Celebrating 80 years of the BBC World Service

Find out why stars adore the World Service and it's been called Britain's "greatest gift to the world"

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It’s the biggest radio station on the planet and it’s 80 years old today. Famed, lauded and acclaimed across the globe, the BBC World Service’s audience numbers 166 million people – each of whom is informed, educated and entertained by a radio station they trust.

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But back in 1932, the BBC’s own Lord Reith wasn’t quite as impressed. He said that “the programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good”.

However, six days after its opening, the service scored a coup. King George V gave the very first Royal Christmas speech. The speeches are now seen as a fixture of Christmas television but for many years it was so ingrained as a radio tradition that BBC television would close down because the assumption was that audiences would listen on their wirelesses instead.

By the time it was ten years old there were 1,400 people working for the World Service and it was typically broadcasting 78 news bulletins in 34 languages every day.

Shortwave

It did so famously by shortwave radio transmission. Not every radio set can pick up shortwave and even with those that do, often called world-band receivers, it can be tricky to get good reception. So the enduring image associated with the BBC World Service is one of people in remote places, painstakingly tuning their dials to pick up the words “This is London”.

Joe Strummer of The Clash once wrote about visiting his parents in Malawai, Central Africa in 1968 and tuning in: “We were out in the bush. I can never forget reaching down and holding my father’s Zenith Transoceanic portable radio, as out of the of the speaker and clear as a bell, came the sounds of the Top Twenty fresh from London. Here! In the middle of Africa – deep in the bush!

“That night I was the happiest groover on the planet. And so, maybe more than most, I can understand the power and the scope – and the influence – of the World Service.”

Sir Paul McCartney is also a fan and the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once described the World Service as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.

Audiences

The BBC World Service is really a collection of many different radio – and now also television and online – services. It’s currently broadcast in 28 languages.

On average, it reaches 166 million people every week with the largest audiences being 43m listening in English, 33.4m in Arabic, 23m in Hausa, 20m in Swahili and 11m in French.

It’s seen as being authoritative and trustworthy. The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger said: “The BBC World Service is one of the best no-nonsense sources of information in a world crowded with sensationalism and cheap exploitation. It is serious without being dull.”

In an era when US news channels are arguably being ever-more politicised the BBC World Service continues to be seen by many as an impartial organ of truth. Indeed, ratings for the World Service have risen in America. Currently 10.2m people listen each week and that’s a trebling of its audience in the past ten years.

Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker said “I listen every night at home in New York City – every single night, BBC World Service, with pleasure.”

Future

The world is changing, though, and so is the World Service. While it has always been funded separately from the UK licence fee, that is changing and budget cuts have seen it cease broadcasting in many languages. Shortwave radio transmissions have been reduced too, but that’s as much because of the rise of the internet as it is for cost-cutting.

You have always been able to hear the BBC World Service in the UK, it’s just sometimes been hard. Insomniacs and night workers will know that BBC Radio 4 relays the World Service overnight. With the right radio and some patience, at times you’ve been able to pick up the service on shortwave and even medium wave.

But these days this fantastic radio service is available as readily here as it is everywhere else. You can tune in on DAB radio, you can listen on Sky channel 0115, on Freeview channel 710 and online.

The BBC World Service is 80 years old and the radio station that began on shortwave in 1932 is now a leading online internet service relied upon around the globe.

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Happy birthday – and many happy returns!