BBC World Service: Spanning the Globe Since 1932

On this date in 1932, the BBC Empire Service radio system went on the air for the first time.

Here are some things you may not have known about what is now called BBC World Service.

The Empire Service began as a shortwave service aimed at English speakers in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire. It would take weeks for letters to reach some points by mail, while radio could reach them instantly. King George V said the service was intended for “men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them.”

While those behind the idea had high hopes for the service in the long term, their short-term hopes were more guarded. The director general of the BBC, John Reith (Wreath), opened the service by saying: “Don’t expect too much in the early days; for some time we shall transmit comparatively simple programs, to give the best chance of intelligible reception and provide evidence as to the type of material most suitable for the service in each zone. The programs will neither be very interesting or good.”

The first foreign-language service, in Arabic, was launched in January 1938, followed in March by German programming. By 1942, the service was broadcasting in all major European languages, and had been renamed BBC Overseas Service.

During World War II, the Overseas Service broadcast propaganda and its French service sent coded message to the French Resistance.

In 1965, the service was again renamed, this time as BBC World Service.

At various times, the BBC World Service has operated in 70 different languages and dialects around the world. Through the years, services have been started and discontinued. In the 1990s and early 2000s, many of the European-language services were discontinued as the majority of listeners in those countries listened in English.

Budget cuts and changing technologies have also led the BBC to reduce the number of countries it broadcasts to on shortwave radio. Countries that retain shortwave service today are mostly in Africa, Asia and South America. Europe, North America and Australia are served by local FM stations, and streaming on the internet.

Today, the service broadcasts in 27 languages, the most recently added service is in the Krygyz language of Kyrgyzstan. The service plans to begin broadcasting to Nigeria in Igbo, Nigerian Pidgin, and Yoruba soon.

Our question: Which European language service was the first to be discontinued by the BBC World Service?

Today is unofficially National Hard Candy Day, and National Oatmeal Muffin Day.

It’s the birthday of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who was born in 1905; singer Edith Piaf, who was born in 1915; and musician Maurice White, who was born in 1941.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1994, the top song in the U.S. was “Here Comes the Hotstepper” by Ini Kamoze. (Eye-knee)

The No. 1 movie was “Dumb and Dumber,” while “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories” by James Finn Garner topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

The BBC is the world’s oldest national broadcaster. What was the first broadcast network in the United States?

Submit your answer at and we’ll add the name of the person with the first correct answer to our winner’s wall … at We’ll reveal the correct answer on Friday’s episode.


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