London Calling Planet Earth: From Radio to Satellites and the Internet
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
150 million plus global audience
It is estimated that the BBC World Service's global audience is an incredible 151 million regular listeners, of whom 111 million listen in a foreign language. However, the traffic is no simple one-way process. Aided by innovative internet websites the foreign language news service has become an energetic forum for international interaction. Listeners can exchange ideas, leaping across cultural, linguistic and national divides, to build a real sense of global community.
London is at the heart of a worldwide media revolution which is changing the way different peoples interact and making the BBC the planet's best known broadcaster. Somchai Suwanban, head of the Thai service, says, "The BBC is a very well-known global brand with its international radio and television broadcasts plus its myriad of other services."
The BBC began its foreign language broadcasts back in 1938 with Arabic and Latin American Spanish transmissions, greatly expanding during the WWII to hit 45 different languages. Today that figure stands at 43, including English.
In the early decades, before the proliferation of other forms of media, some foreign language presenters became celebrities in their home countries. Today's foreign language presenters enjoy less recognition in their home country and are completely unknown in London. For some at least being an "invisible celebrity" is not such a bad thing. Le Quynh, a BBC foreign language producer, sums up the feelings of many. He says, "I think I am really lucky to be able to work in the frontline of the media, but escape the celebrity aspect of the job. I am not sure how I would cope if I was visibly famous."
The advent of satellite TV and other media has radically altered the dynamics of the modern day radio equation. Nevertheless, in some developing countries, where radio is still king, the BBC star status has yet to fade. One broadcaster who, did not wish to give his name, said, "In my home country, I am quite famous. Every time I go back, people recognize me. Here in London when I travel to work on the tube, nobody knows who I am. I really like my double life."
Many foreign presenters believe being based in such a diverse multicultural city like London is one of the reasons why the World Service is so successful. For many, living in the capital has altered their world perspective. Khue Luu, one of the service's producers says, "Working in this environment, I have come to recognize that I have deepened by understanding of my own country. When I was there, I saw things from a different angle, but now I am here in London, my view has changed, I now see things more globally."
From the airwaves to the net
The internet has transformed overseas broadcasts and brought them much closer to their listeners, creating a real sense of community. Each BBC language service now has its own unique news-packed homepage which helps cement the relationship with their audience who can listen to the latest programmes on-line, or read more in-depth articles.
It's also a fantastic source of feedback, producing thousands of e-mails every day. "The feedback we get makes us feel warm and it is through this kind of interaction that we have built up such a strong sense of community and really bonded with the audience," says the head of the Vietnamese service.
Many of these websites utilize groundbreaking ideas to enhance their news delivery and presentation. The energetic Vietnamese team has opted for what they call a grass roots strategy which uses listeners as a resource, placing them at the cutting edge of global news broadcasting. The webpages often attract large expatriate audiences who want to find out what is going on back home. On the Vietnamese website about 45 percent of its users are in the United States.
A whole new World
Today while the World Service still plays an extremely important role in developing countries and non-democratic states, in more industrially advanced nations, its shortwave radio broadcasts have been superceded by BBC World, a 24-hour satellite news channel that was launched in 1991. It provides simultaneous native language interpretations for its English broadcasts.
In countries like Japan, the TV news channel is extremely popular because the World Service built up such a formidable reputation for the BBC. Hiroshi Sakamoto, a Japanese local politician in his late sixties, fondly recalls listening to BBC shortwave broadcasts, "The positive imagine my generation has of Britain comes from the BBC World Service. I think that is why so many Japanese people visit London."
BBC World has become so popular in Japan that when Lindsey Brancher, its longest serving presenter, got married at St Paul's Cathedral in 1993, amongst the onlookers busily snapping away at the happy couple were a large group of Japanese tourists who recognized Lindsey from her news appearances. The BBC is certainly evolving, making planet earth smaller, more democratic and creating a new generation of visible celebrities.
The Radiant Torch of the BBC World Service
Fact File: BBC World Service radio
* The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) first transmitted outside Britain in December 1932.
* The BBC began its foreign language broadcasts back in 1938 with Arabic and Latin American Spanish transmissions.
* In 1940, the Service moved into Bush House in Central London, which is still the headquarters of today's BBC World Service.
* By the end of the WWII, there were 45 separate language services and the English Service was broadcasting 24 hours a day all around the world.
* The Service is the World's most listened-to international shortwave broadcaster.
* Estimate puts the Service's global audience at a staggering 151 million regular listeners, of whom 111 million tune into a foreign language.
* Today the BBC World Service broadcasts in English and 42 other languages.
* One of the BBC's stated goals is "to be the world's first choice among international broadcasters for authoritative and impartial news and information, trusted for its accuracy, editorial independence and expertise."