To meet a government-mandated 16 percent funding cut, the BBC World Service is eliminating five languages, ending radio distribution for seven more and slashing medium- and shortwave radio distribution in favor of FM, TV, online and new media.
Over the next three years, 650 out of a total 2400 BBCWS jobs will be chopped. The cuts will amount to an annual savings of £46 million (about $74 million) by April 2014, at which point the BBCWS’s funding will be switched from governmental grants through the Foreign Office to the same domestic license fee that funds BBC services across the United Kingdom.
“There will be the complete closure of five language services — Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa and Serbian languages; as well as the English for the Caribbean regional service,” stated BBC Global News Director Peter Horrocks when he announced the cuts to BBCWS staff on Jan. 26, 2011.
“BBC World Service will cease all radio programming — focusing instead, as appropriate, on online, mobile and television content and distribution — in the following languages: Azeri, Mandarin Chinese (note that Cantonese radio programming continues), Russian (save for some programs which will be distributed online only), Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian,” he continued.
Of all the BBCWS distribution platforms, it is radio that is being hit hardest by the cuts. Over the next three years, “there will be a phased reduction in medium-wave and shortwave throughout the period,” said Horrocks. “English language shortwave and medium-wave broadcasts to Russia and the former Soviet Union are planned to end in March 2011. The 648 kHz medium-wave service covering Western Europe and southeastern England is ending on March 27, 2011.”
That’s not all: “BBC World Service will cease all shortwave distribution of radio content in March 2011 in Hindi, Indonesian, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili and the Great Lakes service (for Rwanda and Burundi),” he added.
“Shortwave broadcasts in remaining languages other than English are expected to end by March 2014 with the exception of a small number of ‘lifeline’ services such as Burmese and Somali.”
[Since this article was first published in the March 2011 international edition of Radio World, some modifications to the cuts have been announced, most notably the preservation of an hour of Hindi programming each night. —Ed.]
The BBCWS’ cuts — which are expected to cut more than 30 million from BBCWS’s weekly audience of 180 million — were not made in a vacuum, said Mike Gardner; head of corporate communications for BBC Global News.
The decisions were based on “geo-political importance, need for information and current and potential audience impact and available funding,” said Gardner. “Given the increasing costs of maintaining impact across a wide range of services, we have to prioritize.”
Andy Sennitt, longtime shortwave radio watcher and editor in charge at the Radio Netherlands “Media Network” website, said: “British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament that the BBC had initially submitted proposals to close 13 language services, including Persian, but he had refused to sanction these. So what was announced on 26th January is a revised plan, in which cuts are spread across more departments.”
Whatever the motivation for the specific cuts, the BBCWS choices make “some sense” to Kim Andrew Elliott, audience research analyst with the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, which oversees Voice of America.
“Domestic media in the Balkans are far from perfect, but perhaps free enough that BBC no longer felt it had a sufficient role there,” he said. “For Portuguese to Africa, domestic media are freer and fairly successful…. In the languages where shortwave will be cut, shortwave has become a small part of the audience, relative to placement of BBC programs on domestic stations in the target country,” Elliott said.
There is no doubt that the world has changed since the Cold War, when the BBCWS and other international broadcasters dominated the shortwave bands. In particular, satellite television and the Internet have ended shortwave’s monopoly on global distribution.
At the same time, shortwave is the only one of these three media that cannot be easily blocked by hostile governments.
For this reason the BBCWS’s decision to move out of shortwave concerns Jeff White, general manager of the U.S. commercial shortwave station Radio Miami International.
“My question is, who are people going to listen to when there’s a crisis in Egypt and the Internet is cut off?” he asked. “Who will they listen to when there’s an earthquake in Haiti or Indonesia where local radio stations are knocked off the air? Who will people in Cuba listen to when the BBC ends its Spanish shortwave service to Cuba?”
Elliott echoes White’s concerns, but only to a degree.
The BBCWS, he said, “will need a way to get through to target countries where the Internet is blocked, satellite dishes banned and local rebroadcasting of BBC programs not allowed. That would seem a job for shortwave. It is, however, difficult to convince people who have access to television and the Internet, even if they are censored, to go back to shortwave.”