Listener’s Library, November 1998
Greetings once again from Radio Library Central. This month we have a guest review from fellow NASWAite Peter Bowen from Toronto Canada. Without further grumblings on my part. Allow me to turn the job over to Peter for this month so I can begin to work on my holiday book picks for next month.
History of International Broadcasting
by James Wood
London: Peter Peregrinus, 1992
Review by Peter Bowen
There are not too many works in international broadcasting which I would describe as idiosyncratic, but this is definitely one of them.
James Wood is a consulting broadcast engineer, and formerly worked as a radio engineer at several BBC transmitter sites during the Second World War. It is from this background that he writes, and his technical proclivities are obvious in the book.
This work is divided into three parts. Part 1 gives a very brief overview of the development of radio in general, and then moves on to outline the history of some international broadcasting operations. Part 2 is a brief description of international radio use during the Second World War. And Part 3 , which takes up almost one-half of the book, examines various radio stations, and technological developments, from the standpoint of their use as instruments of foreign policy.
Unfortunately, there are numerous factual errors in the book. For example, Marconi’s early station at Glace Bay is described as being in the Canadian province of Newfoundland (p.18). Also, in several places, the FBIS is said to be the abbreviation for the Foreign Broadcasts Intelligence Service. And the Voice of Free China is described as a service established to relay programs of WYFR to the People’s Republic of China (p.220).
Although Wood cites many facts and incidents, nowhere in the entire book does he use footnotes to establish the source of those items. It is thus impossible to check his more unusual assertions.
Mr. Wood is quite vague about what international broadcasting is all about. At the start of the book, he bluntly states that all international broadcasting is propaganda broadcasting, but he gives no definition of what he means by propaganda. Later on, however, embedded in the chapter on French international broadcasting, he elaborates on this by stating that “The purpose of propaganda can range from the export of culture, information and disinformation broadcasting, evangelism, advertising or politics.” (P. 197). Given the broad sweep of his definition of propaganda, it is understandable that all international broadcasting can be so described, but it really doesn’t help us to understand the functions of this medium.
What is very clear, however, is the fact that he does not approve of the history of British international broadcasting, especially the BBC. In fact, the latter comes in for more negative comments than any other station. Two examples should serve to illustrate this. On page 49 he writes “To many of those countries targeted by the BBC broadcasts in their own tongue, it was a first experience of being tainted by Western culture…an invasion that was to have some far-reaching effects”. (Italics mine). And later on in the book, on page 130, he strongly implies that the BBC broadcasts news critical of the British Government for the sole purpose of fooling its listeners into believing that it is independent of that government. These are obviously quite unconventional views.
Another example of an unconventional view is his assertion that Western broadcasters are just as responsible for the fact of jamming as are the jamming states themselves, as the former broadcast programs which could well have incited unrest. They also waste frequency space when they use barrage broadcasting.
Wood devotes much space (41 pages) to the role of international broadcasting during World War Two. In contrast, the long period of the Cold War only rates a chapter of 32 pages. This gross imbalance in coverage is hard to understand.
Although he is of course quite critical of BBC broadcasts during the War, he is surprisingly easy-going, and almost apologetic, when it comes to Nazi broadcasts. Similarly, there are also very few, if any, negative comments on U.S. broadcasts during the war, and very few on Japanese broadcasts during the same time period. (Wood’s chapter on Japanese broadcasting during the Second World War, by the way, is very interesting and informative. It is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the book.)
Another interesting aspect of this book is the wealth of information that he provides on the development and modern use of HF technology, especially HF transmitters. There are several chapters on this topic, and similar information on it scattered throughout the book, all of which makes for very interesting and informative reading.
Yet, the biggest problem with this book as a history of international broadcasting is that it devotes almost no space to programming. In fact, there is no real outline of actual programming on international stations, past or present, as opposed to the author’s opinions on that programming, anywhere in the entire book. This is, in my opinion, the major defect of the book.
In conclusion, then, History of International Broadcasting is frequently an interesting book to read. It has lots of good, informative material. The opinions of its author are unconventional at times, but are worthwhile and interesting to read nevertheless. But, the incredible lack of any extended treatment of programming, plus the unconventional and often idiosyncratic views of its author, mean that this is not to be considered as a standard work on the topic. In addition, the rather sloppy attention to detail and the numerous errors of fact greatly mar this work.
For those readers who want a good, solid introduction to the topic, Donald Browne’s book International Radio Broadcasting would be much more suitable.
Well, thanks Peter. Now how about the rest of you folks? Peter found a good radio book and stepped up to the plate with his views on it. Why not join in the fun? Send your ruminations my way and I’ll do my level best to squeeze them into this column.