Power for Good

Shortly after the BBC World Service (then called the BBC Empire Service) was launched in 1932, 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."

Eighty-four years later, those voices are still reaching out around the world and, since the 1938 launch of the World Service's first 'foreign' language service, in Arabic, they have done so in a growing variety of tongues. The BBC's recent announcement that it is to launch 11 new language services - Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Gujarati, Igbo, Korean, Marathi, Pidgin, Punjabi, Telugu, Tigrinya, and Yoruba – means that half a billion people will be able to listen to the World Service by 2022.

The world has moved on a little since the World Service was launched and few places are now as inaccessible as they seemed in the 30s. Cars, aircraft, phones and TV have each played important roles in 'shrinking' the world and enabling swift communications, the sharing of information and reduced isolation.

But there are two inventions – one 19th Century and one 20th Century – that have done more to reduce perceived distances between people, promote understanding (as well as, some would argue, misunderstanding) and spur development.

The first is radio. Since it was patented by Marconi in 1896, radio has played a vital role in forging links between far-flung communities, providing both a window on the world and information directly relevant to day-to-day lives, wherever they are lived. And whilst TV overtook radio as the primary broadcast technology in the northern hemisphere, radio remains the most accessible – and most high-impact - communications technology in the southern hemisphere. One example is the invention by Trevor Bayliss, just 25 years ago, of the clockwork radio to help communities in southern Africa share information about AIDS prevention. And today, weather forecasting, distance education, agricultural updates and local news broadcasts, alongside discussion programmes and phone-ins, continue to make important contributions to community development. Look no further than FAO Dimitra's Community Listeners' Groups in Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or radio education programmes in Kenya and West Africa for proof.

The second is the Internet. Over the last 20 years, the Internet has grown at a phenomenal rate to link billions of people throughout the globe. And as the technology has evolved, online communications have built on the visual legacy of TV to deliver a vast wealth of information, encourage participation and (in best-case scenarios) promote understanding. Whilst early adoption of online technology was focused within wealthier nations, the rapid global expansion of mobile phone usage has meant that access to the web is no longer limited to the 'developed' world, but is now closer to the ideal of universal access first proposed by the Internet's inventors.

Ease of access to radio and the Internet offers a host of opportunities to inform and empower communities, however remote their location. But – as anyone who has read the 'below-the-line' comments on newspaper websites, or tried to access mainstream social media in some of the more politically oppressive areas of the world can attest – being informed or empowered depends on the reliability of the available information.

Which brings us back to the BBC World Service. Since World War II, the World Service has attracted a reputation for providing news and information for a global audience, via its SW and FM radio broadcasts. And as the barriers between radio, internet and TV have become blurred - with radio and TV being accessible via the Internet - the World Service has moved with the times and put much greater emphasis on digital content.

The announcement last week by the BBC that is set to undertake its 'biggest expansion since the 1940s' is therefore great news. In addition to the 11 new language services – to the 29 languages currently being broadcast - the GBP 289m investment will see the launch of 12 new or expanded daily TV and digital bulletins. This is not, it seems, just an international branding exercise, raising awareness of the BBC within a global information market. It is also an investment in the future of people and communities for whom information – and particularly broadcast information – holds the key.

The people in Sub-Saharan Africa and other primarily off-grid parts of the world to whom Freeplay supplies wind-up and solar powered radios need accurate information on which to base their choices and decisions. They also need their own experiences reflected in the broadcast content. So, whether they listen to analogue or digital radios - self-powered or mains powered - and whether they watch visual broadcasts on mobile phones, computers or TV, the expansion of the BBC World Service and its 'voices out of the air' have the potential to enrich, inform and empower millions more people.

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