The BBC’s announcement that it would discontinue World Service programming to North America effective July 1 startled many in the international broadcasting and news communities. World Service feeds to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific also were terminated.
The decision came at a time when shortwave listening and the sale of world-band radios in the United States and Canada are on the increase.
In explaining the decision, Gerald Timmins, head of the Americas Region of the BBC World Service, noted a shift in listener demographics over the past five years.
“Listening to BBC programs through public radio stations has grown considerably, as has hearing them over the Internet,” he said. “We now have about 2.5 million FM listeners, and 1.5 million Internet listeners. There are about a million shortwave listeners, but that number has remained static in recent years.
“Our research shows that shortwave listeners are also hearing us via other means.”
Soon, World Service broadcasts will be available continuously from the two radio services that will serve the United States, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio.
“I don’t want to lose any shortwave listeners,” Timmins said. “I want to encourage them to explore these other options.
“If the alternatives today aren’t that attractive, in 12 months to two years they will be. We’ll be updating the World Service Web site with news about these alternate delivery methods as the information becomes available.”
Timmins suggested that listeners in the United States may still be able to hear English-language World Service broadcasts beamed to other parts of the globe.
Critics of the decision were quick to disagree with many of these points, and there was a rapid reaction on Internet mailing lists and newsgroups devoted to shortwave listening – most of it negative.
Larry Magne, a shortwave broadcasting expert and publisher of Passport to World Band Radio, was among those who think that there may be some serious flaws in the BBC’s thinking.
“When you look at the numbers from world-band receiver manufacturers in North America, which show double-digit increases in sales, you have to wonder where they’re coming from when they say shortwave listenership is declining.”
Magne also questioned the BBC’s claims of increases in the use of alternative media. While a growing number of people listen to the BBC’s Webcasts, there are no reliable figures or estimates as to how large that audience actually is, he said.
“There is a real limit to what Webcasting can do as long as it is wired,” Magne said. “There have been attempts at wired broadcasting going back to the earliest days of radio, and none have been too successful. While there may be some Web listenership, it is not enormous when compared with the shortwave audience.”
Critics point out that Web and shortwave demographics tend to differ. Web audiences tend to be at work, and their listening peaks around midday. Most prefer entertainment programming.
Listeners to the BBC and other world-band broadcasts usually listen in the evening hours and on weekends, and prefer serious news programming.
Claims that many listeners now tune into BBC programs on public radio are misleading, according to Magne. Most of what is rebroadcast on NPR and elsewhere are short segments of programs that complement public radio’s own programming.
Magne said, “When full programs are rebroadcast on public radio, it is usually in the wee hours of the morning when there are few listeners.”
The typical overnight fare on public radio stations varies by location, but may include programs such as “Outlook,” “From Our Own Correspondent,” “World of Music” and “Omnibus.”
Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio plan to offer continuous World Service programming, but this too may be problematic, critics say, pointing out that the subscription radio business model is unproven.
What about coverage? Most World Service programming for the Americas originated at a RCI transmitter site in Sackville, New Brunswick, from a VOA relay station in Delano, Calif., or from a site at Okeechobee, Fla.
While it may be possible to receive English-language World Service broadcasts directed to other parts of the world, those signals would be weaker than that which blanketed North America. Listeners might have to resort to external antennas and hope for favorable high-frequency propagation to receive BBC broadcasts.
Timmins said the best alternatives for shortwave listeners on the East Coast may be programs from the BBC’s Caribbean relay station on Antigua, while West Coast listeners might have luck with signals originating from Singapore.
Also troubled by the BBC’s announcement were manufacturers of shortwave receivers.
Esmail Hozour, chief executive officer of Grundig/Lextronix in Redwood City, Calif., said, “The annual unit sales of all makes of shortwave radios in the United States and Canada is well in excess of 1 million. Grundig’s North American shortwave sales alone have grown every year since 1991, often at double-digit rates.”
The typical shortwave listener has changed considerably from the stereotype of 20 or 30 years ago. Then, electronics hobbyists, amateur radio operators and a few expatriates formed the majority of shortwave listeners. Reliable reception required a large communications receiver, an outdoor antenna and some technical expertise.
Advances in receiver technology helped change this demographic. In particular, the advent of digital tuning, memory presets for regularly tuned stations and smaller size helped to open shortwave listening to a wider audience.
Hozour said today’s typical listener is less of a technophile, more interested in the variety of programming available on world-band receivers.
“Ninety-five percent of Grundig’s customers are new to shortwave, they had never listened to the medium before purchasing one of our receivers. Our 15 models of shortwave receivers are targeted to nonhobbyists. These are people who are interested in international news, financial reporting and different cultures,” he said.
“There is a romantic relationship between these listeners of shortwave and the broadcasters. It would be a major mistake on the part of the BBC to alienate them by shutting down broadcasts to North America.”
Hozour sees streaming media and shortwave as complementary. Once wireless Internet standards are worked out, he can envision Grundig offering receivers that will tune in AM, FM, shortwave, satellite and IM – Internet Modulation.
Grundig is not the only world-band receiver manufacturer to see North American sales skyrocket in recent years.
“Sony’s unit sales have increased 30 percent over the past two years, with the rate of increase being strongest in the last year,” said Paul Sabo, marketing manager for world-band receiver products at Sony of America, Park Ridge, N.J.
It is not certain to what extent the BBC’s decision to curtail service to the United States and Canada will affect the sales by suppliers like Sony and Grundig.
Responding to the sales statistics, Timmins said, “You need to understand why some of those people are buying shortwave radios. I suspect that many of the purchases are by international travelers who want to stay in touch.
“If you’re going to Cambodia, for example, you absolutely need a shortwave radio to stay connected.”
The BBC’s recent action might also have a negative impact on the deployment of digital shortwave technology, observers said, although full implementation is several years away.
North America, with its large number of listeners, might be an ideal test bed for transmitters and receivers, but the BBC service would be out of the picture as a potential driving force for this new technology.
Listeners who wish to voice an opinion about the BBC’s decision may do so by calling 44-207-557-1270, or by going to the BBC’s Web site at www.BBC.co.uk/worldservice and following links to an e-mail address.