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GUEST COMMENTARY: Shortwave Needs Differ by Nation

The BBC World Service Says It's Not Abandoning Shortwave Transmission in Countries That Depend Upon It, but It Must Respond to Changing Listening Habits

The BBC World Service Says It’s Not Abandoning Shortwave Transmission in Countries That Depend Upon It, but It Must Respond to Changing Listening Habits

BBC World Service is the best-known and most-respected voice in international broadcasting, bringing great credit to Britain. This year it has achieved its biggest audience ever: 153 million listeners across the world each week.

This world record-breaking success is due, in part, to the World Service recognizing that it must adapt and modernize to meet changing audience listening patterns across the world.

Far from neglecting shortwave, we are actually investing multi-millions of pounds in this delivery method in key areas of the world. We are upgrading our shortwave transmitters in Oman, Cyprus and Singapore, to reach the Persian Gulf and South Asia, the Middle East and East Asia respectively.

The transmitter upgrade will improve audibility to those countries where shortwave remains the primary delivery method for audiences for some years to come.

Developed nations different

Our decision to cut or reduce direct shortwave transmissions in English to North America, Australia and New Zealand means that our primary method of delivery for the future in these most-developed areas will be through accessing our award-winning Internet site, available 24 hours a day, and through the numerous re-broadcasting partnerships with stations that air part of our output on high-quality FM.

We took the decision with care and consideration. We are not cutting back on the number of countries to which the World Service has been transmitting. We are changing the delivery methods in response to rapidly changing audience use.

In the United States, the large majority of our listeners now access us through public radio stations that air our material and via the Internet. About 2.3 million people now listen to our programming on FM and the audience is growing.

Just over 1 million listen on shortwave but there is also an overlap in listening such that only 300,000 listen solely via shortwave – 168 million people are now connected to the Internet in the United States.

A recent survey showed that 60 percent of our Internet traffic to comes from America. Moreover, we have evidence that some indirect shortwave transmissions are still available across the United States.

In Australia, BBC World Service listenership on shortwave has declined severely over the last decade, from 1.7 million to just over 100,000 listeners. Our primary access today is through our syndication partnerships on FM stations. However, there is still some direct shortwave available to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

The approximately $737,000 per year savings being made on shortwave reductions are significant and will help to support further FM expansion across the world and the development of our Internet capability.

We are now aired on FM in some form in 121 capital cities of the world. We have set an ambitious target of being present in 135 capital cities – 70 percent of the world total – by 2004.

Internet traffic grows

Today, all 43 BBC World Service language services are now present as audio services on our Internet site, which has achieved a very significant growth in traffic – 62 percent in the past year. We are building up the depth and range of the site that was recently judged the best radio Web site in the world at the prestigious Webby Awards.

We are clear that shortwave will still remain the dominant delivery method by which the majority of our 153 million listeners access the World Service across the world. At the same time, however, we must respond to changing audience needs and listening patterns in different markets in terms of delivery and greater audibility, particularly in the developed world. We need to release money wherever possible from shortwave rationalization to re-invest in FM expansion across the world.

The World Service enters the 21st century in a confident mood as the world’s leading international radio broadcaster with a record audience performance. At the same time, we recognize that we must develop our delivery and our multi-media capability speedily in order to serve target audiences as effectively in the digital age.

Reach the author via e-mail at: [email protected].

RW welcomes other points of view.