On-air lights have gone off and mics dropped for the last time at one of the most famous radio studios in the world. The shock and sadness have left tongues tied in the Arab world's journalism community. For the first time ever, the news will not be read from this radio channel.
Millions of Arabic speakers witnessed the end of an era on January 27, 2023, as the last broadcast of BBC Arabic Radio was aired at 13.00 GMT.
For 85 years, BBC Arabic Radio has held up a mirror of developments in the region for millions of Arabs whose knowledge and awareness of current affairs have been associated with the Big Ben bell, followed by the iconic phrase, “Huna London” — Arabic for “This is London”.
Having previously worked for BBC Arabic Radio, I was unable to process this decision until a few days ago, when my social media timelines were flooded with memories and pictures of former colleagues who feel deeply over their separation from the microphones they sat behind for years.
As they announced the date of the service’s closure, I went through my previous productions, hearing my voice reading news and reports in Standard Arabic, remembering every time I checked the grammar with my colleagues, crafting each word carefully to deliver the news.
But now, it feels like a part of a valuable history that doesn’t exist any more.
“Huna London, ladies and gentlemen, we are broadcasting today from London in Arabic language for the first time in history. It is our pleasure to talk to listeners in the Near East in their Standard Arabic tongue.”
With these words and on January 3, 1938, news presenter Ahmed Kamal Soroor commenced the service, which was the first non-English-language broadcast from Britain before the Second World War.
More than eight decades later, prominent BBC Arabic Radio presenter Mahmoud Almossallami concluded the service, saying: “Exactly the same as we started, we conclude with the precious slogan Huna London, the Arabic division of the British Broadcasting Corporation, or also: This is London, BBC.”
Seeing the radio service turning their on-air lights off for the last time ever on Friday brought tears to my eyes, as I felt that a long chapter of history has come to an end. An era for millions of Arabs has ended, with broadcasts of 10 language services by the BBC ceasing as the corporation focuses on savings and a digital transformation.
BBC Arabic documented history
I’ve always loved audio journalism — it was my passion and area of study in college, and it is still my current career, as I produce podcasts. But the radio was different. I think limited airtime is what added excitement to the medium.
From the producers' side, there’s a deadline that you can never push, as listeners are expecting news bulletins at the top of the hour. And from the listeners’ side, you don’t know what to expect in the next minute — you almost have no choice, which leaves you excited as well.
Broadcast and audio journalism’s charm in general lies in the intimate relationship between the host and the listener. That voice you feel is speaking directly and only to you, in your room, kitchen, car or on your commute.
Through 85 years, the voices and names of BBC Arabic Radio presenters and reporters were heard in millions of houses from Mauritania to the Gulf region, in addition to Arab listeners in European cities. Before TV and social media, listeners in remote areas had access to the radio, which was their main source of international news, analysis, entertainment and education with its various informative programmes.
BBC Arabic Radio filled a gap, as local radio stations were for a long time perceived as not sufficiently meeting the needs of listeners interested in knowing developments thousands of kilometres away. For years, Arabic audiences were heard asking each other: “What did London say today?”, referring to the corporation’s radio.
The Arabic service has documented many historic events, turning points and conflicts in the Arab region, in addition to many political and societal changes.
Remembering Cairo bureau
“Huna London” continued to expand as it provided insightful programmes and interviews with policymakers and sometimes kings in the Arab region, in addition to iconic artists such as Umm Kulthum and Fairouz.
In 2003, BBC Arabic Radio opened its first bureau outside London in Cairo, and 15 years later, I joined this bureau as a broadcast journalist and radio producer for two years.
After the BBC made the announcement in late 2022, I looked back at the service’s precious archives, while reading posts on social media from thousands of users who were deeply shocked to hear the news, stating that their childhood memories are associated with the service.
My relationship with BBC Arabic Radio started even before I was born. My parents, who were living as expats in Spain in the 1990s, used to listen to the service to be connected to their region and stay up to date with news in the Arabic language. There wasn’t any renowned pan-Arab radio service that reached every inch of the world at the time, except for the BBC.
Working for BBC Arabic Radio, I produced the Arabic-language versions of news and current affairs programmes, such as the long-running World at One and BBC News at Six, in addition to Woman’s Hour. I also presented BBC Global Newsbeat bulletins in Arabic, which were broadcasted through different partner radio stations in the Levant and the Gulf.
During my career with Arabic radio, I remember going on deployments and reporting trips across the region, where one of the productions was awarded the silver award in the Radio Talk Shows category at the Arab States Broadcasting Union.
But during that time as well, the Arabic service realised that there are new generations who aren’t using the radio as part of their daily media consumption. It started a project to digitalise radio content and integrate it on social media, a project I was also part of.
As per BBC’s statistics, only 12 per cent of BBC Arabic’s total audience — estimated at 39 million per week — use their radio service. Therefore, a new reality in a digital world has presented itself, and the organisation has decided to funnel its resources towards digital audio.
History has now turned a new page in which digital audio and podcasts keep growing every year to meet the needs of a new generation of audiences who depend on digital technology in acquiring knowledge, education and entertainment.
Looking at the market statistics in the Mena region, it is noticeable that podcast listeners in the region spend more time every year listening, which creates more opportunity for growth.
And while radio may not be popular now among audiences, the impact and legacy it has left will remain in people’s memories forever.