The BBC's Empire Service launched in December 1932, helped by new short-wave radio technology that allowed signals to be broadcast over vast distances. Despite gloomy predictions from the BBC's director-general John Reith – "The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good", the broadcasts from Broadcasting House in London received praise. Reith had to deliver a 12-minute address live five times on opening day over 15-and-a-half hours to reach time zones in Australia, India, South Africa, West Africa and Canada.
Six days after the opening of the Empire Service, a broadcasting tradition was born: the Royal Christmas message. The address was delivered by King George V live from the Royal family's Norfolk retreat in Sandringham. The words were written by the poet and author, Rudyard Kipling, and began: "I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all." BBC director general John Reith wrote in his diary: "It was the most spectacular success in BBC history so far. The King had been heard all over the world with surprising clarity." Photo: Getty Images
The French government surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940. The leader of the 'Free French', General Charles De Gaulle, broadcast to France, from studio B2 at Broadcasting House. Staff were told that an unnamed General would arrive. The speech was not recorded and had to be repeated, much to the annoyance of the General. He carried on broadcasting for five minutes a night, every night, for four years. A member of the BBC's French Service recalled later: "I do not remember ever hearing him fluff. He was courteous and always found time to thank the recording engineer after he had finished."
World War II brought a change of name for the Empire Service - it became the Overseas Service in November 1939 – along with a big expansion in overseas output including broadcasts in Arabic, Spanish for Latin America, German, Italian, French, Afrikaans, Spanish for Europe and Portuguese for Europe. By the end of 1940, the BBC was broadcasting in 34 languages. Each day 78 news bulletins were broadcast, amounting to 250,000 words. Other new services included Icelandic, Albanian, Hindi, Burmese and the dialect spoken in Luxembourg.
Although dispersed physically – BBC offices could be found in Broadcasting House, Oxford Street and Senate House - the spirit of the newly-named Overseas Service was strengthened as the British government realised the importance of broadcasting. By 1941 there were more than 1400 staff. That year the Member of Parliament for Derby, Philip Noel-Baker, in a debate at the House of Commons said: "I do not think the Minister will disagree when I say that of all the means he has of reaching the people inside Europe, broadcasting is by far the best."
Space for the Overseas Service at Broadcasting House was becoming limited. When a German landmine exploded outside Broadcasting House in December 1940, it caused a fire that lasted several hours and the building was badly damaged. The European services moved hastily to Maida Vale in north-west London where they broadcast from a disused skating rink. In 1941 they moved again to Bush House, an imposing building at one end of Fleet Street – then the heart of the British newspaper industry - for a weekly rent of £30.
In January, 1941, the director of the Belgian French Service, Victor de Laveleye, encouraged Belgian listeners to use a ‘V for Victory’ sign as gesture of defiance against the occupying forces. Soon 'Vs' are seen chalked up on walls in Belgium, the Netherlands and France. The morse code for 'V' is broadcast as a call sign in all BBC European services (rhythmically similar to the opening of Beethovan’s Fifth Symphony). Later that year, Churchill uses the sign in his 'V for Victory' speech of 19 July, 1941, for the first time. Photo: Getty Images
As resistance fighters in Europe tried to strike back against their occupiers, the BBC's European Services broadcast secret messages to them. The messages were famously bizarre: "Le lapin a bu un apéritif" (The rabbit drank an aperitif), or "Mademoiselle caresse le nez de son chien" (Mademoiselle strokes her dog's nose). These words would tell the resistance fighters if an operation was to go ahead, or cancelled; or if people or documents had arrived safely.
BBC war correspondents, such as CD Adamson pictured here, sent their reports from the front line on discs. Godfrey Talbot, another war correspondent, covered the Allies’ first big success, El Alamein, in 1942 from a truck, known as Belinda, which had been converted into a recording studio. An army liaison officer was with him to censor his scripts and - once approved - the recorded disc would be taken by an army despatch rider or plane to Cairo, for transmission to London.
From 1941 to 1943, George Orwell worked as a Talks Producer for the Eastern Service. He did not enjoy the work. "By some time in 1944" he wrote, "I might be near-human again, and able to write something serious. At present I'm just an orange that's been trodden on, by a very dirty boot." But his time at the BBC helped him form his vision of the Ministry of Truth in his novel 1984. The Ministry's canteen, described as 'low ceilinged deep underground' is said to be based on the one at Bush House.
After World War II, relationships with Stalin's regime began to decline, and an 'Iron Curtain' descended across Europe. In February 1946, the British Foreign Office formally asked the BBC to begin a Russian Service and a month later it went on air. At first Russian listeners were able to listen freely to the transmissions, but as the Cold War developed, the Kremlin began cracking down. Transmissions were regularly jammed by the Communist bloc and in response, the World Service increased transmitter power.
During the reporting of the Suez Crisis in 1956, the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden believed the Arabic service should broadcast reports in favour of British troops. The service remained impartial with the support of director-general Ian Jacob, even though the Foreign Office was told that ministers planned to cut the BBC's grant by a million pounds. Over the following weeks, under regular attacks from the Foreign Office and Conservative MPs, the BBC stuck to its principle and did not broadcast one story to Britain and a different one to the rest of the world.
After the Soviet Army put down the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the BBC's Hungarian Service broadcast personal messages from refugees that had left Hungary for Britain. The refugees used code names to ensure the Hungarian authorities would not be able to identify their families. While some Western stations might have hinted that help was on the way, the BBC was more blunt: the West would give only moral, not military, support. Photo: Jack Esten/Getty Images
The 1960s was a time of expanding radio ownership, thanks to the development of portable, battery-powered transistor sets. Between 1955 and 1965, radio ownership trebled in communist Eastern Europe, and increased greatly in the Middle East, China, sub-Saharan Africa and India. In May 1965, the Overseas Service became the World Service to reflect a new emphasis on world affairs. Photo: Getty Images
In 1978, Bulgarian Service journalist Georgi Markov was on his way to work at Bush House, heading for a bus stop at the south side of Waterloo Bridge. It was lunchtime, the pavement was crowded. He felt a pain in his thigh. He turned round and saw a man pick up an umbrella. Markov continued his journey to Bush House. Later that day he became ill. He died three days later. A post mortem examination found a tiny pellet in his thigh. Two small holes had been drilled into the pellet. It had contained a poison believed to be the highly-toxic ricin. It was later learned that the Russian secret police, the KGB, had developed an umbrella that could inject ricin pellets into a victim. Photo: Getty Images
The problems of reporting from behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War are illustrated by the treatment of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who became his country's president after Soviet rule. In an effort to silence him, the authorities banned him from having a telephone. He was also watched by the secret police. But the BBC's Czech Service managed to get round the restrictions by phoning his local post office to arrange interviews. Havel would ring from the post office at the appointed time. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
When Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, the weekly programme 'Calling the Falklands', became a lifeline for islanders. Just as during the Suez Crisis, the BBC came under criticism. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: "There are times when it would seem that we and the Argentines are almost being treated as equal." Independent of the BBC, the British government took over a BBC frequency to broadcast psychological warfare to Argentine troops. The Latin American Service broadcasts remained rigorously impartial while covering events, calling it 'The Falklands or Islas Malvinas' every time they mentioned the conflict on air. Photo: Getty Images
The BBC played an unwitting role in training officers for the Russian secret services. Oleg Gordievsky, a Western double agent in the KGB, recalled that agents on English language courses would traditionally begin by listening to World Service news bulletins – but only after anything seen as anti-Soviet had been edited out of the tape. He said: "It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the BBC in the Soviet Union. You were like a university to us."
Over the course of its history, the World Service has broadcast in a total of 68 languages. Many of these languages have come and gone, including Maltese, Gujarati, Japanese and the short-lived Welsh for Patagonia service. The fall of the Berlin Wall signalled a new era in Eastern Europe, and the World Service was no longer the lifeline to that region it once was. As a result, most European language services were closed during the last decade, in order to refocus an ever tighter budget to other priority areas and services. Further cuts to languages serving other regions have brought the current number of services to 28, many of them online only. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
When Soviet regimes crumbled at the start of the 1990s, there was a new area of international tension developing in the Gulf. On 2 August 1990, the armed forces of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. When the coalition attacks began in January 1991, the World Service cleared its schedules to become a rolling news and comment channel for the first time. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
BBC World Service radio has been an important window on the outside world for those held hostage or under house arrest. In 1986 academic Brian Keenan, television journalist John McCarthy and special envoy Terry Waite were held in Lebanon by the militant group Islamic Dawn. "I listened to the BBC World Service constantly" said Terry Waite, "I heard my cousin John broadcasting on Outlook and that meant a great deal to me, because John, in a subtle way, got me news from my family." Photo: AFP/Getty Images
When Mikhail Gorbachev was held for three days in Russia's August 1991 coup, his only contact with the outside world was listening to foreign radio broadcasts via an aerial his guards had rigged up. Former World Service managing director John Tusa recalls the news conference at which Mr Gorbachev remarked that the BBC sounded the best. "It was clear from the laughter and applause from the international press that greeted his remarks that they all took it - as I believe it was meant - as a tribute both to the BBC Russian Service’s journalism, as well as their audibility." Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Radio played a brutal role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan radio station, incited hatred and violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The BBC helped to restore the balance at the request of aid organisations. Producers from the French and Swahili services who spoke the languages of the region, Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, worked with the Red Cross to provide a lifeline to the displaced millions, with detailed information about the missing. The service was later expanded to become the Great Lakes Service. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
On 11 September 2001 when the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York took place, the usually measured and studious atmosphere of the Bush House newsroom turned to momentary uproar. It was a very un-characteristic response to an extraordinary situation. Senior duty editor Rachel Harvey jumped up on a desk, calmed staff and rapidly outlined her plan for dealing with the events as they unfolded. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
After a brief stint in the 1990s, BBC Arabic TV began broadcasting again in March 2008, followed by BBC Persian TV the following year. It was not the first time the World Service had broadcast on television. International TV broadcasts in English began in 1991 with World Service TV, which became BBC World TV in 1996 and is now called BBC World News.
The BBC's Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston was seized at gunpoint by miliants in March 2007 and was held hostage. He is released 114 days later. During that time BBC World Service's discussion show World Have Your Say broadcast messages of support from the audience to Johnston in every edition. It was not the first time that BBC reporters had faced danger. Others have been captured or tortured or family members have been intimidated. Some have died. Reporting continues to be a dangerous occupation in some parts of the world. Photo: AFP
In the month after Haiti's devastating earthquake, BBC Caribbean broadcast a daily 20 minute programmes in Haitian Creole to provide basic information to help people locate medical aid, food and water supplies in the aftermath of the 12 January 2010, earthquake. In addition to basic lifeline information, the programme helped people make contact with loved ones and allowed Haitian musicians abroad to provide relief and some entertainment for those back home. Photo: AP
During the Arab Spring of 2011 social media became a valuable news source for journalists. Eyewitness reports, pictures and videos came in from across the region. The effects were two-fold: first social media proved to be a valuable news-gathering device, second, broadcasting this content put the audience at the heart of the news story. Social media continues to be a key part of how BBC World Service gathers and distributes news. Photo: Getty Images
In November 2010 pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma. In an interview afterwards she said that she listened to BBC World Service during her confinement and revealed that, among other programmes, she had a fondness for the music request programme A Jolly Good Show presented by British disc jockey Dave Lee Travis. She said listening to it had made her "world much more complete". Photo: Getty Images
In 2012 BBC World Service is moving back to Broadcasting House after 71 years, to a state-of-the-art newsroom. BBC World Service journalists will be located with the rest of the BBC family - with online and TV colleagues - to put international news at the heart of the BBC's output.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.