In Mandate Palestine, Palestinians turned to the radio to listen to the programming of many European and some Arab stations as well as the government-run, Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the less-official, Foreign Office-operated Near East Arab Broadcasting Service. Although a minority of Arabic-speaking Palestinians owned radio sets during the Mandate period, news and entertainment broadcasts from these stations and others were a key part of the aural landscape.
In the early 1930s the British-run Mandate government in Palestine and the British government began planning to establish a medium-wave, government-run broadcasting station in Palestine, obtaining a frequency at the 1933 European Radio Conference in Lucerne. Officials seem to have conceived of the Palestine Broadcasting Service as a smaller version of the BBC, and they promoted it to the League of Nations’ Permanent Mandates Commission as part of Britain’s commitment to supporting Palestine’s trajectory toward independence. The station began operations at the end of March 1936, with entertainment, music, and news programming—all divided into three programming and staff section categories: Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Like many stations of the period, it operated for only a few hours each day, expanding from one block lasting 4–5 hours in April 1936 to a 9–11 hour block during World War II, and then shrinking slightly to three blocks—morning, afternoon, and evening—totaling 5–7 hours a day by September 1947. Although the proportion of English-language on-air time increased during the war, Arabic-language programming generally received the greatest on-air time. On September 6, 1943, for example, the PBS was on air for 10 hours, of which nearly 4–5 hours were broadcast in Arabic.
The Great Arab Revolt broke out less than one month after the PBS was launched, complicating station operations and both depressing and increasing listener interest due to perceptions that the station provided only limited information about the situation in Palestine. Yet in part due to the reputations of the Palestinians who worked in the PBS’ Arabic section under the direction of Ibrahim Tuqan, as well as the growing number of cafes, homes, village guest houses, and other locations with radio sets, PBS listenership appeared to increase throughout the late 1930s, for all its broadcast languages. With the outbreak of World War II, the station came under more direct British governmental oversight, leading to more intensive control of news content. In addition, news broadcasts were provided in the languages of the various Allied soldiers stationed around the region and entertainment programs in English for Allied military forces. Yet again, the Arabic section—then directed by Ajaj Nuwayhed—continued to attract listeners with its carefully designed, nationalist programming that included historical talks, women’s programs, religion, and music. The station created new programs and pursued expansion plans as the war ended, including adding a second transmitter in December 1945 so that Arabic and Hebrew programs could be broadcast simultaneously but on separate frequencies. Azmi Nashashibi, who left the Public Information Office to become director of the Arabic section during the station’s final years, introduced new programs like his “Talks to Arabic Listeners” and spent several months in 1946 at the BBC in London, intending to bring back to the PBS relevant technical and programming insights. The station remained on air through the end of the Mandate, although it became an increasingly contested space. In its final years, military guards were stationed to prevent armed Zionist groups from taking over the broadcasting facilities.
Although the station was a British initiative, British officials in Palestine and in the United Kingdom did not seem to have a consistent or clear set of policy objectives for the station, aside from their conviction that there should be three separate language sections, broadcasting to communities that the British government considered distinct and separate. Their greatest concern was over the power of news—especially news broadcast by hostile stations like Italy’s Radio Bari. While the British government felt that it could not broadcast pro-British sentiments on the PBS—which led in part to the creation of the BBC’s Arabic service in 1938—Mandate-era political concerns also engendered considerable anxiety over the news that the station did broadcast, with news broadcasts limited to five or ten minutes in each language, airing only once or twice per broadcasting session.
As a result, cultural, educational, entertainment, and religious programs made up the bulk of the station’s airtime. Taken from Falastin, the 4 January 1940 schedule shown below illustrates the proportion of time devoted to music, talks, and news.
4 January 1940:
1:30 time signal and Hebrew music
1:40 first news announcement in Hebrew
1:45 time signal
1:50 program “What the Arab listeners want” [recorded music]
2:00 time signal and first news announcement in Arabic
2:10 European musical program [recorded music]
2:20 first news announcement in English
2:30 time signal and shut down
5:00 time signal then Hebrew program
6:15 “baladi” musical performance [Muhammad al-Hafni and the Arabic broadcasting group]
6:30 humorous dialogues [Hussein and Naaman al-Maliji] and recordings
6:40 musical performance [Fahd Tujjar and the Arabic broadcasting group, firqa]
6:55 Bedouin society (4) [talk by Brigadier Glubb Pasha]
7:10 musical performance [Yahya al-Su‘udi and the Arabic broadcasting group]
7:30 weather and second news announcement in Arabic
7:45 time signal
8:00–9:30 Hebrew program [actually 9:00]
9:30 weather and second news announcement in English
9:50 European music
10:00 shut down
The lineup also suggests the level of interest that the newspaper assumed its readers would have in the various language programs. Newspaper readers were assumed to be most interested in the Arabic program, with much less interest in the English program and even less in the Hebrew program. (The Palestine Post included details of all three sections’ broadcasts; for example, at 5:30 p.m. the Hebrew Children’s Hour included a program on “Scouts in Camp” and at 9:15 p.m. the English program included a recording of “Gaîté Parisienne” Ballet Music, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.) Beyond these suggestions, it is difficult to know how many people listened to a given program in a day’s broadcast. It is similarly difficult to know how many people may have listened across the PBS’ three language programs—perhaps leaving the radio on for the chance of music or changing to a different station.
Station Listenership and Impact
Determining audience size is often a challenge for broadcast media. The Mandate government followed British precedent, requiring radio set owners to pay an annual license fee. The forms did not ask the licensee’s identity, but they could be filled out in Arabic, English, or Hebrew, which seems to have been taken as a proxy for Palestinian, British, or Yishuv identities. From 1936 to 1947, the total number of licenses sold each year increased from 20,338 to 115,334. Period accounts from the pro-Yishuv Palestine Post consistently described licensed radio sets as 75–80 percent Jewish-owned, although there was little consensus as to how many people listened to each set on average—and little discussion of the number of unlicensed radio sets in use. For any particular broadcast, 2–8 people might have listened in a home, 10 or more at a village guest house or workplace, and 20 or more at a café, school, or other public location. While a small minority of Arab and Arabic-speaking Palestinians owned radio sets, a much larger number had some listening access, although they may not have been able to decide which program or station they heard. The PBS was one of many options for radio set owners’ listeners in Palestine who could access 15–25 medium wave (AM) stations, many from Europe and others from around the region: Bucharest, Cairo, Lyon, Warsaw, and Zeesen (Germany), as well as the BBC’s Empire and Arabic services.
Palestinians on the PBS
The PBS attracted many well-known Palestinian and regional luminaries as broadcasters and station administrators. Some, like Tuqan and Nuwayhed, were hired despite having oppositional relationships with the Mandate government; others, like Akram Husseini, who worked as an announcer in the Arabic section until 1939, ran afoul of the government and were dismissed. Others, like Khalil al-Sakakini – who had turned down the invitation to be considered for what became Tuqan’s position and denounced the station for the Hebrew-language section’s initial use of “Eretz Israel” in its station identification – grew more supportive over time and delivered talks for the PBS in the early 1940s.
Abdul Latif Tibawi, the well-known historian, gave talks on Palestinian and Arab history. Jamil Uwais, a Syrian musician, led the PBS takht or musical group, while Wasif and Tawfiq Jawhariyyeh both worked as musicians. Abd al-Karim al-Karmi, the well-known poet, worked at the station. Asma Tubi, who had been part of the Arab Women’s Committee in Acre during the Great Arab Revolt, gave weekly broadcasts directed at women listeners. Other figures became known through their work at the station, like the playwright Nasri al-Juzi. Qudsiyya Khurshid became known through her talks about Islam, which were often directed at women and girls. While Lebanese and Syrian musicians like Yahya Lababidi worked at the PBS, most of its broadcasters, musicians, and officials were Palestinian, and Palestinian themes and genres formed the core of the PBS Arabic section’s music, talks, and entertainment programming, as did frequent incorporation of Palestinian dialects, especially in songs. Along with Radio Cairo and, to a lesser extent, the Near East Arab Broadcasting Service and the BBC’s Arabic Service, the PBS played a critical role in establishing radio as a key platform for Arab-world intellectuals, writers and poets, and musicians and singers.
The Station’s Legacy
After the Mandate officially ended, the PBS fell under dual control. The nascent Israeli government seized the broadcasting house in Jerusalem, and the transmitter, engineering, and back-up broadcasting facilities in Ramallah were taken over by Jordan. Station officials, broadcasters, and musicians who had fled Palestine found positions in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria — like Hazem Nusseibeh, who worked at the Ramallah station and later moved into Jordanian government service, and composer and organ player Salvador Arnita, who found a position at the American University of Beirut. Although the PBS had gone off-air with the Nakba, its former employees continued to influence cultural, musical, and literary developments throughout the Levant.
Boulos, Issa. “The Palestinian Music-making Experience in the West Bank, 1920s to 1959: Nationalism, Colonialism, and Identity.” Doctoral diss., Leiden University, November 2020.
Sahhab, Elias. “This is Radio Jerusalem . . . 1936.” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 20 (2004): 52-55.
Stanton, Andrea. “Situating Radio in the Soundscape of Mandate Jerusalem.” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 86 (Summer 2021): 97-116.
Stanton, Andrea. This is Jerusalem Calling: State Broadcasting in Mandate Palestine. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.