31 Days in May



various (whichever Radio 1 DJ got that day's contest)


BBC Radio 1, 1 May 1989 - 31 May 1993 (166 competition days, and one documentary)


In the 1980s, radio audiences were measured by asking many thousands of people to fill out paper diaries of which station they listened to, on which days and in which hours they listened. The results were compiled and crunched, and eventually figures were released, allowing commercial stations to prove how many listeners they reached, and hence set advertising rates. The survey was a complex and difficult exercise, and the commercial radio sector could only afford to mount it once a year. They chose the month of May.

By the end of the decade, the BBC had grown wise to the special nature of May, and expected that the commercial opposition would be trying much harder than usual. Though all the BBC stations lost listeners during the month, Radio 1 was worst affected, and bit back with something that exploited Radio 1's pulling power: star prizes that money couldn't buy. These prizes were given away, one per day, during the month of may. Hence the name: Thirty One Days in May.

The prizes were the real star of this promotion. Local radio stations could give away tickets to their local sports team, but only Radio 1 could send a listener to the Olympics. The commercial sector might let listeners visit the studio, but only Radio 1 offered a trip to Dallas and have a listener make their own jingle. Independent radio could have its DJs press the flesh in the town centre, but only Radio 1 would give away a trip to spend a day fishing with Bruno Brookes. Er, yes.

The competition was heavily trailed during late April, and began on 1 May 1989. It was simple, fitting Radio 1's image at the time as a station that wasn't going to tax anyone's brain. A very loud siren would be set off somewhere in the Radio 1 schedule, usually interrupting the presenter in mid-link. Listeners never knew when it would go off, they were only told that it would sound before the station closed for the night at 2am. According to the script, the DJ presenting at the time would spin a wheel to reveal the day's prize. Once the prize was determined, phone lines opened, and callers were taken to air. They were asked three questions, usually with some sort of link to the prize. The first person to correctly answer all three questions would win, and everyone else would have to call back the next day. Most winning listeners put together a brief report on their prize, which was aired at roughly the same time as the original prize was won.

Listeners were given the impression that this competition was a law unto itself, something entirely beyond the DJ's control. That was an illusion, of course. Everyone involved - station controller Johnny Beerling, the producers, presenters - had planned out who would run the competition on which days, what prize they would give away, approximately where in the show it would run, and even whether they would ask easy questions to give the prize away quickly, or let it drag on for the best part of an hour. Specialist shows would run the contest no more than once every year, late-night DJs Richard Skinner and Roger Scott were excused from the competition, as was Newsbeat. The most popular features of the daytime shows - "Our Tune", "The Sloppy Bit" - would continue uninterrupted. How convenient. The "wheel" was another fiction, a device to allow the DJs to talk up prizes that would be on offer in later days.

Thirty One More Days in May

For 1990 and 1991, the fake wheel was retired. Instead, the day's prize (along with four others coming up on subsequent days) was revealed in Simon Mayo's breakfast show at 8am sharp. Everything else was exactly the same: listeners were to respond to the siren, and three questions led to the top prize. Four prizes were left over at the end of the month: in 1990, these were given away across the schedule on Monday 4 June, in a contest called One Day in June. In 1991, the last four prizes were offered during the course of Friday 31 May.

There was a significant change for 1992, to take account of the fact that Radio 1 had started broadcasting round-the-clock. The siren was retired, and the day's prize was unveiled in a pre-recorded announcement at 4am, along with a particular record. When that record was played, listeners were allowed to dive for their phones, and the first to give three correct answers won. Some listeners were able to predict which show would give away a particular prize, based on the cue track: for instance, a Nirvana prize was only ever going to be given away on the rock show.

AM, FM, all that jazz

In late 1992, the Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) system was launched, under which radio listening was measured continually from mid-January to mid-December. May was no longer the only month when ratings were researched, and neither the independent stations nor the BBC had to concentrate their promotions into a short period. 31 Days in May did return for 1993, in a somewhat less spectacular version. The day's prize was again announced at 8am, announced by siren, and would be certainly be given away before the daytime schedule ended at 6pm. The reason for running the competition in 1993 wasn't ratings, but to raise awareness of Radio 1's looming shift to FM only. The contest didn't go out on the medium wave frequencies; instead, listeners heard an announcement that they really should be listening to FM, where they can actually hear the station's entire output. A 30-minute documentary aired on 31 May, catching up with some of the winners.

The contest was quietly axed by Matthew Bannister when he took control of Radio 1 in late 1993, not least because he wanted his station to be distinctive from commercial radio. So rapid was the pace of change that 31 Days in May would have stuck out like a sore thumb had it run in 1994.

31 Days in May achieved its short-term goals; by offering listeners a prize they would enjoy and couldn't get anywhere else, and not knowing when they might win it, they were encouraged to stick with Radio 1 until the siren went off. The station may not have gained a huge number of new listeners, but it did keep people from retuning quite as much, and that boosted the total number of hours spent listening. In the long term, it may have been a counterproductive move: the inflated listening figures from the second quarter of 1993 served to make the painful refocussing under Matthew Bannister seem larger than it was.

Key moments

Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah, and other noises made by the siren.


In addition to specially-commissioned jingles from JAM Productions, the contest's main theme was "Montague and Capulet" from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet - the same piece would later be used on The Apprentice. "Power House Crash" by Richard Myhill was used while the DJs read out the prizes; this stabby synth piece had been composed to soundtrack the basketball of NBA Films.


"The prizes money just can't buy."


Radio 1 ran a broadly similar during March 1991. The Soundcheque competition had the station distributing cards with individual serial numbers, then reading some of them out in each programme. Winners of this radio bingo contest had between 97 and 99 minutes to call and collect their prize of some thousands of pounds. The siren from 31 Days in May was pressed into service to herald the announcement of the numbers.

Web links

We said that one listener went to Dallas to make his own jingle. The report can be heard at the jingle-factory JAM.


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