London — In the Middle East, India, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where two-thirds of the globe's people live, the primary weapon of persuasion and propaganda is not newspapers or television. It is radio.
The number of radio sets has leaped from 250 million 25 years ago to more than 1 1/4 billion today, many of them shortwave. More than 80 countries now aim broadcasts abroad.
The Soviet Union, long alert to the trend, is well into a massive program to dominate shortwave bands. It leads all other countries in beaming 2,148 program hours a week in 84 languages around the world as of June 1982 -- the equivalent of almost three months of 24-hour-a-day radio every seven days.
The United States is in second place -- 1,988 hours, but in only 48 languages. If taken together, the countries of Eastern Europe (heavily influenced by Moscow) come next with 1,653 hours in 27 languages. Then come China (1,304 hours in 46 languages) and West Germany (786 hours in 39 languages).
Only then comes the external service of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, with 725 hours in 37 languages. Yet, in the overall effort of Western democracies to counteract the outpourings of Soviet and Chinese ideas, the BBC has a special place.
Unlike Radio Moscow, unlike China, and often more than the VOA and West Germany's Deutsche Welle (German Wave), the BBC is believed.
It seems a paradox, but its credibility has risen even as Britain's world role has diminished. Today the BBC lays claim to world leadership in broadcasting influence and reputation.
External service managing director Douglas Muggeridge (nephew of Malcolm Muggeridge) estimated in an interview that the BBC's regular listening audience is also larger than all others -- 100 million people.
''Britain still has something to give the world,'' he remarked in his office at Bush House in the Aldwych, London. ''It is our 400 years of parliamentary democracy, our tradition of skills and ideas, that is the basis of what we do. . . .''
A member of the Russian service comments: ''The BBC is a bureaucracy and it moves slowly at times. Sometimes I want to shake it -- but there's something in this building. Call it balance, call it honesty. . . . I am not sure what it is. But it's good.''
The external service (the World Service is the name of its English-language arm) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It remains a much-copied model as well as a primary teller of facts in an age in which more and more countries are trying to control what people know.
Mr. Muggeridge sees three reasons for its stature: the transistor revolution, which has hung radios around the necks of camels in remote deserts; the speed with which a lot of the world has gone totalitarian and must turn to outside sources for facts; and the perceived freedom of the BBC from government editorial control.
Open government pressure to support the Suez invasion of 1956 contrasts with a total lack of government interference during the Falklands campaign in 1982.
In 1956, the Arabic service was accused of undercutting the Suez invasion by reporting widespread opposition to it within Britain, and the Foreign Office announced an overall budget cut (never carried through) of (STR)1 million (about programs, but not the external service.
As before, the BBC stood firm -- and was seen to have stood firm - in its coverage. The Defense Ministry had to launch its own propaganda Radio Atlantico del Sur to the Falklands, which assured Argentine troops, among other things, that British guns could fire through walls.
So potent is the BBC mix and balance that the Soviet Union is jamming the BBC Russian and Polish services hard. Aug. 20 marks the second anniversary of jamming inside the USSR to prevent news of Poland reaching Russian ears. Broadcasts to Poland have been jammed since December.
The Russians spend more in six days on jamming the BBC than the BBC Russian service budget for a whole year -- (STR)900,000 (about $1.53 million).
The BBC cites proudly one Soviet description of its Russian service: ''A subtle tool for influencing the minds of listeners . . . utilized in accordance with a Jesuitically refined method by the English bourgeoisie, the oldest in the world.''
During the Falklands campaign, Argentina jammed the BBC Latin American service in Spanish. Nineteen radio stations in Argentina and eight other hemisphere countries repeatedly telephoned the BBC for an accurate picture.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then a number of countries are rushing to flatter the BBC. Both France and Japan are working hard to set up world radio services of their own, France by 1985-86, Japan by the end of the decade. Spain is said to have similar plans.
Radio Moscow has obviously patterned its English-language service on the BBC World Service. The chimes of the Spassky Tower clock in the Kremlin substitute for Big Ben on the hour. News bulletins are carbon copies of the familiar BBC format, down to, ''Here are the headlines again.''
Not that the BBC is unduly worried by Soviet competition. ''Radio Moscow is immensely boring,'' says Latin America service chief Alberto Palaus. ''It preaches to the converted.''
The BBC's reputation was forged during World War II, when it recorded the Dunkirks as well as the D-days. The BBC emerged with the reputation it has held ever since. It was enhanced by its scrupulously even-handed coverage of the Falklands campaign, including losses of British ships and planes.
But the external service faces challenges as well. It needs more money, newer and stronger transmitters, and continued vigilance against government interference.
As part of the overall BBC, it has a tradition of editorial independence. Mr. Muggeridge says he was not approached even once during the Falklands war to broadcast any kind of special news or slant.
But the overseas service budget comes from parliamentary vote and is channeled through the Foreign Office. Perhaps nowhere else could a radio network be financed by the government yet demand, and receive, editorial freedom from that same government. (The BBC's domestic services are funded more independently -- largely through license fees on radio and television sets.)
Yet Britain is in recession. Last year, as part of a general cutback, the government tried to eliminate seven language services and the department that sells program recordings around the world.
After a long fight, the BBC saved Burmese, Somali, and half each of Portugese-to-Latin America and French-to-Europe. It rescued half its sales department. In a separate development, it managed to add Pashto to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it lost Spanish-to-Europe (which meant no factual counterpoint to often flagrantly inaccurate Spanish support of Argentina during the Falklands campaign), Italian-to-Europe, and Maltese. This reduced external service's annual program budget of (STR)50 million by (STR)1.5 million.
The Foreign Office argued that these services were expendable. Mr. Muggeridge replies that cutbacks make little sense at a time when the Soviets, the French, the Japanese, and others are expanding their budgets for prestige and propaganda reasons.
A continuing worry is ancient transmitters, while those of the Soviets and others get louder and louder. A (STR)100 million replacement program will take until 1990 to complete.
Next: What makes the BBC so credible.