UN Radio has come a long way from the 1946 makeshift studios and offices at the United Nations Headquarters in Lake Success, New York, where it transmitted its first call sign: “This is the United Nations calling the peoples of the world.” News bulletins and feature programmes were broadcast in the Organization’s then five official languages – Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish – for 9 to 12 hours each day. (Arabic was added in 1974).
Lacking its own broadcast facilities, and entrusted with an information agenda focusing on the important post-World War II issues of international peace and security, UN Radio made arrangements with leading broadcasting organizations to relay its programmes to different regions. In 1946, the International Broadcasting Division of the United States Department of State transmitted the entire proceedings of the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council on shortwave to the rest of the world. These broadcasts were also relayed, for the most part, by the European Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
From 1950 to 1959, UN Radio broadcast for more than six hours daily in 33 languages with some 100 countries and territories rebroadcasting its programmes on a regular basis.
During the period of 1960 to 1979, UN Radio programmes consisted of: – shortwave transmissions of the proceedings of meetings at UN Headquarters for rebroadcast or monitoring by national organizations; – shortwave broadcasting of news bulletins in the six official languages; and – provision of news bulletins, news summaries, features and documentary programmes in 33 languages to 162 countries and territories. For shortwave broadcasts of proceedings and of news summaries, UN Radio utilized transmitters leased from France, Switzerland, Italy and the United States. In 1963, facilities were obtained on transmitters with considerably greater power and effectiveness in reaching Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and parts of South East Asia.
In 1984, UN Radio was producing a total of 2,000 hours of programmes a year in 25 languages and serving 167 countries and territories. Its shortwave programmes alone accounted for some 759 hours of air time annually.
At the end of 1985, shortwave broadcasts were suspended due to the sudden rise of transmission charges. Alternative distribution methods were explored, identified and put in place with broadcasters in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. UN Radio programme production and distribution became more dependent on taped programmes as opposed to direct shortwave broadcasting. Each year, UN Radio sent out 110,000 tapes offering countries which had few if any New York correspondents a voice from the United Nations. Total distribution for 1997 reached 205,000 tapes/cassettes.
UN Radio gained new recognition in peacekeeping operations. The power, outreach and cost-effectiveness of broadcast radio information played a key role in supporting the operation of numerous UN missions around the world. In all those operations, UN Radio provided staffing and programme resources, as well as technical support. Field reports, news and feature programmes on peacekeeping and humanitarian affaires have also become a staple product in UN Radio programmes.