of Apartheid and its new president Nelson Mandela, reported here below on the BBC World Service’s Caribbean output.

Nothing! Nothing because on the last day sensing our fate I went into the production office to retrieve the ROTs (recording of transmission) to be told they’d been dumped in a skip, to make space.

Space? Space for what!

I remember being numb that day and that was it. As a creative ground Black London served its purpose for me. Other media breaks would follow in that choppy way finding a job is never easy — Channel One, Channel 4, Dotcom etc.

At the turn of the millennium The Evening Standard would line up a group of us, such as Dotun Adebayo and Zadie Smith — whispering these are the people to watch. Me? Perhaps.

In 2005, maybe, with international awards for Innovation in Journalism ( Knight Batten Awards) as well as videojournalism across the US, rest of the world and Germany. I attribute this, and other awards to my time, and the experimentation first started on Black London.

Nothing because, there is no record of the show. There is no public legacy. Should there be? What, if any is the importance of archive for Black British people and scholars? I can reflect on what it means for me. It was personal. To me it was no more archival than artist Magritte’s assertion that a photo depicting a pipe was not a pipe, but art.

Black London was personal content, personal experience, but anyone else? How does it impact agency? How does it thread autobiographical stories and challenge representation?

I can ponder its rich memories, the first Oxford grad in a new scheme for Black and brown people, or Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti about to light a giant join in the studio. He didn’t, but what else? How could anyone experience what we’d experienced if they weren’t there, and then what? Is this about aesthetics? No! But then there was no record of the show! Nothing!

During Lockdown, that changed.

In between my boxes of LPs, usual garage debris of frankesteined bikes and old copies of The Face magazine, ( a confession, I’m a lab rat, a hoarder) were boxes of tape after tape of the show.

Some were irretrievable. Old skool radio producers will recognise the spaghetti junction of tapes that are impossible to untangle, much as you try. There were reels and cassettes. It wasn’t just the TV show, but of a breakthrough series — The United States of Africa, I made a series of programmes made by Africans across Africa with Turner’s Head of Africa Edward Boateng.

An Archivist, Documentarian and friend José Velázquez of DOKUMENTA.VIDEO had an idea. We’d met when he was an IBM AI specialist and I had ideas of AI changing journalism; still do.

He said we could pitch the tapes as part of a competition to a global body FIAT/ IFTA ( behind digitising the famous ANC Rivonia Trials) and if we won they’d help in many ways, not least digitise the tapes. Under the title Black Lives we pitched against Albania, Cuba, Côte d’Ivoire, to name a few. We came on top. The archive was deemed historically important.

Four sets of programme themes including Black London have come alive. 180991 represents the start date of our first broadcast. Its full impact is yet to realised. Can the Archive be made available to scholars, PhD students attempting to scaffold a Britain of the 90s? Can it be crafted into updated stories, like the BBC’s Rewind, or The Reunion? Why is there relatively rarely any space for re-engaging with content targeting Black people, that overall shape our societies

What of the amazing stories we heard? Where are these people now and what inspiration can be drawn from them hearing back into their pasts? How in the face of threatened cuts to BBC local radio, and those made by Black and brown people to their audiences , does this archive provide some context? What did the UK, London, the World, look and feel like back in the 90s?

I conceived the poster of a time tunnel, a capsule that takes you back there with an AI dimension. The future of podcasts will be a deeply haptic experience ( see here). My memories are fresh. My readiness for conversations primed. Meanwhile, the importance of the Black London experience has played into other work since.

In 2019, I had an idea with a group of friends, academics, forming a brain trust around diversity. They would eventually create the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, which is doing ground breaking work. They’d framed several important strands in their mission. Two of the three main architects, Marcus Ryder MBE and Sir Lenny Henry wrote in their book Access All Areas, Gyimah brought the idea of an academic journal.

I convinced my VC to support it. He did and together with the architect of the centre (colleagues Professor Diane Kemp and Marcus Ryder MBE) we co-founded the journal, with immeasurable contributions from scholars across the UK. Representology, with a UK-wide editorial board and editor K Biswas, features a range of established and new writers, and continues to grow.

For its inaugural issue, I wrote about that the pitch to reclaim this archive in my garage, and my brilliant, yes, brilliant encounter on the show and after it with superstar Fela Kuti.

Black London was an influence for creating a project that digitally recast the famous US photo A Great Day in Harlem featuring 57 Jazz Musicians. Simone Pennant MBE (TVC Collective) and I with a great crew featured 57 of the UK’s leading, and up and coming, Black and brown TV producers.

My collective experience from 30 years ago was invaluable in chairing the committee for Cardiff University’s global conference The Future of Journalism, featuring that year keynote speakers: Danielle K. Kilgo, Gary Younge and Cherian George — all people of colour.

I see the impact of the archive, and its potential, but perhaps this story here best illustrates its importance. In 1992 a band by the name D-Influence would support the king of pop Michael Jackson on his UK tour. In the studio, the bands leader Kwame Kwaten couldn’t believe their luck. What an experience he would say. D-influence created a British sound that captured the zeitgeist. Kwaten has since worked with Mick Jagger from The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Tom Jones, Beverley Knight, and Seal. He was the manager of Laura Mvule.

During lockdown, I would replay his interview to him. When it ended. Silence. Followed by a stream of “wows”. For Kwaten it captured the mood of the 90s and what it was really like, the club scene, of his band, and of the only voice on tape of Steve Marston — who sadly passed away.

What is the importance of archive for Black British people and scholars, its agency and how it threads autobiographical stories and challenges representation? That is the question isn’t it? Perhaps, you could contribute to answering it.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a reader at Cardiff University in Innovation and Applied Storytelling, behind viewmagazine.tv. He’s one of the top fifteen writers out of 26k writers, and 65k stories in Journalism on @medium. He’s previously been voted one of the top influential Ghanaians in the UK.

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Dr David Dunkley Gyimah

Creative Technologist & Associate Professor. International Award Winner Cinema journalist. Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled Top Writer,