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

In the previous episode I talked about W. H. Auden and his worries about world events in the 1930s, heard through radio reports on the BBC both at home, and abroad.

I also recalled my time on attachment as a producer – plucked from the frontier outpost of Local Radio in Derby to work on the World Service current affairs programme Twenty-Four Hours in London.

I wrote about our obsession with time-keeping. We all had stopwatches in those pre-computer days, and worked hard to perfect our mental arithmetic in order to keep the programme on time. Read more here.

In those days the BBC World Service felt like a station from another country. In the 1980s you couldn’t pick it up in the Midlands, either on medium wave or short wave. The internet for domestic use hadn’t been invented and DAB radio was still years away.

The World Service was only available to a few thousand listeners in the South-East who could receive some of the backwash from the AM transmitter antenna designed to send the signal to Europe, the Netherlands, Northern France and parts of West Germany. That was in the days before the Berlin Wall came down.

The BBC World Service features in my new book Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture.

And don’t forget to sign up to receive my monthly articles about radio culture and radio history. The “subscribe” button is at the top if you’re on a PC, or at the bottom if you’re on a mobile device.

This second essay in this series includes mentions of The Clash, R.E.M. and the novelist Anthony Burgess – amongst others, including some well-known World Service journos. I also reveal how the Iron Curtain security services in East Germany listened to decadent Western radio stations – but would never have admitted to it. In the world of spies and counter espionage everything is, of course, deniable.

For more on the historical background of Cold War broadcasting, do have a look at this collection of archive papers. It’s published by The Wilson Center, a US government funded (but non-partisan) policy research forum.

And there is also an interesting piece from Amnesty International (click, below) making comparisons between the Stasi’s collection of intelligence and what other agencies may – or may not – know about our activities today in democratic countries. Just a thought…

The point I want to make again is that radio has always been a vital component of our cultural life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

BBC radio in Britain started in 1922, first as a company and then as a corporation, so this year is its centenary. But official, targeted, international cross-border radio broadcasting is a bit younger than that – by ten years in fact.

The BBC World Service began on the 19th of December 1932. 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. It’s renowned and respected for its impartiality in world news.

In part one of this series of essays I discussed Julian Simpson and his BBC Radio 4 play A Time to Dance, which was a semi-improvised piece (starring Robin Lustig in his radio acting debut) about an imagined fatal mass-hysteria event – with onlookers aghast at the awful scene unfolding in front of them.

It was staged as if it were a live rolling-news radio programme, and was disturbing because of its real-life proximity to actual radio output.

In this article I’d like to highlight Simpson’s 2006 play, his first for radio, called Fragments. I consider it to be an outstanding example of how to create suspense using sound montages.

I’ll also make connections to ways of telling stories of the Cold War. Indeed, during this era radio broadcasting was always part of the East’s cultural (and illicit) landscape.

Short-wave radio remains a vital source of authoritative news. Mikhail Gorbachev supposedly endorsed the BBC after a series of events at the end of the Soviet Union.

I recommend Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall. It’s a book of reportage by Anna Funder an Australian-born writer and TV journalist who spent time in Germany in the late 1990s and wrote about her journeys into the memories, the human lives, and the guardians of the remaining paper archives belonging to the Stasi.

Because her book recounts the lives of real people who were trying to live under the repression of East Germany it is heart-rending to learn of the difficulties and the sense of suspicion and alienation felt by many of its population between 1949 and 1990.

And Uwe Johnson published a stunningly difficult novel in 1959 which encapsulated the psychological effects of living in East Germany during that time: of a nation torn in two.

Speculations about Jakob is a complex and disturbing journey into the confusion of the communist East and the challenge of ever finding the truth.

The reader realises that the Jakob of the title is dead: this happens on page one of the novel. The difficulty is that the rest of the book is a series of testimonies, internal monologues, and musings by a small hand-full of characters who knew Jakob.

So why, the reader wonders, did he die? Was it a Stasi-arranged reprisal? Or perhaps an awful accident? The point being that life in East Berlin was saturated by half-truths and half-unknowns. Very worrying.

Julian Simpson achieved a similar sense of disconnect in Fragments. It was first broadcast on Friday 3rd February 2006 at nine o’clock in the evening on BBC Radio 4. In the winter darkness of that evening, I found it to be a disturbing listen.

It’s not widely available these days. However, I thought it was so good that I used my own off-air recording of that drama, as an example of how sound effects can create feelings of suspense and unease in the listener, when I was teaching radio to undergraduates in the late 2000s and 2010s.

As a result, there’s a generation of journalism graduates who now know of Simpson’s creative approach to radio drama which is as unsettling as it is mysterious. (Er, his drama, that is; not my teaching).

In the play, Fragments, the listener realises early on that a teenage girl has killed an old man. But, like Johnson’s narrative, the why and the how is haphazardly pieced together from various voices – some of them unreliable. It’s another disconcerting narrative.

If you search Julian’s web pages, you’ll stumble across it. I recommend all his radio work. Start here and see if you can find it. Happy hunting.

Both Simpson in 2006 and Johnson in 1959 use what I can perhaps call a bricolage approach to narrative. They assemble a speculation of accounts – some of them conflicting – from a mosaic of voices, characters, witness statements, and monologues to create what amounts to a fog of information. Hence Johnson’s title “Speculations”, and Simpson’s “Fragments”.

One academic, Kurt Fickert, describes this technique as the removal of the omniscient author/narrator. Interesting. And challenging for the reader/listener. (Dialogue, p. 5).

Uwe Johnson uses the image of both the railway and the radio to signify the rending in two of Germany. The departure board on an East German railway station platform contained a number of, “West German names that filled one with a sense of loss and distance” (Speculations, p. 203). Remember this novel was written a couple of years before the Berlin Wall was built, and travel with officially stamped documents was difficult even then.

Likewise, Johnson repeatedly mentions the illicit listening to radio stations such as the American Forces Network and what one character, a Stasi agent, dismissively calls “western radio”.

Such capitalist stations present an imaginary happy place where even the weather forecast from West Germany can touch listeners in the East with feelings of separation.

The Stasi agents on a stakeout in their car, watching a nearby apartment, ask themselves how people can sit down, “in front of their radios listening to that stuff, believing it the way they believe it’s [a] full moon tonight, according to the calendar” (Speculations, p. 127).

This is how you and I begin to doubt our own minds: by having to call into question the very facts of the truths we have read, heard and witnessed for ourselves.

Radio broadcasts have had a bad history when it comes to war. They had a disastrous effect in fuelling the Rwandan genocide, of which I’ve devoted the best part of an entire chapter of my book – and the manner in which those murderous events were portrayed in subsequent films.

Radio was also used to grisly effect in the Bosnian conflict and the Kosovo war. Today, in 2022, radio and TV are being weaponised by Russia in its war with Ukraine.

If you want to read an academic analysis of this form of radio, Keith Somerville – like me – is a Beeb journo turned university lecturer. His book makes for grim reading.

Elsewhere, don’t forget too that the tensions of the Cold War were the inspiration for cultural statements by politically aware singers and musicians.

R.E.M. sang about “Radio Free Europe” (1981). I reckon Michael Stipe’s half-garbled and badly mixed vocal was a subtle take on the poor quality of short-wave transmissions.

The Clash heard “London Calling” (1979), which were two of the continuity announcer’s words on the BBC World Service – used at one time to link into the pips and the top-of-the-hour news summary.

In a kind of bulletin bookending to the punk band’s tune (unintentionally, I think), Anthony Burgess recalled The End of the World News (1982).

That was the standard out-cue for the bulletin, which again was used for decades. In the introduction to his novel, Burgess described himself as, “an insomniac exile listening to the voice of Britain, much distorted as always by the jamming of the Russians and the Albanians in their efforts to stifle the air’s truth.” (p. x).

However, linking Burgess to The Clash is deeply problematic. Burgess was known to hate almost all pop and rock music with venom. He was a classical music lover and a composer – as well as a novelist.

He wrote in 1967 about radio DJs (of which I am one): “They are the Hollow Men. They are electronic lice. They are already punished by being what they are.” (Punch magazine, 20 September, p. 431) Quite so. Indeed, I’ve highlighted the quote in this picture. If you look carefully you’ll see that Burgess’ bile goes a whole lot further.

These works I’ve mentioned here: of literature, music and plays are all objects of cultural creation considered in my new book. There are almost three hundred other examples over the past 100 years – including movies, popular fiction, poetry, sculpture, fine art, and children’s animation. Each one has something to say about the radio. You can read chapter one of my book here. It’s an exclusive free promotion.

And the cultural connections continue. Joe Strummer from The Clash later went on – before his untimely demise – to present a half-hour music show on the World Service. The title? London Calling. Some clips from his radio show feature in this documentary (For copyright reasons, this is the trailer only).

If you want to know more about World Service theme tunes (never, please, refer to them as jingles…) this article from The Guardian newspaper is an interesting read.

And here’s an audio selection:

I have one final example of how international broadcasting in the analogue age has played out in other cultural artefacts. There is a delightful if somewhat earthy novel by an ex-journo from the BBC World Service.

It intersects the two areas of research which fascinate me: the cultural representation of the railways, and of radio too (just as Uwe Johnson’s Speculations does). Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan in 1954 and worked as a journalist in Uzbekistan before being forced into exile in London where he spent 25 years with the Beeb’s External Services.

His novel The Railway (published in 1997 in Russian, and in 2006 in English translation) is a panorama of Uzbek life and death.

At one point deep in the middle of the story there is a poignant vignette of radio listening which, for me, demonstrates that the wireless is able to touch our very soul, wherever we live.

One of his characters, Zangi-Bobo, lives in a small town in Uzbekistan where on a bedroom windowsill sits, ‘His Arrow wireless, with its two knobs and a needle that enable[s] him to drift across the world, encountering first a Chinaman who seemed to be casting raindrops on water, then an Indian whose sharp voice cut into Zangi-Bobo’s soul, and then the thundering prayers of an Arab’.

The old man, who by day works as a snuff-seller in the local market, is listening alone in his room to broadcasts on short-wave until the voices lull him to sleep.

Radio – done well – should be an emotional force that moves us as listeners, just like it does Zangi-Bobo. And that is how it has always been.

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