Finding a place in the world: radio ‘maps’

The aims and reach of international broadcasting have varied widely – and also overlapped - across space and across time. When the Dutch engineering firm Philips began its experiments with shortwave broadcasting radio services in 1927 on station PCJJ, for example, their goals included providing music and information in Dutch to administrators and employees in their Indonesian colonies, as well as advertising Philips products worldwide. As part of the experiment in creating worldwide impact, however, they also relayed the British BBC signal from station 2LO in Daventry for a time, also spreading the voice of London to British colonies. Five years later, the BBC started their own worldwide service on shortwave – first known as the ‘Empire Service’, giving a clear indication of the relationship the station envisaged.

Nationbuilding on the Short Wave band

As these programmes have drawn closer to government – most international shortwave services have been funded by government, although editorially independent – so their broad missions have also followed the broader diplomatic goals of nations.  During wartime, including the Cold War, the targets of these stations changed, and they were aimed at boosting moral of sympathetic populations and undermining the confidence of civilian populations of ‘enemy’ nations in their own leadership.  With the processes of decolonization after the Second World War, international services then took on new roles as well, on the one hand serving goals of education and development, while at the same time serving projecting and connecting an increasingly diverse ‘home’ population in the airwaves with countries and cultures of origin all around the globe.

For listeners, finding a way through the global airwaves is not always easy. Shortwave signals travel on a fairly narrow band, and require some skill to tune in.  If you look at the shortwave receiver highlighted in IP1’s contribution, you will see a proliferation of different dials far more complex than your average single-wheel AM/FM set. Interference was far more common, and reception was often fleeting.  And then there’s the problem of figuring out what and where you’re hearing.  To help with this, in the 1920s and 1930s, the BBC World Radio supplement ran a column called “What Station Was That?” which answered listener queries to what stations they had received.  Listeners could send in a short slip of paper, with details of wavelength, time of day, and any notes on what they had heard, and in a subsequent issue read a short answer.  

Envisioning relationships

All of this goes to show that the ‘identity’ of a national station is not always easy to discern from radio signals alone.  Ironically, perhaps, one of the easiest ways to understand the relationships international stations were trying to build with sound is to look to the way they have sought to envision those relationships for themselves and their listeners.

If we look at the early days of the Empire Service, for example, we can look at a competition held in the BBC guide Empire Broadcasting under the title of “Some Other Listeners”.  Listeners were asked to send in photos that show “unusual aspects of reception, eg. listeners of an unusual type or reception of a broadcast programme in unusual circumstances.  Prints of domestic pets, etc. at a loudspeaker are not required.”  The results, some of which were printed as examples to make it clear to readers what was wanted, inevitably show exotic, supposedly primitive, non-Europeans with the ‘voice’ of the modern British Empire at its centre.

You see a very similar picture in a map produced by Radio Netherlands Worldwide its very first annual report after the Second World War in 1948.  Here it’s the Netherlands at top-centre in the world, with radio signals radiating out in the intended directions from the transmitter in Hilversum, particularly the Southern Hemisphere, and of course cover Dutch colonies in the Caribbean and Indonesia.  Unlike the BBC map, which is largely empty of detail, this one has filled in with imaginative exotic images: the American cowboy and the camel rider in Saharan Africa, as well as the ships and planes in which the Dutch were travelling abroad.  The ‘silences’ on this map are also interesting: it was published during the 1945-1949 war for Indonesian independence from the Netherlands, and Radio Netherlands was, among other things, carrying greetings from loved ones in the Netherlands to Dutch troops there.


Such maps of the world accompanied a number of materials, such as calendars and postcards:


Over time, the maps and acoustic icons of the stations accumulate, but they also change.  Compare the original ‘London Calling” station identification that emphasized the centrality of London with the later identification introduced in the 1990s, featuring voices in a number of accents calling “this is the BBC” and announcing their location in cities across the globe.  In this section, we will feature both visual maps and acoustic mappings to explore how radio expresses global relations.