Nation shall speak loudly unto nation 

4 March 2019

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend” has always been a doubtful and trite proverb. But in the midst of a total war, it is how the world worked. When Nazi Germany turned on its ally the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, common cause was found and the communist nation immediately become one of the Allies, dedicated to fighting the forces of fascism in Europe and Asia.

This, of course, could not last. Once the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in Asia were vanquished in 1945, there was no longer a common enemy to make the democratic West and the communist East even pretend to be allies any more.

Cooperation quickly turned to suspicion. Treaties that made sense between allies became unworkable between budding enemies. Concessions made by one side became sticking points for the other. By 1947, the Western system and the Eastern bloc were at each others’ throats most of the time, with events always ready to take this war of words – this Cold War – hot: the blockade of Berlin; the creation of West and East Germany, NATO and the Warsaw Pact; nuclear proliferation; the Cuban Missile Crisis; all flashpoints that kept much of the world holding its collective breath.

In the midst of this, the World War II-era international broadcasting infrastructure carried on. Originally designed to try to speak to the Resistance organisations and boost the morale of the oppressed population in occupied countries, it was easy to turn it towards broadcasting propaganda from one side to the other.

Courtesy of Roger Wilmut

The people of Europe had got more sophisticated when hearing naked propaganda during the war. The ‘Lord Haw Haw’ method – saying sinister things in amongst dance music records in an attempt to unnerve listeners – was unlikely to work in the post-war world. Instead, international radio stations needed to inform, educate and entertain their audiences, whilst pretending to be supplying a neutral line that just happened to put their points of view forward subtly at all times.

There were exceptions to this. On one side, there was Radio Tirana from Albania, broadcasting on a frequency right next door to the Light Programme and later Radio 1. They didn’t hold back on their condemnation of Western decadence; but accidentally listening to their output only drew derision from all but the already convinced Maoists.

On the other side, the BBC would claim that their international services were rigorously neutral. They were paid for by the British government, but were editorially independent. They were reporting the news as news, with no line to promote. How much you believe this is up to you: the British almost universally believed it then; the past twenty years of trutherism, birtherism and other wacko conspiracy theories means much fewer do now.

The international services traded on the fact that people in the war had got used to listening to foreign services. They hoped that those people still would. And many did: international radio was not just a hobby for DXers; people were interested in hearing both sides of any argument; it was not settled as to which system was better, communism or capitalism, as many on both sides saw something to be admired in the other ideology. Particularly, the Eastern broadcasts were listened to by Western members of local communist parties and leading trades unionists, eager to hear what the official line from Moscow was and what they should be telling their members.

That’s not to say that international radio was a mass medium, even during the Second World War. The vast majority listened only to their domestic services, even if those services were now being run by the Nazis. For the majority, life went on as normal even with the Waffen-SS walking the streets. In the UK, Lord Haw Haw was listened to by a significant minority, but a minority it was. The vast majority were happy with the BBC’s two wartime domestic services.

With the end of the war, people who had been listening tuned away from the international services and back to their domestic radio stations, helped by the post-war stations in all countries being lighter in nature than the stuffy pre-war output. When people did tune away, it was for fare even lighter than they were getting on their public service domestic stations, popular music from Radio Athlone and Radio Luxembourg and the like. Different news didn’t come into it.

Nevertheless, some people did listen to international radio in order to hear a different point of view, or to seek a more neutral news service, or to try to balance between what they were hearing at home and what was being said abroad. Those – admittedly few – people were seen as ripe for conversion from communism to capitalism, and vice versa, or in need of being held in their current ideology. Radio was a relatively cheap way of doing this without intervening in a country’s affairs directly and risking making the Cold War hotter.

Heard around the world

The BBC German Service, aimed at both halves of the divided nation, starts the day in 1968. Note the wartime •••- ‘V for Victory’ tuning signal at the start.

And, from the 1970s, here’s the BBC German Service closing down for the day and handing back to the BBC European Service, who are currently carrying the sustaining BBC World Service (got it?).

Back to 1968 and the BBC French Service comes on air with a fanfare and a list of frequencies. Ici Londres!

The same thing from the BBC Italian Service here, but note that whilst the letters ‘BBC’ are pronounced in English in most services, here they’re translated to the lovely ‘bey-bey-chey’. And it’s not “This is London”, it’s “London Speaks” (parla Londra).

They’re also using the BBC-1 news music of the time; and you can tell this is a shortwave recording thanks to the insistent extraneous Morse code under the main signal.

Finally in this direction, here’s the BBC Russian-language Service speaking to the Soviet Union in 1972.

In return, the English Service of Radio Moscow, fully equipped with the industrial cut-glass tones of a communist graduate of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, gives us the frequencies and times in 1968.

The Cold War meant that everybody in the world was beaming propaganda to everybody else. Here’s Radio Prague in 1968 speaking to Africa and Asia, very, slowly, because, English was a lingua franca, something understood by enough people to make it worthwhile doing rather than trying to provide individual services for the 400 or so native languages and dialects of the people they are aiming for.

Shortwave being what it is, Radio Prague are apparently broadcasting from an empty swimming pool there. Also, we apologise that the Radio Prague ident music (“Forward Left” by J Seidl) is an earworm that you will still be idly humming to yourself in about 48 hours.


Everybody was broadcasting to everybody during the 1960s, leading to some very strange combinations. For instance, this is Radio Bulgaria broadcasting in French to France and North Africa.

The freedom fighters/terrorists they were trying to reach in Africa spoke Arabic rather than French; quite who was interested in Bulgaria’s views in Metropolitan France isn’t clear.

Even countries that shared a border – and a history – were speaking to each other this way. Radio Prague, representing the slightly more liberal communist Czechoslovakia, shouts over the border to neutral Austria.

Austria was guaranteed neutral by the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, where the wartime Allies – including the Soviet Union – agreed to allow the country sovereignty and end their joint occupation in return from promises to stay out of international affairs.

That didn’t stop Radio Austria having an international service, here speaking in multiple languages at once to Europe and southern Africa (shortwave propagation is weird that way).

Neutrality – self-imposed rather than guaranteed by East-West animosity – didn’t stop the Swiss having an international service.

This one was very much designed to promote Switzerland to the world, leading to this start-up sequence where every Swiss cliché is touched upon in just three minutes.

Noises off

The common theme of all of these clips has been the hypnotic/frightening/earworm tuning signals before each transmission.

Why did they exist? Well, whilst today we pick our radio stations at the click of a button or a mouse, back then we had to hunt down broadcasts from our home nations when we were abroad or at home from alternate ideologies in languages we understood. The shortwave bands have been ridiculously crowded since the 1930s, and suffer from the weather and prevailing conditions in the ionosphere.

You kept a list of the frequencies your chosen station broadcast on, but would usually have to pick between what was clearest at any given moment depending on the temperature, solar flares and two or more countries fighting it out over one good frequency. It really helped to have something to lock on to in the minutes before a transmission began, something instantly recognisable despite any interference.

You knew you’d found the station you wanted, but could compare the output with alternate frequencies to decide which was easiest to listen to. The tuning signals, reliable and identifiable and always there before the broadcasts began, meant you could do all of this work well before your programme of choice came on air.

After all, there’s nothing worse than missing the first few minutes of the news that you agree with.

You Say

7 responses to this article

Steve Gray 4 March 2019 at 9:58 pm

‘For the majority, life went on as normal even with the Waffen-SS walking the streets.’

That’s a big statement! I would suggest that life in occupied territories was definitely not-as-before.

I would suggest that any appearance of ‘normality’ was enforced at the barrel of a gun – and people who didn’t play along would ‘disappear’.

No great change if you were a non-party member living in ex-Soviet territory, where you basically had one jack-booted regime replacing another but a big one for everyone else.

Russ J Graham 4 March 2019 at 10:07 pm

The evidence would seem to disagree. In Nazi-occupied countries, the vast majority were neither in the Resistance nor were they collaborators. They simply got on with their existing lives. The economic productivity of the occupied nations didn’t fall by much: people carried on going to work, people carried on shopping, people carried on going to the theatre. Life went on, as it does to this day in dictatorships. The majority of people, then and now, are not political. We don’t care too much who rules us – rulers are remote even when democratically elected – and this was more true in the past than it is now. But it’s true now.

Steve Gray 6 March 2019 at 7:29 am

Hi Russ,

This article, by a Fellow of the British Academy, paints a slightly different picture of life in Nazi Germany, where the regime invented a slew of criminal offences, intended to curb public freedoms and place each and every citizen under the direct control of the Reich.

In occupied territories, the general picture painted by the likes of The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and The London Jewish Cultural Centre, is of the ending of democracy, Universities and everyday life in general; replaced by Nazi control of all media, the introduction of repressive laws including forced labour and conscription into the German military, famine, rape, plunder, murder and, most tragically of all, The Holocaust.

Edward Grimley 17 March 2019 at 4:24 am

Perhaps the best example of nation “speaking” *loudly* unto nation was when US troops blasted the Vatican Embassy in Panama with rock music programming from KUSW “From the West to the World” (Murray, UT) and from WRNO Worldwide (New Orleans, LA) using powerful audio amplifiers and huge loudspeakers in November 1991.

Jeremy Rogers 13 February 2022 at 7:37 pm

The rough estimate of people who were listening at any one tine to stations other than the Home/Forces in WWII was around 10%, although this would have included the likes of the AEFP as well as AFN.

Dermott Donnelly 16 February 2022 at 7:19 pm

A fascinating article Russ and it brings back many memories of listening in in the 1970s and 80s. One thing that I have wondered especially more recently is…. Were all these services financed by the home governments or was there some extra funding from bodies linked in with NATO / Warsaw Pact. The reason I ask is that even tiny poorer countries like Portugal had a type of international service and I find it hard to believe that a cash strapped government would spend vital funds running an international radio station for people abroad. Another reason I ask this is that Radio Portugal carried on right into the 1980s whereas the international service run by the Irish Republic only ran for a cupla years in the late 40s before being closed. One thing to remember was that Ireland was and still is not a member of NATO so would not have been elegible for any grants going. Admittedly I do not know if Portugal is a member of NATO. But the question is the same really as a heck of a lot of countries ran these overseas services but how could they really be able to afford to run them?

Nigel Stapley 4 March 2022 at 9:10 pm

Ah, the interval signals!

As I said at , some of them were very cheery (Radio Sweden’s glockenspiel one, Radio Prague (see above)); some were very creepy (Radio Kiev, Deutsche Welle); and some were quite bats (Radio Nederland).

@Dermot Donneelly,

The Warsaw Treaty countries’ international broadcasts were part of a state broadcasting apparatus, and so would have beeen funded directly. The same could be said for the BBC WS, which was funded for many years from the budget of the Foreign Office. Deutsche Welle is funded from the German federal budget, and Radio Nederland was funded the same way. Radio Portugal is government-owned but publicly funded by an equivalent of a licence fee which is added to electricity bills.

As to why, well it was a matter of international prestige and a way of getting your country – and its version of events – heard beyond your own borders (especially of long wave wasn’t really an option). And, of course, for ideological purposes (on both sides).

With regard to Tirana, I was always amused by the fact that their English announcers used to refer to the boo-zha countries.

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