Once the only tool, shortwave is now just one of many in the distribution toolbox. But when, where, and how much the BBG should use SW has become a hot topic…
Shortwave. It’s among the most hotly debated topics inside and outside the BBG. Once the single go-to method of distribution, the medium is now just one of many tools employed by BBG broadcasters.
The debate on the funding and promise of shortwave merits careful research and analysis as well as accurate data. Readers of online commentary may struggle to sort fact from fiction, so here’s a breakdown of recent arguments.
The Argument: The BBG Wants to Eliminate Not Just Shortwave, but Eliminate All Radio
The Facts: This is fiction. More than 30 million people each week listen to BBG broadcasters on shortwave, and more than 100 million on all radio combined. Neither the strategic plan nor the budget calls for eliminating shortwave radio, medium wave (AM) radio, or FM radio.
What the BBG aims to do is use the appropriate distribution method for the market. We’ve used the term “platform agnostic.” In other words, we’ll use whatever works. Keep in mind that Radio Free Europe once famously used weather balloons to drop leaflets over Prague.
Shortwave use is down drastically worldwide, but still viable in a handful of countries such as Nigeria, Niger, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Burma. In those places, we will continue to use it. In places such as China, with scant use of shortwave and regular, effective jamming of our broadcasts, the BBG recommended a decrease, but not elimination of, shortwave to redirect funds that favor a mix of delivery options that includes satellite radio and TV, and new media.
In China, multiple research studies show that all weekly radio listening stands at about 8%. Shortwave listening stands at less than a half of 1%. FM is at 7%; medium wave (AM) less.
The BBG continues to use shortwave where it is viable. It will also use shortwave as a medium of last resort to target audiences in closed societies such as North Korea.
Worth noting is that the BBG is not alone in its assessment of shortwave. Other international broadcasters such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio France International, and Radio Canada International have arrived at similar conclusions and are employing similar approaches. Given the strong trend away from shortwave usage, international broadcasters need to deliver content on the mediums that target audiences use, whether they be traditional radio or television, or emerging new media and digital platforms.
The Argument: If There is No Future in Shortwave, Why is China So Interested?
The Facts: Yes, China does appear interested in shortwave – with two different motives. First, China State Radio has set up a network of shortwave transmitters nationwide – on the exact frequency that the BBG uses to try to reach the Chinese population.
With radio and shortwave use so low in China, one can surmise that the network exists primarily to jam outsiders, which they do with great effect.
Second, China has stated that it wants to be a worldwide player in media, investing a reported $6-$7 billion to do so. If those numbers are correct, China has the financial resources to tolerate fractional returns on its investment.
The Argument: Shortwave Cannot Be Jammed, But Satellite Can Be Jammed and the Internet Can Be Blocked
The Facts: This is fiction. The overwhelming majority of our shortwave transmissions to China are indeed routinely jammed. While it is possible, and even likely, that some individuals in remote rural locations might be able to listen to our broadcasts, the reality is that in most cases, the signals, as far as the vast majority of the Chinese population are concerned, are either inaudible or replaced by Chinese government broadcasts. BBG monitoring of these broadcasts confirm this, and samples are available here.
Governments that want to control what their citizens can hear or see can block or jam any medium if they have the resources to do so. The BBG is not naïve about the difficulties it faces in reaching citizens in China or other closed societies. It does believe, however, that it should us all tools at its disposal.
Satellite jamming, for example, is so far a practice only of rogue states. China is yet to take that step.
In China, there are more than 100 million satellite dishes. With that information, the BBG has created a satellite delivered audio stream augmented with still pictures. It is delivering a crystal clear signal into China at a cost of about $250,000 a year. Shortwave transmissions to China currently cost the BBG $7 million annually.
Further, VOA plans to expand satellite television programming to China in an effort to reach its citizens.
The Argument: At Any Given Moment, There Are One Billion Shortwave Receivers Turned On Worldwide
The Facts: This statistic, attributed to the International Broadcasting Bureau, was posted on the website of World Christian Broadcasting in a post called “Why Shortwave?”
The post was used to criticize BBG strategy. After all, why would the BBG recommend sun-setting of some shortwave when its own data pointed to wide use?
The IBB was very surprised by the attribution and could not find any study that supported the data point.
When contacted by the BBG, World Christian Broadcasting president Charles H. Caudill said that the post had been on the site “for some time,” and the organization could not verify where the ‘one billion’ data had come from.
World Christian Broadcasting has since removed the data point and its attribution to the IBB, as well as another data point that claimed 60 million shortwave radios in the Western Hemisphere, from its website.
The Argument: IBB’s Greenville, North Carolina Shortwave Transmitting Station Should Be Used to Serve Egypt
The Facts: Possible, but not an optimal use of BBG assets.
Cairo is 9580 kilometers from Greenville, requiring three or four hops off the ionosphere to get a signal into the city. Meanwhile, we have a state-of-the-art steerable antenna in Kuwait that is 1616 kilometers from Cairo.
Comparing the two, it would take 35 times more power to reach Cairo from Greenville than from Kuwait. The BBG’s variable cost for the Cairo transmission would be $6 per hour, but $31 from Greenville. Shortwave from Greenville would result in an inferior signal at a higher price.
The primary question regarding Egypt is whether the BBG should use shortwave at all to target a market dominated by satellite television.
2010 data showed about 5% of the population used shortwave on a weekly basis. In cities like Cairo, with a plethora of media options, that percentage would slide even lower.
The BBG reaches Egypt via Alhurra, a 24/7 satellite television channel, and Radio Sawa on medium wave (AM). 2010 data shows that 76% of Egyptians own a satellite dish and 32% use medium wave (AM) weekly.
The Facts: Radio – including shortwave – remains a viable tool for BBG broadcasters. The decision to use shortwave will be driven by target audience habits, market forces, and available transmission opportunities in each individual market.