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9 July 2015

As governments shut down radio, the BBC world service is a lifeline

“The exercise of making radio matters,” said a caller. “It’s a symbol of resistance.”

By Antonia Quirke

Over to You
BBC World Service

In the week when Apple’s Beats 1 radio station was launched – “Worldwide. Always on . . . It broadcasts 24/7 to over 100 countries from our studios in Los Angeles, New York and London” – there was also discussion of the BBC’s latest global audience measurement figures. The most striking thing in the report, which tracked listening habits and how they had changed over the past year, was how short-wave radio – in rural and poorer areas where there is no FM, no cable and no electricity, it’s still the only way of tuning in – is under increasing threat from something as basic as jamming.

Apple’s idea of radio as digital and impermeable never felt more breezily First World. Listeners to the English-language programmes on the BBC World Service, for example – in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, in particular – have almost halved in number because of deliberate disruption on the short-wave signal, apparently from China, forcing stations to rotate frequencies on the same band to at least attempt a slot.

“Tune around . . . You’ll find us. We will be there,” advised a technician on Over to You (4 July, 5.50pm). It conjured that most antiquated and urgent of images: a person clutching their temples, coaxing a dial, trying and trying to find a signal.

“I grew up with short-wave radio,” insisted a caller to the show, “and I got to understand the world, got to understand life. If you don’t know short-wave radio, you don’t know life.” Only moments later, there was talk of the closure of all the non-state-run radio stations in Burundi (one of the poorest and least connected countries in the world). Before the recent coup attempt, independent radio stations played a huge role in holding the government to account but many radio journalists are now forced to report using what social media is available.

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“The exercise of making radio matters,” said a caller. “It’s a symbol of resistance.” And another, with some disdain, said: “Doing it on the internet is just a way of keeping it on record.” The more than century-long act of turning a dial and finding a signal, with a human voice hitching a ride on electromagnetic energy through space, is something it seems our species now feels in the bones. But worldwide? Always on? Only for some.