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Shortwave Revival a Non-Starter? The Authors Respond

An in-depth guest commentary addressing copious feedback from Radio World's readers

Radio World’s “Guest Commentaries” section provides a platform for industry thought leaders and other readers to share their perspective on radio news, technological trends and more. If you’d like to contribute a commentary, or reply to an already published piece, send a submission to [email protected].

The following commentary is by Keith Perron, formerly of Radio Netherlands, Radio Canada International, and BBC World Service and Daniel Robinson, former chief White House correspondent at Voice of America.

Our joint article “Why Reviving Shortwave is a Non-Starter” stirred up quite a bit of controversy, so we would like to offer this response, with specific focus on the questions of DRM, and address criticisms from members of the shortwave hobbyist community.

DRM consortium chairwoman Ruxandra Obreja described our suggestion that international broadcasters use crises such as Ukraine to attract additional funding as “exaggerated.”

Yet, from a budgetary standpoint, there has not been a single global crisis these organizations have allowed to go to waste, so we’re not sure why critics take umbrage.

Obreja acknowledges that former dependence on shortwave as a key information source gave way to internet and mobile, but asserts that there are “still many shortwave hobbyists,” She cites a BBC-supplied estimate of 30-40 million shortwave listeners in Africa alone.

This is to be expected from anyone used to reflexively accepting official statistics. But it’s a fact that key funding sources, such as the British government and U.S. Congress, rarely demand detailed answers as to how such figures are arrived at.

On this subject, we would point readers to the following articles via the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and BBG – USAGM Watch.

One of the most significant quotes there (by Kim Elliott) had to do with the role that figures for China played in one USAGM global audience increase claim: The 6.2 percent increase claimed by the agency in China “beggars belief and indeed is not to be believed.”

Obreja, who worked for BBC’s Romanian service in the 1980’s, offers a familiar defense of DRM, asserting that DRM-capable transmitters acquired by some countries can provide “enormous benefits” in information-deprived areas.

But the ongoing question remains – where are the receivers? DRM radios for personal use have been mostly of poor quality and not available in large numbers. The jumble of claims by the DRM consortium and manufacturers have never really been subjected to any aggressive investigation.

Brazil’s broadcasting authority gave a green light to DRM in 2017. But as of April/May 2022, the DRM Consortium broadcast schedule showed Brazil and South Africa having halted DRM tests.

In 2021 the South African government gave permission for DRM and DAB+. Since then, DAB+ has moved forward. DRM stalled with only one small station in Johannesburg that also used DAB+. Reports indicate that there are still no DRM receivers available.

New Zealand used DRM as a cheaper alternative to satellite for program feeds to Pacific island nations, but is now at only 3 hours of daily, down from 18.

As for USAGM use of DRM for Radio Marti from Greenville, this in no way proves that DRM can somehow achieve widespread use in Cuba. Reports are that the experiment had more to do with a desire among VOA’s technical staff to conduct a fun experiment.

Aside from China, Romania has the most test broadcasts. But a sampling of these, using various Kiwi SDR sites, showed numerous signal dropouts, making sustained listening quite annoying.

SONY pulled out of the DRM consortium years ago. Sangean is not a member. Tecsun halted development of a DRM receiver – a receiver by Titus promised with great fanfare became vaporware.

BBC, USAGM, All India Radio, Radio Republik Indonesia, Voice of Nigeria, Radio Netherlands Worldwide (re-branded as a “digital media organization”) and HCJB are listed as “full” or “associate” members.  But Indonesia has zero hours of tests, HCJB zero, Nigeria only 5. One has to wonder.

As an observer commented in 2017 on the website: “DRM was an interesting technical development. . .the potential was there for it to be the next big thing — but that was 10+ years ago. It failed to capitalize on that and take off, so now it’s nothing more than a technical curio.”

The same observer noted: (1) a history [of] announcements of radios that never saw daylight (2) almost zero receiver availability and poor quality and (3) questionable behavior [by] the DRM Consortium” [inflating] the significance of every purchase/installation of a DRM-capable mediumwave transmitter regardless of actual use.

Another observer noted that DRM missed the boat in the United Kingdom where DAB and 5G dominate, adding that “DRM [became] a ‘curio’ that radio amateurs and hobby and pirate broadcasters can experiment with. . .”

As of end of April 2022 the DRM section of the Gospell website showed no receivers. A Gospell Facebook page displayed only a GR-216 dating from 2020.  A YouTube video showed a GR-220P, but an email from a Gospell rep said the model is unavailable.

The private seller Tecsun/Australia carries only a TRA Q-3061 (actually a Gospell GR-216) at $500 Australian dollars which still works out to over $400 U.S. with shipping.

Assertions by Obreja in a follow-up article such as “there are digital shortwave receivers available . . .” and “technology already exists for affordable DRM receivers [but] manufacturers are simply awaiting bulk orders” are fine generalities, but we have heard these statements for years.

[Related: “An Argument for Shortwave Radio, Its Benefits in Times of Crisis”]

Predictably, our article sparked new debate in online hobbyist discussion forums, notably from Sheldon Harvey of the Canadian International DX Club.

Harvey conflates DXers and SWLs with actual listeners and proposes some interesting ways to measure, such as what the Chinese are “doing” along with the number of radios on eBay and numbers of people in Facebook groups devoted to shortwave.

First, there has been no “upswing in production” which for companies like Tecsun is dictated not by profit or alleged numbers of listeners, but national five-year economic plans.

Harvey suggests a parallel between ongoing shortwave broadcasts by China and audience levels.  Here are some facts:

  • Why does China have so many shortwave hours? Officials at various state media all need to show the central leadership that they are employing a certain number of people and exceeding BBC, VOA, etc. in broadcast hours in order to maintain budgets and obtain increases. So, if the BBC had 10 hours a week, China will put 15 hours a week on-air.
  • China’s Communist Party Central Committee and lower officials are interested in propaganda value derived by funding shortwave output.  Each year, the CRI chief would tell members that it had more than 300 million listeners a week.  In 2004, a study group was formed, and an eventual 283-page report estimated weekly audience at between 15 million and 20 million a week. CRI’s leadership was not entirely surprised. But, when it came time to what was reported to the Central Committee, CRI continued to claim 300 million because they knew this would not be checked. CRI got a budget increase to expand in: Dutch, Hebrew, Icelandic, Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, and Albanian, not exactly information-deprived areas.
  • What about domestic broadcasters in China using shortwave? Again, it’s all about budget and ability to score points with Beijing. When submitting annual reports, propaganda is as priceless as the ability to claim numbers of hours of jamming to demonstrate that China’s enemies have been prevented from misinforming the population.
  • CRI has long had a service targeting Taiwan — the China Radio International Taiwan Province Language Service, in Hakka and Taiwanese, active for more than 40 years on 5 to 6 shortwave frequencies. But in Taiwan, no one had heard of it.  Yet, every five years, this section got a 10% budget increase. At one meeting between the CRI Audience Research Department and a representative of China National Radio an official said that English received over 30,000 letters and emails a year.  Later, this official acknowledged that it was more like 300 in a year, counting spam and junk mail and multiplying by three.

[Related: “Why Reviving Shortwave is a Non-Starter” Sure Got Our Readers Started!”]

As for any connection between continuing expenditures by USAGM and BBC, and an alleged huge usefulness of shortwave, the degree to which hard-earned citizen’s cash is “wasted” is a good topic because the American public does remain largely ignorant about how their dollars are spent.

Will the Ukraine/Russia situation bring about anything more than a temporary revival of shortwave? We don’t think so — and, in more recent comments, key thought leaders in the shortwave hobby agree.

There has been increased attention to shortwave. Ukraine brought private U.S. shortwave stations a lot of positive publicity, including those beaming religion to Ukraine and Russia. But we will not see any sustained resurgence to levels existing during the Cold War and, when the Ukraine crisis calms, in whatever way that happens, shortwave will continue its slow slide into the history books.