The British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) launched its radio broadcasts to Africa in indigenous African languages in 1957 at the height of the British government's anxiety over Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser's anti-imperialist administration. This development was made possible through the earlier invention of transistor radios, the innovation that supplanted the older and costlier electric radios. The number of listeners to the BBC broadcast in the continent grew as the audio equipment became more affordable and shortwave transmitters were enhanced.
In 1957 the BBC began broadcasts from London in Somali, Hausa and Swahili. Through these broadcasts the BBC has made a major contribution over the past forty years to communication in Africa and to the development and use of these major languages.
Writing about broadcasting for anyone with an interest in archives, sources and permanent records of any kind raises some problems. The importance of radio and television in the history of the 20th Century is without question. But the problem remains for the writer and scholar to find or be able to refer to any good sources at all for a medium that is, by its very nature, ephemeral. If anything is kept it is for the purpose of using again, not generally for the sake of history.
The Importance of Radio in Africa
Broadcasting, mainly through radio, has been of particular importance in Africa. Its arrival on the continent in the 1920s was not of major significance at that time. This was because although many colonial settlers and officials soon acquired sets in order to hear broadcasts from London, Paris, Hilversum or the very few African transmitters, very few indigenous Africans had sets. Very few of them lived in houses with an electricity supply. There were battery driven radio sets, but these were expensive and cumbersome and there were very few in Africa. The arrival of the transistor changed all this forever and led to radio becoming widely available, being both cheap and capable of being run on torch batteries. As a result, radio became the major mass communications medium of Africa during the 1960s.
It was the discovery in 1948 of the semi-conducting properties of silicon by three inventors, Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley, working in the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the United States, that made this happen. They had little idea at the time of the significance of their discovery but it was probably the single most important technological development of the [20.sup.th] century. Their breakthrough led not only to the transistor revolution that began about ten years after their first crude device was made but also, as the technology improved, to miniaturisation and digitisation that has made possible the massive changes in the whole field of information that have marked the closing years of the century.
You would not think that radio was an important medium in Africa if you relied for your evidence on articles and books about the continent's history, politics, society or culture. Few of them ever mention broadcasting, even though it plays such an obvious role in political events and in the development of such things as music and language. While most of Africa's printed press has been in the languages of the former colonial powers, radio has been less dependent on these relatively 'elite' languages. The first broadcasts specifically aimed at African audiences were in Northern Rhodesia in 1941 and were in indigenous languages. This Central African Broadcasting Station, as it became known, eventually broadcast in most of the major languages of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Elsewhere, especially in anglophone Africa, similar policies were followed and indigenous languages provided the mainstream of all radio broadcasting. To this day many more African languages are used in radio than in the press.
Radio broadcasting in sub-Saharan Africa grew very rapidly from the mid 1950s onwards, both in transmission and reception. The mostly low-powered and limited facilities used by the colonial powers were gradually upgraded and extended. More powerful transmitters were brought in and improvements were made to broadcasting facilities. However, African broadcasting remained in the hands of the state, almost without exception. The colonial authorities, prior to their departure, had regarded broadcasting as something that they should control as an instrument of persuasion and propaganda. The governments of the newly independent states took much the same view. By 1982, when I wrote a book on the media in Africa, I could find only three privately owned radio stations on the entire continent, and a further three owned by religious organisations. This near monopoly has recently begun to loosen as private radio stations have begun to emerge. At the time of writing there are more than 300 radio stations in Africa owned and run by organisations independent of the state. Some are commercial, some religious and some community-based.
The dominance of the state in African broadcasting is one reason why there is so much listening to international radio stations like the BBC. The lack of local choice, which was typical of all African countries until recently, is still the case in more than half of Africa's 53 nation states. It has meant that levels of listening to the BBC and a few other international radio stations, most notably Deutsche Welle from Germany, VOA from the United States and RFI from France, are higher than on any other continent.
Ownership of radio sets has grown at a very fast pace. In 1955 there were estimated to be less than half a million radio sets in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa. Ten years later the number had grown tenfold. By 1975 there were an estimated 18.8 million radio sets. Recent economic difficulties have slowed the growth rate but today it is estimated that there are 74 million radio sets in use in sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa. This means that there are now just over 14 radio sets for every 100 people.
The BBC and its Languages
The BBC World Service traces its history back to 1932 when the Empire Service began broadcasting programmes in English to all parts of the British Empire. John Reith, the BBC's first Director General, saw the importance of the English language as a unifying factor. There were, at first, no plans for broadcasts in other languages. But when fascist Italy began propaganda broadcasts in Arabic, it was not long before a British response seemed called for. Reith's persistent and powerful vision was for Arabic language broadcasting independent of the government, at least in its editorial content. His argument won and on [3.sup.rd] January 1938 broadcasts began. As if to prove the point about independence, although the event was pure coincidence, on the very first day of broadcasts in Arabic, the BBC carried a story that the British government would have suppressed had they been directly responsible for broadcasts. The third story in the opening news bulletin reported that an Arab had been executed for the then capital offence in British Mandated Palestine of possessing firearms. The news of the execution was heard far beyond Palestine and, as a Foreign Office official noted, 'practically all news from Palestine must be intensely painful to the Arabs and can only send our stock down still further in the Middle East.' Although the BBC's budget is paid for by the British Government through the Foreign Office's Parliamentary vote, the content of broadcasts is not directed by them, either directly or indirectly. This fact has often infuriated or frustrated members of British administrations and puzzled or frustrated foreign complainants about some of the output.
Further expansion of broadcasting in other languages followed, mainly if not entirely driven by the Second World War and Britain's role in it. By the end of the war, the BBC was broadcasting in 43 languages, 25 of these were to Europe, 14 to Asia and 2 to Latin America. Apart from Arabic and Afrikaans, there were no services to Africa intended for the indigenous people. Broadcasts in Afrikaans were started in 1939 but ceased in 1957 just as other African language broadcasting began.
As early as 1940 there were some far-sighted people in both the BBC and the British civil service who saw the potential of radio in all parts of the world and realised that many languages other than those of the colonial …