OTTAWA — Assuming it wins the next Australian federal election — due to be held by May 19, 2019 — the country’s Labor opposition party has pledged to restore shortwave radio service to Australia’s remote and sparsely-populated Northern Territory.
At the time this was written, the Labor Party was leading the government’s Liberal/National multi-party coalition in voter preference by a margin of 4.5 percent; according to The Australian newspaper’s Nov. 25 Newspoll.
The shortwave service was killed by the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Jan. 1, 2017 as a cost-cutting move. The shutdown, which is reputedly saving the cash-strapped ABC AU$1.9 million annually, turned off international broadcasts of Radio Australia and the ABC’s domestic service. They had been broadcast from ABC transmission facilities at Katherine, Tennant Creek, and Roe Creek (Alice Springs).
“In Alice Springs today, Shadow Minister for Regional Communications, Stephen Jones MP, joined with Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and the Hon Warren Snowdon MP to announce that a Shorten Labor Government will provide the ABC with $2 million in funding to help re-establish shortwave radio services across the Northern Territory,” declared a November 19 Labor Party news release.
“Australians living in remote areas already face significant communications challenges and the loss of access to ABC services from shortwave radio cuts people off from emergency broadcasts as well as being an important connection to the rest of Australia.”
In a Dec. 6, 2016 news release, the ABC said the shortwave shutdown was “in line with the national broadcaster’s commitment to dispense with outdated technology and to expand its digital content offerings including DAB+ digital radio, online and mobile services, together with FM services for international audiences.”
Unfortunately, the remote rural vastness of the Northern Territory, combined with the low-tech nature of many offshore nations that relied on Radio Australia for news and weather information, made this statement ring hollow for many affected listeners.
In particular, the ABC’s AM and FM services in Northern Australia do not cover the entire area as completely as shortwave did. Meanwhile, receiving information using the government’s free VAST satellite TV service requires spending hundreds of dollars on equipment; compared to small amount needed to buy a simple shortwave radio.
This is why the revival of the ABC’s shortwave service still has traction, almost two years after the shutdown occurred.
“The situation remains for thousands of people living or working remotely in the NT [Northern Territory] that they do not have radio reception where they once used to receive Radio Australia broadcast over shortwave,” said Sue Pinnock, president of the Friends of the ABC (SA/NT) lobby group. “It must be a long two years for them without shortwave!
“From what I have heard from a local NT contact in Alice Springs, the Roe Creek Transmitter is still up and running, and only has to be turned on,” she added. “This means at least one of the three transmitters used to transmit shortwave into the NT can be counted on.”
“It's do-able,” said Dan McGarry. He is media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post/Buzz FM 96. McGarry warned that “recommissioning will be a great deal more expensive than keeping it running in the first place, because the equipment was allowed to run down over several years.”
Many people in the Pacific Island Forum nations that lost their shortwave service are keen to see it back. They include Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas who wrote to a recent Australian parliamentary review saying,
”My government hopes …the ABC is supported to begin anew the process of re-engaging with audiences in Vanuatu via shortwave and other cooperative broadcasting endeavors. Like many Pacific island nations, Vanuatu counted on Radio Australia for life-saving weather and emergency information.”
The government-funded ABC is caught in the middle of this political battle, as Labor and the Liberal/National parties prepare to fight next year’s federal election.
“The ABC is aware of Labor’s commitment,” said John Woodward, Lead Communications for ABC regional and local services, in an email to Radio World International. “Operational decisions are made independently with regard to available ongoing funding.”
Even if Labor wins next year and restores funding to ABC’s shortwave transmitter sites, the information issues faced by listeners in the Northern Territory may not be over. This is because nature abhors a vacuum, and so does shortwave radio: The frequencies abandoned by the ABC are now being used by China Radio International. China’s state-owned international broadcaster is happy to promote Beijing’s geo-political views to Radio Australia’s former international shortwave audience.
“Claire Moore, Labor's spokeswoman for international development and the Pacific, said she was not surprised Chinese services snapped up Australia's old frequencies.” said a June 22 news report on the ABC’s news website.
“It was always an issue to see if shortwave was available, if it was being used and we weren't using it, that other players would come into the space,’” she said. James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.