BBC World Service

BBC World Service

Infobox Network
name = BBC Radio World Service

country = United Kingdom
network_type = Radio network
available = International
owner = BBC
key_people = Nigel Chapman (Director)
launch_date = 19 December 1932
past_names =
website = [] |

The BBC Radio World Service is one of the most widely recognised international broadcasters, transmitting in 33 languages to many parts of the world through multiple technologies. The English language service broadcasts 24 hours a day. In May 2007 the BBC reported that the World Service's average weekly audience had reached 183 million people, beating the previous record of 163 million listeners set the previous year. [cite web|url=|title=BBC's global news audiences reach record 233m|publisher=BBC] The World Service is funded by grant-in-aid through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by the British Government [cite web|url=| title=BBC World Service (BBCWS), The UK's Voice around the World| publisher=BBC] — unlike the BBC's domestic radio and television services, which are primarily funded by a compulsory licence fee levied on every household in the United Kingdom using a television. Despite this form of funding, the World Service remains editorially independent, [cite web|url=| title=BBC World Service (BBCWS), The UK's Voice around the World| publisher=BBC] although the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have the right to decide which countries the service broadcasts to.

The current head of the World Service is Nigel Chapman.


The BBC World Service began as the BBC Empire Service in 1932 as a shortwave service. [ [ Analysis: BBC's voice in Europe] Jan Repa, BBC News Online: 25 October 2005] Its broadcasts were aimed principally at English speakers in the outposts of the British Empire, or as George V put it in the first-ever Royal Christmas Message, the "men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them." [ [ Historic moments from the 1930s: 1932 - The Empire Service is founded] , from the BBC World Service website]

Initial hopes for the Empire Service were low. The Director General, Lord Reith said in the opening programme: "Don't expect too much in the early days; for some time we shall transmit comparatively simple programmes, to give the best chance of intelligible reception and provide evidence as to the type of material most suitable for the service in each zone. The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good." [Transcribed from recording on World Service 75th Anniversary DVD; full extract transmitted as part of opening program - the Reith Global Debate - of the 'Free to Speak' 75th anniversary season] This address was read out five times as it was broadcast live to different parts of the world.

On 3 January 1938 the first foreign language service, Arabic, was launched. German programmes commenced shortly before the start of the Second World War and by the end of 1942 broadcasts were being made in all major European languages. The Empire Service was renamed the BBC Overseas Service in November 1939, and a dedicated BBC European Service was added in 1941. These broadcasting services, financed not from the domestic licence fee but from government grant-in-aid, were known administratively as the External Services of the BBC.

The External Services gained a special position in world broadcasting during the Second World War, as an alternative source of news for a wide range of audiences, especially those in enemy and occupied territories who often had to listen secretly. The German Service, created on 29 March 1938 and discontinued in 1999, played an important part in the propaganda war against Nazi Germany. [The authoritative source on the BBC's German Service is Carl Brinitzer's book "Hier spricht London". Brinitzer, a German lawyer from Hamburg living in exile in London, was a founding member.]

The service has been located at Bush House since a landmine damaged the studios at original home Broadcasting House on 8 December 1940. The European Service was the first to relocate, followed by the rest of the External Services in 1958. As part of a larger changes in terms of the use of BBC properties, it is expected that the World Service will return to Broadcasting House in 2008 when the BBC's lease on Bush House expires and new facilities at Broadcasting House become available.

In August 1985, the service went off the air for the first time ever. Workers were striking in protest at the British government's decision to ban a documentary featuring an interview with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.

The External Services were renamed BBC World Service in 1988. As part of a restructuring process, ten foreign language services were closed down in March 2006 to create enough financial services to fund a new BBC Arabic Television service for the Middle East. Polish was one of those that closed. [ [ BBC East Europe voices silenced] BBC News Online: 21 December 2005]


According to the World Service, its aim is to "be the world's best-known and most-respected voice in international broadcasting, thereby bringing benefit to Britain". [cite news
date= 2005
url =
title = Annual Review 2004/2005
publisher = BBC News
accessdate = 2006-05-22

The UK Government spent £225 million on the World Service in 2005. This spending of the British taxpayers' money by the Government was justified by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985. According to Hansard, the journal of the British Parliament, in an answer to a question in the House of Commons, Mrs Thatcher said: "The World Service earns every penny we put into it, by promoting our world-view and policy. It has done so in the past and will continue to do so in the future".Fact|date=February 2007

The BBC is a Crown Corporation of the British Government, but operates independently of it. There is no direct control of the BBC by the British Government. The World Service may, however, promote the British point of view and foreign policy. Some would argue that examples of this were the coverage of the Suez Crisis in July 1956, its coverage of the Falklands War from April to June 1982, and its coverage of the handover of Britain's former colony of Hong Kong in 1997.Fact|date=February 2007

The BBC World Service is widely respected in parts of the world where the media is not free.Fact|date=February 2007 With the BBC’s powerful transmitters broadcasting in the local language, the BBC World Service can be the only source of reliable news not manipulated by the local government. This is the strategy that the BBC adopted successfully during the Cold War, becoming a widely respected broadcaster behind the Iron Curtain throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. However, former Soviet dissidents such as Vladimir Bukovsky, Russian opposition's presidential candidate to replace Vladimir Putin, and KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky CGB have criticized the BBC Russian service for soft-pedaling the death of Alexander Litvinenko. An article in "The Economist" suggested that the BBC's desire to continue to use local transmitters in the Russian Federation may be cause. [The BBC's alleged kowtow. "" Jul 19th 2007.] . In its 2007 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Annual Report, the House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee concluded about the BBC Russian Service's joint project with Bolshoe Radio: "the development of a partnership with the international arm of a Russian state broadcasting network puts the BBC World Service’s reputation for editorial independence at risk." [2007 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Annual Report, the House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee, November 2007] .

BBC Learning English, a constituent part of the larger World Service, devotes significant resources to helping people learn English. [cite web |url= |title=BBC Learning English |accessdate=2008-10-03 | |publisher=BBC ]

tatistics and languages

The following audience estimates are from research conducted in 2004 by independent market research agenciesSpecify|date=October 2007 on behalf of the BBC:In Africa and the Middle East the service broadcasts to 66 million listeners, of which 18.7 million are in English.

Besides English, the BBC World Service currently broadcasts in Albanian, Arabic, Azeri, Bengali, Burmese, Caribbean English, Cantonese, French, Hausa, Hindi, [ [] BBC] Indonesian, Kinyarwanda/Kirundi, Kyrgyz, Macedonian, Mandarin, Nepali, Pashto, Persian, Portuguese for Africa and Brazil, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tamil, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, and Vietnamese.

The German broadcasts were stopped in March 1999 after 60 years, as research showed that the majority of German listeners tuned in to the English version. Broadcasts in Dutch, Finnish, French for Europe, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese and Malay were stopped for similar reasons.

On 25 October 2005 it was announced that the Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Kazakh, Polish, [ [ BBC East Europe voices silenced] BBC News Online: 21 December 2005] Slovak, Slovene and Thai language radio services would end by March 2006 in order to finance the launch of an Arabic and Persian language TV news channel in 2007. Romanian broadcasts ceased on 1st August 2008.


Traditionally, the BBC World Service relied on shortwave, because of its ability to overcome barriers of censorship, distance and spectrum scarcity. To this end, the BBC has maintained a worldwide network of shortwave relay stations since the 1940s, mainly in (former) British colonies. Over the decades, some of these stations have acquired increasingly powerful mediumwave and FM outlets as well. A special use of such cross-border broadcasts has been emergency messages to British subjects abroad, such as the advice to evacuate Jordan during the Black September incidents of September 1970. These facilities were privatised in 1997 and are operated as part of a wider network by VT Communications (formerly Merlin), which also brokers time for dozens of other sites. It is common for BBC programmes to air on traditionally Voice of America or ORF transmitters, while their programming is relayed by a station physically located in the UK.

Since the 1980s, satellite distribution has made it possible for local stations to relay BBC programming, typically news bulletins but also educational, drama, and sports programming. The World Service is available as a free (basic) channel on a large number of satellite and cable systems. Both a live stream and an archive of previous programmes (now including podcasts) are available on the Internet.


The BBC World Service has a large audience in English-speaking Africa, and is engaged in a long-standing battle with Radio France Internationale in French-speaking Africa Fact|date=March 2008. Broadcasts have traditionally come from the UK, Cyprus (see Europe), the large former BBC Atlantic Relay Station on Ascension Island, and the smaller Lesotho Relay Station and Indian Ocean Relay Station on Seychelles. A large part of the English schedule is taken up by specialist programming from and for Africa. In the 1990s, the BBC added FM facilities in many African capitals.


BBC shortwave broadcasts to this region were traditionally enhanced by the Atlantic Relay Station and the Caribbean Relay Company, a station in Antigua run jointly with Deutsche Welle. In addition, an exchange agreement with Radio Canada International gave access to their station in New Brunswick. However, "changing listening habits" led the World Service to end shortwave radio transmission directed to North America and Australasia on July 1, 2001. [ [ Pages 1-136 from BBC AR Cover 03 ] ] [ [ BBC World Service | FAQ ] ] A shortwave listener coalition formed to oppose the change. [ [ Save the BBC World Service in North America and the Pacific! - BBC to Cut Off 1.2 Million Listeners on July 1 ] ] Currently, both XM Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio rebroadcast the World Service over commercial satellite radio to Canada and the United States, [cite press release |publisher=XM Satellite Radio |date=1999-07-26 |url= |title=BBC WORLD SERVICE AND XM ANNOUNCE PROGRAMMING ALLIANCE |accessdate=2007-10-17] and public radio stations often carry World Service news broadcasts over AM and FM radio, often through Public Radio International (PRI). In addition, the BBC and PRI also co-produce the program The World with WGBH Radio Boston. The BBC is also involved with The Takeaway morning news programme.

The BBC continues to broadcast to the Caribbean, Central America and South America in several languages, including a specialist Caribbean news service in English. It is also possible to receive the Caribbean and Western African shortwave radio broadcasts from eastern North America, but the BBC does not guarantee reception in this area. [ [ FAQ | World Service ] ] It has recently ended its eccentric specialist programming to the Falkland Islands but continues to provide a stream of World Service programming to the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service. [ [ BBC - Press Office - Falkland Islands and BBC to boost home-grown media ] ]


The World Service's largest audiences have been in Asia for several decades, especially the Middle East, Near East and South Asia. Transmission facilities in the UK and Cyprus have been supplemented by the former BBC Eastern Relay Station in Oman and the Far Eastern Relay Station in Singapore. The East Asian Relay Station moved from Hong Kong to Thailand when the former British colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Together, these facilities give the BBC World Service have given an easily-accessible signal in regions where shortwave listening has traditionally been popular. The English shortwave frequencies of 6195, 9740, 15360 and 17760 kHz are widely known. The largest audiences are in English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and other major languages of South Asia, where BBC broadcasters are household names. The Persian service is essentially the national broadcaster of Afghanistan, along with its Iranian audience. The World Service is available up to eighteen hours in English across Asia, and in Arabic for the Middle East. With the addition of relays in Afghanistan and Iraq (following the British invasions of these countries) these services have access to most of the Middle and Near East, at least in the evening. In Hong Kong and Singapore, the BBC World Service in English is essentially treated as a domestic broadcaster, easily available through long-term agreements with RTHK and MediaCorp.

By contrast, there are isolated pockets of severe difficulty. Iran, Iraq and Myanmar have all jammed the BBC in the past, and powerful broadcasts in Mandarin are still made unlistenable by the People's Republic of China. Japan and Korea have little tradition of World Service listening, although during the 1970s to 1980s, shortwave listening used to be popular in Japan. In those two countries, the BBC World Service had been only available via shortwave and the Internet. As of September 2007, a satellite transmission (subscription required) became available by Skylife (Channel 791) in South Korea.


Formerly BBC shortwave transmitters are located in the United Kingdom at Rampisham, Woofferton and Skelton. The former BBC East Mediterranean Relay Station is in Cyprus. The World Service uses a mediumwave transmitter at Orford Ness to provide English-language coverage to Europe, including on the frequency 648 kHz (which can be heard in the south-east of England). A second channel traditionally broadcast in various Central European languages, but in 2005 it began regular English-language transmissions via the DRM format. [citeweb|url=| title=BBC Launches DRM Service In Europe|publisher=BBC World Service|date=2005-09-07|accessdate=2006-11-15] This is a digital shortwave technology that VT expects to become the standard for cross-border transmissions in developed countries.

In the 1990s, the BBC purchased and constructed large mediumwave and FM networks in the former Soviet bloc, particularly the Czech (BBC Czech Section), Slovak Republics (BBC Slovak Section), Poland (BBC Polish Section) (where it was a national network) and Russia (BBC Russian Service). It had built up a strong audience during the Cold War, whilst economic restructuring made it difficult for these governments to refuse Western investment. Many of these facilities have now returned to domestic control, as economic and political conditions have changed.

On Monday, February 18, 2008, the BBC World Service stopped shortwave transmissions to Europe. The notice stated, "Increasing numbers of people around the world are choosing to listen to radio on a range of other platforms including FM, satellite and online, with fewer listening on shortwave." [BBC World Service. "Shortwave changes for Europe February 2008"]


Shortwave relays from Singapore (see Asia, above) continue, but historic relays via ABC and Radio New Zealand International were wound down in the late 1990s. The World Service is available as part of the subscription Digital Air package (available from Foxtel and Austar) in Australia. ABC NewsRadio, SBS Radio, and various community radio stations also broadcast many programmes. Many of these stations broadcast a straight feed during the midnight to dawn period. It is also available pseudo-free-to-air via the satellite service Optus Aurora, which is encrypted for the sake of protecting local rebroadcasting of national television services (a subscription is available for qualifying citizens living in remote areas).

In Sydney, Australia a transmission of the service can be received at 152.025 MHz


The BBC World Service does not receive funding for broadcasts to the UK, and reliable mediumwave reception has traditionally only been possible in southeast England (see Europe, above). However, since the introduction of digital broadcasting, the World Service's output has recently been made more widely available in the UK — the service is now carried on DAB, Freeview, Virgin Media and Sky Digital. After the British domestic radio station BBC Radio 4 ceases broadcasting at 0100 hours BST, the World Service is broadcast on all its frequencies overnight, including 198 kHz longwave which can be heard in parts of continental Europe.

Although the BBC said that shortwave transmissions for Western Europe have been ceased recently (as of March 2007), [ [ BBC World Service - Help and FAQs - Shortwave reductions ] ] shortwave reception of 6195 and 9410 kHz, which might be aimed at Western Russia, used to be still possible for a few hours a day in the UK (sometimes, with high strength of signals). However, this has reportedly become impossible as the BBC said all the remained analogue shortwave transmissions to Europe had ceased as of February 2008. [ [ BBC World Service - Help and FAQs - Shortwave changes for Europe ] ] In a very few cases, 15400 kHz from the relay station in Ascension Island still becomes listenable. In southeastern England, including London, 648 kHz medium-wave is also available. [The author's experience when the person was in Canterbury, UK in August 2007. The device used for the shortwave reception was the Sony ICF-SW22 (Japanese-made).]

Interval signals

The interval signal of the BBC World Service in English were the Bow Bells, a recording made in 1926. Introduced as a symbol of hope during the Second World War, it was until recently used preceding many (though not all) English language broadcasts. Though for a few years in the 1970s, Oranges and Lemons was used as the interval, the Bow Bells were soon reintroduced.

January 1941 saw the beginning of the Morse code letter "V" as an interval signal. The interval signal had several variations including timpani, the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (which coincide with the letter "V"), and electronic tones which until recently remained in use for some Western European services. In other languages, the interval signal is three notes, pitched B-B-C. The use of interval signals on Shortwave broadcasts appears to have been abandoned recently.

The World Service's classic signature tune "Lillibullero" used to be just before the top of many hours, followed by the Greenwich Time Signal (five short and one long pips) and the hourly news. Modern trailers featuring a variety of international broadcasting centres sometimes replace Lillibullero entirely on themed weeks. Until fairly recently, the hourly sequence was preceded by the announcement "This is London" — it is now followed by a more promotional "Wherever you are, you are with the BBC" or "With world news every half hour, this is the BBC". More recently, Lillibulero has been relegated to only occasional use, and on the occasions it is played, only a shortened version is now used. It has been suggested (by World Service staff) that the reduction in the use of Lillibullero is firstly because of its background as a Protestant marching song in Northern Ireland and secondly as, in modern branding terms, it is somewhat out of step with a modern, global news organisation.

However when asked why the BBC chose this Protestant ascendancy tune, they would usually respond that (i) the decision was made by the transmission engineers, who found it particularly audible through short wave mush, and anyway they (the BBC) knew it as a tune for the old English song "There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket, 20 times as high as the moon".

GMT is announced on the hour on the English service, e. g. "13 hours Greenwich Mean Time" is said at 1300 GMT. 0000 GMT is announced as "midnight Greenwich Mean Time". Sometimes, however, "Greenwich Mean Time" is now almost always abbreviated to GMT when the hour is announced.


The core feature of much World Service scheduling is the news. This is almost always transmitted at one minute past the hour, where there is a five minute long bulletin, and on the half hour where there is a two minute summary. Sometimes these bulletins are separated from the programmes being transmitted, whilst at other times they are integral to the programme (such as with "World Briefing", "Newshour" or "The World Today").

BBC breaking news policy

BBC policy for breaking news [cite web|url=|title=|accessdate=2007-06-19] has a priority list. With domestic news, the correspondent first records a "generic minute" summary (for use by all stations and channels) and then priority is to report on Radio 5 Live, then on BBC News and onto any other programmes that are on air. For foreign news, first a "generic minute" is recorded, then reports are to World Service radio, then the reporter talks to any other programmes that are on air.

Range of languages

History of BBC World Service Language Broadcasting Services ("sorted by language") [ [ 75 Years - BBC World Service | Multi-lingual audio | BBC World Service ] ] [History of International Broadcasting (IEEE), Volume I.] [ [ BBC World Service | Languages ] ]

ee also

* BBC World Service Television
* BBC Russian Service
* BBC Arabic


External links

* []
* [ BBC World Service - History]
* [ BBC World Service - Languages]
*|id=pressoffice/keyfacts/stories/ws.shtml|title=BBC World Service key facts from the BBC Press Office
* [;jsessionid=BIVNCNNPFQOCDQFIQMFCFGGAVCBQYIV0?xml=/news/2007/12/16/nbbc116.xml Article by formermanaging director, John Tusa]

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