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Ian Burrell: From radio to television, mobile phones and iPads

When the BBC World Service began in 1932 it was called the BBC Empire Service and it broadcast only on shortwave. Today its audience is likely to be tuning in to FM signals and listening to it via mobile telephone.

A service that in its early years was characterised by the chimes of Big Ben and the "Lillibullero" march now owes its reputation not just to the reliability of its news coverage but to gripping radio soap operas such as Story Story (Nigeria), New Home, New Life (Afghanistan) and Kimasomaso (Kenya).

With 241 million watching, listening to or accessing by internet its global output, the BBC has the largest audience of any international news provider. But the old rituals are changing fast. The BBC stopped the shortwave service in Europe two years ago and is now reconfiguring its strategy in other parts of the world to keep pace with technological change.

In India and Bangladesh, where there is increasing provision of local FM radio, there has been a 15 million reduction in the BBC's shortwave audience in the year 2009-2010. The BBC is either setting up its own FM transmission in key cities, or entering into partnership with local media organisations.

The director of the World Service, Peter Horrocks, said that the "real take off" has been in listening to the BBC's output by phone. "In key markets such as Asia and Africa, people are just starting to use mobile phones for more than texting and phone calls, and the BBC is at the leading edge of introducing content on those new technologies."

During the African Cup of Nations football tournament in Angola earlier this year, the BBC expanded awareness of its services by providing a news and sports service in English, Hausa, Swahili and French. "That was very popular with audiences, being able to get updates on players and news on what was happening around the tournament."

The World Service is also developing popular BBC broadcast formats for overseas audiences. So there is an Afghan version of Radio 4's Woman's Hour and audiences in South Asia have enjoyed variations of David Dimbleby's BBC1 show Question Time. "In Bangladesh and Nepal we've taken the Question Time format on the road, going around villages and introducing people to democratic concepts by encouraging people to ask questions of politicians," said Horrocks.

The arrival of the iPad creates significant new opportunities for the BBC's non-English services. The BBC News app includes a stream of the BBC World Service's output in English plus news headlines in Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Urdu and Persian.

Working in so many languages gives the BBC a deeper understanding of world news than its rivals, Horrocks argues. "That variety of perspectives we have got from different language teams is a huge extra dimension which the BBC can bring to its journalism which most other news organisations haven't got."

The World Service argues it can't afford to stand still – but that doesn't mean it will do away with the shortwave signal just yet. In Nigeria, the government still refuses the BBC access to FM, so listeners to Story Story rely on their shortwave sets. And in countries such as Burma and Somalia, shortwave is the only option.

At a time when the very existence of a BBC licence fee is increasingly questioned, and when the corporation's management is having to introduce significant economies, the expense of overseas broadcasting is considerable. Horrocks must make his case to Sir Peter Ricketts who is conducting a review of foreign policy commitments.

"The fact that Britain provides these services, provides soap operas, great sports content and news you can trust makes people think better of Britain," he said. "Britain funds something that is allowed to be critical of the UK government [and produces] the independent journalism which many parts of the world have no experience of. We are convinced we have a very strong case to make."