Easy Listening, June 2001
BBC World Service to Drop Shortwave to North America on July 1, 2001
Sadly, this is not an April Fool’s joke hatched two months late. Kim Elliott, host of Communications World on the Voice Of America, broke this news to the electronic shortwave community on May 8th. Andy Sennitt of Radio Netherlands confirmed the information, and Kim included an interview with Jerry Timmins, the head of the Americas stream for the BBC World Service (BBCWS) in his program the following Saturday. The BBC states that frequencies targeting the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas will continue, so we’ll theoretically still be able to hear the BBCWS in transmissions targeting the Caribbean, South America, Europe, and Africa. However, it’s expected that the 5965 and 9515 kHz morning frequencies and 6175 and 9590 kHz evening frequencies will no longer be used.
Shortwave will also curtailed to Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific; since most NASWAns are North Americans, I’ll focus this month’s Journal column on the consequences for North American listeners.
The reasons offered by the BBC
In the June 2001 issue of BBC On Air, Mark Byford, Director of the World Service, offered the following reasons for this decision:
- The majority of North American listeners “…nearly three times the number…” listen to BBC programming via FM and not shortwave. USA accesses to the BBCWS website total 1.5 million per month, and a significant number of those access audio content.
- The “…changing needs in this competitive market have developed such that it is the appropriate time to make these changes in relation to shortwave distribution.”
- The launch of direct-to-user satellite radio later in 2001 will enable subscribers paying $10 to $13 per month to listen to live BBC World Service streams, thus expanding availability of the BBCWS to North Americans.
I took a look at the 1999/2000 BBCWS Annual Review, available from their website, and the following information supports the BBC’s rationale:
- The Americas audience to the BBCWS in English is smaller than in any other world region.
- The audibility — a BBC term for the audio quality of the shortwave signal — is significantly poorer in North America than elsewhere in the world, and is below the audibility standards the BBCWS has established for itself.
If management has to shuffle and redeploy resources, then it would make sense for the Americas to be cut first, everything else being equal.
Flaws in the BBC’s analysis
As you might imagine, the response of many shortwave enthusiasts has been sharp and swift criticism of this decision. In my own opinion, the analysis used by the BBC is understandable but significantly flawed. Here are a few of the reasons participants in the swprograms list consider this decision to be flawed:
- Only a very minor portion of the BBCWS feed is taken by US FM stations, and that is mostly during the wee hours of the morning. For example, 13 out of a possible 168 broadcast hours are BBC programming, and 10 of those hours are hour-long newscasts.
Sheldon Harvey of the CIDX, a fellow ANARC club to NASWA, has extensively surveyed Canadian and US availability of the BBCWS via FM. Quoting from Sheldon’s analysis:
Most US stations are either campus, community or public broadcasting stations, mostly low powered and predominantly on FM, which generally speaking means small audiences and poor coverage areas. In most cases, of the stations checked so far, the majority are simply carrying the morning 5 to 7 minute capsulized newscasts being picked up by satellite.
Most stations are including these newscasts in their morning shows, with some adding additional airings in the afternoon drive slots. There are a few stations carrying overnight BBC programming, most often in the 2 AM to 6 AM time slots.
There are a few striking pieces of information I have discovered already regarding the U.S. outlets. For example, the state of Pennsylvania has only three outlets with BBC programming, all FM. One of the three is in Elizabethtown, a 100 watt college station, which goes off the air during the summer months! Another is in the Pocono Mountains in East Stroudsburg with 1 KW, certainly not getting out very far, and carrying the short news broadcasts and some overnight programming from 2 to 5 AM, and finally one station in Philadelphia with a World Update from 5 to 6 AM Monday to Friday and overnight Sunday programming from 2 to 5 AM.
Another stunning statistic: The state of Florida has no BBC service south of Orlando! The only stations listed are in Orlando, Panama City and Tallahassee.
I am continuing to go through more on the list of US stations listed on the BBC website, but the trend is already very clear; low powered stations, limited coverage, limited amounts of programming, with the majority being simply news capsules.
- The feed provided to US FM stations is the “24 hour news” feed, and does not include any music or arts programming. A significant portion of the possible BBCWS output is simply not available via FM rebroadcast.
- While it may be true that 300 FM stations in the US carry some portion of the BBCWS, many of them have very small signal footprints and are not capable of serving widespread audiences.
- It would appear that the comparative statistics showing a significant majority of FM listeners took no account of the number of hours per day per listener, a metric that would clearly favor a shortwave audience since more content is available during a given period of time.
- Radio listening, whether shortwave, FM, or mediumwave, is quite often a portable activity, and is often carried out in a multitasking environment — while an individual is doing something else. For example, I’ll often have my Sony SW-1 fired up while I’m fixing dinner or washing dishes. I can also bring along the SW-1 in the car and use an alligator clip to the car’s external antenna and route the speaker output through the car’s audio system. By comparison, Internet audio listening is much less portable. Kim Elliott expressed it well when he said that Internet audio is rarely possible in a “cozy” setting. Mark Fine stated that, if one chooses to be chained to a desk to listen to Internet audio, one is more likely to switch off the computer and watch television.
- The two satellite audio providers represent a feasible alternative for those wealthy enough to afford the high-end cars or aftermarket receivers, but only one of these providers is planning to offer a stationary version of the receiver. This stationary receiver also needs to have good visibility to the Southern horizon to be effective.
- BBCWS audio can be made available through the second audio program (“SAP”) of the CSPAN cable television service, but this is solely at the whim and discretion of the cable TV system operator. So far, there hasn’t been enough interest in the offering of BBCWS audio to force cable TV companies to make the addition. Members of swprograms report mixed results in convincing their cable TV providers to make the BBCWS available. I received a favorable response from Service Electric Cable TV here in Allentown, but others have reported no interest from their providers.
- Internet audio is still a comparatively experimental medium, as net congestion and connection interruptions, especially for dialup users, can quickly degrade a station’s audio stream. Comparatively few people have high speed Internet access at home: ask the business planners and marketers how well Excite@Home and RoadRunner have fared in terms of subscriber takeup.
- All of these alternate delivery approaches shift the transmission and reception cost partly to the user versus the supplier, including monthly Internet access fees and cable TV or XM or Sirius subscription fees. It could be argued that public radio in the US carries an implied user fee given the quarterly fundraising programs geared to make a public listener feel guilty if he or she doesn’t support their station.
How could the BBCWS have missed all this? It’s tough to say. At swprograms, I speculated — and Jim Strader confirmed — that a typical BBC focus group interview allowed participants to identify multiple means of listening to the BBCWS but didn’t distinguish in terms of hours per day via different methods.
How has the BBC responded in light of these criticisms?
It’s tough to say what the BBC expected in terms of a reaction from listeners, as there has been no public comment so far. However, the May 26th edition of Write On hoped to have a senior manager on hand to address letters sent in; unfortunately the Journal goes to press before Write On goes to air. I received a private E-mail reply from the Audience Relations folks at the BBCWS as I was wrapping up the column, indicating they had received a substantially higher number of listener comments since the news of the transmitter cutbacks became public. It appears that correspondence is, at minimum logged, read, and classified by support staff, with summaries provided to senior managers.
Andy Sennitt indicated that the United Kingdom’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which funds the BBC World Service, had contacted its embassies and consulates, asking them to solicit input on the consequences of this closure. Andy stated that any such input would be communicated to London through diplomatic channels, giving it a much higher priority than letters sent by individuals to a large government department. Richard Lambley, presenter of the dearly departed Waveguide program, concurred that contacting the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, primarily through the British embassy in one’s country, would be more effective than just contacting the World Service.
I phoned the public inquiry listing for the British Information Service — the PR aspect of the US British embassy — on May 23rd, and the person I spoke with knew of no initiative by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and referred me to a BBC “Action Line” staffed by a woman in Glasgow, Scotland at 8 PM local time. She sounded cloyingly sympathetic — like your grandmother would — but she was able to pull some sort of information from the BBC’s intranet and took my postal address information to send it to me.
In the past couple days the general media in the US has gotten wind of this development, first in an article appearing in the Los Angeles Times on May 22nd, and, one day later, on the public radio program Marketplace. The Marketplace feature included an interview the aforementioned Jerry Timmins of the BBC, along with NASWA’s own Bill Oliver and the head of Grundig USA, Esmail Hozour; both Bill and Esmail expressed distress over the decision. Meanwhile, NASWAn Ed Mayberry relayed an inquiry posed by an Associated Press staffer in London asking about a listener’s perspective of the BBC decision.
Informal contact with well-known program presenters and executives no longer with the BBCWS find no sympathy with the BBC’s decision, as these contacts universally consider the decision ill-advised.
What can individual listeners do to reverse this decision?
We have had much debate in swprograms over the potential for persuading the BBC World Service to rescind this decision. While many people feel this decision is a fait accompli, other enthusiasts for fringe sports related their successes in convincing a major broadcaster (not the BBC) to restore coverage of their sport. Others have offered the opinion that the BBCWS has become increasingly arrogant in its decision making in recent years, and that listener input, at this point, would likely be summarily ignored.
My opinion on that? If we assume the decision is not reversible, and take no action, then we have, indeed, made the decision irreversible.
In general, the suggestions are for North American listeners to contact two management groups: management at the BBC World Service, and key officials within the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Andy Sennitt cautioned that work stoppages at selected UK postal centers could significant delay inbound international mail, so Andy suggested sending a telefax or E-mail. Updated information suggests these work stoppages are close to being settled, so this cautionary note may not apply by the time you read this.
The British Embassy in the US is located at 3100 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC 20008, and has a fax number of 202-588-7866. The ambassador to the US is Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has a webmail capability, and I did receive an acknowledgement from them after I left a message.
Faxes to the BBCWS should probably be addressed to either Mark Byford, Director, or Jerry Timmins, head of the Americas. The general BBCWS fax number is +44 20 7557 1254. Typically, BBC E-mail addresses are formatted firstname.lastname@example.org; I sent an E-mail right after hearing the news to Jerry Timmins using this formatting methodology, and the E-mail did not bounce. Nor, however, did I receive an acknowledgement of reciept. However, as I mentioned above, I did receive a personal reply from World Service Audience Relations, which appears to be tracking all the e-mails, faxes, and postal letters on this subject. At a minimum, they’re counting the incoming traffic; they’re also paying attention to duplication, so following up a fax with an E-mail will only get you counted once.
Of course, make sure you pass this information on to other friends who are BBC enthusiasts but aren’t NASWA members (egad) or aren’t active participants in rec.radio.shortwave or swprograms, both of which have had extensive discussion threads on these developments.
Consequences for other broadcasters
Unfortunately, the only thing one can do here is speculate. Radio Netherlands (yay!) has gone public stating they have no intentions of retreating from shortwave anytime soon, and offer their upgrading of the Bonaire site’s electricity generation capacity as proof of this intention.
Also, Radio Canada International — unrelated to the BBC dilemma — is wrestling with funding stagnation while costs are rising. One probably consequence is stoppage of RCI-produced weekend newscasts, instead taking the domestic CBC newscasts. More below on these RCI developments.
Short-term, I would expect Deutsche Welle to also be a major beneficiary, as their news and feature programs, like the BBC’s, are Europe-centric and are reasonably easy to hear during prime time evening hours. Also, Joe Buch speculates that Merlin Communications, the company that owns the majority of the shortwave transmitters used by the BBC, will try to actively sell the available transmitter and antenna time that frees up as of July 1st. The net result may be an increase in program diversity from other international broadcasters.
From the perspective of the program listener (not the DXer), this isn’t good news at all when considering the likely long-term consequences. The loss of easy-to-hear BBC programming will reduce the demand for shortwave radios, since there’s less high-quality content to listen to, and this reduction in demand will result in fewer listeners overall to shortwave. That development will make it easier for other stations to give up on shortwave targeting North America, which will then perpetuate this vicious death spiral.
I am sure that many broadcasters are watching the BBC’s maneuverings in this area, and are gauging listener reaction and the BBC’s response.
Non-shortwave alternatives for listening to the BBCWS
Aside from passively listening to the BBCWS via the web, satellite radio, or its existing public radio outlets, jilted BBC enthusiasts can consider these alternatives:
- Begging their local Cable TV provider to pick up the SAP signal available through CSPAN
- Lobbying direct satellite providers (specifically, Dish Network) to provide the audio feed via SAP or via their digital music services
- Begging their local public radio station to pick up World Service content, possibly bribing the station with a donation to fund part of the carriage costs stations owe to Public Radio International, chartered with BBCWS distribution in the US.
What’s wrong with all of these options? Each has a ‘gatekeeper’ function, and the individual does not directly have the capability or the authority to force this audio provider to provide this content. Further, the BBCWS has not provided any collateral material that an individual could carry into a meeting with your local intermediary. If the BBCWS was truly interested in promoting its programming, it would bend over backwards to arm an enthusiast with useful collateral. This has not happened, to this point; I have contacted the BBC’s rebroadcasting manager in North America, Heather Maclean, to ask if there was any collateral material an individual could provide to a station, but Ms. Maclean has not seen fit to respond to my inquiry.
What lessons can we learn?
Feedback, feedback, feedback! Since the small size and far reaches of a station’s shortwave audience preclude conducting detailed market research, stations are mostly running blind with respect to the attitudes and needs of their listening audience. The only way they know you’re listening — and like or dislike what you’ve heard — is if you correspond with them and provide constructive comments on what you’ve heard. Simply requesting a schedule or a QSL doesn’t count.
Contact embassies in your country — not the home country — when you send constructive comments to a shortwave broadcaster, because shortwave broadcasts support the embassies’ interests, and there may very well be a funding link as there is with the BBC.
Troubles at Radio Canada International
While RCI has enjoyed stable funding since 1996, allowing for its rebuilding from the disastrous year of 1991, funding levels have not been increased as production and transmission costs have crept up. It appears the first losses will be live RCI newscasts on weekends, with all weekend RCI programming to be produced during the week.
RCI’s director, Robert O’Reilly, has confirmed that korning shows to Africa, Europe and Middle East will be cancelled, the amount of live programming will be cut back, and that employees will have to apply for positions in new units to be formed later in 2001.
O’Reilly was scheduled to appear on the RCI program Maple Leaf Mailbag on the weekend of May 26th; the program may still be available for on-demand listening by the time the NASWA Journal reaches you.
See the website http://www.geocities.com/rciaction/ for more details on this situation.
Communications should be addressed to the Canadian Heritage Minister, Sheila Copps, Fax (613) 994-1267, E-mail email@example.com; also, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Manley, Fax (613) 995-1534, E-mail Manley.J@parl.gc.ca.
General gossip in hobby newsgroups suggests Radio Austria International will soon wrestle with its own cutbacks, but nothing has been announced to this point.
Enough bad news for one month
Thanks to the Journal’s editorial staff for allowing me to run long this month. By the time you read this, the British elections will be over; the Labour party is widely expected to retain its parliamentary majority, which should mean few changes in ministerial appointments and a quick return to government as usual.
If you have Internet access, I strongly suggest you consider joining us at swprograms to keep up to date on the BBC and RCI developments. Send a blank E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to join us online, or send me an E-mail (see above) if you have questions.
Until next month,
73 DE Richard