The Listener

The Listener was a weekly UK magazine which first appeared in January 1929. Published by the BBC, the main aim of the magazine was to disseminate talks and lectures broadcast by the BBC. The title of the magazine reflects the fact that, at the time, you had to listen to the BBC because it only broadcast on the radio. Television had not yet entered our entertainment equation.

The magazine was worthily educational. The Listener represented the BBC’s cultural mission to inform and educate as well as entertain. It previewed literary and musical broadcasts, reviewed new books, and highlighted a selection of the more intellectual items for your coming week. Its roster of contributors was stellar. Between its pages you might find the latest musings from EM Forster, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, or George Bernard Shaw. The Listener was also a literary gateway for new writers and poets. WH Auden, Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin all had early poems published in The Listener.


Frighteningly prescient: Digital would spell the end for the print magazine, as well (though LPs cling on)

In 1986, all the BBC’s commercial activities, including The Listener, moved sideways into BBC Enterprises Limited. In trying to turn a profit, the editors attempted to broaden the appeal of the magazine beyond the intellectual and artistic rigour for which it was famed. BBC Enterprises found themselves unable to continue the magazine, and published the last issue in January 1991.

The Listener is gone but all is not lost. One of the regular features for which The Listener became famous was its fiendishly difficult cryptic crossword.


The crossword lives on in Saturday’s The Times. Some of the puzzles each year have fewer than 100 correct entries; one in The Times had just eight. Solvers aim to send in “all correct” entries for a calendar year; usually, no more than around ten people manage this.

The educational publisher Gale has digitised the contents of all editions of The Listener behind a paywall. However, the Listener Historical Archive is currently only available for institutions to trial and purchase. The archive is not yet available for individual subscriptions.

It’s hard not to mourn the vanishing of a print magazine whose first editor, Richard S Lambert, successfully sued someone for slander when they alleged that he believed in a talking mongoose on the Isle of Man.

But to end this week on a positive note, my copy of The Listener, dating from October 1990, has a “Wanted” poster on its back cover for the British journalist John McCarthy. He was abducted in 1986, and was then being held as a hostage in Lebanon. This was part of a campaign to keep his fate in the public consciousness. John McCarthy came home in 1991.


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