Radiocommunication Study Groups

BBC World Service radio audiences by channel in 2013

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BBC World Service radio audiences by channel in 2013

BBC World Service radio –
all languages

Audience total

Audience percentage

All radio channels

144.8 million


FM (including relay partners)

82.3 million


Medium Wave

14.8 million


Short Wave

62.7 million





Source: BBC Global News estimates based on audience survey data.

NB The percentage audience shares do not add up to 100 because some listeners tune in to the BBC on more than one channel.
People generally prefer to listen to radio programmes broadcast in their own language that focus on issues of immediate relevance to the environment in which they live. Broadcasters which offer this option are usually preferred over those which offer programming that is broader in focus and delivered in a second language in which the audience is less fluent. In Nigeria, for instance, where English is the official language of government and business, far more people listen to the BBC Hausa service than to the BBC's Africa Service in English. According to BBC audience survey data, 6.9 million people listened regularly to the BBC in English in Nigeria in 2013, whereas 19.5 million tuned in to the BBC Hausa Service. Hausa is the main language spoken in northern Nigeria.

The preference for locally relevant information delivered in local languages is especially strong at times of crisis. People need practical information that they can use immediately to mitigate risks and access the services of aid providers in their immediate vicinity.

Disaster-affected communities need to know rapidly where they can obtain food, clean water, shelter and medical services. They also need advice on how to stay as safe as possible in their local environment. Such information is most valuable when it is local and specific in nature, rather than national and generic. For example, a local radio station can give detailed information about which health centres and hospitals in the district are still functioning and where local farmers can go to get seeds and tools. This sort of detailed local information is beyond the scope of a national broadcaster to deal with.

Lifeline Programmes therefore attract the most attentive audiences and have the greatest impact when they are broadcast on FM and contain a large amount of specific local information.

Humanitarian crises usually affect certain parts of a country rather than its entire population. Wherever possible, BBC Media Action supports the production of Lifeline programming that is produced locally within the crisis zone and is tailored to meet the needs of crisis-affected people of the surrounding area.

Increasingly, we are helping partner radio stations with significant audiences in the crisis zone to produce their own Lifeline programmes adapted to local needs.

In 2013, BBC Media Action adopted this local and collaborative approach to Lifeline programming in Bangladesh and Nepal. In Bangladesh we helped two community radio stations launch a daily Lifeline programme in Barguna district, a coastal area which was heavily damaged by Cyclone Mahasen in May. In Nepal, in June and July, we helped three radio stations in Kailali district to produce special programmes to help the local population deal with floods caused by intense monsoon rainfall in the Himalayas.

This focus on helping local radio stations to produce their own Lifeline programming is relatively new. It reflects the recent creation of capacity within selected BBC Media Action country offices to provide this kind of support.

Previously, BBC Media Action focused mainly on producing Lifeline programmes in-house for broadcasting to an entire country, even though only part of that country might have been affected by a humanitarian emergency. Typically, these Lifeline programmes were broadcast by one of the BBC 28 language services. This guaranteed the programmes a large audience in the country concerned. However, this audience did not necessarily include a large proportion of the crisis-affected population. To remedy this situation, the Lifeline programmes were often offered to other partner stations for rebroadcast.

This national approach, in partnership with the BBC language services, remains useful when disaster strikes an entire country, as during the Pakistan floods of 2010. On that occasion, the BBC Urdu and Pashto services ran three daily Lifeline bulletins to meet the information needs of those affected by the flooding, with support from BBC Media Action.

Sometimes, beaming Lifeline programming into a country from abroad on short wave is the only feasible way of getting vital information to the disaster-affected population quickly. This situation typically arises when direct access to radio stations within the disaster-affected country is difficult or impossible.

This was the case in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis devasted southern coastal areas of the country in 2008. The BBC Burmese service responded to the crisis by producing a series of five-minute bulletins on humanitarian topics. These were beamed into the country on short wave, but were not relayed by local radio stations within Burma. These were all state-controlled at the time and the Burmese government was not willing to relay programming produced by the BBC. However, these short wave broadcasts still managed to reach a large audience within Burma, including many of those affected by the cyclone. The BBC Burmese service estimated that it had a regular audience of 8.3 million people in the country at that time. The government of Myanmar has since begun to liberalise access to the air waves as it has embraced a process of democratisation. This should make it easier for BBC Media Action to produce and broadcast Lifeline programming in partnership with local radio stations in the event of future emergencies. Burma is one of the countries where BBC Media Action plans to roll out Preparation for Lifeline activities in 2014.

The increasing geographic reach of mobile networks in developing countries and high levels of mobile usage among all sectors of the population usually allow mobile telecommunications channels to be used in combination with radio to create an effective two-way system of communication.

The mobile revolution of the past decade has made it cheap and easy for radio listeners everywhere to call into phone-in programmes. If they are literate, they can also send SMS messages to a radio station to give information, ask questions and express opinions. According to the GSMA, the global association of mobile telecoms operators, 46% of the world's population owned a mobile phone in 2012. This figure was expected to rise to 53% in 2017, as a further 700 million people signed up as mobile subscribers, mostly in developing countries.

SMS messages, which are cheap and can be sent over networks operating at low levels of capacity, are particularly useful as a channel of feedback from the affected community in an emergency. If the mobile network has been damaged and its traffic carrying capacity has been reduced, SMS messages will often get through whereas voice calls will not. In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Chile, the government urged people to use SMS messages rather than voice calls to check up on their friends and relatives for this reason.

Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) services make it easy for people who cannot read or write to phone an information line and listen to one or more recorded messages. IVR systems can also be configured to allow callers to leave a recorded message of their own.

IVR services also offer a feedback channel for radio audiences in Asian countries, such as Bangladesh and Nepal where the mobile network does not support the script of the alphabet used by the main national language. This technical obstacle makes it difficult for the general public in these countries to use SMS messages, even if they can read and write. Those who do use SMS messages in Bangladesh and Nepal are mostly well educated people who have learned English and are able to write in Latin script.

SMS and IVR systems can be useful channels of communication in their own right, but they are particularly powerful in an emergency when used in combination with radio. However, it should be noted that in many large countries with poor infrastructure and scattered populations, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia and South Sudan, large swathes of the rural population still remain beyond the reach of a mobile signal. For them radio is especially important as a link with the outside world.

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