Global Airwaves Part I

Bush House, London. Longtime home of the BBC World Service. © 2012 Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

This year the BBC World Service, the oldest and largest international broadcaster in the world, celebrates its eightieth birthday. Founded in 1932 as the Empire Service, it has become a vital fixture in global news and information, available on FM, mediumwave, shortwave, longwave, satellite, and the internet. In many respects, the World Service has shaped Britain’s international persona and culture. Like the rest of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), its editorial independence has  repeatedly drawn the ire of British politicians and diplomats as well as the respect of millions of peoples, many of whom were (or remain) unable to obtain impartial news from their local services. In its storied history, both the World Service and the BBC have developed into explorative spaces for geographers, scholars, and activists. The Royal Geographical Society actively documented the roles the BBC played in geographic exploration and education.

In one of the earliest BBC/RGS collaborations, the nascent broadcaster permitted portions of explorer and aviator George Binney’s commentary on Roald Amundsen’s 1925 Arctic flight to be reprinted with analysis in The Geographical Journal. The collaboration resulted in Amundsen’s feat being broadcasted across Europe and to be simultaneously disseminated by the RGS to the British imperial scholarly community. The 1925 work catalysed a series of intersections between RGS-IBG and BBC projects, reports, and activities throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In a 1955 discussion of geographical and social descriptions of domestic landscapes, A E Smailes resourced Michael Robbins’s BBC home service talks concerning the ‘anatomy of the countryside ‘(p. 100).

The BBC also filled an important role for the geographer of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s: often, it was the only relatively reliable means of communicating with explorers traversing Earth’s extremes. In 1955, Commander C J W Simpson, DSC, of the Royal Navy, recounted in detail to the RGS, HM The Queen, and The Duke of Edinburgh his 1952-1954 expedition to the northern fringes of Danish-controlled Greenland. He led some thirty scientists and specialists on a major venture involving the RGS, the Royal Society, the RAF, Royal Navy, and Army, and the Scott Polar Research Institute (p. 276). The group traversed across the vast island, from Germania Land and Britannia Sø on the eastern coast to Thule near Canada (pp. 277-79). In a harrowing 1953-1954 Arctic winter, the BBC broadcast special messages each month; a collection of well-wishes from family, friends, and admirers of the British expeditionary effort (pp. 285-86). In 1958, designated the International Geophysical Year, the RGS described the role of the BBC in transmitting national and international solar weather warnings and praised UK engineers and scientists (p. 28). The BBC’s political and scientific roles were further explored in a 1966 article recounting the experiences of Charles Swithinbank, of the Scott Polar Research Institute, who spent a year living and working with Soviet specialists at Antarctic stations (p. 469). The men, despondent for news and culture from home, listened for updates from both the BBC World Service and Radio Moscow shortwave services in a rare moment of Cold War friendship.

 ‘Amundsen’s Polar Flight‘, The Geographical Journal 66.1 (Jul., 1925): 48-53.

 A E Smailes, ‘Some Reflections on the Geographical Description and Analysis of Townscapes‘, Transactions and Papers (Institute of British Geographers) 21 (1955): 99-115.

 C J W Simpson, ‘The British North Greenland Expedition‘, The Geographical Journal 121.3 (Sep., 1955): 274-89.

 D C Martin, ‘The International Geophysical Year‘, The Geographical Journal 124.1 (Mar., 1958): 18-29.

 Charles Swithinbank, ‘A Year with the Russians in Antarctica‘, The Geographical Journal 132.4 (Dec., 1966): 463-74. Also see Dudley Stamp and Vivian Fuch’s discussion here.

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