The BBC World Service celebrated its 75th birthday in 2007. King George V delivered his first Christmas message in 1932 on the airwaves of what was then the Empire Service. Back then, it’s director-general, John Reith, warned the global audience:
“don’t expect too much… The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good.”
I don’t know if the programs were really that bad. But I’m wondering if the BBC World Service today – or the British government – have decided more recently to fulfill Reith’s old promise at last. By now, jingles have been interspersed into the program – even if still on a modest scale, when compared with commercial pop-and-gambling radio on FM. Besides, such announcements of programs that are then aired only days or weeks later are often pretty good ones.
What was much more annoying than the announcement jingles was the introduction of programs like “Outlook”, or “World have your Say” – the latter is a phone-in show with the global audience (“Jonathan, thank you VERY much for calling, but the phone line from Lagos is SO BAD, so we will try to come back to you later, on a better line”). All that while the world can have its say on the internet every day. I’d have preferred good documentaries on the radio – and what the Economist writes this week*) is exactly how I feel about it:
Some chewy news programmes on the English-language World Service are also to close, and there will be an expansion of more accessible programmes, notably a cheap, cheerful and shockingly superficial audience-participation show called “World Have Your Say”. It looks ominously like dumbing-down, under the cover of cuts.
Five language services will close completely (including Russian), and Mandarin will only remain available online (I doubt that the website will be of much benefit to most Chinese listeners).
Besides, the World Service will stop broadcasting on medium wave, 648 kHz, to Europe. That has mainly been the frequency I tuned to when I wanted a quick and thorough review of the latest world news. I first listened to what was “BBC London” with an old couple in our neighborhood, also on 648 kHz. At the time, I can’t have been much older than ten. The program they listened to was in German then – the German service was closed down in 1999. One program with advice for tourists piqued listeners’ curiosity about Britain’s travel destinations, and the World Service’s best documentaries were broadcast in German, too.
During most times of the day, the frequency carried programs in English. I learned more English from the BBC, than I learned in school. Some of its programs were particularly designed for language learners. And I became interested in the wider world because the BBC told me that there was one, and what it looked like. Radio can stand out in peoples’ lives. It’s hard to imagine a website doing that.
The good thing is that the closure of 648 kHz doesn’t come at a really bad time. I would have missed the World Service much more if they had closed the frequency ten years ago, or even earlier.
And I won’t listen on the internet. I’ll read blogs on the internet, and some online newspapers, especially in Chinese. I’ve always thought of the web as a medium to read, rather than one to listen to. I won’t keep my computer running for entire Saturday mornings or Sunday afternoons, just to listen to radio stations. To me, that doesn’t make sense.
More generally-speaking, and not just about my own listening habits, I think it is strange that the World Service becomes more and more dependent on the internet, while its programs stand out less from other internet content than they would have in the past.
But I don’t want to be too critical of the British decision. After all, it’s their money, not that of us foreign listeners, and without paying a cent for it, I had the chance to learn English – and many other things – from the BBC World Service.
So thanks a lot, Auntie Beeb.
*) The Economist, January 29, page 31: “Dosvidaniya, London”