Rebroadcasting and exchange broadcasting 

1 October 2021


BBC Handbook 1942 cover

From the BBC Handbook for 1942

All the big nations are now broadcasting to each other. Britain broadcasts to the world in forty languages; so does Nazi Germany (which had a flying start with this branch of radio); the United States has recently entered the field in a big way. Here in Britain we can hear broadcasts from Berlin and Moscow, Boston and Rome — the list is limited only by the efficiency of your radio set. But all these broadcasts, most of them received on short-wave, are confessedly aimed at us from other countries; they are often planned without full knowledge of our listening tastes and habits; and when they are short-wave broadcasts, they are additionally handicapped by the difficulty of reception as compared with ordinary medium-wave broadcasts from the local station.

There is one way by which all these long-range broadcasts can reach the mass audience in the country to which they are addressed, and that is by rebroadcasting. If the local stations pick up the distant broadcast and put it out again on their own wavelengths, it comes to the local listener with the interest of its distant origin but with all the advantages of familiarity that the local station has built up.

The difference between programmes broadcast by short-wave across the ocean, and programmes rebroadcast in the country to which they are directed, is vital. This rebroadcasting is perhaps the most important line along which radio will develop in the future; more important, fundamentally, than television or ‘frequency modulation’ or anything else. For one thing, it is the negation of radio ‘propaganda’. You cannot get rebroadcasting of your programmes in a far-off country unless the broadcasting authorities in the far-off country realize that your interests are the same as theirs.

The rapid growth of rebroadcasting is the latest development in international radio, as well as the most important. The foundations have now been laid for rebroadcasting right round the globe, from Britain to Australia and back by way of the United States.

The Empire Services of the BBC began to blaze the trail in the days when Britain still confined her broadcasting to the English language and those other languages used within the Empire. Listeners at home knew little of the progress that was being made, although there were occasions when the linking of the world by radio was made manifest, as in the world-wide broadcasts that heralded the King’s speech on Christmas Day. These broadcasts involved the collaboration of radio organizations throughout the British Commonwealth and the Colonies, and they were usually rebroadcast in the other great English-speaking nation — the United States of America.

Rebroadcasting throughout the Empire has grown steadily, and the growth has been faster than ever during the war, when Britain itself became for a time the battle-front, and every part of the Empire looked to Britain for the latest and most vital news. Nowadays, a great part of the broadcasting that goes out in the Empire Services — the short-wave broadcasts that most listeners in this country never hear — is intended for rebroadcasting in different Empire countries. Some of the Colonies depend chiefly upon rebroadcasts from Britain to fill their radio time; in West Africa, for instance, the total time given to rediffusion of BBC programmes is about fourteen hours a day. But even Australia, with two highly organized radio systems of its own, and Canada, with a national network, commercial stations, and constant competition from over the border, both find time to rebroadcast BBC programmes for two-and-a-half hours a day.



So far as the Empire is concerned, rebroadcasting is firmly established. And it is not only one-way. Canada, Australia, and South Africa already contribute to the programmes we hear in this country, either describing events at home for the sake of their troops here, or bringing to us news of what their own troops are doing on the battle fronts of the world. There are already signs of further collaboration in which short-wave stations at different points in the Empire will act as links to overcome one of the chief technical problems of broadcasting round the globe — the fact that a wave starting from London in daylight is bound to finish its journey to Australia in darkness, and the wavelength that is best suited to darkness may not be one fit to face the light of day.

This difference of times between countries thousands of miles apart has been one of the chief obstacles to the progress of rebroadcasting with the United States. If an important broadcast from Britain is timed to nine o’clock in the evening, which is the best time for the home audience, it will reach New York at three in the afternoon, and California at midday. But the difference in time is even more damaging the other way round. If an important American broadcast is timed for 9 p.m., it will reach us at 3 a.m. on the following day, long after our normal broadcasting- and listening-hours.

There are various ways of overcoming this, of course. When President Roosevelt broadcasts late in the evening, BBC transmitters stay open — or reopen — to carry his message. Many listeners here will have heard him at two or three in the morning, on the wavelengths normally used for the European Service. More often, broadcasts from the United States that have a particular interest for British listeners are sent out at times suited to our listening habits, or else they are recorded here and broadcast again on the following day.



Apart from these rare events of historic importance, such as broadcasts by the King and the President, there is a constant interchange of broadcasting between this country and the United States. The big American radio companies have commentators in London who regularly report to U.S. listeners on the British scene — and their broadcasts have enormous audiences throughout the United States. We ourselves hear regular reports in BBC programmes from commentators in New York like Raymond Swing, Elmer Davis, and Alistair Cooke. We have dramatic feature programmes produced by the Columbia Workshop or specially made by the New York office of the BBC. Americans hear news broadcasts, talks, and feature programmes rebroadcast from the North American Service of the BBC. On many occasions, too, they hear programmes produced here by American broadcasters in collaboration with the BBC. High-spots of the last few months have been the participation of John Gunther and Leslie Howard, from London, in NBC’s quiz programme, ‘Information please’, and the Columbia broadcast ‘Round Britain by Night’ in which Alexander Woollcott and Robert Riskin took part, speaking from BBC studios in Plymouth and Cardiff but to an audience in the United States. And the highspot of all, so far, remains the early round-up in which NBC, CBS, CBC of Canada, and the BBC all collaborated; this happened to synchronize with one of the first air raids on London, so that American listeners heard the sirens and the gun-fire and the unhurrying footsteps of Londoners in Trafalgar Square, commented upon by Ed Murrow from the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. This programme was to have been broadcast in the Home Service too, but for security reasons it was faded out. In the Overseas Service it stayed on the air, and Americans heard it all.

From President Roosevelt to evacuated children — from the King to aircraft workers assembling American planes — rebroadcasting across the Atlantic is bringing to the people of each nation the authentic voice of the others. With the expansion of short-wave broadcasting within the Empire, we shall soon reach the stage when radio is technically able to exploit the great common heritage of the British Commonwealth and the United States, and the English language, from wherever it comes, can be heard by radio throughout the English-speaking world.

▶︎ Maurice Gorham (1902-1975) was Director of the BBC North American Service


You Say

1 response to this article

Ben Grabham 11 October 2021 at 1:35 pm

There’s some excellent examples of Rebroadcasting from the UK to the US in this video – and incidentally, it’s well worth checking out that channel if you have an interest in WW2 era broadcasting – this guy has done some serious work, and it’s fascinating to hear things as they were broadcast at the time – the US networks were clearly ahead of us in terms of recording things for posterity (despite the evidence of the BBC’s Blattnerphone recording channel in the pictures above – which I’d have gone nowhere near it was apparently lethal!).
The other way by which we got our point across was via records, especially made for foreign broadcasters (in particular in South America). This was the original reason for the setting up of the ‘London Broadcasting Committee’ under Hilda Matheson (Ex BBC Head of Talks), which employed Guy Burgess – the original purpose to get the UK point of view across to the Germans via recordings for Radio Luxembourg. During the war this later morphed into BBC Transcription Services

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