Presenting the torch-holders at Bush House 

25 April 2024 tbs.pm/81111

The BBC World Service’s reputation throughout the world is well known. Here, BOB REYNOLDS meets the people who broadcast information to the world – the announcers.

 

 

Cover of Radio magazine

From ‘Radio’ for February 1983

AS THE sun rises over the Prairies and sinks into the Indian Ocean, locals reach for their radios for the familiar call-sign of international radio’s most respected voice.

Meryl O’Keefe opens a fader at Bush House in London. “Thirteen hours Greenwich Mean Time. BBC World Service. The news, read by Roger Collinge.”

Impartiality, authority and credibility are the hallmarks of the BBC’s 24-hour service for the world. When an international crisis breaks, people the world over tune to the BBC for reliable information.

The volume of mail for External Services from every quarter of the globe continues to astonish the programme-makers. Russia, America and even Albania might be on the air for longer — but, for accurate, factual information, the world tunes to London.

Torch-holders of that trust, for the listeners at least, are the announcers. The men and women who staff the network are responsible for its output for most of its transmission time.

When the administrators have gone home, the announcers need to make rapid decisions about what can or cannot be transmitted.

Recording

At least five are on-station at any one time reading the news, announcing or recording programmes for later transmission.

The news is assembled jointly by the newsreader and the journalist who compiles the bulletin. It is often re-worded to suit the presenter — obviously, without changing the content.

Each bulletin lasts nine minutes and is read, uninterrupted, by the announcer. There are no reports by commentators in far-flung parts of the globe because those will be heard in Radio Newsreel, 24 Hours and Outlook.

World Service announcers regularly work very long hours but stay, they say, because the work is fascinating. Most stay until they retire, so there are few vacancies.

 

 

Ann Every, Chief Assistant, Presentation, says many of her team come from some aspect of External Services. Many are recruited from the band of studio managers who operate for the announcers. Studio managers are selected by competition each summer, usually from university graduates.

The announcer needs to have a comprehensive knowledge of current affairs, broad appreciation of languages and a Southern accent. Most have previous announcing experience at other international radio stations or domestic BBC ones.

Miss Every, who in 1971 became the World Service’s first woman announcer, expects them to be conversant with most major European languages and know a little of many others. This helps when they come across unfamiliar words in foreign languages — they can usually try pronouncing a new word with a fair degree of success.

Meryl O’Keefe, who came to World Service via South African radio and British television continuity, told RADIO magazine that she goes first to the BBC’s pronunciation file when presented with a strange name.

If the name is not recorded there, someone from one of the language service departments at the BBC might help.

The BBC broadcasts in 36 different languages and many people working in these services are multi-lingual. If this fails, the announcer will try to contact an embassy or trade delegation.

But the new word will sometimes appear in the middle of the night, so it might be necessary to take an educated stab.

The announcer’s work is remarkably varied. One shift can include newsreading, announcing information and recording programmes.

“Shifts vary in length according to the amount of work that has to be done,” said Miss Every.

Silences

“Our lives are governed by silences,” said Ms O’Keefe. She explained that the various transmitters need four seconds to switch in and out of the network — so all announcements are placed around these four-second pauses.

The announcers have to fill the gaps between programmes and the next four-second pause. If a programme under-runs and there is a long break the announcer might fill in with a plug for another programme and music. The announcer will have to ad lib.

Miss Every rarely uses actors when looking for a freelance to stand in. She believes actors are trained to give performances and are never themselves. World Service announcers must be entirely themselves, she asserts.

 

BVSH HOVSE

Bush House

 

The relaxed but informed style characterises World Service transmissions. The studio has the atmosphere of a friendly Home Counties living room — it feels so comfortable that you would hardly think it was a studio at all.

One important fact that all Bush House staff have to remember is that the studio operates on Greenwich Mean Time. That is all right at this time of the year – but, during the summer, the time in the studio is an hour earlier than in the street outside.

Announcers say this does not matter because the only time where GMT applies is in the studio. But they do admit to having been an hour early — or late — for work a few occasions…

 

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