The Forgotten Queer Woman Who Revolutionized Radio

Hilda Matheson basically created talk radio, the predecessor of podcasts, as we know it. But she doesn't even have her own Wikipedia page.

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Jun 13 2016, 4:05pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"I always thought of her as a sturdy pony," wrote Vita Sackville-West in her obituary for Hilda Matheson, her former lover and longtime friend. "The tragedy to us, her friends, is that the pony was not so sturdy as we thought!"

Search for Hilda Matheson on Google and the first result is a Wikipedia entry. But it's not about her; it's the entry for Dorothy Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington, another of Matheson's lovers. It seems somewhat offensive that even in the progressive realm of queer relationships, a woman like Matheson—who revolutionized talk radio and could be considered the predecessor of podcasting—is defined, according to a leading internet database, by her romantic partners. This is just part of what Sarah-Jane Stratford is trying to fix in her new novel Radio Girls.

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To be clear, Radio Girls is neither a manifesto nor a dull history lesson. It's a delightfully literary historical fiction book about the early days of the BBC, featuring the well-named Maisie Musgrave as its heroine. Maisie is hired as a secretary at the British Broadcasting Company—the C became "Corporation" in 1926—and is to be shared between the Director General, or DG, John Reith, and the Director of Talks, Hilda Matheson. Though the timeline is a little bit shifted, and there are some elements of intrigue that are pure (though logical) confabulation, many of the characters in the novel are real historical figures. But the heart and soul of the narrative is Hilda Matheson, whom Stratford readily admits "was the impetus for the book."

Stratford, who studied in Britain and has long had an affinity for the BBC, came across Matheson's name while doing research. It was "just a short line, saying she was the first Director of Talks at the BBC. Not the first woman [director]—the first director, period. Which seemed quite a thing in 1926. As I kept reading about her, I realized what an influential, yet unknown, feminist she was."

Born in 1888 to a comfortable but by no means wealthy family, Matheson was a self-starter. From her degree-less education (women weren't allowed to attain degrees at this time) at an Oxbridge college, she made her own way in the world from early on. Before her tenure at the BBC, Matheson was recruited to MI5, the British security agency, by none other than the real-life Lawrence of Arabia, T. E. Lawrence. After her time in that secretive organization during World War I, she served as the political secretary for Lady Astor, the first British woman to be voted into Parliament. Being political secretary—to an aristocrat no less—meant Matheson came to know just about every important person in the UK at the time, and it was during this job that John Reith, the DG, scouted Matheson, seizing upon her as a perfect candidate for the position he was looking to fill at the BBC.

Anyone who enjoys NPR or the BBC owes her a debt.

The BBC's own website has a very short and archived timeline of Matheson where they say that "Hilda Matheson was head-hunted by the BBC in 1926," and that "as the BBC's first Director of Talks, she transformed the airwaves." ("Talks" were all programming that wasn't music, drama, news bulletins, or educational messages sent into schools.) This is indeed the foremost thing about Matheson, but it also obscures the foremost thing about Matheson: She basically invented talk radio, and in Stratford's words, "Anyone who enjoys NPR or the BBC owes her a debt."

The BBC was founded in 1922, when the UK was still hurting from World War I, by wireless manufacturers after the closure of various amateur stations. John Reith, who said that he "hadn't the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was," was at the helm. Still, radio was an exciting new source of entertainment, with radio plays, music, and news bulletins airing for short periods of time during certain hours of the day.

Stratford says that Maisie, who becomes Matheson's protégé in the novel, was inspired by Peggy Olson of Mad Men. "Someone who starts as a secretary and doesn't really think of herself as having any other opportunities, and then is surprised to find options opening up. And more surprised to find that she wants them and has the capacity to manage them."

The house where Matheson lived (with roommates) while working at the BBC. Photo courtesy of Sarah-Jane Stratford

Maisie serves as a kind of prototype of many of the women working in Britain in the 1920s. So many men were killed in the war that, even though men who'd returned from the front needed work, there was also some room for women at new ventures like the BBC. Moreover, because so many young men had died, fewer women were likely to find husbands—though it was still the expectation—and women who didn't have financial prospects, an aristocratic background, or much education typically found themselves entering the workplace, fending for themselves.

Matheson was not exactly one of these so-called "surplus women": She was well-educated, had already served in important positions, and made quite a handsome living for the time. But her coming to the BBC was revolutionary, as she grabbed this new radio format by the horns and created an ambitious environment in which she insisted on exploring everything talk radio could do. As the BBC's timeline says, she brought to radio "intellectual heavyweights such as HG Wells, Bernard Shaw and the woman who would become her lover, the novelist Vita Sackville-West." (It may be prudent to mention that she also brought in Virginia Woolf, Sackville-West's lover during the early-to-mid-1920s. Woolf, understandably, came to quite dislike the radio mogul after Sackville-West began seeing Matheson romantically.)

The BBC at the time was an extraordinary organization: It was not only willing to hire women (and very occasionally keep them on even after they were married and had children, which was absolutely unheard of anywhere else), but it also paid women and men in the same position equal wages. Stratford says that she thinks "a lot of that was down to its being a new creation—there was no tradition on which to draw."

She had the vision to see the importance of this new thing.

Matheson created the tradition. She was by all accounts incredibly spirited and motivated, and her work for the BBC's Talks Department was remembered fondly in Sackville-West's obit: "She had the vision to see the importance of this new thing. She saw the wireless programmes not merely as a means of distributing news"—though she did push for more news broadcasts in a time when the BBC was reluctant to report, because it believed newspapers should do such journalistic work—"but also as an educational possibility for influence, for entertainment, instruction, and general good. The opportunity was hers and she made the most of it. She had the gift of getting people to speak; she knew how to choose her speakers and how to manage them; she knew how to inspire her staff with her own enthusiasm."

Thought Sackville-West doesn't go on to explain why Matheson left the BBC, Matheson, according to Stratford, "believed that Lionel [Fielden] sold her out."

Fielden was Matheson's assistant, and was also believed to be gay. "She [thought] he outed her, and that was what really turned Reith against her," Stratford told me. Matheson and Reith, the DG, had already been at odds for a long time because Matheson would bring in speakers from the Bloomsbury Group—the social group made up of writers, artists, and intellectuals who all lived and worked near Bloomsbury, London—who were considered amoral to a man like Sir John Reith.

Stratford portrays Reith in her novel as a complex man. On the one hand, he was at the forefront of a totally innovative new media format; on the other, he was subject to the whims of the Board of Governors of the BBC, the body of men who, though they didn't have direct control over programming, had to answer to Parliament. (This board was finally dissolved and replaced by the BBC Trust in 2007.) Reith was caught between a rock and a hard place when it came to Matheson; her Talks were widely lauded in the media, and those in the know were very aware of her role in creating the programming. But he also didn't much like her bringing all sorts of people of "loose morals"—Woolf and Sackville-West, as well as E.M. Forster and George Bernard Shaw (who participated in political debates and created anxiety, especially after he visited Stalinist Russia and was not allowed to discuss his travels on the air)—into his fancy establishment.

Read more: The History of Erasing Women's History

As the BBC was broadcasting when, in 1928, the British government passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote, one of the programs that Matheson created was "Questions for Women Voters." Matheson's program aimed to educate new voters in the coming elections, and it is an example of the kind of educational programming she designed alongside her more entertainment-focused discussions with authors and poets.

Matheson was not only an innovator, though. She also had a variety of kind of adorable quirks that Stratford managed to uncover despite the dearth of public information available about her. "She did cheeky things like use BBC internal memos to write letters, and on at least one occasion, when she wrote on the back of a memo (which says, 'DO NOT WRITE ON THIS SIDE') she wrote underneath that diktat, 'Shall!!'" She was also once brazen enough to steal a sandwich from a secretary's desk.

Part of the reason Matheson's biography seems so extraordinary—and somewhat tragic—is that it wouldn't be that common to hear a similar story today. "It's more than a little pathetic that it's 90 years since Hilda started at the BBC and women are still struggling for equal space in content creation," Stratford said, "and that their content is still considered less valuable."