by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
July 14-15, 2001
BBC PULLS THE PLUG ON SHORTWAVE LISTENERS by Randolph T. Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In the summer of 1984, I was living in Wolfeboro Falls, N.H., near Lake Winnipesaukee. It was a dead zone for television and radio and the Boston papers just barely made it up there.
Starved for information, I decided to try a new medium. Radio Shack had a multi-band radio with shortwave on sale for $50, so I bought it. Armed with an old copy of the World Radio and Television Handbook, I started twisting the dial and heard a new world open up.
I discovered the excellent news programs on the BBC World Service, Radio Canada International, Deutche Welle and Radio Netherlands. I started listening to baseball games on Armed Forces Radio. In a place where tv (unless you had a satellite dish or a very large antenna) was a rumor, shortwave was the way to go. Even with a less-than-state-of-the-art radio, I had news and information at my fingertips.
The habit was reinforced a few months later when I entered a listener contest that Deutche Welle put on and ended up winning a Grundig portable shortwave radio which I still use today. No matter where I lived in New England over the past 15 years, shortwave radio was an important source of news.
And the most important source of news on shortwave is the BBC World Service, which was founded in 1932 and broadcasts in 43 languages to more than 153 million listeners around the world. It has more reporters in more places covering more international news than any other broadcaster in the world. Its signature news programs, "Newshour" and "The World Today," are quite simply the best and most comprehensive news programs in any medium. But the World Service is more than news. It's also has arts programs like "Outlook" and "Meridian" and literary programs such as "Off the Shelf" and "Short Story." And then there's John Peel's music show, where you can get a first listen to the pop music you'll be eventually hearing on American radio.
If you're fortunate enough to live near a public radio station that rebroadcasts some of the BBC programs, you'll agree that what the BBC does is head, shoulders and torso above any other broadcaster in the world. But to really appreciate the full range of the World Service, you have to hear directly from London.
You could, until July 1.=
That's when the BBC decided to drop direct shortwave broadcasts to North America. Their reasoning is that between the Internet, the still-new medium of satellite radio and the public radio stations that air some of the World Service's programs, there's no need to maintain shortwave service to the U.S. and Canada. In the process, it hopes to save about $750,000 annually (a fraction of its annual $270 million budget) that can be devoted to other programming for the developing world.
The BBC's decision to abandon more than 1.2 million listeners in North America didn't get a great deal of attention in the American press. But for the people who've depended on the World Service for news and cultural programing, it is an insult.
The BBC's Website (http://www.bbc.co.uk) is a wonderfully comprehensive site, but it can only accommodate about 20,000 listeners atany one time. Listening to the BBC or any other radio station online is anoption only if you have a fast computer and a cable modem or a DSL line. Italso seems sort of dumb to be using a $1,500 computer to do the job a $100radio can do, not to mention a radio sounds a lot better than the audio from a computer. As for the "you can listen to the BBC on public radio argument," once again it depends on where you live.
Of the 220 public radio stationsin the U.S. that the BBC says carries its programs, about 100 of thembroadcast it only between 12 midnight and 6 a.m. Where I live, VermontPublic Radio carries one hour of BBC news weekdays at 5 a.m. New HampshirePublic Radio carries two hours of BBC programming between 10 p.m. and 12midnight weekdays. That's it.
For me here in Vermont, I can pick up some of the BBC's frequencies aimed at the Caribbean or their Western European frequencies, depending on weather and atmospheric conditions. West Coast listeners have a shot at picking up the Asian frequencies. Listeners in the Midwest and Canada will have a great deal more trouble picking up any of the BBC's programs. In short, access to the BBC will be a lot more sporadic for North American shortwave listeners.
Shortwave broadcasting is hardly dying. Grundig says it sells a million shortwave portable radios a year. Sony and Sangean (who makes Radio Shack's shortwave receivers) report similar sales growth. This growth comes despite the thinking of most American media outlets that Americans are uninterested in international news.
Those who really want to know what'shappening in the world, especially when there is a major international news story, know that they will find out more and will find out faster on the shortwave. That's one reason why shortwave sales exploded in the U.S. during the Gulf War.
Sadly, it's not just the BBC that's cutting back on shortwave.Radio Canada International has been facing financial troubles since the mid-1980s, and recently canceled all of its weekend programming. Radio Austria International has had its budget cut in half. And the Voice ofAmerica has sharply cutback its programming over the past decade.
This is shortsighted. Government-sponsored international broadcasting still has a role in the Internet age. Radio is still the dominant medium in the developing world and in the developed world, it is the medium that is the most portable and most ubiquitous.
Fortunately, the BBC's management is coming under fire at home from Parliament and the Foreign Office for the decision to drop North Americanservice. The feeling is that the BBC World Service contributes greatly tomaintaining the respect and positive public image of Britain, and that itwould be foolish to back away from that.
On this side of the Atlantic, the Save the BBC Website(http://www.savebbc.org) run by Ralph Brandi, an Internet engineer from NewJersey and a passionate fan of the World Service, has lots of informationon the campaign to restore full North American service. With enough public pressure, perhaps the BBC may reconsider itsdecision to throw away almost 70 years of broadcasting tradition for thesake of less than a million dollars of savings.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).