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Assistant Editor

On 7 November 1930, Janet Adam Smith wrote a letter to her boss, Richard Lambert, the Editor of The Listener in which she informed him that she wished to apply to be his ‘second in command’. Although she realised that there ‘might be a feeling against a woman’ holding this position she assured Lambert that she liked responsibility and was exceedingly keen to succeed.[1] She also pointed out that ‘ World Radio’ had an Assistant Editor, Ella Fitzgerald. Adam Smith had worked on The Listener since its inception the previous year. The Assistant Editor, Moray McLaren, had just left and she felt sure that she was up to the task. Lambert was in agreement and for the next five years, until she left to be married in 1935, Adam Smith would fulfil an indispensable role on The Listener, not only overseeing literary reviews but bringing modern poetry and art to its pages.

It was a friendship between her father and Reith that brought Adam Smith to the BBC in 1928. An Aberdonian, she had just left Somerville College with an English degree and was looking for work in London. She started at the BBC as a ?3 10s a week shorthand typist in the Publications Department but her appetite for more challenging work was soon noticed and, in May 1929, she was offered a job as Lambert’s ‘secretary-cum-assistant’ on The Listener, the first edition of which had been published in January that year.[2] Very quickly she had taken on a far broader role. Working alongside McLaren, she sub-edited manuscripts, kept contact with contributors, wrote book reviews and editorial notes and saw the paper through to press.[3] All tasks that she would continue to fulfil in her new role.

The Listener had been established as a means of supporting broadcast talks, enhancing and contextualising the spoken word and promoting adult education. It turned out to be hugely controversial and, to avoid what was perceived as unfair competition, was severely restricted in the amount of non-BBC-related material it could publish.[4] [5] A key challenge for Adam Smith was how to bring intellectual rigour within these constraints; however, the quality of the journal meant that the strict boundaries were gradually loosened. She was immensely influential and is credited with bringing the likes of W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender to a wider public. This was a time when modernist poetry was still viewed by many with suspicion and her four-page poetry supplement in 1933 (which included wood cuts by Gwen Raverat), resulted in many complaints. 1 09 Summoned by Reith to explain the outrage, Adam Smith succeeded in persuading him to allow T.S. Eliot to review the place of poetry within The Listener, a ploy that evidently calmed the situation.

Her handover notes to J.R. Ackerley who took over the Assistant Editor role in 1935 reveal that along with responsibility for poetry, she oversaw art articles and exhibitions, was the point of liaison for all book reviews, managed the published talks that were connected with books and art and selected short stories. This was in addition to a raft of general duties such as deputising for Lambert, attending editorial meetings and consulting on what was to be published in the journal. Her extensive correspondence shows in what high esteem she was held. She met her future husband, the poet and scholar Michael Roberts, through her work, although it was their shared love of mountain climbing that seems ultimately to have brought them together. Adam Smith had broadcast her first talk on mountaineering for BBC Scotland in 1932 and she continued to give radio talks, as well as to contribute articles to The Listener, after she left the BBC in 1935. On her departure to be married, Gladstone Murray, the Controller of Public Relations, wrote of his conflicting emotions; her loss was ‘irreplaceable’ but he ‘rejoiced’ in her happiness.[6]

Janet Adam Smith’s initial letter to Lambert, requesting that she be considered for the Assistant Editor post, had made it adamantly clear she did not consider her work as an ‘interesting way of passing the time between going down from university and getting married’. She was ‘quite certain’ that to get the most of a job it should be regarded as part of a lifetime career.[3] [8] There is no doubt that if she had wanted to stay at the BBC she would have sailed through the Marriage Tribunal. But her six years on The Listener were without question of huge import to the journal and she left a legacy that was remembered for decades to come.

  • [1] National Library of Scotland: Janet Adam Smith papers, ACC12342 (hereafter JASpapers), 122, Letter to Lambert, 7 November 1930.
  • [2] Oral History of the BBC: Janet Adam Smith interview, 1 August 1979.
  • [3] JAS papers, 122, letter to Lambert, 7 November 1930.
  • [4] See Asa Briggs (1965) The Golden Age of Wireless: The History of Broadcasting in theUnited Kingdom, Vol. 2 (London: Oxford University Press) pp. 280-92; Lambert, Ariel andAll his Quality, pp. 91-108.
  • [5] The Listener, 21 January 1965, Janet Adam Smith, ‘T S Eliot and The Listener’.
  • [6] JAS papers, 183, Gladstone Murray to Janet Adam Smith, 17 January 1935.
  • [7] JAS papers, 122, letter to Lambert, 7 November 1930.
  • [8] Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, pp. 334-5.
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