BBC Arabic Radio airs final broadcast after 85 years
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BBC Arabic Radio airs final broadcast after 85 years

Demands of an increasingly digital media landscape preceded decision to scale down radio services

BBC Arabic Radio has gone off air since Friday after 85 years of broadcasting.
BBC Arabic Radio has gone off air since Friday after 85 years of broadcasting.

The BBC’s Arabic Radio aired its last broadcast Friday, ending 85 years of programming on the network’s first foreign-language service — one depended on by millions of listeners.

The broadcaster cut its Arabic radio service as part of a far-reaching cost-cutting measure that will also end radio services in 10 other languages including Persian, Chinese and Hindi. The downsizing will cut roughly 382 jobs, according to a September statement from the company.

A main driver of the cuts, according to the BBC, was an immediate need to save nearly £30 million (roughly US$35 million), as part of a larger annual savings of £500 million ($617 million). Steep inflation and an ongoing funding dispute between the BBC and the British government brought on these changes, the company said. In 2022, the British Cabinet member overseeing the network froze increases to the annual licensing fees that make up three-fourths of the BBC’s annual funding.

The broadcaster’s leaders also said that the demands of an increasingly digital media landscape preceded their decision to scale down radio services. While BBC Arabic’s content reaches 39 million people per week, 12% of the total audience listens to the radio programming and 5% listens to it only on radio, according to a spokesperson for BBC World Service, the international news arm of the outlet.

“We want to reach our audiences on the digital platforms they’ve chosen,” Mohamed Yehia, head of multimedia output at BBC Arabic, said in a statement. “These changing audience needs are why it’s vital we develop our digital audio offering. I’m immensely proud of all those, past and present, whose reporting and impactful ideas made BBC Arabic radio possible, and I’m extremely grateful to listeners for their support over the decades.”

The BBC said it still planned to maintain some of its Arabic programming online, along with journalism in more than 40 languages. A few of BBC Arabic’s audio programs will be moved to a new website called London Calling, the news service said.

Hosam El Sokkari, a media consultant who was the head of BBC Arabic until 2010 and helped begin its flagship programs, called the decision to end the radio service “sad news.” He said BBC Arabic was invaluable to the millions of listeners in countries where large parts of the population do not have access to the internet.

“It’s a place where you turn to during crises and conflicts to listen to news and information from a source that you would consider unbiased,” he said. “In effect, poor people will not have access to that. People who don’t have access to smartphones and internet — loyal listeners.”

Entrance to the headquarters of the BBC at Broadcasting House in central London, the United Kingdom (UK), on Jan 24, 2023. (Photo: Bloomberg)

After the service aired its final program Friday, several journalists expressed their appreciation for the radio service and disappointment at its demise. Emir Nader, a BBC correspondent, said on Twitter that the final broadcast of BBC Arabic represented a “tragic day for Arab media.” Jim Muir, who covers the Middle East for the BBC, called the last broadcast the “end of an era.”

In a WhatsApp message Monday, Shereen Sherief, a London-based BBC Arabic radio producer and podcast host whose position was eliminated, said that the implications of moving the radio service online could be dire.

“I am concerned that the absence of BBC radio in a dictatorship country could lead to massive negative consequences,” she wrote, pointing to the service’s stories about political prisoners in Egypt. She saw BBC Arabic as one of a few outlets that covered such issues in depth.

“Now they don’t have it,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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