BBC World Service records its best listening figures ever despite cuts

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The Independent Online

The BBC World Service has won its highest-ever listening figures, despite its controversial decision to cut 10 language services in order to fund a new Arabic television channel.

Its remaining 33 services now attract a record-breaking 163 million listeners a week - an increase of 14 million from 2005, which beats the previous high of 153 million listeners in 2001.

The increase is down to major breaking news stories, with more people tuning in via FM and increased access to Burma and Nepal.

Audiences rose in Kenya, where the World Service has been covering the recent corruption scandal, and in Nigeria, where there is a national debate over whether the president should serve a third term.

An extra 10 million people have tuned in via FM in 150 capitals around the world. Short wave and medium wave listening has also risen - particularly in rural areas in east Africa and south-east Asia.

Audiences for the English language network have risen to 42 million, up from 39 million last year. In Africa and the Middle East, the number of listeners has increased by 7.6 million to 73.6 million.

The biggest increase, of 7.9 million, was recorded in the Asia and Pacific region, which now has a total of 61.1 million listeners.

Some of the audience gains are attributable to better measurement systems. For example, in Burma, independent survey-takers have secured improved access, allowing them to monitor listening nationwide, instead of relying on sample cities.

It remains too dangerous to measure audiences in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but if these were included, the total listening figures would be even higher.

Some countries, including Nigeria and India, have suffered from bans on foreign broadcasters. BBC services in Nigeria have gained 3.6 million listeners, increasing the total to 23.8 million listeners. But last year, the World Service shed 1.5 million, following a government ban on local FM stations rebroadcasting foreign programmes. The ban is still in place, but many Nigerian listeners have now turned to short-wave services.

The World Service director, Nigel Chapman, said: "A number of things have come together. With big stories running, people tend to turn more to the BBC."

Last October, the World Service, which receives £245m from the Foreign Office, defended its decision to close 10 language services, mainly in eastern Europe, saying it was critical to maintain a strong presence in the Middle East.

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