Radio News With A British Accent

Sunday, March 12, 2006

You may have noticed a lot more British accents on local radio these days. The BBC World Service has become a fixture on WETA and WAMU, bumping the local programming that once was dominant.

WETA-FM, for example, now airs at least four hours of BBC World Service Radio -- unfiltered -- each weekday. WAMU-FM also is airing much more BBC programming, including on its overnight schedule.

Many listeners like receiving the BBC broadcasts because they include more foreign news than is generally available from U.S. radio broadcasters. But it is disturbing that a foreign broadcaster has taken such a prominent role in U.S. public radio.

Few people realize that the BBC World Service Radio is not funded through the general license fee that pays for BBC domestic radio and television in Britain. Instead, it is funded through a special grant from the British Foreign Office. This has been the case since BBC international radio began as the "empire service" in 1932.

Overseas, BBC World Service Radio is the main competitor of the Voice of America, which is located in Washington and is funded by the U.S. government. A prohibition on domestic dissemination of Voice of America radio has been based on government funding that makes it, at least to some degree, a propaganda organ.

So while Voice of America broadcasts originating in Washington are banned from U.S. radio, BBC programming -- funded by the British Foreign Office -- is allowed. Defenders of this anomaly say the BBC has a well-earned reputation for fairness and impartiality, much more so than the Voice of America. But for years, British conservatives have blasted BBC programs for left-wing bias -- even dubbing it the Baghdad Broadcasting Corp. during the Persian Gulf War. Despite the British government's support for the Iraq war, those same critics have alleged a similar antiwar bias in BBC programming now -- which to some extent would seem to validate the BBC's claim of independence from the government.

Careful listeners, however, may have noted that negative stories about the U.S. presence in Iraq abound on the BBC World Service, while far fewer stories critical of British involvement there are aired. Perhaps that is because the U.S. presence in Iraq is far larger than that of Britain and concentrated in more volatile areas of the country. Or perhaps coverage is connected to the BBC's funding.

In any case, should our local public radio stations be carrying programming of an organization that is funded by the British Foreign Office without also carrying an advisory for listeners?

The real need is for our local public radio stations to originate more of their own programming to serve the needs of their audiences for foreign as well as local news. With so many sources in the Washington area, this shouldn't be that difficult.

-- David Pitts

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