Debating the future of BBC’s Russian Service

Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
9 November 2008

From the editors of openDemocracy Russia:

The BBC World Service argues that it has lost 40% of its Russian listeners in recent years, although the budget for its Russian service is its second largest, at about £5 million a year.

The loss of listeners is partly due to the fact that following the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, when relations between Britain and Russia were at a low ebb, the World Service lost its access to FM transmitters in Moscow and St Petersburg. However, the BBC has also cut the number of hours it transmits on short wave, whose reception maybe be inferior, but does reach nationwide.

The World Service is proposing to extend its news and current-affairs coverage, and shift its emphasis to online provision, including increased English-language teaching. Its Russian-language website attracts about one million unique visitors a month, a figure that trebled during the Georgia crisis.

Critics of the proposals claim that the greater the misunderstanding between the cultures, the more important the traditionally broad intellectual offering becomes. To narrow the service to the provision of news, current-affairs and languages duplicates what other services provides.

We would like to hear what Russian listeners think. For this important debate is taking place against the background of a broader disquiet about the BBC's domestic programming in recent years. Many British viewers argue that the BBC has  been forgetting its public-service remit, paying vast sums to celebrity hosts and duplicating the services of commercial broadcasters. Have Russian listeners been responding to a similar decline in the quality of provision, rather than to the quality of the signal? Is the decision to focus on news and current affairs sensible? On the other hand, maybe the shift of resources to online provision is justified?

We would welcome your input in this discussion

Letter to the Times 7 November 2008

Sir, The BBC World Service has announced that its Russian service broadcasts are being cut by 19 hours a week and that it will now drop all analytical and cultural features. A previous unfortunate decision, taken five years ago, was to reduce the hours of short-wave broadcasting, relying on the Russians themselves to rebroadcast BBC programmes on FM frequencies. The Russian service thus became largely dependent on the Russian authorities - whose co-operation, of course, can no longer be counted on. That decision seems to have been taken merely because short wave is considered old-fashioned, even though it is the only reliable means of signal delivery to the whole of Russia.

At a time when in Russia misunderstanding and mistrust of Britain has reached a height unprecedented since the end of the USSR this deliberate reduction in the role of the Russian service seems a perverse concession to those authorities in Russia who have been doing their best to curtail the activities of all British cultural institutions (the BBC and the British Council in particular). The Russian service had a fine record of producing long-format features of unique depth and diversity of opinion on matters of serious political and cultural concern. Expansion of internet services is no compensation for the loss of these features. The BBC World Service should be held to account by the press for its inexplicable actions - and everyone who realises that BBC World Service broadcasts are the best ambassadors we have for this country should make their views known.

Antony Beevor

Orlando Figes

Michael Frayn

Doris Lessing

David Manning, Former UK Ambassador to USA

Lucy Popescu, Director of English PEN's Writers in Prison Committee

Simon Sebag-Montefiore

Tom Stoppard

D. M. Thomas

Andrew Wood, British Ambassador to Moscow (1995-2000)

Roy Allison (Reader in International Relations, London School of Economics)

David Wedgwood Benn

Bill Bowring (Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London; adviser on Human Rights and Law Reform in Russia for DfID, 1997-2003)

Felicity Cave MBE (Russian translator/interpreter)

Philip Cavendish (Senior Lecturer in Russian Literature and Film Studies, SSEES, UCL)

Robert Chandler (translator, co-chair Pushkin Club)

Simon Clark

David & Helen Constantine (editors of ‘Modern Poetry in Translation')

Elena Cook (Russian-English interpreter and translator) MBE

Sergei Cristo ( BBC radio journalist, 1994-2000)

John Crowfoot (Russian translator)

Martin Dewhirst (Honorary Research Fellow, University of Glasgow)

Natasha Dissanayake (Interpreter and Tourist guide)

Simon Dixon (Sir Bernard Pares Professor of Russian History, SSEES, UCL)

Pete Duncan (Head of Social Sciences Dept, SSEES, UCL)

Helen Dunmore (FRSL)

Leo Feigin (Record producer)

Jo Glanville (editor Index on Censorship)

Seth Graham (Lecturer in Russian, SSEES, UCL)

Jane Grayson ( Hon. Senior Lecturer, SSEES, UCL )

Constantine Gregory (actor)

Keith Hammond (Russian English Translator)

Professor Philip Hanson (Associate Fellow, Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs

Jonathan Heawood (Director English PEN)

Mrs Jane Henderson ( Senior Lecturer in the Laws of Eastern Europe, King's College London School of Law.)

Jeremy Hicks (Head of Russian Dept, Queen Mary, University of London

Geoffrey Hosking (Emeritus Professor of Russian History, University College London)

John Kampfner (Chief Executive, Index on Censorship)

Lydia Kotsishevsky MD , Columbia University Medical Center, New York City, USA

Kazimir Krivko MDT, Excelldent Laboratory INC, Scarsdale, NY, USA

Alena Ledeneva (Professor of Politics and Society at UCL)

Anatol Lieven (Professor, King's College London)

Dominic Lieven (Professor LSE)

Margot Light ( Emeritus Professor of International Relations, LSE)

Christopher MacLehose (Publisher)

Olga Makarova (Teaching and Research Fellow, Queen Mary University of London

Professor Silvana Malle (University of Verona - and former head of the OECD Economics Department Division)

Gerard McBurney (composer, broadcaster, specialist in Russian and Soviet music)

Richard McKane (translator from Russian, co-chair Pushkin Club)

Professor Arnold and Doctor Svetlana McMillin (SSEES, UCL)

Diran Meghreblian (former current affairs editor of BBC Russian Service)

Catherine Merridale (Professor of History, Queen Mary, University of London)

James Nixey (Manager and Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs

Chatham House)

Anna Pilkington (Lecturer, Russian Department, Queen Mary, University of London)

Donald Rayfield (Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian, Queen Mary, University of London)

Susan Richards (Editor OpenDemocracy Russia)

John Russell (Professor of Russian and Security Studies, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford)

Daniel Salbstein (Chairman of The Great Britain-Russia Society)

Andreas Schonle, (Professor of Russian, Queen Mary, University of London)

Irina Shumovitch, (producer BBC Russian Service 1989-2003)

Philip Spender ( Chair, Stephen Spender Memorial Trust)

Dr Arch Tait (translator from Russian)

Peter Tegel (co-chair Pushkin Club)

William Tompson (economist, former Professor of Political Economy, Birkbeck College, University of London)


Open letter from the BBC Director of World Service to Members of GB-Russia Society

I am writing this letter because it has come to our attention that some members of the GB-Russia Society have signed a letter for publication in a British national newspaper.

We have been shown a draft copy of the letter and are dismayed at the misleading claims made about our proposals to strengthen the BBC Russian Service output.

Although you may not be a signatory, we feel it is important that all members of this respected society have the opportunity to hear first-hand exactly what the BBC World Service is proposing to strengthen the BBC Russian Service.

Like you, we want to see a Russian Service which has as much impact with audiences as we can achieve, and uses all the most effective means of reaching them, including a mix of radio and new media. From the audience figures, we know we have to put considerably more resources into bbcrussian.com as audiences for it in Russia are growing rapidly and at a much faster pace than radio.   

I will first deal with the claims in the letter before outlining our proposals and the reasons why we are taking these decisions.

Firstly, the BBC Russian Service broadcasts are not being cut by 22 hours a week, as claimed in the letter. It's important to understand that we are adding new programmes to the schedule as well as dropping some titles. In fact, the net loss is 19 hours a week, and many of these are repeats.

It is important to see this number in context. It is not simply a matter of hours added or reduced.

We are proposing to close off-peak news bulletins specifically designed for FM broadcasting partners, which are obsolete because we no longer have any FM partners.

We are closing a number of feature programmes. These are not news and current affairs programming and are not regularly bringing significant amounts of analysis to the output.

Each of these feature programmes tends to be repeated many times in a week. The loss of these repeats makes up a significant proportion of reduced hours of output on the Russian Service.

However, we are extending our high quality news and current affairs at key times of the day.  This is a very significant addition to the schedule at a time when audiences will listen to us. It also plays to our core strengths: to provide unbiased news and information to Russian audiences  when availability from other broadcast sources in Russia is becoming much more limited. 

So, far from dropping analytical programmes, as claimed, we are increasing our investment to produce more.

The letter claims we are cutting cultural output. In fact we are putting many of the elements of our cultural output into extended editions of our peak time flagship programmes. We are also increasing the current affairs reporting of British cultural and social affairs.

The whole strategy is based on trying to increase the "unique depth and diversity of opinion on matters of serious political and cultural concern", as the letter demands, by putting these important elements in parts of the schedule when most Russians are able to hear it; and in ways they have shown they wish to receive it.

The letter says the BBC has reduced short wave. In recent times the BBC has ensured that all its programmes in Russian are transmitted on shortwave. We have kept faith with shortwave despite clear evidence that usage is declining among audiences and is rapidly becoming a miniscule part of the Russian media landscape. But all our shortwave signals are affected by the current cycle of sunspot activity that has diminished the power of our broadcasts over the last 18 months or so and will do so for another year at least. This natural phenomenon is outside our control. We are negotiating to obtain extra and stronger frequencies.

The BBC is not "largely dependent on the Russian authorities", as stated in the letter.  The majority of the BBC Russian Service's audience comes through a mixture of short wave and online which has no interference from the Russian government. Some commentators have described this as the only true unrestricted medium in Russia. We supplement this with three medium wave relays. We have no FM partners.

Here is a detailed outline of what we plan across radio and new media in Russian.

The major change is a greater investment in bbcrussian.com as the key method for delivery of all our content and the strengthening of some existing areas such as news, video and interactivity on the site.

Radio will also change, with our key news and current affairs blocks at peak audience listening times. Utro and Vecher na BBC will become longer and a new weekend edition of Vecher will be introduced. Other key programmes, such as, BBSeva, Vam Slovo and Ranniy Chas will remain.

The key elements of the new offer will be:


  • A re-focusing of the BBC Russian Service's radio resources on peak audience listening times, with more investment in flagship news and current affairs programmes
  • - Key daily radio programmes on short and medium wave will be expanded to make up a simpler schedule - focused on peak morning and evening drive time audiences - which will be easier for audiences to find.
  • - The flagship morning weekday news and current affairs programme Utro na BBC will be increased by one hour to three and a half hours each day.
  • - The existing half hour programme focusing on the FSU, Ranniy Chas, will remain and reporting on FSU for all outlets will be strengthened.
  • - The afternoon weekday drive time news and current affairs sequence Vecher na BBC - which includes the hour long BBSeva hosted by Seva Novgorodsev - will be increased by one hour to four hours each day.
  • Filling a gap in the current radio schedules at weekends by increasing the availability of our in-depth news and current affairs output


  • - New weekend editions of Vecher na BBC will be launched, on both Saturday and Sunday, to take the place of current short updates. They will focus on current affairs, analysis, and culture and will incorporate many of the themes and issues currently covered by longer format programmes.


  • Strengthening our newsgathering

-     We intend to develop extra newsgathering resources in Russia, resulting in increased reporting and analysis of Russian affairs in the key flagship radio programmes. We also intend to increase the current affairs reporting of British, cultural and social affairs, as well as reporting on the FSU, for all programmes and online.





In Russia bbcrussian.com is having a significant impact, where it is easier to access than BBC radio services and where demand is growing.   In August, at the height of the conflict between Russia and Georgia, the number of monthly users increased dramatically to nearly three million.

The audience is also accessing other platforms online - listening to audio doubled in August; demand for video jumped sixfold to nearly 2,300,000 views. Even page impressions to our mobile services, in which we are currently working without a partner, more than doubled.

We are therefore investing in strengthening bbcrussian.com through:

  • Launching a new online rolling news service, updated 24/7, on bbcrussian.com - the Russian market has shown a considerable appetite for this type of content.
  • Increasing the number of high quality video reports, underpinned with original journalism from Russia, to be updated 24/7.
  • Strengthening resources for bbcrussian.com during the morning peak periods.
  • Increasing the resources for interactivity.
  • Boosting the Learn English part of bbcrussian.com

To pay for these improvements we will have to reprioritise resources from within the current Russian Service budget. This means there will be the changes to other parts of the radio outlined in the first part of my letter.  

These improvements are self-funded from within the Russian Service which will continue to have the second highest level of funding and radio output after the Arabic Service.

We believe that a fuller multimedia news offer for audiences will strengthen the impact of the BBC's second  biggest non-English language service, and that these changes will help the BBC Russian Service become the most trusted and influential international news provider in Russia, serving audiences in the global Russian-speaking community, across all borders and platforms. It will continue to be a distinctive public service which sits squarely within BBC World Service's core mission.

I hope this fuller account of our plans allays your concerns. If you require further details or wish to comment on these changes, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Nigel Chapman CMG

Director, BBC World Service



Letter from Professor Donald Rayfield to the Director of the BBC World Service

9 November 2008

Dear Mr Chapman,

Your response to the letter in the Times of 7 November on the BBC Russian service is so out of kilter with the realities of BBC broadcasting to Russia and with the points made by all those who signed that letter (and who know what they are talking about), that I can only conclude that the director of the World Service has only the faintest idea of what the Russian service does and what Russian listeners respond to, and is being badly briefed by those in the BBC who speak Russian and ought to know. The letter to The Times was signed by a number of Russian specialists who know Russia very well and know what the response is in Russia to the BBC's Russian programming. You should be less dismissive of their views. I will take your points in the order you make them:

1) The decline of 40% in the number of listeners is only partly due to the loss of FM transmission in Moscow and St Petersburg or to the drop in the number of shortwave receivers, so popular in Soviet times. It should have struck you that a) it is important who, as well as how numerous, your listeners are and b) that the decline may be ascribed to the BBC's increasing its news output to the exclusion of more diverse programmes and thus losing its distinctive nature as a broadcaster by resembling more and more its competitors, e.g. Radio Free Europe. The question of who your listeners are is particularly important (as it is for Radio 3 in the UK), since these tend to be university-educated people in the humanities, liberal thinkers, persons in the media, whose favourable impressions of British broadcasting and culture make an impact on decision makers, present and future, in Russia.

2) Your idea of enhancing daily flagship news and current affairs programming is, in fact, a narrowing of focus, competing with RFE and with the few independent radio stations in Russia, as as Ekho Moskvy. You are not strengthening the provision of culture by shutting down such long-running programmes as Angliiskii klub and Knizhnaya polka, which have often achieved the same level as The Verb on Radio 3 or of the book programmes on Radio 4. More important, these programmes (on which I myself, and other signatories, have often taken part over the past thirty years) demonstrate to Russian listeners that there are British historians, writers, thinkers, journalists who can take part in lively discussions in Russian with partners in a studio in Moscow or St Petersburg and make a programme which is far more creative, adventurous and free-thinking than a Russian listener will get from his domestic media or from any other foreign broadcaster (RFE was the BBC?s only effective rival until it closed its Munich office and decided, as you seem to be deciding now, to be a news and news analysis broadcaster only). I get a lot of feedback from Russian listeners, on internet sites such as polit.ru as well as privately, from all over the country, and the BBC is prized for discussing books, topics of mutual interest, such as language acquisition or sensitive issues (such as recently the closeness of Georgian-Russian cultural contacts), topics not broached by other broadcasters, and which you have now been misled into believing to be ‘soft' features.

3) There are 32 million internet users in Russia, but they are overwhelming concentrated in cities of a million or more. That leaves another 60 million adults, many of them educated and interested in more than light entertainment and news, with no internet access.

4) What you call ‘stronger journalism' just means a 24-hour loop of ‘rolling news service': it doesn't mean more outspoken, or more profound journalism. Free thinking and specialist knowledge comes - and I'm sorry if I sound conceited - from such sources as guests invited on to your cultural programmes who are not employees of the BBC, who are paid little more than their bus fare to take part, and are therefore uninhibited about saying what they think and what they know.

5)  While the Russian service remains a major player within the World service, the fact that you gloss over is that it is  being reduced. You are shedding staff, rehiring only those who can be used for ‘news' programmes and proposing not to re-employ those who have made the most stimulating cultural programmes. You have at the moment in the Russian service a number of producers who are respected as cultural figures in Russia in a way that no newsreader is, and if you lose them, you will lose even more listeners.
Your editorial independence will always be compromised by the knowledge that the Russian authorities can block, jam or remove from the transmitters any broadcaster whose news contradicts their views: there is little you can do about that, except to lobby the Foreign Office to take what tit-for-tat counter-measures it can against such Russian broadcasters as Russia Today. The trust and influence you enjoy from your listeners in Russia will be sharply diminished once you come to resemble every other broadcaster and expunge your most creative programming for the sake of repetitive news transmission.

It is particularly indicative of the short sightedness of present policies that your Ranii chas programme for Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan is now going to be broadcast not from London, but from Moscow. Do you really think that a Georgian listener is going to listen to a BBC Russian-language broadcast emanating from Moscow instead of London?

I very much hope (and will do what I can to urge) that a high-level enquiry will be set up to ensure that the BBC Russian service is developed on the right lines, instead of being turned into the homogeneous babble of news indistinguishable from half a dozen others. Given the present state of political relations between the two governments it is more important than ever that ‘nation speaks unto nation', and a nation does that by speaking of its own culture and interacting with its listeners' culture."

Michael Church, a freelance who writes for the Independent, comments:
"They did almost ALL the things you excoriate now, three years ago, with regard to the cultural World Service programmes they axed, to create cash for their unwanted 24-hour Arabic news service. They are now doing the same with regard to their broadcasts to Russia and the countries surrounding it."

If you would like to make a coherent critique of this policy of getting rid of everything that characterizes the BBC - fearlessly independent cultural and political discussion - and becoming yet another continuous news provider, constantly fearful of causing offence, more power to your elbow, and anything I can contribute, I shall.

Yours sincerely,

Donald Rayfield

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