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Mark Byford

Director of BBC World Service

The Cornwall Lecture 2001: From Polzeath to Lilongwe - how global communications are becoming local in the digital age

Truro, 19 November 2001
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When I was invited to give this year's Cornwall Lecture I was delighted for personal as well as professional reasons.

Cornwall is an important place to me – and I know how much you have to be proud of: The beauty of your environment; the creativity, strength and pioneering spirit of your people.

Sir John Banham, Michael Galsworthy and Keith Staite at In Pursuit of Excellence had no need to convince me, or indeed my family, about Cornwall's attractions.

My wife Hilary has been staying here every year since she was a kid. (As she is not here I can tell you that is for more than 40 years). Now we and the children take a holiday in Polzeath, every year – rain or shine!

So having another excuse to visit Cornwall this year is a great pleasure and it is an honour to be invited to give the 2001 Cornwall Lecture.

Moreover, as head of the world's leading international broadcasting service, it's a privilege to be here in Cornwall as we approach the centenary of a truly historic event that took place just down the road, and which changed the world of communications forever.

Professionally, I have taken a particularly close interest in the progress of BBC Radio Cornwall since my previous job was director of BBC regional broadcasting.

Cornwall is a jewel in the BBC's regional crown, with the biggest share of the radio audience of any service in the county. A hundred and forty four thousand people tune into BBC Radio Cornwall every week; 35% of the population. That's one of the very best performances across the whole of local radio.

An important reason for that success is the way the station celebrates the Cornish identity and the local roots of its listeners.

Exciting developments are taking place at the station, and one by-product will be to communicate more effectively about Cornwall to audiences not just here, but throughout the UK and indeed around the world. I'll say more about that later.

Which brings me to the theme of this year's Cornwall Lecture: communications. It is a big theme and a very topical one. And appropriately for the Cornwall Lecture, it is an issue of huge importance for the Cornish economy.

Never has the technology of communications been changing more rapidly. I want to review some of those developments this evening.

A lot of what I have to say comes from my perspective as a broadcaster – and with world events of the last two months uppermost in our minds, I think it's important to reflect on the vital role of international communications during the present crisis.

As for the economic aspects of communications, I cannot pretend to have all the answers for Cornish businesses but I want to consider some of the issues that affect us all.

Cornwall has played a historic part in the technological development of communications, and I want to celebrate that too.

Not just Marconi's first transatlantic radio transmission, of which more in a moment. Cornwall was the location for the first overseas mail service – the Falmouth Packet Ship Service. The reception of satellite communications at Goonhilly. And the landing and onward distribution of high capacity cables at Porthcurno and Sennen.

Let me say first of all that in the aftermath of September 11th one thing has become crystal clear: the need for the world to communicate has never been greater.

There has never been a greater need to understand how other people see the world, and to listen to what other people have to say.

There has never been a greater need for different communities throughout the world to understand one another's point of view. Connection and engagement on a global scale.

At BBC World Service, we are acutely aware of the responsibility that places on all our broadcasters. Not least those who are working flat out to bring the news to people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the Arab world in their own languages. They uphold the World Service's traditional values of impartiality, independence, accuracy and balance that are the foundation of the trust placed in us by listeners.

I do not believe it is an overstatement to say that our success matters to people throughout the world, including the people of the UK and indeed here in Cornwall.

If we use the communications technology now at our disposal wisely, we can break down boundaries between people more effectively than ever before.

We hear all the time about globalisation. But the wonderful thing about today's communications technology is that it can be global and local at the same time.

We may not have seen the end of history that was being so confidently predicted 10 years ago as the cold war drew to a close. But the end of geography? In a sense, yes. In communications terms, physical location is becoming more blurred.

Through digital technology, you can listen to a local radio station on the other side of the world. A small business in Cornwall can do business in every continent at the click of a mouse. And that's just the start.

For Cornwall, whose geographical location and transport links have so often held it back, these are profound changes indeed. Today the world is closer to you than ever before.

Broadband links – and I know broadband is a sensitive point here in Cornwall – will change the way we do business. Before looking at all these issues in more detail, I wanted to tell you about two personal experiences that opened my eyes to the impact the latest developments in communications are already having. They gave me the title for this lecture – From Polzeath to Lilongwe.

In 1998 I was on holiday at Easter with my family at the Atlantic House Hotel in Polzeath. It was the weekend of the signing of the Good Friday agreement. My professional responsibilities included BBC Northern Ireland and I was desperately trying to get hold of the controller of BBC Northern Ireland on a mobile phone to be briefed on the latest developments. I couldn't get a signal and I well remember how I was forced to use a phone box down the road.

Today in that same hotel I can now listen to Radio Ulster just as if I was sitting in Belfast. With an internet connection, it's all there through BBCi at And of course I can do the same anywhere in the world.

Earlier this year I was in Malawi for the launch of BBC World Service's new FM frequency in the capital Lilongwe. In the morning I met President Bakili Muluzi who told me that he listens every morning and evening to our flagship programmes for Africa: Network Africa and Focus on Africa.

Later that day I met a boatman on the Shire River who said he had been listening to the World Service since he was six. Finally being able to hear the BBC on FM was, he told me, the best thing that had happened to him this year.

What struck me was how an international broadcaster like the BBC was effectively a local broadcaster there in Malawi.

The development of international communications has made this possible. Today, signals are beamed via satellite from London and rebroadcast locally on FM. Internet connections that provide high quality audio and video as well as text mean we can see and hear what the world has to say at the click of a mouse.

Technology is changing faster today than ever. But the history of all these developments can be traced back to a day almost exactly 100 years ago – and to a place just a few miles from Truro.

That place, of course, was Poldhu cove at Mullion. The date was the 12th of December 1901. And this is what history in the making sounded like. (Audio clip)

Across the Atlantic in Newfoundland, radio's founding father, Guglielmo Marconi, waited to hear the signal, transmitted all the way from Poldhu.

That was the moment when international communications, as we know it today, really began.

It had been a huge gamble on the part of Marconi and his backers. Some eminent scientists argued that transmissions could not possibly work over such a distance because of the curvature of the earth.

They were wrong; the ionosphere, a layer of charged particles of the upper atmosphere, reflects electromagnetic signals. That is how short wave radio works. But how was Marconi to know? The ionosphere had not yet been discovered.

He also had to reckon with unpredictable weather. And not just the weather here in Cornwall - where gales blew down the original 200 foot aerial masts at Poldhu. In Newfoundland, the balloon holding the aerial aloft was also blown away. The next day so was a kite.

But you can't change the course of history without being prepared for a disaster or two.

A second kite was launched with the aerial attached, and at last the signal from Poldhu could be heard clearly by Marconi and his assistant Kemp. This is how he recalled the moment, later in his life: (Audio clip: Guglielmo Marconi)

How right he was.

It is great for Cornwall that the anniversary is being marked by celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic. The new visitors' centre at Poldhu managed by the National Trust and part funded by Marconi PLC will be a lasting attraction.

Radio Cornwall is teaming up with the National Trust, the Poldhu Radio Museum and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to cover the recreation of that first transatlantic transmission, and to broadcast the Queen's message on the day. The 37 other BBC local radio stations will be able to link with a Radio Cornwall reporter at Poldhu for live coverage. And there will be a Radio Cornwall reporter in Newfoundland providing radio interviews, comment and reports from the other side of the Atlantic.

He will also be supplying material for the global audience visiting the new website, BBCi Cornwall, which will be going live at, exactly 100 years after those first radio broadcasts. Radio Cornwall listeners are involved too - they've been sending in their favourite radio memories for broadcast on December 12. And there will be a special one-hour documentary marking the anniversary which is under production at BBC Radio Cornwall for the Christmas schedules.

Moreover the World Service itself will be broadcasting its own special programme around the world on December 28th – "Marconi Centenary" – celebrating that groundbreaking day. So the BBC locally and across the world will certainly be marking this historic moment in a fitting way.

Marconi was a man with a vision – but perhaps even he could not have foreseen the impact his new communications technology would have.

It is ironic in this centenary year that the share price of the company that bears his name should have collapsed so sharply, and that Marconi has been headline news around the world for a very different reason.

Right next to the World Service studios at Bush House is a plaque on a wall marking the spot where Marconi's London radio station 2LO was based, and where the fledgling BBC began broadcasting in 1922.

The BBC's international broadcasts started 10 years later. In the first transmission, Director-General Sir John Reith dedicated the service ‘to the best interests of mankind'.

Today the World Service broadcasts in 43 languages and has more listeners than ever before in its history – 153 million a week.

In the past two months we can only guess at how listening has grown among some of our audiences – in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East, for example.

We have expanded our output in Arabic, Pashto, Persian and Urdu, and boosted our transmissions with a powerful new medium wave frequency.

Even before the latest events, Taliban controlled Afghanistan had no television and no national newspapers. Radio is the main medium of communication and we, the BBC World Service, are it.

This is the most familiar signature tune to Afghan listeners. (Audio clip)

Comprehensive audience surveys are difficult to carry out in Afghanistan but some limited survey work was done just over a year ago, among male heads of household. It indicated that some 72 per cent of Pashto language speakers and some 62 per cent of Persian speakers in Afghanistan listened daily to the BBC in Pashto and Persian.

Those BBC services are the main source of news – for the Taliban leader Mullah Omar to Afghan families in the refugee camps.

For the World Service, what matters more than ever during a time of conflict is its independence, impartiality, accuracy and balance.

The Taliban know this.

Listeners in Afghanistan don't just hear Jack Straw, Tony Blair and Colin Powell.

Following the first air strikes, Taliban spokesmen have been giving their response regularly to the Pashto and Persian services, which we broadcast to Afghan listeners.

Many Afghans describe the BBC as the sixth prayer. Just as their five daily prayers are made at set times, so is the BBC transmission. Everybody who has access to a radio gets together and listens to the BBC to find out what is happening.

The Pashto and Persian services are receiving many messages from listeners – one appeared recently on the fax machine from Kabul. Just four words: ‘BBC – more, more, more.'

The BBC is seen as a main stay of communication, not simply a global broadcaster. A social anthropologist who wrote his PhD on the impact of our Pashto radio soap New Home, New Life says that people would often tell him that they thought the BBC was a village in Afghanistan.

And that soap opera, modelled on The Archers, deals specifically with local issues: how to avoid landmines, where to get medical care – and how to survive as a refugee.

But it's not just deprived audiences who want a wider perspective on world events. In the wake of the 11th September attacks, our partner stations on America's public radio network in New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other US towns and cities took direct feeds of our news programmes, many on a rolling basis.

A special edition of our interactive Talking Point programme – available online as well as on radio – attracted over 35,000 emails from all over the world. Traffic to our award-winning World Service Online site increased nine-fold in the 24 hours following the attack.

The international TV channel BBC World was made available to an estimated additional 300 million viewers in the week following the attacks. Available in its entirety across the US for the first time, it was taken by over 130 public television stations across the US. One American viewer emailed to say he loves BBC World because ‘it provides no speculation, no sensationalism, no bull – just the facts'.

One issue has become clearer still as a result of these events. It is the importance of responding swiftly to changes in communications technology and audience need.

Sometimes that may involve difficult decisions about how to deploy finite resources. At World Service, we have made savings in the most developed broadcasting markets, where short wave is being replaced by FM rebroadcasting partnerships and listening via the internet. But that has enabled us to move resources to less developed regions where short wave and medium wave transmissions provide an information lifeline.

In different ways, those same decisions apply to every business organisation, large and small. It is a question of allocating resources as effectively as you can to match the technology at your disposal to customer needs and demand.

If you don't do it, somebody else will move in and steal your market.

Digital technology has undoubtedly come of age. Now the hype over the internet revolution is behind us, the real benefits to businesses and to broadcasters are shining through. speculation may have lost a fortune but prudent investment is paying off.

For the World Service, it means that people who could never receive our radio transmissions in the 42 languages can now listen to live output, or catch that programme they particularly want to hear, at a time when it suits them, anywhere in the world.

If you are an Arabic listener in America, a Chinese student in Canada or a Tamil speaker here in Truro, you can hear the latest news and access all kinds of information in your own language.

And we were very proud to win this year's Webby Award – the internet ‘Oscar' – for the best radio website in the world.

This is what you see when you log on to our award winning Arabic website,

You can listen to live output or a programme of your choice on demand. Read the latest news reports or archive information, and watch video clips. Have your say by joining in the online discussion. Check the latest weather forecasts. And much more.

When I was in Sydney last year visiting our Olympic Games production team, I climbed in a taxi, and the driver was listening to World Service in English, crystal clear on FM being broadcast on ABC's News Radio. Fantastic, I said, where are you from? I am from Mogadishu, he told me. A Somali exile. I told him I was delighted he was a World Service listener but it was a pity he couldn't hear the BBC's Somali Service which is hugely popular back in his homeland. "No, no, no", he said, "every night my friends now come round to my flat and we all click on and listen to the BBC Somali Service online."

And here's what they see.

Now the worldwide Cornish diaspora – outnumbering those of you in Cornwall, I'm told – can also keep in touch through the internet. The communities in Australia, North America and even Africa who can trace their roots here. And everyone else who has spent some time in Cornwall and has the place in their blood.

Radio Cornwall's website has been online for the past year. In fact you can even see what the weather is like via the live webcam on the roof of the studio in Truro – although I understand that when this service was launched in September last year, it promptly rained every day for the next 104 days!

Now the BBC is about to launch a new upgraded internet service for Cornwall BBCi Cornwall. And although its licence fee funding means that we are not primarily aiming at an international audience – it's primarily for you, the people of Cornwall and licence payers across the UK, – we've already had requests for more online content from lovers of Cornwall who have left these shores.

A Lieutenant Commander from the United States Navy, who spent three years assigned to RAF St Mawgan, recently emailed from California. He didn't miss the weather, he wrote, but he did miss the environment, of which Radio Cornwall was a big part. When would he be able to listen to the station on the internet, he wanted to know?

Well the good news is that the BBC in Cornwall is about to make the latest news reports and other local community information available in audio for internet listeners.

That includes a weekly bulletin in Cornish, and Cornish language lessons are going online too.

Here's just a sample from a programme broadcast on BBC Radio Cornwall earlier this month. (Audio clip in Cornish)

And for those who don't know – shame on you! – that means (English translation).

Again the web allows us to serve much more specialised audiences than we can with radio. And now Cornish speakers, or anyone who just wants to hear how the language sounds, or learn a few words, will be able to join in, anywhere in the world.

And when world events dominate the headlines, people who care about Cornwall will be able to find out what is happening here and how you are affected. Because there is so often a Cornish connection.

As I am sure many of you know, Morgan Stanley's head of security at the World Trade Centre, Rick Rescorla, was a Cornishman from Hayle. He was one of those who stayed to evacuate the building and never got out.

BBC Radio Cornwall knew about him pretty early on: their weatherman Chris Stumbles, was his second cousin. They had a very powerful and emotional interview with his wife. Hearing that interview will have meant a lot to listeners here.

On the day of the attack, many people contacted BBC Radio Cornwall hoping to find out if their relatives were safe. One couple's son had seen the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre and wanted to tell his friends that he was OK.

Cornwall brings out that sense of community. And effective communications can build on that sense of common purpose and strength.

You only have to look at the response to Radio Cornwall's Sunrise Appeal to raise funds for the clinical oncology unit at Treliske. It has been phenomenal – £100,000 was raised in the first month alone, and the total sent into the radio station now stands at (£322,000). The latest idea is the radio Christmas card. Send in the money you would have spent on cards and postage and say hello to your friends and loved ones on the radio instead.

A campaign like that shows the power of communication at local level and the impact it can have in changing people's lives in a practical way.

The significance of new communications technology is that it allows us to multiply this impact and target communities and individuals much more effectively.

For media users, the internet unlocks a whole new world of information tailored to you as an individual.

You can listen to a programme when you want

You can have your say to a global audience.

When Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel took part in a World Service Talking Point programme recently on the plight of children around the world and children's rights, the first question came from a student in the south west of England.

On the net, you can access more detailed information on a topic that interests you. If you've been watching David Attenborough's Blue Planet series and want to know more, you can dive into BBCi's Nature site for all kinds of interactive learning.

Visit the bottom of the sea for the Blue Planet Challenge. Or go deeper for learning courses specially devised for the series.

This is the start of a whole new interactive approach to learning based on TV and radio programmes.

Interactivity offers the same advantages to businesses. Customers can access your service whenever they want, find out more about what you have to offer and place their order, anytime, anywhere in the world.

Many highly publicised dot.coms may have come and gone, but the pace of growth in internet access is still beating all expectations.

Already around 430 million people worldwide have internet access. We estimate this will grow to 1.1 billion users by 2005/06. In more than 20 countries, more than a third of the population are now online.

And for the first time, the majority of internet users are now non-English speakers and that proportion of non English speakers on the net will grow over time. Chinese is growing fast – although Cornish still has some catching up to do!

In terms of mobile technology, I don't think we should be fooled by the current slowdown in the mobile phone business. Our latest long-term forecasts indicate an increase from one billion users this year to 2.25 billion in 2005.

We've all got used to text messaging on our mobiles – or at least our kids have. Now we are moving to internet-connected phones with text browsing and email, and the next generation of 3G phones will receive short video clips.

Broadband is a key issue for both broadcasters and businesses. Full broadband – and by that I mean working at speeds of 2 megabits per second and upwards – opens the door to television quality video over the internet. Interactive business online will have come of age.

Recent press speculation has suggested that the new fear of flying among business executives could well be broadband's sought-after ‘killer application'. Video conferencing delivered through these high speed internet links will at last provide a genuine alternative to face-to-face meetings.

Bad news for the airlines – but good news for more geographically isolated places. If they are connected to broadband, that is.

By last December a worldwide total of almost 10 million subscribers had broadband access at home, and that number is expected to double by the end of this year. Three times as many had broadband access at work. By 2005 there will be around 100 million subscribers according to current projections.

The Government has said it wants the UK to be the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 by the same year, but we have got quite a long way to go.

And while London may stand a chance of achieving the target of becoming ‘the broadband capital of the world', where will that leave Truro, Penzance – or indeed Polzeath?

In fact the whole of the UK should look to Hull (another part of the country at the end of the railway!) to see what broadband has to offer.

It was the first city in the UK to offer a broadband TV service to anyone with a telephone. So the BBC is making Hull a testbed for the next generation of interactive news, information and education services.

We're also providing ICT and multimedia training for local people and linking with local schools and adult education initiatives.The aim is to move the BBC from being a broadcaster to being an actor in local life.

It would be great one day to do the same for Cornwall.

It must be frustrating to know that the main fibre-optic cables that form the backbone for broadband international connections come ashore in Sennen and Porthcurno and head straight off to Bristol and London – bypassing homes here. I gather that salt has been rubbed into local wounds by digging up the road to install the cables and repeater stations that boost the signals.

I know how much business development organisations in Cornwall have been doing to press this issue and bring forward the date when Cornwall will have full access to this vital economic resource.

The 10 year strategy published by Cornwall Enterprise highlights the need for good quality ICT infrastructure, particularly in rural areas and the Isles of Scilly.

The report commissioned by the Objective 1 taskforce on ICT warns: ‘At a time when global e-business is set to take off and internet connectivity is growing exponentially, there is a real risk that Cornwall will fall behind the core regions, where all the digital action is'.

But – the report adds, and it is a big but – ‘it doesn't have to be this way'

If you are going to attract new businesses and support existing ones, there is no time to lose.

It's vital to encourage forward-looking businesses that are connected to global markets. That must be a way to raise average earnings in Cornwall closer to the national level.

And here's a global perspective on average earnings, incidentally: in Lilongwe in Malawi, the average annual income is £100. Probably less if you are a boatman, somewhat more if you are the President.

The economics are a lot better in Polzeath.

And in the new economic map of the world, the natural attractions of Cornwall, your environment and heritage, should become even greater assets.

Geographical isolation will become less of an issue. Lifestyle choice will become increasingly important when it comes to deciding where to locate your business.

The Red Book published by In Pursuit of Excellence makes this point strongly – that Cornwall can play to its strengths as a great place to live and work.

The Renewable Energy Office for Cornwall and the commercial Earth Energy systems being developed by Geoscience reflect a progressive, environmental image.

Of course, the Eden project is a superb example of how you can generate international interest and express Cornwall's creativity and care for the global environment – I visited the site last Easter and was knocked out by its excellence.

It precisely expresses this whole idea of global understanding local, and local connecting to global: a world of plants, ecosystems and environments inside a disused crater in the heart of Cornwall.

The world coming to Cornwall, in fact.

With access to the latest communications technology, more and more businesses can do the same thing. The technology takes you to the world, and brings the world to you, without threatening your unique environment.

From my perspective as a broadcaster, I am constantly faced with decisions about how best to deploy a range of delivery technologies with finite resources. There is no simple answer, but in summing up here are four key factors which I believe could be just as relevant to many organisations here in Cornwall.

First – think how you can use the capacity of new communications technology such as the internet to deepen individual relationships with users. Provide exactly what they need on a local basis in the context of what is important to them and how they live their lives.

Think local when you think global – and global when you think local.

Communication really is now a two-way process.

Second, recognise that communications technology is changing faster than ever. Monitor developments and respond swiftly to make the most of new opportunities.

Third – try to ensure Cornwall has access to the most appropriate and leading edge communications technologies as quickly as possible, and that will include in the future full broadband access.

And finally – keep communicating the distinctive message about Cornwall. For me as head of the BBC's international news services, you're always conscious that it's a very crowded broadcasting marketplace in nearly all areas of the world. For the World Service to be a leader, to be vibrant, it has to stand out, it has to provide something special, of real value, to be distinctive. So, shout about what makes this place so special, such a great place to live and work, your special expertise in the environment and sustainable development and so much more.

I hope we can play our part in communicating not just at a local level but globally through the BBC's new internet services in Cornwall.

If I could highlight one ingredient that we all need, it would be some of Marconi's courage and vision. What a leap of faith that was, waiting on the other side of the Atlantic to hear the signal coming all the way from Cornwall, 100 years ago. That really was the beginning of international communications as we know it today.

Cornwall has a unique place in that history and in the future of communications.

I'd like to give the last word to one of your global admirers, who makes a key point for Cornwall about the new digital age. He is that same US Navy Lieutenant Commander who is so keen to hear Radio Cornwall on the internet.

Don't worry, he wrote to us – the internet is the perfect compromise:

'It may deliver Cornwall to the rest of the world but it allows Cornwall to keep the rest of the world at arm's length.'

I'm sure that everyone who wants Cornwall to prosper and loves the place the way it is, will second that.

It's a great privilege and pleasure to be with you here this evening.

Thank you.


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