The BBC World Service is turning to shortwave radio to deliver trustworthy news to Russians, now that the Kremlin is blocking Western media websites’ reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
There is apparently a hunger for alternatives to Putin’s propaganda among Russian-speakers. According to a March 2, 2022, BBC media release, “The audience for the BBC’s Russian language news website more than tripled its year-to-date weekly average, with a record reach of 10.7 million people in the last week (compared to 3.1 million). In English, bbc.com visitors in Russia were up 252% to 423,000 last week.” [The week cited by the BBC was Feb. 21–27, 2022; Russia troops entered Ukraine on Feb. 24. —eds.]
To help satisfy this hunger, the BBCWS announced it is broadcasting four hours of English news daily on two shortwave frequencies, both of which “can be received clearly in Kyiv and parts of Russia,” said a BBC media release. The additional shortwave frequencies are on 15735 kHz operating from 1400 to 1600 UTC and on 5875 kHz from 2000 to 2200 UTC. Eastern European Standard Time, where Kyiv is located, is two hours ahead of UTC; for reference, U.S. Eastern Standard Time is five hours behind UTC.
In addition to BBCWS’s new service to Russia and Ukraine, Ö1, the main news channel for Austrian public service broadcaster Österreichischer Rundfunk has expanded distribution of morning, midday, and evening news programs to shortwave. “Ö1-Morgenjournal” can be heard on 6155 kHz at 0600 UTC, “Ö1 Mittagsjournal” on 13730 kHz at 1100 UTC and “Ö1 Abendjournal” on 5940 kHz at 1700 UTC.
“With this additional service, the Ö1 radio journals can be received easily by German-speaking listeners throughout Europe, including in Ukraine,” stated ORF Radio Director Ingrid Thurnher in a press release announcing the change.
Still, at least the BBCWS is back on shortwave to Russia and Ukraine. Other trusted Western Cold War powerhouses such as Radio Canada International are gone from the shortwave airwaves, their antennas torn down and their transmitters turned off.
“RCI was dismantled because of a lack of vision on how well and important an international service is,” said Gilles Letourneau, co-host of the “International Radio Report” program on CKUT-FM in Montreal and owner of the OfficialSWLchannel on YouTube. “Although Voice of America is still on air, it has changed its focus to Africa and Asia. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is still transmitting, but mostly using medium-wave frequencies rather than shortwave.”
When asked if VOA intends to revive shortwave broadcasts to Ukraine and Russia, a VOA public affairs officer noted, “Our research indicates there are few shortwave sets in use in that part of the world, so it’s not in our current plan to add shortwave broadcasts. However, we have begun a satellite TV station to provide additional content for eastern Europe and are exploring other methods of transmission.”
It remains unclear how effective the new BBCWS shortwave broadcasts will actually be, given the decline of shortwave radio ownership/listening in the Internet Age. But Russians who still have shortwave receivers should be able to tune in.
“I noted that the new frequencies for BBCWS are making it quite well here in North America,” said Letourneau. “They should be quite good and easy to receive on small shortwave portable radios in Ukraine and Russia.”
“It is sad that BBCWS abandoned its Russian language service,” he added. “That would definitely be useful right now, especially as Russia dismantled all of its shortwave jamming transmitters in the 1990s.”
Russia may have diminished its ability to block shortwave broadcasts, but on Mar. 4 Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s media supervision agency, announced it had blocked the websites of BBC, VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle and other foreign media outlets, according to Reuters.
In response, the BBC has promoted the use of VPNs, apps such as Telegram and Viber, and the privacy-focused Tor platform as ways to circumvent Roskomnadzor’s filters.
This article was updated on Mar. 7, 2022, to include a further statement from VOA on its plans regarding shortwave.
T. Carter Ross contributed to this story.
James Careless is an award-winning freelance journalist with experience in radio/TV broadcasting as well as A/V equipment, system design and integration. He has written for Radio World, TV Tech, Systems Contractor News and AV Technology, among others. Broadcast credits include CBC Radio, NPR and NBC News. He co-produces/co-hosts the “CDR Radio podcast” and is a two-time winner of the PBI Media Award for Excellence.