The announcement that the BBC World Service will begin emergency broadcasts about Gaza should be no surprise to international broadcasters and audiences. Radio has long been used during conflicts to relay news and information when all other means of communication — internet, cellular service, even satellite — are knocked out of service.

The BBC World Service announced it would begin broadcasting a Gaza emergency service on 639 kHz mediumwave (AM). It includes two daily programs and details on “shelter, food and water.”

All one needs to receive the broadcasts is a cheap portable radio that can receive AM, a century-old technology. As articulated in this March 2022 commentary, an important lesson should be drawn from the BBC World Service’s efforts. The efforts should motivate the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAMG), the parent agency of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Martí, and the Arabic stations Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa, to initiate its own radio transmissions to Gaza. Doing so would not only provide Gaza’s 2 million residents with valuable news and information but potentially help to begin rebuilding regional trust in the United States’ voice in finding a durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The BBC World Service has a tradition of establishing wartime “pop-up” stations and transmissions to bring trusted news and information to those in conflict. The BBC World Service recently operated such facilities and transmissions in May 2023 (Sudan), February 2022 (Ukraine), and 2014 (Gaza). This is not a recent phenomenon. During the 1967 Six-Day War, the BBC World Service famously broadcast over mediumwave and shortwave to Arab audiences desperate for information about their loved ones, information denied to them by Egyptian President Abdul Nasser’s own Voice of the Arabs. The Voice of the Arabs never recovered from the Six-Day War.

The BBC World Service’s decision to establish local transmission sites and broadcast into war zones reflects radio’s unique qualities. It can be jammed by adversaries, but such jamming often falls into a cat-and-mouse trap, whereas the broadcaster keeps switching frequencies to stay one step ahead of the jammer — a standard game played by NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. There’s also no guarantee that, despite the expense and time, jamming will work. 

Radio broadcasting is also inexpensive, especially given the potential rewards of influence and audience loyalty. Most radios produced in the past century possess mediumwave band reception. Inexpensive pocket radios can easily be carried by refugees fleeing violence.

Different from the BBC World Service, the U.S. Agency for Global Media struggles to strategically target specific audiences through trusted broadcasting (except for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). The USAGM suffers from chronic underfunding, a broader U.S. government lack awareness of its utility and potential, and longstanding, but false, concerns that its broadcasts are effectively mouthpieces for U.S. government policy.

Several solutions exist to the relative dearth of unbiased American broadcasting in Gaza. First, the USAGM could follow the lead of the BBC World Service in establishing a pop-up station, likely in Egypt owing to its longstanding relationship with the United States, on mediumwave or FM to target Gaza residents. These broadcasts should, like those planned by the BBC World Service, be designed to avoid political discussions and instead focus on safety and supply updates, emergency medical information, and news on potential Rafah Gate openings.

Second, the USAGM should generally upgrade its Middle Eastern transmissions, broadcasting to Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking populations. As practiced by the BBC World Service and al-Jazeera, the USAGM should strive to use local, verified reporting and reporters wherever and whenever possible to build regional trust. The USAGM already has two regional stations — Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa. But both are being underutilized. Radio Sawa, for instance, primarily broadcasts popular music to mostly youth audiences, not news and information. Expanding Radio Sawa’s remit to include news and information geared to youth audiences could pay valuable dividends in Gaza and the wider Middle East.