In 1922, the BBC began regular broadcasts to radio owners in Britain. These were an instant hit. A year later, work began in the US on using shortwave radio signals to increase the distance over which radio signals could be carried.
This led to calls for the BBC to begin broadcasts to other countries, and eventually the British Empire Service was set up to send broadcasts to Britain’s overseas colonies.
Then-director Sir John Reith warned that the programmes “will neither be very interesting nor very good”. The weekly budget (just £606 in today’s prices) stretched to ten hours of broadcasts a day, mainly repeats from the main service.
But the new service scored an early success when King George V delivered the first royal Christmas Message six days after it launched in 1932.
By 1933, a tenfold increase in the budget allowed the development of more original content, including regular news bulletins. Broadcasting hours were extended. Foreign language services were added, starting with Arabic in 1938. By the outbreak of World War II, the World Service was broadcasting in seven languages.
To reflect this broader focus, it was renamed the Overseas Service in November 1939 (and became the World Service in 1965). Funding was taken over by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Today, rivalry from the internet, domestic radio, and the falling popularity of shortwave radio have all increased pressure on the World Service.
Several services have been dropped or scaled back. Earlier this year, responsibility for its funding returned to the BBC (via licence fees), leading many to fear for its future.