As an undergraduate at St Hugh's College, Oxford from 1929 she soon met her lifelong friend Barbara Betts, the future Labour politician Barbara Castle; the two women spent their holidays together, but unlike Betts, Shapley was briefly drawn to communism. After a brief unhappy period working for the Workers' Educational Association and teaching at several schools, she joined the BBC in 1934 as an organiser of Children's Hour programming in Manchester, but soon developed an interest in documentary features as an assistant producer. This was not without its problems. During a live programme called Men Talking, Shapley had to use placards requesting Durham miners "not say bugger or bloody", one incident of several which persuaded BBC Director General Sir John Reith to insist on broadcasts being scripted. Using a recording van, weighing "seven tons when fully loaded", Shapley recorded actuality, which was innovative at the time, but the broadcast of swear words could now be avoided. She thought a claim by Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff that she was an innovator as being expressed in "very flattering terms".
With Joan Littlewood in 1939 she created The Classic Soil (the programme still exists) which compared the social conditions of the day with those observed a century earlier by Friedrich Engels. Decades later, Shapley thought it "probably the most unfair and biased programme ever put out by the BBC". Other programmes from this period included the features Steel (1937), Cotton and Wool (both 1939).
In 1939, Shapley went freelance after her marriage to John Salt, the BBC's programme director in the North region; the couple worked for the BBC in New York for much of the war. Salt, the BBC's North America assistant director (1942–44) and later director (1944–45), died suddenly on 26 December 1947.
Following the war, Shapley became a regular presenter of Woman's Hour, a programme with which she was associated ("on and off") for over twenty years, producing the programme between 1949 and 1953. Meanwhile, she began to develop a career as a presenter in television. In 1959 she took the six-week BBC television training course, enabling her to become a producer in the newer medium. Though largely based in Manchester again, from where she broadcast on television, she regularly commuted to London for some years.
Olive Shapley published her autobiography, Broadcasting a Life, in 1996.
- Shaw, Allan (20 March 1999). "Obituary: Olive Shapley". The Independent.
- Shapley, Olive (1996). Broadcasting a Life. London: Scarlet Press. p. 30.
- Michael Vestey "Keep it mild" Archived 9 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine, The Spectator, 18 January 2003, as reproduced on the Find Articles website. Shapley though (Broadcasting a Life, p.46) believed the incident occurred during Coal (17 November 1938).
- Peter M. Lewis "Referable Words", in Paddy Scannell (ed) Broadcast Talk, London: Sage, p. 14
- Olive Shapley Broadcasting A Life, London: Scarlet Pres, 1996, p.48-49 quoting David Cardiff and Paddy Scannell A Social History of British Broadcasting, 1922-39, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, p.345
- Shapley Broadcasting a Life, p. 51. The reference is to Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff A Social History of British Broadcasting, 1922-39, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, p. 345
- "Help for Researchers: Radio recordings: social history". British Library.
- Shapley Broadcasting a Life, p. 54
- Crook, Tim (1999). Radio Drama Theory. London: Routledge. p. 205.
- Billboard, 3 January 1948, p.11
- Shapley Broadcasting a Life, p. 124
- Shapley Broadcasting a Life, pp. 160-61
- Woman's Hour, 9 April 2010, (BBC website)