The man who hugged Birt - and his plot for world domination

The World Service reaches 150 million people around the globe each week. For Mark Byford, its chief executive, it's simply not enough
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Mark Byford, the boss of the World Service, generally comes across as a cheerful chap, full of enthusiasm for the BBC's mission of the day - whether it be to educate, entertain or deliver transparent accounting systems. Mr Byford is perceived as a corporate man, and has excelled and advanced under the leadership of Sir John Birt.

Indeed, his closeness to the former Director General was enough to make some of his colleagues raise their eyebrows. "When John made a leaving speech to his most senior managers," says one, "he was, as usual rather stiff, formal and self-congratulatory. But Mark, unlike everyone else, was moved - so much so that he physically embraced John - gave him a hug. It was unprecedented."

You might think that Mr Byford's puppy-dog optimism is on the wane. His leader has gone. His own bid to be director-general - supported by Sir John - has failed, and the Birtist corporate ethos under which he thrived is crumbling. But no. In practice Mr Byford is on top form - largely because his job at the World Service seems to be going exceedingly well. He and his team have just delivered their best ever audiences, up to 151 million listening each week, from 143 million in 1998.

"Its our aim to be the best known and most respected global broadcaster, to deliver values of trust, impartiality and objectivity," he says, showing all the old joie de travail.

The success lies partly in the fact that there are still vast parts of the globe where people are facing oppressive governments, war and uncertainty - and use their shortwave radios to find out what the BBC?s reporters have to say about their situation. Last year, with the turmoil in East Timor, for instance, the World Service saw a doubling of its audience in Indonesia. In Rwanda, where the wounds inflicted by civil war remain unhealed, 90 per cent of the population still tune in at some during during the week.

In Burma, Iran and Afghanistan, the BBC knows it has a strong listenership, but is unable to measure it. "Six out of 10 households are listening in Afghanistan, and we found that 40 per cent of travellers coming out of Iran listen to the World Service each week," says Byford. But the fastest growing areas for the World Service are not the traditional shortwave listeners. Byford's team has, over the past few years, been busy signing deals to rebroadcast the network's programmes on FM stations. Last year, listening via local partner radio stations on FM and medium wave around the world rose by 5m to 36m.

He says the BBC has secured 1,000 rebroadcasting partnerships around the world is on FM in 100 capital cities. "We want to reach 135 capital cities by 2003." The FM figures will increase hugely if Mr Byford gets his way in China - which is, historically, tricky territory for the World Service. Peking still jams the BBC's Chinese language broadcasts to the country and has a deep suspicion of BBC reporters.

Relations improved slightly last Autumn when China's Minister of Publicity, who controls domestic television and radio, came to London and met John Birt and the new director general, Greg Dyke. Then, in January, Mr Byford followed-up with a visit to Peking. His mission, he says, was "to foster relationships" there without compromising the BBC's core values of "impartiality, objectivity, openness, fairness and the truth" - a delicate process.

The other great area of growth, and one which might actually deliver BBC news to China, is World Service Online. Traffic to its site increased by more than 300 per cent last year and stands at 22 million page impressions a month.

A programme is underway to launch nine fully multi-media local language websites over the next four years. Arabic and Chinese services are already up and running, and BBC Arabic online traffic has increased 400 per cent since the launch in October. Byford is optimistic that the development of the Chinese Internet service will be groundbreaking.

The development of the new platforms for World Service presents Byford's team with a challenge - how to keep a grip on suiting platforms and services for such a diverse range of audiences around the world. Clearly - the sort of service provided to Burma is totally unsuitable for the United States and vice versa. Byford cites Nigeria (one of the dozen or so countries he has visited since taking up his post) as an example of the increasing complexity of audiences.

When Byford joined the World Service there were plenty of voices, John Tusa's among them, who condemned him for having no international experience - a weakness he openly admits. As head of the BBC's regions he was constantly on the road between BBC Norwich, BBC Wales and points north but rarely travelled abroad. However, Byford, seen then as an archetypal Birtist, is not short on energy. Over the past year or so, he has visited India, Hong Kong, Nigeria, South Africa, Thailand, America and China.

Like everyone else at the top of the Corporation, he now has to see how his approach goes down with Greg Dyke, the new director general. He still, as in the Birt days, has strategy documents and mission statements at his fingertips. But ultimately, say colleagues, it's those growing listening figures that will count with Mr Dyke.