If you’ve ever owned a shortwave radio, you’ve probably listened at least a little to the BBC World Service. After all, they are a major broadcasting force, and with the British Empire or the Commonwealth spanning the globe, they probably had a transmitter close to your backyard. Recently, the BBC had a documentary about their early years of shortwave broadcasting. It is amazing both because it started so simply and when you think how far communications have progressed in just a scant 100 years.
Today, the BBC World Service broadcasts in over 40 languages distributing content via radio, TV, satellite, and the Internet. Hard to imagine it started with four people who were authorized to spend 10 pounds a week.
The BBC started with radio 2LO broadcasting to London for a few hours each day in 1922. The service spread across the nation, and the publication of The Radio Times started in September 1923. Up until 1927, the BBC was the British Broadcasting Company, but in 1927 it became a corporation with a royal charter.
As you can see, broadcasting has changed a little over the years. By 1932, the service built the famous Broadcasting House to become its new center of operations.
In 1932 it was pretty unusual to have an interest in worldwide broadcasting. But the Russians and the Vatican were using Shortwave to spread their ideology around the globe. The British, who at the time ruled 20% of the people on Earth, had a vested interest in bringing Britain to the four corners of the Empire. What better way than radio?
As the director general said, “…don’t expect too much in the early days. The programmes with neither be very interesting nor very good.” That’s truth in advertising, but what did you expect on 10 pounds a week? However, not long after that, King George V addressed the world via radio to deliver a Christmas message. Many of the king’s subjects had never heard his voice before, and you can imagine this could help create a bond between people and monarch. The video below shows King Edward VIII’s first broadcast in 1936, about four years after King George’s
Soon “London calling the British Empire” became a common thing to hear on the shortwave bands. The documentary explains the difficulty in building huge shortwave broadcasting sites around the world and then feeding programming to them via an underwater cable. Look at how a 700-foot radio tower went up in 1934.
Arab Service and War
It wasn’t long after the BBC World Service formed that Hitler and Mussolini began using shortwave to push their ideas, too. In response to anti-British propaganda in Arabic, the Home Office asked the BBC to begin transmitting straight news to counter it, also in Arabic.
It wasn’t long before Prime Minister Nevel Chamberlain addressed the Empire about the threat of war via the BBC, and the remarks were translated into multiple languages. The World War brought the BBC’s international broadcasting to the forefront to keep the Empire informed and court favorable world opinion. It also became the home for broadcasts from occupied countries such as Greece and France.
The number of languages the BBC had to handle was staggering. Linguists, translators, and polyglots were in high demand for the service. Listening to the BBC was a crime in Nazi-occupied countries, but people did it anyway to get unbiased news and for a sense of hope. Of course, you can imagine that secret messages to spies and resistance cells were part of the broadcasts.
For example, Pierre Holmes hosted a 15-minute BBC program called “The French Speak to the French.” It often passed coded messages to the resistance regarding arms drops, missions, and even D-Day. For example, the D-Day invasion was signaled with a line from a poem: “Long violin sobs rock my heart in monotonous languish.”
Not all the spies were good guys, though. The Germans planted a Dutch spy, posing as a refugee was picked up at sea. He repeatedly attempted to be allowed to read a message to his family over shortwave, but the message was really to his Nazi handlers. The British were too smart for this, however.
Speaking of spies, the BBC also monitored foreign radio broadcasts — sort of a precursor to GCHQ. You can see a portion of a newsreel about how the BBC recorded about 500,000 words a day during the war.
It wasn’t long after the World War that the Empire was transforming into the Commonwealth. But the world was also entering the so-called Cold War. Propaganda was tremendously important to the Cold War, and the BBC was one of the major voices of the West.
In addition to news, the BBC tried to highlight the differences between political ideals and everyday life behind the iron curtain using satire and intellectual programs. “The Two Comrades” program, for example, was a comedy about a party official in ridiculous situations. In one episode, there is a complaint that the party only received 99% of the vote, while in North Korea, they had managed 100% support for the party. Another program, “The Baffled Newspaper Reader,” would have one actor read text from an East German newspaper and another actor would provide the true and humorous meaning parenthetically.
There was also a program entitled “Letters without Signature,” which encouraged listeners to write about their life experiences. Since this often involved negative information, the listeners had to use spy-like methods to deliver their messages and not refer to things that might allow them to be identified by the secret police. The program’s introduction was something like this:
BBC – three dangerous letters. Dangerous for all those who fear the truth and especially dangerous for all those who want to hear the truth and actually hear it at great personal risk.
Letters written to the BBC from target countries could be passed to MI6, facilitating messages from agents. Of course, inserting certain music or phrases into a broadcast also helped to communicate with spies in the field.
One thing the BBC documentary doesn’t cover is the repeated scandals the BBC has faced over its life. Granted, most of those didn’t directly involve the World Service, but some peripherally did. For example, the BBC broadcast documentaries about Malaysia created by what amounted to a PR firm for Malaysia and eventually would apologize to its listeners around the world.
From the late 1930s until the end of the cold war, the BBC had an MI5 agent assigned who could bar subversives and suspected communists from being on the air or creating content. Once this was revealed, it generated a great deal of controversy. Jazz music, too, was banned for a while as a “filthy product of modernity.” Even Winston Churchill had been refused air time before World War II, something he remained angry about for years.
One scandal that directly hit the World Service was during the Falklands War. The BBC World Service was accused of broadcasting plans and positions of British military units.
On the other hand, you can’t make it to 90 without attracting some scandal. The BBC as a whole has had some doozies, but the World Service has usually avoided the focus of the big ones.
Like anything 90 years old, the BBC has transformed and changed. Today, you are as likely to listen to the BBC World Service using the Internet or satellite radio, and the BBC’s schedule reflects this. Radio broadcasts directed to developed nations are increasingly rare.
A few years ago, the BBC’s director general said that the BBC must prepare for a time when most of its audience never uses traditional broadcast channels. We are certain the BBC World Service will rise to the challenge.