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Home arrow NGO news arrow The Future of Shortwave and International Broadcasting: a critical point of view
The Future of Shortwave and International Broadcasting: a critical point of view
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Friday, 31 August 2007
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There is much pessimistic talk today about the validity of shortwave as the prime vehicle of international broadcasting. Critics present several arguments: high operating costs, environmental considerations, a need to re-channel available funds into satellites and the Internet, and what is loosely termed a decline in shortwave. From the point of view of the broadcast planner and decision-maker, this catalogue of negative arguments appears sound and reasonable. From the perspective of a large segment of the audience, however, reductions in shortwave services are inexplicable and a source of frustration and even anger.

Let us examine the issues carefully, using the senses and instincts of the investigative journalist. We are in a period of restructuring, a contemporary buzzword that is used and abused so frequently as a catch-all excuse to justify virtually any action taken by management, regardless of how inappropriate. We are in a period where human endeavour is scientized, and we no longer have faith in our common sense judgement as human beings. This is the age of consultants and high technology. The media are ruled by time-and-motion studies and so-called market forces. Radio and television no long produce programs, but products. Today there are no listeners, there are markets. How did we arrive at this state of affairs? Our view and that of seasoned observers is clear: international broadcasting is no longer directed by professional intuition. Instead, an army of theoreticians and technocrats, often with little or no broadcasting knowledge, experience or dedication, have taken control of the decision-making process in many organizations.

With limited experience of their own, these people are forced to turn to someone else for advice: they turn to consultants, the industry gurus, in which so much hope is placed. But all too often, these ‘experts’ have overstated their own qualifications, and have to rely in turn on others for advice. Unfortunately, this ‘other’ advice often comes from individuals or institutions with vested commercial interests. These special interests also include broadcast technologies.

Let us get down to cases and examine the satellite broadcasting industry. Many billions of dollars have been invested in telecommunication satellite technology. It is elementary that the investors expect a return on their investments, and considering the limited life span of satellites, this return must be as fast as possible. The main thrust of broadcasting today is television, and it was for television that the current broadcast satellite technology was designed. In concrete terms, the concept of transmission capacity for these satellites was designed with TV in mind, not radio. Sound Broadcasting was promoted later as a way to merchandise over-capacity and to improve the return on investment.

But the allocation and accessing of sound channels on satellites is still mostly user-unfriendly, and therefore unattractive for most people. Furthermore, although impressive statistics based on satellite-households are often quoted to support the satellite radio argument, only a very tiny fragment of this potential audience ever listens to radio via satellite. In Europe, where direct satellite radio is allegedly highly developed, as few as a few percent of households ever used their satellite receiver for sound broadcasting.

Mobility is another striking deficiency in present satellite sound broadcasting. Current technology does not permit us to carry a satellite receiver in our pocket and take it along on our travels. Furthermore, reception indoors is also virtually impossible. Cable distribution of international programs is often cited as a promising alternative to direct home satellite reception, but here too, cable installations are fixed; they cannot be used away from the home setting.

Superficially, the cost of shortwave as compared to satellite appears higher. But if the factors of market penetration and acceptability are considered, as well as the crucial factor of personal cost to the listener, shortwave wins hands down. There are millions of shortwave receivers in use. They are compact, portable, easy to use, and above all, cheap. Technically speaking, and given today’s fragmentation of all different media, including the Internet, as far as penetration and cost, there is no other sound broadcasting medium that can compete with shortwave in these respects.

For years now, we have heard the repeated, tired refrain: “shortwave is dead”. We recall the teachings of C.G. Jung and his concept of Collective Consciousness, in which a prevailing belief or slogan, repeated often enough, and although even a lie, can influence the thinking of an entire group or even nation. Goebels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, embraced this concept, and used it to manipulate an entire nation, with cataclysmic results.

Powerful, manipulative forces are at work here. Although difficult to prove, there has even been speculation that considerable ‘promotional fees’ may have been paid in the process. A big part of the sales talk involves belittling shortwave as a relic of the past and exalting the virtues of new digital technologies that are frankly neither mature yet, nor widespread. This sounds good in today’s shallow-thinking, buzzword-driven world, but in the final analysis it doesn’t make sense. To make the propaganda strategy complete, those who would question the slogans are conveniently labelled as uninformed, obstructionist, inflexible, old-fashioned, or generally lacking in vision.

Like it or not, from a purely technical point of view, the fact is, fragmentation is all over the places, and there is still nothing at this moment to replace shortwave as a unique, and even low-cost media to cover such large audiences. One day there may be. In the meantime, it is good and wise to gain a foothold in the new technologies, but not to overestimate or over-represent their value. If market orientation is truly important, then we would have to admit that the demand is still for shortwave. Ironically, shortwave technology does not stand still either: DRM, if successful, will promote the development of digital shortwave, which would go far in curing its qualitative shortcomings in audio fidelity.

To quote the old saying: Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Another popular and wise saying is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We are in favour of new technology, provided it demonstrates a clear superiority to what is currently in use. In the case of shortwave, some would like to bury it before it has even died.
 
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