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Radio revolutionary who changed the airwaves forever

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Published on 05 April 2019

Charles Parker
Charles Parker

To many his name might not be familiar, but a radio revolutionary is set to be remembered thanks to a University of Sunderland academic.

In the week that would have marked his100th birthday, broadcast legend Charles Parker is celebrated in a special Radio 4 programme on Saturday.

Charles Parker: Radio Pioneer will be broadcast at 8pm as part of the Archive on 4 series. Produced by University of Sunderland’s Andy Cartwright, Programme Leader for MA Radio, the hour-long episode will examine all aspects of Parker’s life.

Andy, himself an award-winning radio producer with more than 30 years of experience, spoke to Parker’s two children, Sarah and Matthew, about memories of their father, as well as radio critics and those who worked with him.

Parker was a BBC Radio producer based in Birmingham from 1954 to1972, playing a pivotal role in introducing a more documentary style of radio and theatre. He is perhaps most remembered for the 1958-1964 series of Radio Ballads created in collaboration with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.

One of the programmes won an Italia Prize for Radio Documentary in 1960 and they are generally seen as a landmark in radio history.

Andy, who organised the annual Charles Parker Day celebration on Friday to mark the pioneer’s birthday, said: “Parker really believed in the power of bringing the extraordinary experiences of ordinary people to the radio - hearing the voices and the testimony of working people from their own environments.

“He merged these voices with music in a unique and completely integrated way, this becoming the signature of the Radio Ballads which were produced by Charles, along with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.

“In total there were eight Radio Ballads produced over a seven year period. They were new, exciting and like nothing that had come before. But they were also expensive to make.”

“I was honoured to be asked to produce this programme because I liked Parker; I like that he made beautiful radio, integrating music and voice. The production of something like the Radio Ballads was so refined and skillful. There was an authenticity there that was unique.”

Parker, who died in 1980, was also a founder, writer, singer and actor with Banner Theatre in Birmingham from 1974 right up until his death.

Andy said: “His passion for the oral tradition is reflected throughout his body of work. He was a revolutionary, starting out politically with a very Conservative approach before, ultimately, becoming a Marxist.”

Andy has played a pivotal role in helping organise the annual Charles Parker Day for the past 10 years. On Friday, marking Parker’s centenary, the event was held in the radio pioneer’s hometown of Bournemouth.

Among those competing this year for the Charles Parker Prize were University of Sunderland students Jordan Blyth and Sam Ross.