BBC World Service to cut English HF Broadcasts.
Regular listeners to the BBC on HF will be surprised to learn that
English language broadcasts will be virtually eliminated July 1st. The
folks at Bush House in London think we all have cable modems and will
get Aunty Beeb on our computers. Maybe they also believe computers
never crash, the internet always works and that we can plug in our
modems while away on camping trips. Just as portable HF receivers are
cheap and easy to use, they abandon a reliable communications mode on
the whim of some internet puppy. Dumb and dumber.
Tom Turner, VO1TV
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Tuesday, May 22, 2001
From Shortwave to New Wave
Radio: BBC pulls the plug on 1930s technology by moving its World
Service to the Internet in North America.
By DAVID COLKER, Times Staff Writer
From 1932 until long after the sun set on the British empire, the
BBC World Service--with its sonorous and reassuring "This is London"
at the top of each hour--was heard around the globe via shortwave
June 30 will bring the end of that era in North America when the
grand dame of international broadcasting shuts down its shortwave
transmitters serving the United States and Canada as well as vast
areas of the Pacific. Instead, the venerable broadcaster will
distribute its 24-hour service online.
"What we are not doing is saying shortwave is dead," said Jerry
Timmins, head of the Americas region for the BBC World Service. "The
vast majority of our listeners still access us on shortwave. But a
shift is happening, no question about it."
Shortwave radio--the once ubiquitous voice of colonial empire,
international intrigue and Cold War propaganda--is falling victim to
the rise of the Internet, a medium that's cheaper to run and often
more convenient for listeners.
The BBC follows the Voice of America, which already has ended its
shortwave broadcasts to the once-pivotal ideological battleground of
Central Europe. Smaller operations have made even more drastic cuts.
Swiss Radio International has dropped 80% of shortwave programming in
favor of the Internet.
In an age of instant satellite broadcasts and international jet
travel, the fading of shortwave marks the passing of a romantic time
when a faint and tinny voice might serve as the only link to a home
half a world away.
When the BBC began broadcasting what was originally called the
Empire Service, it was the first live voice many listeners heard from
a distant land. During World War II, Allied broadcasts offered hope to
occupied Europe. Today, it remains a vital link to the outside world
for countries isolated geographically, economically or ideologically.
But shortwave is expensive to operate. Swiss Radio International,
for instance, spent more than a third of its $20-million annual budget
leasing transmitters in South America. And in many developed and
developing countries, more people have computers than shortwave
radios. For shortwave broadcasters making the leap to the Internet,
it's common sense--and survival.
In the last year, the number of people accessing the World
Service online doubled, according to a BBC study, helping the service
reach an all-time high of 153 million weekly listeners. The Voice of
America Web site includes not only continuous streaming of its
broadcasts, but also video of its announcers.
But online radio comes with its own set of problems. Although
newer computers running the latest software can handle streaming
signals fairly easily, machines just a couple of years old can be
difficult to configure. Also, unlike portable shortwave radios, home
computers are generally tied to telephone or cable lines--making it
tough to listen to a broadcast in the kitchen.
And the model is practical only in places such as the U.S. where
Internet access is cheap and reliable. In many countries--even
developed nations--unlimited service for a flat monthly fee is
Shortwave broadcasters are increasingly partnering with foreign
FM and AM stations to pick up their feeds, but this rebroadcast
distribution is spotty. For example, the BBC is heard via satellite on
numerous public radio stations in the United States including,
locally, KCSN-FM (88.5) in Northridge and KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena.
But neither of these stations gives the proud BBC anything like prime
time--both program it in the after-midnight hours.
On the Internet, however, the World Service is always there, live
and ready to be accessed by anyone with a fairly new home computer and
the free software needed to run streaming audio. Most shortwave sites
also feature an extensive audio-on-demand archive of programs. The BBC
even makes its most recent top-of-the-hour news broadcast accessible
any time that hour.
On-air announcements of the BBC shortwave cutbacks are scheduled
to begin this month, Timmins said, and they are not likely to be
received kindly by stalwart listeners. "The World Service generates
enormous loyalty," Timmins said. In 1996, when cost-cutting British
officials proposed internal changes in the service, protests were
voiced by such luminaries as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
Shortwave radio grew in popularity in the 1930s because it could
cover a much wider area than AM or FM signals. By bouncing signals off
Earth's ionosphere, shortwave broadcasters were able to beam their
If a day can be pinpointed when the mystique of shortwave began
to die, it was July 10, 1962, when Telstar, the first communications
satellite, relayed a broadcast to France. In the following years,
high-quality radio and television broadcasts from far reaches of the
globe became common. Satellites also made telephone communications
more efficient and cheaper.
These relayed broadcasts were not only of far better quality,
they were much more dependable and did not have to rely on dizzying
schedules of frequency shifts tailored to changes in ionospheric
Internet broadcasting is cheaper and simpler still, and offers
users considerably more flexibility in when they want to hear certain
Nonetheless, some shortwave broadcasters--especially those that
don't specifically target the United States, where shortwave has not
been a popular medium for decades--have assured listeners they will
maintain their broadcast schedule, even while bolstering their online
"We have no plans to cut back on shortwave," said Peter
Verschoor, head of Radio Netherlands' online service. "Radio
Netherlands serves certain areas, like Indonesia, where there are many
people who do not have Internet connections. For them, we provide
basic communication about the world."
Radio Australia, which primarily aims its shortwave broadcasts
toward the Asian Pacific, is in a similar situation. "In the United
States you are used to getting onto the Internet for as long as you
want," said Jean-Gabriel Manguy, head of RA. "But in many other
countries you pay by the minutes and seconds. It makes it very
"In a place like Fiji, you pay for an international phone call
just to log on. No one is going to listen to streaming audio there for
long." Nonetheless, RA streams online continuously, not only in
English, but also in Chinese, Indonesian and Tok Pisin, which is
spoken in Papua New Guinea.
Deutsche Welle Radio of Germany streams in all 31 of its
broadcast languages, including Sanskrit, an ancient language of India
now largely unused. But DW is not contemplating a shortwave cutback.
"Shortwave would probably not be the best way to reach an audience in
the U.S., but for much of the rest of the world it makes sense," said
Holger Hank of DW.
The savings of online distribution are formidable. Before its
cutbacks, Swiss Radio International spent $7 million just to lease and
use transmitters to target South America.
"We have cut out all our Spanish and Portuguese programs," said
Peter Hufschmid, director of multimedia at SRI. Within two or three
years, the service will also phase out German, French and Italian,
even though they are the official languages of Switzerland.
"The only language we are keeping is English," said Hufschmid.
"The political interest of Switzerland is strongly geared to North
America. That might be why English is so important to the politicians
in this country who give us the money to fund the service."
In Central Europe, the Voice of America is primarily distributing
to partner stations via satellite. But the VOA has also begun posting
its programming in Polish, Hungarian, Czech and other languages to its
site in MP3 format, which provides better audio quality.
"I'm convinced we have more listeners in those languages now,"
said VOA director Sanford Ungar. And so shortwave will hold on at
least for the foreseeable future. But its days as a major medium for
state-owned international broadcasters probably are numbered. Ungar
feels no nostalgia in the face of its probable passing.
"I think that if the signal is clearer and easier to tune in,
that's progress, whether it's on a radio station or a Web site," he
said. "Maybe there are some people who think it's romantic to have
trouble hearing the radio, but not me."