Magazine article Geographical

Britain's Voice around the World: Since It First Began Broadcasting in 1932, the BBC World Service's Expansions and Contractions Have Charted Britain's Shifting Global Priorities and Relationships. as the Service Celebrates Its 80th Birthday, Alasdair Pinkerton Charts the Triumphs and Travails of the World's Most Popular Broadcaster

Magazine article Geographical

Britain's Voice around the World: Since It First Began Broadcasting in 1932, the BBC World Service's Expansions and Contractions Have Charted Britain's Shifting Global Priorities and Relationships. as the Service Celebrates Its 80th Birthday, Alasdair Pinkerton Charts the Triumphs and Travails of the World's Most Popular Broadcaster

Article excerpt

On 19 December 1932, at precisely 9.30am, after almost a decade of political and financial wrangling, the BBC took its first somewhat hesitant steps towards becoming a global broadcasting phenomenon. Beginning with the westernmost territories of the British Empire, the newly inaugurated BBC Empire Service carried messages from the BBC's chairman (AH Whitely) and director-general (John Reith) to the English-speaking peoples of New Zealand and Australia.

Over the next 24 hours, Reith and Whitely repeated their double act another four times for the benefit of listeners in India, the Middle East, South Africa and Canada and the Caribbean. It was a triumphant occasion that bound the geographical extent of the Empire into a continuous electromagnetic endeavour, but it was also an occasion loaded with uncertainties.

Reith was audibly wary about forecasting the future significance of the service to the Empire. He was even more reserved in his judgement on the programming that would be transmitted. 'Don't expect too much in the early days,' he cautioned, 'the programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good'.

It's difficult to imagine the modern BBC adopting such a pessimistic tone about its own programming, but what Reith's words reveal is a profound uncertainty--and even unease--at the BBC's new global mission. Broadcasting to the Empire would require considerable investment in experimental technologies and practices, and new mechanisms for engaging with its audience.

Eighty years later, the BBC's overseas services rebranded the BBC World Service during the 1980s--face a renewed period of uncertainty. Technological shifts, austerity budgets and changing work practices are taking their toll on the 'grand dame' of international broadcasting. But these latest events are just the most recent in a long line of crises and conflicts that have, at times, threatened the future of the World Service and, simultaneously, cemented its reputation for impartiality, truthfulness and independence.

'ONE GREAT FAMILY'

The belief that the dominions and colonies of the British Empire represented 'one great family' of shared virtues and values underpinned the Empire Service's early mission. Britain--the Mother Country--was firmly at the head of the household and there could be no mistaking the fact that London was the beating heart of it all.

But if the Empire was a family of nations with multiple languages and ethnicities, listeners would have been forgiven for getting a rather different impression. Broadcasting exclusively in English until 1938, the Empire Service was concerned much more with alleviating the supposed 'loneliness' and 'isolation' of the British overseas than it was with appealing to the indigenous communities of Empire. Broadcast only a few weeks after the Empire Service's inauguration, George V's Christmas message emphasised the point: 'I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all; to men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert, or the sea that only voices out of the air can reach them.'

Letters from around the Empire revealed Big Ben to be one of the surprise stars and emotional highlights of the Empire Service during the 1930s. Indian Civil Service officers and their families dedicated exponents of the 'stiff upper lip'--were reportedly reduced to tears by hearing the chimes of Big Ben for the first time in 20 years. Even those who had never heard Big Ben in London commented that the chimes symbolically transported listeners to the 'heart of Empire' while at the same time conveniently improving local time keeping.

By the late 1930s, such sentimental connections with 'home' were beginning to look out of step with the mood of the times, particularly given the growing autonomy of the dominions, growing calls for independence in the Indian subcontinent and escalating tensions in Europe. The proliferation of new and politically assertive international radio broadcasters, including Italy's Arabic-language station, Radio Bari, required the Empire Service to respond. …

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