The BBC century: the World Service and the Cold War – part 1 of 2

This is the first of two articles about the BBC World Service. I spent some time working there, and it features in my new book Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture.

The second part of this online mini-series is available by clicking this link. You can sign up for a monthly e-mail alert of new feature essays by clicking the blue “subscribe” button on this page (at the top if you’re reading on a laptop or PC, down below if you’re on a mobile device).

That next essay includes mentions of The Clash, R.E.M., the novelist Anthony Burgess and the radio dramatist Julian Simpson. The latter is also mentioned later in this first article, and I’ll introduce him shortly.

There’s a couple of books I’ve read recently that’ve reminded me of the importance of the BBC World Service.

That and the news that in the opening days of the 2022 war in Ukraine the short-wave transmitters were turned on again so that people could continue to hear the voice of London Calling.

Those events were reported in the first week of March after the Russian authorities blocked access to the BBC website and the World Service was taken off air in Russia.

This video, just below, was recorded off-air at the beginning of March. The receiver, similar to the USB dongle (pictured), is known as a software defined radio (SDR).

It’s the latest toy that runs on your laptop. One day I’ll write an article about this fascinating interface between analogue and digital.

These thoughts about international cross-border radio are also linked to recent conversations I’ve been having on my weekly radio show.

I was talking with listeners about the state of the world – two years on from a pandemic and (at the time of broadcast and writing) the worrying prospects for World War Three – when one listener reminded me of the 1984 BBC Film Threads, by Barry Hines (Kes was my favourite of his).

Threads was the story of an approaching nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union (the fall of the Berlin Wall was still five years away).

Since Hines was a chronicler of life in Yorkshire the story was set in the Sheffield area and revolved around the effects of world events on ordinary South Yorkshire folk.

As my listener correctly observed, Hines’ screenplay was suddenly apocalyptically relevant in 2022.

The point I want to make in this article is that radio – and international broadcasting across frontiers – has always been a vital component of our cultural life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is even more critical in these awful times.

Part soft power, part independent purveyor of truth, part propaganda tool: it depends on which radio and media organisation you’re talking about and what your ideological standpoint is.

The BBC World Service celebrates 90 years on the 19 December 2022. It was born as the Empire Service, passed through adolescence as the Overseas Service, becoming the External Services before settling down as the World Service.

The BBC broadcasts to almost half a billion people around the world. Truth is in global demand.

Even in the 1930s, poets such as W. H. Auden knew the importance of robust radio journalism in the midst of world events.

He was born in York just one street away from where the studios of BBC Radio York would decades later be established, and I would broadcast from. (This article is full of connections, so I thought I’d squeeze that one in…).

Anyway, in the mid-1930s Auden was working for the GPO Film Unit, making classic British government-funded films such as Night Mail.

Around this time, he also spent his days agonising about world events as Germany sank into fascism and Spain saw the rise of Franco.

His extended poem of 1936 “Letter to Lord Byron” was a commentary on contemporary events as he saw them. Amidst the gathering clouds, the news of troubling events, and of failures in international diplomacy, he wrote this line:

“Rumours of War, the BBC confirming ‘em”

The English Auden, p. 197.

In this short phrase Auden gave to BBC Radio the power and authority of a trusted source for accurate information in uncertain times. That is still true today.

In the late 1980s I spent nine months on attachment as a producer to CAWS (Current Affairs, World Service) in the English language service at Bush House. What marked me out amongst my colleagues was that, as a BBC Local Radio hack journalist, I was more than able to edit my own tapes. A couple of times I offered a Bush House studio manager the opportunity to go for a fag or a tea while I edited down a taped interview that I’d done earlier, to get it ready for transmission.

Twenty-Four Hours was a “half-hour” current affairs programme with four editions across the day and night at 0509, 0709, 1309 and 2009 GMT. So, with a nine-minute bulletin (written by the Bush House newsroom, a seperate department) at the start of every hour and an off-air time at exactly 29’10”, the two-person production team on each edition of Twenty-Four Hours had 20’10” to fill.

One morning I took a call. The voice on the other end said brightly “Hi, John here.” There was a pause, perfectly in beat, and then the voice continued: “John Tusa. I‘m in Hong Kong and the reception on short-wave is first class. What’ve you got in your next edition of Twenty-Four Hours?” Nothing like the big boss putting you on the spot.

I stumbled an answer of sorts which I hoped did justice to my efforts so far that morning.

I admire John Tusa. An accomplished journalist, TV current affairs presenter, and a creative leader with authority and personality who instinctively knew what made World Service audiences tick. He was also, for a time earlier in his career, one of the presenters of Twenty-Four Hours.

John Tusa’s 1992 book, A World in Your Ear: Reflections on Changes, is a collection of speeches and articles written during his time as managing director of the World Service.

He says, “What the BBC taught its listeners was to judge critically, to apply critical questioning to problems. In the end that example had its own impact on people reared on ideological certainties.” (p. 83).

In the late 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my colleagues in CAWS – which also produced Outlook as well as Twenty-Four Hours – included Bridget Kendall, Matt Frei, Geoffrey Stern and Nick Worrall. 

Time was always a crucial part of the production of the programme. As producer I had half a day to fill that 20’10” of airtime with intelligent current affairs chat.

Someone who worked for the World Service after I left was Robin Lustig.

He’s a former Reuters correspondent and worked on The Observer before joining BBC Radio 4 to present some of their current affairs programmes, as well as Newshour (the expanded version of Twenty-Four Hours) on the World Service which emerged in the 1990s. His blog is worth following.

Lustig confirms in his autobiography that timings are vital: “A presenter’s life in the studio becomes dominated by the clock; every second matters, especially on the World Service.” (p. 322)

By the way, Robin Lustig connects to the playwright and director Julian Simpson who I will mention in detail in the second part of this series of articles – due to be published in mid-June 2022 (around BBC payday, if anyone spots that connection I’ve made, too). For now, let me tell you about a semi-improvised radio play created in 2011 by Simpson called A Time To Dance.

It’s a disturbing piece that mimics rolling news programmes which bring details of human tragedy… in real-time.

Robin Lustig plays a fictionalized version of himself who repeatedly interrupts, and cuts into the middle of heart-rending live interviews with victims, saying things like, “Thank you for that. Now, let’s cross to our correspondent…” which is a remarkable simulacrum of what we do in live radio sometimes when we become preoccupied with the clock and end up appearing somewhat heartless. (Do you ever, for example, get annoyed at BBC R4 Today presenters saying, “That all we’ve got time for, thank you minister…” before crossing to the weather forecast? Let me know in the comment box below).

What made Julian Simpson’s radio drama unsettling was to hear it broadcast on the otherwise reassuring airwaves of the BBC’s Radio 4 on a Monday afternoon in 2011.

Radio producers like myself can become obsessed with making sure we can find enough ideas and topics to fill the allotted time of each programme we’re responsible for.

Indeed, timings were key to the smooth running of the operation of the World Service: thirty-two languages, seemingly countless time zones, and transmitters that were programmed to switch, broadcast, retransmit, and relay to millisecond accuracy.

I’ve written previously about the time one of my presenters Geoffrey Stern overran one of the shows I was producing. It was only by one second. But South-East Asia heard “Good…” and missed the “Bye”… The automatic switch had kicked in. The rest was silence.

In part two of this series of essays about the BBC World Service I’ll bring you more from the radio dramas of Julian Simpson.

In particular I’ll highlight his 2006 play, Fragments, which at the time I thought was an outstanding example of how to create suspense using sound montages. I’ll explain why I still think that.

I’ll also reflect on the Cold War, with stories from the Stasi, the East German state security and spy service under communist rule. I’ll find out why they listened to the radio themselves – how part of their covert work included listening to people listening to the radio, both to stations in West Germany and in the East as well.

What memories do you have of these times? Drop me a line in the comment box below.

And don’t forget to subscribe to receive a monthly e-mail alert each time I publish a new exclusive article.

And while you wait, you could always read the first chapter of my book. It’s a free promotion – available only by clicking here.

3 thoughts on “The BBC century: the World Service and the Cold War – part 1 of 2

  1. thanks Martin. I have thoughts about various aspects of the ecology of the R4 Today programme – not least the typical friendly informal politeness of American interviewees, ‘thanks for having me’ in contrast to the Brits. Re cold war East Germany, I love Deutschland ’83 on More4 catch up, great drama

    Liked by 1 person

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