The world is in a state of upheaval, and many tried and true institutions are suddenly being put into question. In the field of international broadcasting, one of the questions being asked is the viability of Shortwave radio in the age of satellites and the Internet.
Virtually every leading international broadcaster is considering this question, and that includes NEXUS-IBA. We have been in contact with other organisations, and have also sought the advice of leading independent specialists in this field, to formulate our picture of the trends. Very importantly, we have been careful to distil truth from fiction and wishful thinking in drawing our conclusions.
In our view, there can be no direct replacement of Shortwave as the first line of international broadcasting, especially for most of Africa, some regions in Asia, Pacific and South America and worldwide in case of political or religious instability, regional or widespread conflict and calamities. Even in the most developed countries in North America and Europe shortwave still reaches a niche group of information savvy, culture and news addict people in search of first-hand news and information not available elsewhere. At the same time, we acknowledge that satellites and the Internet do have their place and have become increasingly important somewhere down the road.
It is not our intention to hinder progress. Although Shortwave has been a mainstay of our operations for almost three decades now, we were very quick and early in identifying the growing potential of new technologies and were the first broadcasting organisation in Europe to offer streaming media via the Internet as early as 1994.
In our investigations, we have become very concerned about certain commercial forces that would attempt to depict satellite and other technologies as a panacea. Based on the experience of other broadcasters and the thoughts of other qualified observers in this field, we caution against a full transition into these new audio technologies at the expense of Shortwave. Certain international broadcasters already fell into this trap, and now, unfortunately, some may regret it. Once a shortwave station has been demolished. Unfortunately, it will be quite long and very expensive to bring it back on the air.
The importance of Shortwave radio broadcasting
There is much pessimistic talk today about the validity of shortwave as a vehicle of international broadcasting. Critics present several arguments: high operating costs, environmental considerations, a need to re-channel available funds into satellites and the Internet, and what is loosely termed a decline in shortwave. From the broadcast planner and decision-maker, this catalogue of negative arguments appears sound and reasonable. From the perspective of a large segment of the audience, however, reductions in shortwave services are inexplicable and a source of frustration and even anger.
We are in a period of restructuring, a contemporary buzzword that is used and abused so frequently as a catch-all excuse to justify virtually any action taken by management, regardless of how inappropriate. The media are ruled so-called market forces. Radio and television no long produce programs, but products. Today there are no listeners; there are markets.
Superficially, the cost of shortwave as compared to satellite, local FM, AM (Medium Wave) program distribution or internet streaming appears higher. But if the factors of market penetration and acceptability are considered, as well as the crucial factor of personal cost to the listener, shortwave wins hands down. There are millions of shortwave receivers in use. They are compact, portable, easy to use, and above all, cheap. Technically speaking, there is no other sound broadcasting medium that can compete with shortwave in these respects.
Overall in this short analysis, we consider analogue shortwave vs other media intended for international broadcasting, as opposed to digital shortwave, or DRM. Unless there are mass availability and penetration of low cost and technically viable DRM receivers, it is our opinion that digital shortwave will remain – unfortunately – a mere scientific experiment.
The mobility factor
Mobility is a huge advantage in shortwave and another striking deficiency in satellite sound broadcasting and Internet streaming. Current technology does not permit us to carry a satellite or internet receiver in our pocket and take it along on our travels. Reception of continuous audio or video streaming on mobile phones or internet radio devices in mobility is mostly unaffordable or technically unreliable in most parts of the world, because of widespread unavailability of high-speed internet, high wireless internet costs and high battery consumption. Cable distribution of international programs is often cited as a promising alternative to direct home satellite reception, but here too, cable installations are fixed; they cannot be used away from the home setting.
The political, religious and emergency factor
Perhaps the most important reason of retaining redundant capabilities of shortwave broadcasting to the exterior is that radio broadcasts operated from shortwave transmitters and directional antennas may reach areas that may be sealed from other media (paper, local radio & TV, Internet) and will overcome any permanent or temporary ban (i.e. in case of elections) of using local media to carry international or foreign programs. Although the use of shortwave nationally is not common, there are countries (i.e. Peru, India, Africa) where shortwave is also used nationally and can be used in emergencies to reach a very wide area even with a single transmitter.
Be it for reasons of foreign politics, religious proselytism or even for reason goodwill, retaining and maintaining shortwave broadcasting capability guarantees free flow of information, which may be a necessity in time of conflict or emergency, in order to reach a foreign audience, our own citizens or our group members, both inland and abroad.
The cost factor
Analogue shortwave receivers (sometimes called “world radios”) are cheap and affordable. Currently, Amazon carries shortwave receivers starting from about US$ 15.00. Less expensive radio receivers are available in Asia from manufacturers in China and Taiwan. Higher quality shortwave PLL receivers with digital frequency readout cost around US$ 100 and more for professional radios. This is far below the cost of a computer, a smartphone, tablet, TV or satellite receiver and makes shortwave receivers affordable even to the poorest segments of the world populations in Africa and Asia.
Billions of dollars have been invested in telecommunication satellite technology. It is elementary that the investors expect a return on their investments, and considering the limited life span of satellites, this return must be as fast as possible. The main thrust of broadcasting today is television, and it was for television that the current broadcast satellite technology was designed. In concrete terms, the concept of transmission capacity for these satellites was designed with TV in mind, not radio. Sound Broadcasting, to use the ITU terminology, was promoted later as a way to merchandise over-capacity and to improve the return on investment.
Furthermore accessing sound channels on satellites is user-unfriendly, and therefore unattractive for most people. Although impressive statistics based on satellite-households are often quoted to support the satellite radio argument, only a very tiny fragment of this potential audience ever listens to radio via satellite. In Europe, where direct satellite radio is allegedly highly developed, only a few per cent of satellite households ever use their satellite receiver for sound broadcasting.
As far as satellite TV programming the matter is not quite the potential audience that may be reached using a constellation of satellites to cover the entire globe, where a single shortwave transmitter could cover all. But rather the point is who watches satellite TV, not who can watch it. Again, as we will see for other media, satellite TV reception is not generally available in most parts of Africa and the poorest regions in Asia.
Since around the year 2000 the progressive use of internet radio & video streaming, as well as text content delivery (news portals) have been a cheap way for international broadcasters to replace shortwave broadcasting. The week point of Internet delivery is that Internet is confined still to less than a world average of 35.6% (source: 2012 World Development Indicators, http://databank.worldbank.org), with much less than 10% in most countries in Africa and Asia. Only in the largest towns in Africa, and mainly in the northern Mediterranean areas, the Internet is becoming more available. Still, the Internet may be easily censored or controlled, as in China, Iran, or access to internet streaming content can be limited or unavailable due to severe bandwidth capacity problems.
FM and AM relays for international broadcasting
Standard AM and FM stations lose their power as their signals dissipate along the ground over long distances. In shortwave, the opposite is true. The earth is encased in an invisible covering of gases called the Ionosphere. This acts as a mirror, reflecting shortwave signals to Earth, thus making it possible to cover vast distances with a single transmitter. This is why shortwave is so efficient and cost-effective in covering large regions and populations that would not be covered with a single FM, AM or a network of FM transmitters.
Moreover as proven by several International broadcasters, laws and political situations may vary in time and under political or war circumstances so to limit the use of local stations by foreign broadcasters or by local political or religious groups to the ruling party. Shortwave can be operated from several thousand kilometres away of the target and can be made almost immune from interferences and jamming, using careful frequency selection and monitoring.
Like it or not, from a purely technical point of view, the fact is, there is nothing at this moment to replace shortwave. One day there may be. In the meantime, it is good and wise to gain a foothold in the new technologies, and complement the use of shortwave with internet streaming, satellite, AM and FM relays, and maybe experiment with DRM, but not to overestimate or over-represent their value. If market orientation is truly important, then we would have to admit that the demand is still for alternative sources of news and information delivered by shortwave in poor, remote and developing countries and elsewhere in situations of emergency, and political or religious conflicts.
To quote the old saying: “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Another popular and wise saying is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. We are in favour of new technology, provided it demonstrates a clear superiority to what is currently in use. In the case of analogue shortwave, some would like to bury it before it has even died.
NEXUS-International Broadcasting Association (NEXUS-IBA) is a non-profit association of international broadcasters and program producers founded in 1990 in Milan, Italy. NEXUS-IBA aims to provide all necessary means at our disposal for the effective dissemination of content on radio, the Internet and any media in general. To fulfil its aims, NEXUS-IBA also offers its technical facilities, as well as consulting services to medium and large organisations on broadcasting and emerging media technologies.
People working and volunteering for NEXUS-IBA are professionals, teachers, university professors and researchers, journalists, students and engineers, some of them devoting their spare time and resources as a public service to the global community. On June 15, 1995, NEXUS-International Broadcasting Association was officially approved for association with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, and since 1988 it has been active in promoting the work and activities of its membership through radio, TV and the Internet.