BBG Should Enhance SW, Not Replace It

Comparing apples to apples, the Internet is actually less cost-effective at present.
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(click thumbnail)George WoodardRecent commentary in Radio World discussed the pros and cons of various mediums for international broadcasting (Reader’s Forum, March 26).

It used to be, until about 1994, that shortwave was both the preferred and generally accepted medium to reach mass audiences across international borders. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet-style communism circa 1990 caused a natural (and correct) rethinking of what the medium, or mediums, of the future for IB should be.

U.S. government broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, who, of the U.S. broadcasters, were involved in the winning of the Cold War (from an IB perspective), looked immediately for fresh and effective ways to reach new, changing and expanding audiences.

RFE/RL and VOA began a highly successful campaign to launch local AM and FM former Soviet and Eastern Europe “affiliate” stations to carry their respective programs. In the early days of this endeavor most RFE/RL/VOA/and BIB/BBG members and staff realized that, due to the history of conflict between western and Soviet societies, the so-called “affiliates” could always “pull the plug” on the arrangement.

As time went on, however, the ensuing euphoria over having local AM and FM outlets in countries where RFE/RL and VOA were once banned seemed to some BBG members and staff to dim the possibility of ever having the “plug pulled.”

Trigger-happy

The “pull-the-plug” reality, however, may be beginning to sink in to some current BBG members as they see what is happening in places like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and many others, not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq and most countries in the Middle East — some of whom profess to be our friends yet are reluctant to allow us access to their radio stations, even for a fee.

In addition to local affiliate placement, there also is a new and renewed interest by many past and present BBG members in satellite radio (and television, as well) and Internet audio and video streaming.

These developments and pursuits are appropriate, though too often they are accompanied by an unthinking euphoria in the BBG that, instead of making the IB picture clearer, actually clouds the scene.

Further exacerbating the situation is the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The board is made up of well-intentioned, patriotic and highly successful individuals from the private sector. However its experience in international public matters, foreign policy and diverse cultures at the level of the common citizen was — in my experience and to put it kindly — somewhat limited.

My tenure with the BBG was from about 1994 to 2000, and my experience was that instead of listening to experts who have devoted all or most of their lives to IB matters, the BBG instead were consumed with its own brilliance, and self and group importance. I have no direct experience with the current BBG who, except for one member, are all new to me. But I see nothing to make me think this has changed since I retired.

It was not always that way. The predecessor to the BBG was the Board for International Broadcasting. The BIB I was familiar with was made up of such luminaries as James Buckley, Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes, Michael Nowak, James Michener, Ben Wattenberg, Lane Kirkland and others who, despite their proven and recognized expertise, actually listened to the many and varied disciplines of IB experts before making up their minds on a topic.

The BBG has been consumed by new technologies such as the Internet, satellite and local AM and FM placement almost since its beginning in about 1995.

For example, a big “to do” was recently reported in several media outlets about Internet Denial of Service (DoS) of RFE/RL Internet broadcasts to Belarus. The media did not mention, however, that prior to these DoS attacks, RFE/RL was averaging very few page views per day on its Belarus Web page — a pittance by normal Internet standards, “in the noise” compared to historical shortwave audience numbers.

Yes, the Internet is a technology of the future and also the present. Its potential is almost unimaginable and growing every day. Every news broadcasting organization in the United States — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, local AM/FM/TV stations — have remarkable Web pages to enhance and expand their core delivery medium.

Enhance and expand, not replace. Yet the BBG wants to use mostly the Internet to replace its historical radio medium: shortwave.

I have a former colleague whose son is serving in Iraq. The son wrote his father an e-mail saying that one of his military colleagues recently asked him, “Where is the VOA? All we hear anymore is the BBC.” That whole story is more complex, but the question does deserve an answer.

The BBG often uses the cost argument against shortwave: “The Internet is more cost-effective, and further, the Internet is where the competition is.”

That logic is flawed.

Comparing apples to apples, the Internet is actually less cost-effective at present.

One million real-time listeners, small by shortwave standards, entail very high cost bandwidth requirements on the Internet. The competition, by start-up bloggers for example, could not possibly afford being on shortwave radio. The business example should be: “Go where your competition can not follow.”

The U.S. government can afford shortwave radio.

For example

Let me close with a story that elaborates the BBG’s past closed mentality. (I am referring only to known past group mentality from my own personal experience, though there is no evidence that leads me to believe the current crop is any better.)

During the 1998/99 Yugoslavia war, I was DE of the IBB. The State Department asked the BBG to put VOA on the air on FM into Belgrade. The closest we could get to Belgrade was about 120 miles, from the hills/mountains of either Bosnia or Romania.

I tried as best I could to explain to both the BBG as well as “State” that 120 miles was a long distance for FM, and that whatever little signal would reach Belgrade could be easily jammed by a 100 watt or less transmitter and simple antenna from a tall building in the center of Belgrade.

Neither the BBG nor State listened to my argument. They said that young people in Yugoslavia listened only to FM. Where they got this information was never explained.

We proceeded to put 5 kW FM transmitters on the air (with 13 dBi gain Yagi antennas) from the mountains in both Bosnia and Romania, with the antennas pointed to Belgrade. The whole operation took less than six weeks due to some dedicated and inspired work by several IBB employees, indeed the entire IBB organization.

In the end, the signals were effectively jammed by low-power transmitters near the center of Belgrade. Shortwave, and later a high-power medium-wave signal from Hungary, got through.

As the Don McLean song about Vincent van Gogh goes, “They did not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will.”

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