April 8, 2011 10:03 pm

An interruption in the BBC’s output

One can literally hear the cost-cutting at the World Service happening ‘live’ during programmes

Have you found your daily media diet upset recently? Have you noticed that something is missing from your morning routine or your bedtime briefing?

If you’re in the Caribbean, are you feeling particularly hungry? If you’re in Russia, are you close to starving?

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Tyler Brûlé

While I could be referring to the thinning of some daily newspapers or the collapse of some weekly news magazines, I'm finding the biggest hole in my news diet is the one that’s supposed to be my most important media meal of the day: my morning fix of the BBC World Service.

I grew up watching TV news (Canada AM and Good Morning America) with my Quaker Oats and orange juice in the 1970s, but the World Service has played a key part in my information regime since the early 1990s.

When I was a cub reporter my little Sony short-wave radio travelled with me to the Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Indonesia and Afghanistan.

There was something wonderfully reassuring about scanning the heavens knowing that with a delicate touch and some clever positioning you’d eventually get the familiar pips from London and an even more reassuring voice delivering a calm, confident and brisk bulletin.

The Sony short-wave radio went into storage some years ago as more hotels got WiFi and I could listen through my laptop. Recently I’ve found my Revo Heritage radio a delightful addition to my bedroom sideboard clutter as it delivers the news from Bush House in a manner that’s sometimes almost too clean and crisp. (I find a bit of static and interference a little reassuring).

The one problem with the World Service, however, is that I can literally hear the cost-cutting happening “live” during programmes and bulletins.

Some months ago, when the government announced there were likely to be serious cuts at the World Service, I reckoned they wouldn’t go deeper than lopping off one language service and shutting down some remote transmitters.

With “soft power” so in fashion in foreign ministries around the world, what level-headed minister would cut funding for one of the most effective soft-power arsenals on the planet?

Moreover, why would you cut funding for a respected news and information service when it’s one of the few tools at your disposal and a potent example of everything you stand for? When word came that the five language services, including English for the Caribbean, would go altogether, I was mildly shocked.

When I read that radio programming in Mandarin Chinese and Russian also ended up on the list, it seemed a mad person with an axe must have been on the loose both in Whitehall and Aldwych.

For the past few weeks it’s been rather difficult listening to the World Service.

Aside from announcements about the closure of services that I don’t listen to, there have also been cool but nevertheless emotional farewells from some friendly, trusted and simply soothing voices.

I was caught somewhat off-guard last week while sitting at my desk at the office and listening to an early evening bulletin.

In an age when so much is available to read and watch with the tap of a few keys, radio seems ever more modern and luxurious as it envelopes you with tones, accents and punctuation while still allowing you to perform a variety of tasks.

As I sat typing a story, I shifted my attention ever so slightly during the top-of-the-hour pips and listened very closely for the latest from Fukushima and Libya.

The most disturbing bit of news came at the end of bulletin, however, when newsreader Michael Powles said it was his final bulletin for the World Service.

I wasn't expecting to suddenly feel it in the back of my throat but in an instant I felt a significant part of the brand had just been lost.

In Powles’ place have come some programming innovations that involve the dreaded concept of “multi-platformism” where BBC programmes are produced for both TV and radio.

The annoying Hardtalk sounds fine on TV (if you can get over the badgering) but on radio sounds as if it’s been patched through an antiquated phone exchange in Shepherd’s Bush.

The now daily From Our Own Correspondent suddenly seems too hungry a programme to offer the best from the field and some recent voices don’t sound very familiar or part of the BBC News family.

And you know things aren’t great when the promos needs to remind you how well-resourced the BBC is globally.

This might be true but the World Service should be expanding its reach and depth rather than looking for petty efficiencies and losing influence.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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