BBC World Service Turns 90

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.

Early Days

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.

Cold 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.

Digital Future

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.

We’ve looked at how the studios link to the transmitter sites. The BBC has had its share of odd stories over the years.

23 thoughts on “BBC World Service Turns 90

  1. Dear Al Williams,
    although I assume you are way below 90, the sentence “…you can’t make it to 90 without attracting some scandal” suggests a biased point of view. Now what caused that bias? Are there juicy stories you would like to share? Please complete one of the following sentences.

    A: long long time ago…
    B: not so long ago…
    C: at this moment…
    D: no comment

    1. I’m well over halfway there, and I’ve certainly attracted my share of scandal. Just read the Hackaday comments ;-)

      Then there was that one time when Steve and I were in the Philippines…

  2. My grandfather told stories of how they secretly gathered at a neighbor’s house during WWII to listen to “London” as they called in former Yugoslavia, and they continued to do so during the communist era… Today it’s news are even being transmitted via local radio stations. I don’t know how unbiased it was back then (compared to the Nazi propaganda, undoubtedly very much so) but now it is somewhat unsubtly coloured and one-sided.

  3. >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

    Let’s be honest, the British government at the time had plenty of propagandists of their own. I doubt the broadcasts were unbiased as much as biased in a different direction. Still, it’s easy to see why it would have been effective. Rammstein wrote a song called Radio about listening to Western broadcasts from East Berlin while growing up, I wonder if they remember any of the World Service programmes.

    Also, you’ve got a typo: “The programmes with neither be very interesting nor very good” should, I take it, be “The programmes WILL neither be”.

    1. I’ve noticed some real doozies of errors in though I don’t think they were a result of bias. I recall one time they mentioned that an Arizona law permitted police to stop folks to see if they were illegal aliens whereas the law actually prohibited that. Another time they mentioned that someone had donated an extremely large amount of money to the Trump campaign which would’ve been many times the legal limit. I emailed them about the errors but they weren’t interested in correcting them.

    2. > I doubt the broadcasts were unbiased as much as biased in a different direction.

      I think, however, that there’s a distinction to be made between putting a certain spin on accurately-reported events and broadcasting out-and-out lies.

    1. A number of years ago I asked a question about crystal sets on Wikipedia, and one of the responses was

      “We here build regenerative radios ;)) There are two circuits for
      FET and BJT respectively, we call it “three-pointie” (“трёхточка”,
      “trehtochka” in Russian) – almost nothing is needed beyond a
      throttling pot, transistor, LC and 1,5V cell. —Preceding unsigned
      comment added by (talk) 19:53, 9 September 2007 (UTC)”

      Unfortunately I’ve never been able to find out anything definitive about these…

      1. Mark, MFJ Enterprises sells a regenerative receiver, the MFJ-8100W for US$150. I bought one some years ago, and it worked fairly well, but it was very quirky in its operation. I’m not sure I can recommend it; a more conventional (and more expensive) shortwave receiver may be a better option.

        If you think you might be interested, I recommend visiting to learn more about radio, and especially to read reviews of shortwave radios. If you know you’re interested, The Spectrum Monitor magazine covers all aspects of shortwave, military and utility radio.

        Crystal sets are ultra-simple AM radios, but they depend on strong local stations to function. They’re not general-purpose receivers.

  4. The BBC is on a downward spiral these days. It has sold off its transmitter sites and has to pay to use them. It has sold off its huge television centre site and nearby office buildings in white city London for a knock down price to a developer that has made a killing out of redeveloping the site into upmarket apartments. There are a couple of TV studios still on the site that the BBC rents from the developer at a cost so high they have already given back all the money they got for the site in rental costs.

    They now pay their top ‘talent’ so much that they can’t afford to fund the small cost of local radio stations. They have also created an echo chamber, where to get a job at the BBC you have to share their liberal woke agenda. They have lost sight of the things that made them unique, such as educational programming and experimental comedy. Now they just chase the ratings, with inane ‘reality’ programming and sensationalism in their news output.

    The BBC used to be something that people could say was a unique British institution that people could admire. Today it is just well, meh! I long ago stopped paying the TV license as none of the BBC output interests me any more. Once the license fee is abolished and the BBC has to complete for money, it will quickly end up as a footnote in history.

    I have mixed feelings about the BBC, it was a big part of growing up for me, we all watched and talked about those programmes and some of them were great for their time. So I still have a fond sense of nostalgia for that history of the BBC, but I resent being forced to pay the BBC tax to watch any broadcast TV and the BBC of today really creates nothing worth saving. Endless hours of celebrities cooking, skating, dancing or singing is not my idea of worthwhile TV.

        1. There’s actually two things here: potential interference by somebody imposing a viewpoint from above, and mid-ranking editors etc. who subvert the system to conform to their own worldview.

          A few years ago I corresponded briefly with one of the longstanding scientific journalists, and he explicitly confirmed the impression I’d formed that a lot of what he (and presumably his colleagues) wrote was mangled by the media-studies “luvvies” who attempted to make it intelligible and “relevant” to the layman.

          I’ve since adopted the principle that if I spot a gross mistake in a report relating to something I’m familiar with, it’s more than likely that there are similar mistakes- or manipulation- in reports relating to politics, economics and international relations. By that standard, the domestic services of the BBC are nowhere near as august as they used to be.

  5. Currently I have WBAA NPR at Purdue our 100 year old radio station turned off as it’s the BBC storytelling hour called Outlook. No outlined talks just rambling on then (dead air) pluck pluck and then they (not talent) resume talking with plucked cello music for a minute or so. Then fade out the music and continue talking a little more the then next pause and boink boink it’s xylophone music, repeat.

    It’s the MTV effects for radio school of editing now.

    The north american service ended years ago and NPR serves as it’s voice now. I’ve heard some horrible pronouncing by the main announcer on mic too. Not the “beeb” we have known.

  6. On a U.S. Navy ship at sea, BBC World Service was the only source of current news. It may not be politically correct but consensus of the crew was that the female British accent may be the sexiest in the entire world.

  7. As a kid out on the farm back in the late 60s I was given an old shortwave radio and used it to work the world. I still have all my QSL cards. Sad to see the world of shortwave diminishing. I remember waiting for the Interval signal of the Big Ben bells announcing the BBC was coming on the frequency. Now that I am retired and living out in the country I was hoping to find a set to relive the good ol’ days. The good sets are scarce and many of them do not tune continuous frequencies from 1.6 to 30 mhz. SDR, if is easy to use and sensitive enough, might be my only hope. I sure do miss listening to the “number” stations as well.

  8. BBC worldservice used to be decent several decades ago because they were non-mainstream and flew under the radar of the extreme political manipulation somewhat and they could do their own thing.
    Then they got traction and they were incorporated in full BS embrace and became just another one of those outlets you are better off not listening to unless you wish to drown in propagandist BS.
    But it was to be expected I suppose.

  9. “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.”

    When you stop to think about that statement and, I mean REALLY think about it, this is not something that anyone should want. If a Government decides to shut down cell service or, internet, what are you left with? Radio has been and, always will be, a guaranteed way to communicate.

    This is why after almost 30 years, I have decided to get back into CB and Ham radio. Society has grown to dependent on technologies that can be turned off like a light switch. The air waves will always get through. Many may think it’s “Old School” and they are right. But, sometimes “Old School” is the only and best way to go. Especially, if your life may depend on it.

  10. BBCWS’s abruptly ending English broadcasts to North America in 2001 was the bellwether of international broadcasting’s impending oblivion. Radio Nederland would try to fill the breech, but bowed out too not a few years later. Everybody else was done before ’08, Passport to World Band Radio ceased in 2009.

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