Is the World Service about to become more powerful than ever?

With a £289m investment and 11 new language services, the BBC's planned expansion reminds us why the World Service matters.

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Is the World Service poised to become more powerful than it has ever been? The announcements this past fortnight of the bold expansion of its foreign and English-language services sounded – at a time when sackings and cuts are straining all floors of the BBC – near-fantastical. More political analysis, more science, more arts, 11 new language services (bringing the station’s total to 40), including Amharic, Gujarati, Igbo, Yoruba and Korean, all suggesting an unstinting and auspicious belief in the communitarian power of radio, of listening.

That the new Foreign Office investment in the station of £289m (largely from overseas development budgets) is wise is bloody obvious; which is not to say that it was a given. What other broadcaster, what other defining national brand, could reasonably aim to reach half a billion people weekly by 2022? Coming at the end of this dire year, the plans sound like a direct response to world events. When I put this to the controller of World Service English, Mary Hockaday, she reminds me: “We’ve been hoping for this for a couple of years now – but, yes, every month that goes by just strengthens the argument. The essential decision that there would be government investment came pre-Brexit and Trump, but off the back of the Arab uprisings, the changing nature of global superpowers, China, Russia – a lot of really important disruptive things going on.”

Hockaday (who started her career as a trainee on the World Service, and was a correspondent in Prague) is petite and urgent in person, laughing a lot, especially when she remembers radio as a child. Her parents had one going in every room of the house (mine still do), lest you should find yourself in some dread inch of corridor where you couldn’t hear the reasoned human voice.

It seems to me that at a time when television is in full flux – either constantly flicked around or ravenously binge-watched – radio exists now in a unique area: stations can develop a real tone. The charismatic Hockaday is clearly enjoying “thinking about growing everything” and freely (and unusually) uses words such as “delight” and “willingness” and “spirit”. I’ve met many controllers, but none so euphoric. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage