Radio Matters

It's a wonderful scene. A pillared and statued monument to 1920s Britishness presides over the theatreland bustle of Aldwych, scarred from wartime bombing but defiantly upright, an inscription upon the Portland stone portico dedicating the colossus "to the friendship of English speaking peoples". Inside, precise men in horn-rims and Oxfords, smelling of warm wool and basil cologne, lean square, badger-brush-shaven jaws close to big Kings-Speech microphones, and send their calm, clipped mantra of civilised society, as smooth and soothing as Calpol, out into the global ether.

'This is the BBC World Service.'

Of course, if that were still the reality, the world's leading international broadcaster wouldn't have a (tweed) leg to stand on in the face of the recently announced 16% government cuts. Sure, we'd all mourn the loss of this nostalgia-laced bedtime blanket: partner of many a lonely night in a soulless foreign hotel, mythic symbol of a benevolent empire, and as important a part of Brand Britain as the Cotswolds, corgis and K-Midd's hair. But we'd admit that, when it comes down to hard truths in a recessionary world, programmes about folk music in East Timor cannot compete with schools, security and health.

Good thing it's total nonsense. As a compulsive clinger-on to sentimental British stereotypes, it is hard but exhilarating for me to declare that the BBC World Service is modern, ambitious and inestimably valuable to the way we live now. But that's not because they're switched-on, tech-pimped, real-time, hyper-relevant citizen journalism-loving social media mavens (which they're not. They combine selected bits of social, carefully, with their admittedly slower and more traditional methods of newsmaking). It's because of something much more simple than that.

A couple of months ago I got to meet and talk to Abi Sawyer, Senior Producer for World Service Future Media. Her descriptions of the WS's social savviness came as no surprise; I first made contact with them through WS staffer and consistently innovative new media journalist Alex Wood. Predictably, they have incredibly sophisticated and rigorous systems and processes for incorporating both news and opinion from UGC and citizen journalism into their broadcasts; they strive to integrate multiple two-way platforms with everything they do; and many of their journalists such as the awesome Lyse Doucet have vibrant online presences. From the start, their recently appointed director John Horrocks has been clear that he sees social media as a "very important...further weapon in our armoury".

No, what really hit home was her reminder of the continued impact of good old-fashioned radio across the world.

Take BBC Hausa (Hausa being the first language of about 25 million people, and second language of 18 million more, across Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Togo.) Their audience looks like this.

BBC Hausa are investing in social. Their Ra'ayi Riga ('have your say') listeners' comments programme is hugely popular, with many of the contributions coming from their Facebook page. And 15% of unique users access via mobiles (with poor telecomms infrastructure, many African countries have bypassed PCs altogether) so forward-thinking mobile platforms are key. But, as Abi said, when you look at those figures "radio is still king."

As a devoted radioista, I well know the unique power of the medium, which is an entirely different experience - both more intimate and intense - to the more glamorous TV and cinema. But this isn't just the plea of a middle class Radio 4 whore who likes a bit of Front Row before she turns on the 42" HD megascreen. Radio - the World Service's sort of professional, questioning radio, produced with integrity and insight into the needs of its audiences - still matters. Massively. More than ever. As Richard Ottaway, the Conservative MP and the Commons foreign affairs select committee chairman put it:

The BBC World Service has been described by Kofi Annan as 'perhaps Britain's greatest gift to the world'. The value of the World Service in promoting the UK across the globe, by providing a widely respected and trusted news service, far outweighs its relatively small cost.

"The recent dramatic events in north Africa and the Middle East have shown that the 'soft power' wielded through the World Service could bring even more benefits to the UK in the future than it has in the past, and that to proceed with the planned cuts to the World Service would be a false economy.

(Oh, and putting aside the meaningful stuff for a moment, you can't help but love the organisation that created this Twitter feed.)

So sign the petition, get off Spotify, and welcome back the wireless this afternoon.