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World music at the World Service

The aims of this project are to investigate, historically, the relationship between ‘world music’ and the BBC WS English language service. It was decided to tap this problem by assessing the kind and amount of cosmopolitan, ‘world-embracing’ music that has been broadcast at three key moments: World War 2, the 1980s and the contemporary period. Given that few recordings of broadcasts remain, our historical survey is based largely on programme schedules and articles in the WS magazine London Calling, as well as BBC internal documents on marketing, and interviews with participants, and analysis of website and current broadcast output.

Our study suggests that while a cosmopolitan approach to music (including broadcasts of West Indian and Indian music, and comparative discussion of Eastern and Western musical styles) developed quite rapidly in English language external services during World War Two, in the post-War period the World Service reverted to Anglo-centrism and high cultural paternalism. The situation only began to change in the 1980s, such that by the early 1990s the new category of ‘world music’ had become a staple of music programming.

Today, in the context of a much smaller percentage of musical content than in earlier periods, world music is the dominant form in the English language broadcasting. This raises interesting questions about the ostensible cosmopolitanism of the mode of address of the contemporary English language service. It appears highly likely, as argued in the article emerging from this project, that Bush House treats ‘world music’ as a suitable vehicle for reaching the global ‘cosmopolitans’, or upper middle class elites, who are now the target of World Service marketing. That said, world music (in the BBC’s global broadcasting as much as in metropolitan contexts) also represents a kind of yearning for a more genuine and mutual cosmopolitanism - a love of the other for the sake of the other - which is utopian and emancipatory.

Project contact: 

Dr Jason Toynbee, Open University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Sociology,

    Project members: 

  • Jason Toynbee is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies in the Department of Sociology at The Open University. He researches and writes on creativity, copyright, and race especially in relation to popular music. Among his books are Making Popular Music (2000) and Bob Marley: Herald of a Postcolonial World? (2007). He is currently leading the AHRC Beyond Text large grant project What Is Black British Jazz? Routes, Ownership and Performance which is also based at The Open University. The project takes forward some of the ideas and approach developed in Migrating Music. The website can be found here: 

    Farida Vis is a Research Assistant in the Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University. She has done research on the media reporting of Israel-Palestine and recent natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina.

Black British Jazz project website