Global waning

The World Service is being dismantled. Does nobody care?

World of Music
BBC World Service

Saturday night on the World Service and the presenter Mark Coles is lining up a playlist for his show, "with songs from South Korea, the American South, France via Greece, a song recorded in a Nashville church, some sad Portuguese fado and some Jamaican dub sent in by a listener. That's what I call all over the place. In the nicest possible way . . ."

Who could not cherish Mark Coles? Never, with him, the keenie urgency of the 6 Music-ers, arranging their bottle tops and Elbow remixes like bowerbirds. A comprehensive absence, too, of the Ozymandias-like sigh of the world music professional. Instead, an amiable vividness, an entirely unique radio steel - as thin and magic as water.

Did you know they are going to scrap his world music show? The official line from the BBC is that management are "engaging with the Foreign Office" (which funds the WS) as "part of the government's 2010 spending review", and things are still firmly at consultation stage, but I have it on good authority that World of Music is coming off air in March.

I hate to slump anyone in the gloom of a flash-forward, and particularly one in which all the worst premonitions come true, but it's clear that unsustainable cuts will be made to the WS come next financial year - and yet there will be a complete absence of the fandango attending the proposed abolition of the relatively unimportant 6 Music.

I particularly cherish this line from the BBC press office: "the World Service has a strong record of efficiency and cost management". For that, read "has been substantially dismantled without much protest". Already, the dedicated film programme and various religious programmes on the station are gone, the Proms are pencilled to go, and Wimbledon coverage, too (neither confirmed, but mooted at a recent meeting). Be warned, something terrible is happening: the World Service is being pared back to a rolling news channel. Which is precisely what a further 25 per cent cut to the already lean station would entail - a fundamental change in the service it provides.

Currently, the WS modestly goes about its business, and partly because of its modesty it will die. The WS has never beaten its own drum properly - with the exception of an advertising campaign a couple of years back, during which time Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama hailed the station for its value to their sanity. (There was even a lovely tub-thumping display in the lobby of Bush House. It's now gone - replaced with a plasma screen that repeats world weather.)

On the few occasions I have presented programmes for the WS myself, and happened to spend time in the building, the station's gob­smacking reach was never once in my hearing pushed to PRs - it was never stressed, for example, that the station attracts a weekly audience of 241 million people across the world. Two hundred and forty-one million. Or that it has more than 2,000 partner radio stations globally. That more people are listening to it in the United States, say, or Tanzania, than ever before. It was almost as if mentioning this kind of thing would imply a horrid self-infatuation, or bullying, even.

And thus, there now descends on our most valuable station, our David and Goliath combined, an air of doomed civility.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis