Whatever Happened to Shortwave Radio?

As recently as 25 years ago, shortwave radio was a preferred source of breaking international news in North America.

Most hours of the day, the BBC World Service boomed in, especially at night on 6175 kHz. There was also Radio Moscow — once the mouthpiece of old-style Soviet propaganda — the Voice of America, Radio Netherlands, Deutsche Welle from West Germany and Radio Berlin International from East Germany.

If you wanted to know what was happening in Cuba, Tel Aviv or what was then called Bombay, you could tune to Radio Havana, Kol Yisrael or All India Radio directly.

120 million people

At the time, the BBC estimated global shortwave listenership to be in excess of 120 million people weekly. Granted, most of that audience was outside of North America. But back when there was no awareness of the Internet and no international satellite TV, shortwave was where many news-hungry North Americans went first.

Scan across the shortwave bands and you’ll find that much has changed. In North America and Europe, many of the major broadcasters have disappeared or minimized their presence. In fact, the BBC World Service no longer beams programming via shortwave to the Americas or most of Europe.

“There has been a massive decline in shortwave listenership, especially in Europe and North America,” said Andy Sennitt. He is one of the world’s most respected experts on shortwave radio and the editor in charge of the Radio Netherlands Worldwide “Media Network” Web site.

“Media Network” began in 1981 as a weekly shortwave program; in 2000 that show ended in favor of its current online presence.

“Other regions vary from country to country,” said Sennitt. “Shortwave is still significant in much of Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America.”

What changed?

It is easy to blame the Internet and international satellite television for the decline in shortwave radio listenership. But shortwave was in trouble before these new media took hold, said Larry Magne.

He is publisher of Passport to World Band Radio, the annual shortwave radio tuning guide that thrived for 25 years but suspended publication in 2009.

“We reached an apex in shortwave radio listenership in 1989, when the Cold War ended,” said Magne. “Shortwave audiences have been in decline since then.”

“AM broadcasting is expensive, and, since the end of the Cold War, many Western governments don’t see the need to spend large amounts on transmitting their output on shortwave,” said Sennitt. “As a result, some have closed down their shortwave services altogether. Others have created satellite services and/or partner with local stations in key targets, and most now stream their programming on the Internet.”

Magne said he believes it was the BBC World Service that speeded shortwave’s decline in North America. In 2001, then-BBC World Service Director Mark Byford decided that local AM/FM rebroadcasting, satellite radio and the emerging Internet made it possible to stop shortwave broadcasts to North America. (Byford is now BBC deputy director general.)

The move, hotly contested by avid shortwave listeners, had a domino effect.

“After the BBC ended its North American broadcasts, other broadcasters followed suit,” said Magne. “The result is that North Americans don’t get much in the way of shortwave programming these days. Spectrum that once carried international news and programming is now host to U.S. fundamentalist religious stations.”

Kim Andrew Elliott, a former VOA contributor who reports on international broadcasting at his Web site, www.kimandrewelliott.com, adds that BBC World Service was attracting more listeners via U.S. public radio stations than via shortwave when the shutdown occurred. “Those FM listeners are, however, not exposed to as wide a variety of BBC programming than was available on shortwave,” he said.

In Elliott’s day job as audience research analyst for the International Broadcasting Bureau, he has seen audiences migrate to FM overseas as well.

“For example, a 2009 survey shows that of Cambodians who listen to VOA Khmer, 63 percent do so via FM affiliates in the country, 31 percent via the medium-wave relay from Thailand, and only 6 percent via shortwave,” Elliott said.

He also noted that in a 2003 survey in India, 7 percent of respondents said they listened to shortwave radio yesterday, and 7 percent to FM. By 2008, that changed to 18 percent for FM and 2 percent for shortwave.

(Under current broadcasting rules, private FM stations in India cannot carry news programming, which means VOA, BBC, RFI and other international broadcasters do not have local FM partners, as they do in other nations.)

International radio now

Today, the BBC and other international radio broadcasters are indeed available on the Web and satellite radio. But most of the attention that went to radio services is now directed toward Web sites and international television stations.

Meanwhile, the attempt to save money by distributing international programs to domestic broadcasters is backfiring, said German shortwave expert Kai Ludwig.

“Often they cease because the programming from the foreign broadcaster is just no longer considered as appealing,” said Ludwig. “For example, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty lost its full-coverage FM rebroadcasts in Ukraine when their partner station reformatted to adult contemporary music.”

Even when domestic stations do carry international radio programs, they cannot match the coverage and reach of shortwave radio, he added. “Online streaming is of course a valuable addition, but here the competition is just overwhelming.”

Meanwhile, the religious stations that have moved onto shortwave do not appear to be making money from it.

“Are people listening? The answer can be found in such developments like Christian Vision withdrawing its programming from transmitters in Germany and Australia; HCJB not replacing the shortwave plant it recently closed in Ecuador, and Evangeliums-Rundfunk, the German partner of Trans World Radio no longer using shortwave,” Ludwig said.

Digital shortwave

There had been hopes that digital shortwave receivers using the Digital Radio Mondiale standard, which do not suffer analog shortwave’s traditional audio problems, would be the savior of the medium.

Unfortunately, “DRM was a decade too late, and badly marketed,” said Sennitt. “It has its uses for specialist tasks — such as Radio New Zealand delivering its shortwave programs to Pacific partner stations — but as a mainstream shortwave broadcasting platform it’s as dead as a dodo. ... The other problem, of course, is that the shortwave receiver companies didn’t keep their side of the bargain to develop affordable mass-produced DRM receivers.”

The HCJB shortwave transmission site outside Quito, Ecuador.
As well, “in many cases I’ve heard DRM stations using telephone-grade bitrates because it’s the only thing that would get through to the target,” said Elliott. “Higher bitrates, with better audio, often don’t get through.” Given these facts, Andy Sennitt said he expects “shortwave broadcasting to Europe and North America will be almost totally phased out, but there will still be shortwave services to Africa and parts of Asia.” These services will continue until those regions develop radio, TV and Internet infrastructures akin to the developed world.

Irreplaceable advantage

For all its transmission expense and audio problems, analog shortwave radio has one clear advantage over the Internet and domestic radio/TV: It cannot be easily blocked — even when states try to disrupt its signals using jamming transmitters.

Webcasts can be filtered or blocked through IP geolocation techniques that block access to sites based upon the IP address of the site or the user.

Access to local radio transmitters can be withdrawn by officials. For example, Radio Azadliq, the RFE/RL service for Azerbaijan, along with VOA and the BBC World Service, was forced off local FM and medium-wave frequencies at year-end 2008 after its often critical coverage of that year’s elections.

“The Internet, satellite signals and placement AM/FM can all be blocked by a determined officialdom,” said Magne. “Yet properly executed analog shortwave tends to get through when others fail. Because of this, international broadcasters have the potential of saying pretty much what they please, when they please, and to whom they please; they don’t have to self-censor their messages to appease gatekeepers.

“According to Lech Walesa, Václav Havel and other freedom leaders behind the former Iron Curtain, this ability to circumvent gatekeeping was the main reason communism was defeated in Eastern Europe,” he added.

Information is still being censored not just in North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Tunisia, Vietnam, Cuba and China, among other nations. Shortwave advocates argue that their favored platform remains relevant at a time when outside information is as important as it was in the Cold War.

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Comment List:

Most important of all, I enjoyed turning on a radio and listening to what people had to say across the ocean. I dropped out of SWLing for a while, and now that I am retired and wish to get back into it I find the equipment is hard to find, at a cost I can afford, and there is much less to listen to.
By Robert Klahn on 2/5/2015
Yes. Short wave radio were once the main news carrier across world apart from entertainment. Especially for live sports and during war periods.
By Mukunthan.R on 9/13/2014
Thanks for your story mentioned above. The internet is being controlled more and more, without noticing it. It is creeping in bit by bit. It won't take long and people will turn to other media again. Everybody will look for the truth sooner or later. The internet is easy for you but easy for the censors as well to their job. It is just like vinyl records, radio tubes and short wave it will come back but not as much as the good old days. Regards, Paul
By Paul de Vreede on 7/17/2014
Shortwave radio used to be a big part of my life. Great site here. I appreciate what you do !!!!
By JIMMY LLOYD REA on 6/11/2014
This is a great site...and answered all my current questions about total 'dead zone' on short wave...right to the EXACT info that the bands are now choked with 'fundie' relig nonsense. Ive been an avid dx'er in my youth, some 50 yrs back, and have been restoring early wireless since the late 1950s..Im GLAD ,at least,that I have good memories, of what SW used to be like,Europe-far east 24/7
By codyJ on 12/29/2013
I am glad to have discovered this site and support your efforts. I think it important to keep alternative technologies available, for future options.
By Maynard Greer on 11/6/2013
Reality is that shortwave listening (not DX-ing) was a mainstream occupation for many in East and in West because it brought you news that your side of the fence wouldn't give. I also found out truths from the GDR that were lied about in the West. Since even the BBC left SW is finished for me. Sad but true.
By Paul on 4/29/2013
As long as there is conflict, censorship and other forms of repression in the world the need for shortwave will be there. The problem is that most governments do not recognize the rationale for it, anymore. Their mistake. Currently, given the situation in Iran with internet and satellite jamming, and China with the frustration of Google to operate freely, this old cranky tech stuff will be the only guarantee for outside info.
By ZB on 3/23/2010
Around March 2009 Radio Australia's fulltime FM transmitters in Suva and Nadi were turned off at gun point by the Fijian military regime. I think they are dead ever since. Radio Australia approached the regime after hurricane Thomas wacked the islands but couldn't get the FM services restored even for humanitarian purposes. http://www.news.com.au/travel/news/aussies-in-lockdown-as-fiji-cyclone-hits/story-e6frfq80-1225841210325
By Shortwave beats politics on 4/7/2010
Apparently there is a nannybot on the loose ... BEEN REDUCED? TANKED? FALLEN OFF? GONE DOWN? do any of those make it through?
By Real Radio Fan on 4/13/2010
Whoops my keyboard slipped. I meant to say listenership to SW has PED in Europe/North America because broadcasters don't send signals any more .... The point remains, if you stop broadcasting and then say 'see, nobody listens to broadcasts' what have you proven?
By Real Radio Fan on 4/13/2010
Chicken and egg man, chicken and egg. Of COURSE listenership to SW has ped in Europe and North America. Broadcasters have turned off their transmissions WHAT would people listen to? It is a shame that a perfectly good source of unfiltered international news has fallen by the wayside, and I worry what will be there to offset the 'official' version of events in the future. Perhaps we're seeing that already with the crazies on SW pushing canned seeds and gold/ammunition sales instead of voices from competing rational viewpoints? Nope, I'm back to 'it's a shame' aren't I?
By Real Radio Fan on 4/13/2010
I am from India and now a ripe 40 years of age. As an avid listener, or rather a fan, of BBC world (on shortwave) until not long ago, this article has great nostalgic value for me and people of my generation. BBC used to broadcast in some Indian languages too, besides the international English edition. I remember fondly my shortwave radio listening times much of my adolescence and youth when the Internet and satellite TV were not heard of. No doubt BBC World, and as an alternative Radio Netherlands (never before knew Dutch spoke such good English!), were so much part of my life. The struggle to set the stations finely for clear listening was an everyday pleasure, surprisingly not pain. The diversified set of reporters of BBC World with their varied accents brought the world alive into my living room and even bedroom I had a portable radio too by the bedside. Alas, that's over newer technologies both over the air (FM) and satellite television have undermined the importance of the shortwave broadcasts of these radio stations. So while I enjoyed reading this very interesting article, I know we can turn the clock back. Thank you James.
By Narayanan PV on 1/27/2011
I hope to be able to tune in to Radio Free America soon.
By James Johnson on 3/11/2010
There is life in the old dog yet - go to guide.aoruk.com
By Bob Ellis on 3/19/2010
I listened to shortwave radio daily for 30 years, enduring its static and it unreliability for the sake of its useful content. Then I bought my first internet radio and could listen to thousands of stations, including shortwave stations, from around the world with the clarity of a local station. Now I have internet radios in every room and radio is a pleasure, not a struggle.
By Anonymous on 7/28/2010
I still enjoy am DX and take an am radio on my travels. My wife complains, "too much static."
By Anonymous on 3/12/2010
Lets put it this way... Here in the U.S., if you find a public broadcast in the English language (Non Amateur CB, etc...), it will be only one of two types of transmissions, Government (VOA, WWV, etc...) or a religious themed broadcast. Never any news, talk, or anything other than the above listed. The CBC next door has a good news broadcast, Radio Austria had a GREAT news broadcast before their government pulled the plug. I am sad the US doesn't have any good shortwave stuff, but it could be a blessing...not a lot of interference so we have GREAT DX reception, especially Firedrake!
By Anonymous on 3/29/2010
i found that article very interesting,after all what will people listen to get good coverage of what happens abroad.
By Anonymous on 6/24/2010
Thank you for opening up the subject in public. There are some well thought through statements that start the flow of conversation. First, it seems prudent to weigh mass communications technologies in terms of cost to the senders and then in terms of return coupled with effectiveness of a long term mission. Unless these are better defined we are pretty much floundering. Secondly, mass communications is evolving like the microprocessor and the space program so I don't feel alarmed or downhearted that shortwave is declining. The challenge becomes how to handle changes and then how to incorporate qualified philosophers, historians, engineers, physicists, and journalists into a strategic planning program that sets us as a country apart. We can’t be great if we don’t have great people planning. What other ideas are there, similar to shortwave, that we can use to get the medium across “the iron curtain” while avoiding jamming? Let us start thinking positively! Use shortwave to excite the ionosphere and then bounce a different higher quality signal off that plasma! How about using spread spectrum light to bounce off dust! In other words, use our shortwave minded high quality and methodical minds to come up with other methods of mass communications! How much does this cost? Well, right now it doesn’t cost much to shut off shortwave but it can cost quite a bit to flounder in areas that are easily prone to jamming or blocking. Therefore, we need to be opening up the conversation to those who think in terms of international “across the borders communication” and use the large brain trust that still exists. We need to ask their advice before it is too late, before other bright young people in third world countries put us in our place by coming up with revolutionary international communications technologies. This kind of an article helps those of us who knew shortwave to think about getting involved again, but hopefully in a constructive way. Thank you!
By Anonymous on 5/18/2010

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