Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A day with the ladies from the BBC

It was another Friday in Kabul. Friday is the day of rest, the holy day where men go the mosque and office workers. It is also the only day off. Surprisingly, many of the street bazaars and vendors are open and crowded. For me, it is a day to do something besides go to work and sleep in the guest house. This one I spent with two very interesting young ladies from the BBC who have lead an amazingly unique life these past two months. Here’s the story.

A few weeks ago a young western-looking lady, but dressed in a long dress and long head-covered shawl breezed into my office. She thrust out her hand and in a refined London accent and said “I’m Julia Paul from the BBC heah to conduct the journalism class for your reportahs.” I had expected her, of course, not knowing exactly when, this being Kabul, but hadn’t actually understood why the BBC would be educating cub reporters in Kabul.

The BBC is the public broadcasting of Britain, and somewhat similar to PBS,, except it is well-funded through an annual tax on every TV set in the UK. It doesn’t burden its audience with beg-a-thons, nor is it threatened elected politicos in congress who threaten to cancel funding when it disagrees with their political line. It’s programming, too, runs circles around anything PBS produces in the US.
The BBC raises many millions of dollars, and so it is the premier quality TV and radio news network in the world. The BBC is dedicated to getting its message around the globe, and not just those with satellite dishes.
It’s radio world service has thousands of transmitters around the world, so anyone with a $2 pocket radio can hear it . People in cars can listen. Remote villages in Africa listen on the hour to the BBC news, which is translated into 37 languages. Even in Kabul, there are 24/7 BBC broadcasts in English and the local languages on FM radio. There is also 24/7 French radio, 24/7 German radio, and sometimes Belgian, but not a minute of American sourced news or commentary.

In this country where there are 20,000 US soldiers and thousands more US foreign service and US aid workers, there is no US radio. The venerable Voice of America shut down a while back, a victim of federal budget cuts—after all, the cold war was over, and never mind the war on terror. .(Note: Since my trip, the US Voice of America has initiated Afghan language radio and TV broadcasts which are high quality and avidly listened to.)

Oh, and there are no commercials on the BBC world service, so you actually don’t get tired of listening to it. And there are no giant ad agencies dictating programming content decisions to them either.

So, the only major English language news here is delivered by the BBC (although another big irony, German radio, Deutsche Welle broadcasts regular programs in English). Unless you count Fox Satellite TV News, which is considered to be a jingoistic propaganda machine on the level of Radio Moscow in the 1970s, with laughable view points and reportage that is ignored by every thoughtful person outside the US.

The BBC has a good TV satellite channel that features 30 minute breaking news programs and more in-depth discussion and documentary programs. But I spend most of my time listening to the BBC World Service radio, which comes in loud and clear on the $6 Chinese-made 11 band “Sing Box” radio that sits on my desk (well, being Chinese, only two bands actually work). After a day of trying to figure out the broken English and hand signals of my Afghan friends, it's a huge mental break to listen to normal English for a while. (to be continued)

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