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85+ years of the BBC World Service: International broadcasting through the decades

If you know anything about the history of radio in the UK, then you’re probably familiar with the BBC. The British Broadcasting Corporation is responsible for the growth and evolution of radio in the UK over the years. For decades, the only way to tune into news and entertainment over the airwaves was to listen with the BBC.

However, although the BBC has a considerable presence in the United Kingdom, its impact has begun to spread far and wide to locations across the globe too. The BBC World Service is one of the many ways that the BBC extends its functionality out of Britain, and into countries all across the world. With the BBC World radio stations, anyone from across the globe can listen to news and programmes broadcast by the British network.

Today, we’re going to answer the question, “What is the BBC World Service?” and explore some of the ways that the station has evolved over the years.

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What is the BBC World Service?

The BBC World Service started life as the British Empire Service.

Launching in 1932, the BBC created the World Service as a way to connect with other countries around the world. Interestingly, despite the monopoly that the BBC had over British radio at the time, the company didn’t expect their World Service to be much of a success.

According to the founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, listeners were advised to keep their expectations low – particularly in the early days of the stations’ launch. Reith noted that the BBC World Service programmes wouldn’t be very interesting, or “very good.”

Still, despite that sombre warning, BBC World evolved into something truly phenomenal. Over the years, the service has covered various crucial moments throughout history, from speeches from Churchill to insights into the experiences of the first man on the moon. A BBC World Service reporter was one of the first to see a concentration camp held by the Nazis. In 1982, the World Service’s impartial coverage of the Falklands war also garnered the attention of Margaret Thatcher, who claimed that the country needed to give even more power to the BBC.

Today, the BBC World Service audience spans across the globe. It’s the leading international radio service available today, offering impartial reports, news, and analysis both in English, and a host of other languages. The team at the BBC claim that the World Service is designed to inspire audiences worldwide and deliver education by helping listeners to make sense of the latest developments in the world. BBC World Service programmes include news, education, and entertainment, and they have a reputation for being accurate, impartial, and highly informative.

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So, who funds the World Service?

Well, that’s easy – the British government does, in part. The solution is powered by the UK government through the Parliamentary Grant-in-aid. The Grant-in-aid comes from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. The FCO is responsible for deciding which languages the BBC World Service should broadcast in, what kind of presenters they use, and even which programmes they share. Some of the World Service is also funded by the British Public, through the UK’s television licensing fee. This fee is intended to help the BBC deliver all of its television and radio broadcasting services to members of the British public. Before 2014, it was only the Grant-in fee that was responsible for funding the British World Service. However, the BBC decided to start taking funds from the television license fee, BBC studios profits, and limited advertising too.

Crucially, like the other components of the BBC, The World Service is also accountable to the BBC Trust, which is appointed under the Royal Charter to act as trustees for public interest. The BBC Trust oversees all the activities of the BBC and ensures that their work goes towards the public good.

A brief history of the World Service

The World Service is part of the BBC global news division, which includes other services like the BBC international TV channel, BBC World News. Other services in the division include the online news service, the global media tracking service, and the international charity called the BBC World Service Trust.

So, when did the BBC World Service programmes begin?

The service officially launched in 1932, broadcasting exclusively on shortwave. Although it was intended to be an international channel, the World Service was aimed primarily at English speakers within the British empire. When the World Service bandwidth began, King George V described it as a way to get crucial messages out to men and women that were cut off from the empire by “snow, the desert, or the sea.” 

Initially, the only purpose of the BBC World Service was to distribute some comparatively simple programs to people around the globe. The broadcasters knew that they weren’t going to be able to do much with the channel at first, but they had hopes for the future.

It wasn’t until 1938 that the BBC World Service launched its first foreign-language version of the channel in Arabic. Programmes also started in German in 1938, and by the end of 1942, there were broadcasts available in all major European languages. As such, the BBC Empire Service became the BBC Overseas Service.

On the 1st of May 1965, the BBC officially adopted the current name of the World Service and expanded its reach by launching the Ascension Island relay in 1966. This relay meant that the BBC could reach African audiences for the first time for better-quality reception. For a brief period in 1985, the service went off the air completely, as workers went on strike against the British Government’s decision to ban a documentary featuring Martin McGuiness. Additionally, German broadcasting ended in 1999, after research found that most Germans listened to the BBC in British.

In October 2005, the BBC brand announced that news broadcasts in several languages, including Greek, Polish, Slovak, and Thai would be coming to an end, to help finance the launch of new television services. In 2011, the closure of additional languages was announced, reflecting the financial issues that the BBC faced, and the trouble that the BBC World Service was in.

Who listens to the World Service?

BBC World Service presenters haven’t always had a smooth experience with the channel. Dips in funding and lost languages have meant that the BBC World Service has struggled over the years. Today, the company maintains eight specific regional feeds, each with their own unique program variations. These feeds cover the East and South Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Central Africa, the Caribbean and Americas, South Asia, East Asia, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Despite some complications through the years, the BBC World Service reached record heights with its listener count in 2019. So, how popular is the BBC World Service? Well, in the reports issued in 2019, the BBC found that it had achieved an increase of listeners by 13%. There are now 426 million listeners worldwide tuning in to the BBC.

The BBC World Service available in English, as well as the World News TV channel created by the BBC, have both earned record viewer and listener counts for 2019. BBC’s English language channel has 97 million listeners. On the other hand, the 42 language services associated with the BBC World Service have approximately 259 million listeners. The commercial subsidiary of the BBC World Service now has 178 million followers.

According to the Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, the teams at the BBC do an incredible job of bringing impartial and independent news to audiences across the globe. Today, the company is growing at an exceptional pace – perhaps faster than ever before. New investments from the government, combined with plans to continue upgrading the value of the BBC World Service in the months to come has given the BBC a new lease on life when it comes to delivering radio services. 

The Director of the BBC World Service group has also revealed this year that the company is on track to reach its target audience of 500 million weekly listeners. The three countries with the most gains over 2018 to 2019 are Kenya, the USA, and India. Here are a few useful facts to help answer the question: “Who listens to the BBC World Service“:

  • Listeners tune in an average of 4.5 hours per week.
  • The service reaches 55,032,000 adults worldwide.
  • 1,452,000 people listen at least once per week.
  • 6,594,000 hours of information is consumed per week.
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World Service programmes today

So, what is it that makes the BBC World Service programmes so popular today?

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First of all, the BBC has set several important goals that it hopes to reach by 2022, specifically when it comes to the World Service. For instance, the BBC wants to double its audience for the World Service, online, over television, and via radio, by 2022. This means that the company would need to reach 500 million people. To help it achieve that goal, the organisation will also be launching at least 11 new language services and increasing the digital capabilities of all the World Service bandwidth options.

According to the Digital Director for development at World Service, Dmitry Shishkin, there will be another 1 billion people online by 2022. To make sure that they’re serving everyone, the BBC wants to develop better ways of connecting with their target audience. The company claims to be preparing itself for a digital future with its customers, where news continues to be a valuable part of anyone’s life.

This year alone, the BBC World Service hopes to hire an extra 300 people, with 120 of those candidates going to the London BBC office, and the rest working from around the world. This decision is being fueled by a significant investment from the government of £289 million, which was delivered to the BBC in 2018.

If you’re wondering what kind of BBC World Service programmes you can expect to see on these broadcasts, the main focus of the service is news and analysis. The mainstays of the BBC World Service schedule are:

  • The newsroom.
  • Newshour.
  • World update.
  • Newsday.

There are also daily science programmes available like Click, Health Check, and Science in Action. During the weekends, there’s a little bit of a bigger focus on things like entertainment, with programmes like Sportsworld. Other weekend shows include Sports Hour and Stumped for cricket. On Sundays, the interdisciplinary and international programme “The Forum” is available. There’s also a human interest programme presented by Jo Fidgen, and Matthew Bannister, who has been broadcasting with the BBC for more than 30 years.

Although music programming went missing on the BBC World Service for a while, it reappeared in the schedule in 2015, along with “Trending,” a show that highlights some of the stories that the world is sharing online.

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Future-proofing the World Service

One of the biggest issues that have held the World Service back over the years hasn’t been a lack of presenters or news to share. Like any other radio channel, the BBC relies on the right amount of funding to keep sharing its programmes with the world. One good piece of news for fans of the BBC World Service programmes then, is that the UK government is planning on investing £85 million each year into improving the services delivered by the BBC worldwide.

Currently, the company is concentrating on determining where services need to be expanded to bring the best experiences to its target audience. This means making crucial decisions about how the World Service is going to continue to evolve in the years ahead. According to James Harding, the director of BBC News, the company needs to figure out whether the World Service needs a strategy that prizes growth or marginalization.

The next review on how the World Service will use its funding will take place in 2020, and no doubt consider the target to reach half a billion people by 2022. The BBC believes that an increase in funding will help it to reach its goal to become an even bigger source of news and entertainment, as one of the most important cultural exports in the UK.

During a discussion about the future, the team behind the World Service also highlighted that the channel reaches some of the most remote regions in the world. This helps to strengthen the UK’s position in the marketplace and ensure that there’s always a link available to the UK for societies and individuals across the globe. The list of services already set to expand going forward includes new TV services for Africa, new radio services for North Korea, and new digital and radio services for Eritrea and Ethiopia. The BBC will also be expanding in Thailand, Nigeria, and India going forward.

How to tune into the BBC World Service

At this point, you may be wondering: “How do I get the BBC World Service?” After all, with so much heritage to consider, it’s worth spending some time exploring this service for yourself. The good news is that the channel is pretty easy to find in a range of different formats.

If you’re looking for the World Service in English, then you can find it on the radio, online, via satellite, cable, digital radio and mobile connections. Here’s your guide for each option:

  • Freeview: If you use Freeview to access BBC digital television channels, you can tune into the World Service bandwidth using channel 710. You might need to retune your receiver before you get the channel.
  • Digital cable: If you get your television from Virgin Media in the UK, then you can hear the World Service radio on channel 906.
  • Digital satellite: Using satellite, the BBC World Service schedule runs 24 hours a day, and is entirely free to air at 11727 MHz, Service ID 13907.
  • Freesat: The World Service is available on channel 711 on Freesat. For Sky digital subscribers, you can tune in on channel 0115.
  • Analogue radio: Wondering what frequency is BBC World Service on? Between 1 am and 5:30 am British time, you’ll find it on frequencies 92-95 FM, and 198 long-wave.
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As the world becomes increasingly digital, the BBC has also begun to invest heavily in its mobile and digital products too. In 2019, the World Service (English) launched a new application to help people access the programmes they love wherever their internet access or mobile data availability is limited.

The World Service app was developed by Zeno Media and the BBC World Service in collaboration and gave users free access to news and entertainment in selected territories. You can use the call-to-listen function, access the connection via Wi-Fi, or use your mobile data. The call-to-listen service charges you for your radio at the rate of a standard call. There is more functionality available if you can access the app through a mobile data or Wi-Fi link.

The app for BBC World Service is now available worldwide (not in the UK), through Apple iOS and Google Play. Currently, the call-to-listen function is available in 35 countries.

Celebrating the World Service

A crucial part of radio history, the BBC World Service is how the BBC branched out from its monopoly in the UK, to reach countries and listeners all across the globe.

Broadcasting from the official BBC Broadcasting House in London, which also happens to be the headquarters for the BBC Corporation, the World Service is one of the most crucial operations of potentially the UK’s biggest corporations.

Although the World Service has seen some wobbles over the years when it comes to popularity and listener numbers, it seems as though those problems are now a thing of the past. Recent statistics reveal that there are more people around the world listening to the BBC than ever before. The Global Audience Measurements show that the World Service is successfully reaching customers across the globe, and the strategy for growth isn’t slowing down.

Over the years, the channel has continued to evolve to suit the needs of its target audience and ensure that people all over the world would never be forced to compromise on their ability to access news, information, and entertainment outside of the British Empire.

To learn more about the history of radio, visit us over at Radio Fidelity today. We can guide you through everything from the launch and growth of the BBC, to how the radio began, and even which technology you should try today.

Stay tuned to the latest radio industry insights with Radio Fidelity. 

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