My formative Eastern European travel experiences came during the 1980’s, when the hard line was still the main line on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the strange byways of the Bloc, where onion domes, security police, greasy goulash, cheap beer and red stars came together to conjure fevered daily visions of spy novels and intrigue.
In those times, the BBC World Service was first revealed to me as a cherished exemplar of precise, objective news delivery in places where such offerings could not be taken for granted.
From Ljubljana to Budapest, from Bratislava to Warsaw, and at most points in between, an ordinary AM-FM walkman generally could be relied upon to deliver the BBC’s continental English-language signal. It was an auditory delight best consumed judiciously, because dependable replacement batteries were hard to find in locales far removed from the reach of the Energizer Bunny.
At the same time, along with the Voice of America, the BBC provided news and commentary in the languages of the region -- Bulgarian, Slovak, Hungarian, Czech, “old” Albanian -- and in dozens of other languages in Europe and the world.
For many decades, people with access to radios have listened to the BBC, and they continue to listen now, even in the Internet and mobile communications age, partly to hear the news read in their own languages, but moreover, and perhaps most importantly, to learn English by hearing the Mother Tongue spoken in the classic way, and by the original speakers.
Yesterday I listened intently to the BBC’s announcement that it will institute an Arabic-language television service, and pay for it by finally discontinuing radio broadcasts in most of the Eastern European, “Cold War” languages. Most of the countries in question are now members of the European Union, or will be soon, and with homegrown media sources thriving, listening to the BBC no longer means what it once did.
Consequently, it's time for a change -- and the times, they are.
Good for them, I say; it’s progress, and I pull for the future success of these lands, places I visited in times that perhaps weren’t the best, but usually revealed the essential goodness of their peoples far more often than not.
World Service comes full circle
World Service confirms Arabic TV