Shortwave Center, June 2005
DRM in the Nation’s Capital
By Richard A. D’Angelo
On 5 May 2005 (Cinco de Mayo no less for you party types), Ralph Brandi, Tracy Wood and myself were invited by Jeff White of the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters (NASB) to attend their scheduled meeting on Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) in Washington, DC. Ulis Fleming and Jeff had been in contact about involving members of the shortwave listening hobby community with the introduction of DRM in North America. It was through the efforts of Ulis and Jeff that the invitations came for us to go to Washington. When our nation’s capital calls, NASWA responds. Ulis couldn’t make the Washington trip having opted to keep peaceful family relations by visiting the relatives in Costa Rica. Travel to warm weather and beautiful beaches of this Central American country was a difficult assignment but Ulis was up to the task! Meanwhile the rest of us descended on the nation’s capital for a very interesting day getting educated about DRM, meeting many of the key players, hearing the many implementation issues and learning the status of introducing DRM as a viable method of shortwave broadcasting in Europe, North America and around the world.
DRM emerged from an informal meeting in Paris, in September 1996, between some of the large international broadcasters and broadcasting equipment manufacturers. These included representatives from Radio France Internationale, TéléDiffusion de France, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, and Thomcast. During this gathering, a consensus emerged that unless something was done, the days of national and international broadcasting in the AM bands below 30 MHz were limited. As shortwave listeners we have seen the number of broadcasters transmitting to North America slowly dwindling in recent years. In November of that year, a more extensive meeting took place and was attended by a wider group of interests, including national and international terrestrial AM broadcasters and network operators, academics, research centers, transmitter and receiver manufacturers, and organizations undertaking development of digital AM-band technology. The meeting agreed that a group needed to be established whose task would be to define the structure for a formal organization to be called Digital Radio Mondiale or DRM for short. The organization would be formed of broadcasters, communications systems developers and the electronic manufacturing sectors. The main objectives of group would be to formulate a digital AM system design, which could serve as a single, tested, non-proprietary, evolutionary world standard, which would be market driven and consumer oriented; to facilitate the spread of AM digital technology around the world.
The DRM Consortium formed in 1998 when a small group of pioneering broadcasters and manufacturers joined forces to create a universal, digital system (also called DRM) for the AM broadcasting bands (short-wave, medium-wave and long-wave) below 30 MHz. DRM has expanded into an international consortium of more than 80 broadcasters, manufacturers, network operators, research institutions, broadcasting unions and regulatory bodies. Its membership is global in scope, with members representing more than 25 countries. DRM is the place where engineers from cutting-edge global manufacturing firms work in tandem with the world’s best known media organizations. There is a considerable amount of talent tackling the DRM issues and the future of shortwave broadcasting could very well depend on the outcome of this process. There is a comprehensive website (www.drm.org) for news, information and technical updates. The website provides for an opportunity to sample DRM audio and an interesting Broadcasters Users Manual.
DRM is a non-proprietary system. It covers the broadcasting bands below 30 MHz, however, the consortium recently voted to begin the process of extending the system into the broadcasting bands up to 120 MHz. DRM offers the promise of revitalizing shortwave radio with clear, FM-like audio quality, free from static, fading and interference. More than 70 broadcasters, including international, national, local, commercial and public broadcasters, have launched DRM transmissions worldwide. There are some limited DRM broadcasts available in the United States. The European launch of commercial DRM is anticipated for later this year.
National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters
Who or what is the NASB? An interesting question since I suspect many people are not familiar with the organization, I’ll take a moment to briefly describe the group.
Prior to 1982, there were just four privately licensed shortwave stations in the United States, WYFR, KGEI, WINB and KTWR. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not issue shortwave broadcast licenses for many years. Finally in 1982, citing Public Law 80-402, Joe Costello of WRNO Worldwide became the first privately owned shortwave station to be licensed in many years. By 1989, the number had grown to 16 stations.
On 12 September 1989, several key figures in the private sector of the United States International Shortwave Broadcast community met in New Orleans at Radio’89. The purpose of this meeting was to explore the formation of a national organization to represent the interests of FCC licensed international broadcasters. The participants in the initial Radio’89 meeting decided to go forward with the formation of a national association. Articles of Incorporation were filed in Washington DC a few months later on 1 February 1990. The first meeting of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters was held by telephone conference call on 12 February 1990 to officially organize the association as a District of Columbia, Non Profit Corporation.
Each year, the NASB holds its Annual Meeting in the early part of the year. This year it was held on May 6th in Washington, DC the day after the DRM gathering. This meeting has been widely attended by FCC licensed shortwave broadcasters, FCC personnel, VOA, RFE/RL personnel, consultants, other international broadcasters from around the world as well as many shortwave manufacturer’s representative.
The US DRM Group
The NASB planned two days of meetings which we were invited to attend. The first day was devoted to DRM issues organized by the US DRM Group with Jeff White as its Chairman. The second day was the NASB annual meeting. I was not available to attend the NASB but was able to participate in the DRM session.
The meeting was held at Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) facilities on M Street in Washington, DC hosted by Hal Creech of RFA who coordinated the use of the conference room for both meetings. With my son recently moving to the Georgetown area, this gave me an excuse to visit with him and enjoy an opportunity to learn more about DRM development particularly as things begin to move forward in North America.
The day began with a brief tour of Radio Free Asia’s facilities. Introductions and some initial presentations and discussions were held before lunch. After lunch there were reviews of previous DRM meetings by some of the key people involved in these matters: Adil Mina from Continental Electronics, Darko Cvjetko of RIZ Transmitters, Don Messer who is Chairman of the DRM Technical Committee, and Jeff White. A report from Mike Adams, Chairman of US DRM’s International Broadcasters Committee was read. Kim Elliott provided a review of experience obtained from DRM demonstrations at the Winter SWL Festival. A key item that should interest shortwave listeners is the formation of a US DRM Listeners Committee to get comments and feedback from the SWL community. I think this is an important step in getting the shortwave listener engaged in the process. Ultimately, it will be the listener that will determine if DRM will be successful or not. More information about this should be forthcoming in the course of the next few months.
One of the more interesting aspects of DRM was introduced during a February HFCC-ASBU Conference sponsored by the NASB in Mexico City. Test transmissions were successfully conducted in the 26 MHz frequency range using DRM technology. Harris Corporation installed a DRM modulator board in a Harris DX50 transmitter and RIZ installed a 200 watt shortwave DRM transmitter system on 25,620 kHz. The thought process considers it possible, even desirable, to introduce large scale regional shortwave broadcasting using DRM technology in the 26 MHz frequency range, mainly for public radio operations. An interesting concept but one that will need much broader radio listener appeal to attract significantly greater audiences than exit today on shortwave. It will be interesting to see if DRM technology makes these types of transmissions possible. However, will an audience develop in response to this technology? It’s a pretty exciting concept. Now we will have to wait and see how it plays out.
Although one of the main action items was to get one or more long-term DRM tests on the air from a United States based shortwave station, no such commitments were made. However, I would expect this to be a continuing issue over the next few months. With the FCC issuing revised rules permitting DRM on shortwave in the United States, additional efforts will be made to get stations on the air with regular long-term DRM transmissions.
The new US DRM website (www.usdrm.com) was discussed. There was discussion about expanding the content and making this a valuable resource site for those interested in DRM activities. Currently, there are a handful of interesting reports from other DRM meetings that provide some interesting updates and background information. Equipment manufacturer, Continental Electronics, hosts the site.
Probably the most exciting piece of intelligence from the meeting was the news that at the IFA 2005 Exhibition in Berlin, Germany to be held from 1-7 September 2005, two or more portable DRM receivers should be displayed for the first time. It is anticipated that these DRM receivers should be available for sale for the Christmas shopping season in Europe in about the $150.00 to $200.00 price range. How long it will take for these DRM receivers to make it to North America is unknown at this time. However, clever radio listeners have always found a way to get the latest communications gear no matter where it was being sold. To date, you had to have special software and go through an elaborate process to attempt to hear DRM transmissions. This should be a major first step in making DRM user friendly both in terms of operation, or tuning in a signal, and cost.
The availability of portable DRM receivers is an important next step in the evolution of this new technology. Quality receivers at reasonable prices will help move non-technical shortwave listeners into the DRM listening mode, which is what the broadcasters are seeking. Things are beginning to get interesting as the technology moves out of the closet and into the public arena with the availability of portable DRM receivers in a few months.
Successful DRM experiments in Europe has the US DRM Group excited and ready to duplicate that success in North America. As I mentioned previously, it is hoped that one or more NASB members will introduce the technology through tests in the near future from a United States based transmitter. Currently, the Voice of the NASB operates DRM test transmissions through Radio Canada International’s facilities in Sackville. The organization is seeking to get more DRM transmitters on the air to expand the program content available to listeners.
In an ongoing cooperative effort, NASWA has offered the pages of the Journal to the US DRM Group for publishing periodic progress reports about DRM program development in North America. This should help keep NASWA members up-to-date on the latest developments in the DRM field. Cooperation between the US DRM Group and radio hobbyists is seen as an essential ingredient by Jeff White and Mike Adams in moving DRM technology out of the technical shadows and into the public listening spotlight. With that in mind and based on Jeff White’s encouragement to the transmitter manufacturers, I would expect the DRM technical experts to be available in Kulpsville at next year’s Winter SWL Festival to educate shortwave listeners about this new technology. Without a growing listener base, DRM is going nowhere. Therefore, education and information coupled with reasonably priced portable DRM receivers capable of receiving high quality signals and good program content will be the key factors to DRM the technology and its future success in North America.
Report on 2005 USA DRM Group Meeting
May 5, 2005
Radio Free Asia-Washington, DC
by Jeff White
(Editor’s note: this is the official report from the USA DRM group meeting attended by three NASWA members. As part of the outreach from the group to the shortwave listening community, NASWA is happy to bring this report to you.)
After conducting a tour of Radio Free Asia for those who had never been there before, Hal Creech welcomed everyone to RFA, and explained that the fact that this meeting is being held at RFA in no way implies that RFA or the U.S. Government endorse DRM.
Jeff White, USA DRM Chairman, explained that he had laryngitis, so others–including Don Messer–would be helping him conduct the meeting today.
Don Messer noted that some journalists may attend this meeting, and he asked for their cooperation in not printing confidential information, so as to promote the freest possible discussion and interchange among participants. There were a total of about 25 persons in attendance.
Recent DRM Developments
Don Messer, currently with the IBB and Chairman of DRM’s Technical Committee, talked about some very recent developments at DRM. He talked about the plan to conduct tests of DRM in Mexico and Brazil. In Mexico, 26 MHz DRM transmissions will be tested by public broadcasters with about 200 watts, stereo and mono, in both 10 and 20 kHz channels, plus single frequency networks. On mediumwave, the private broadcasters will be testing DRM, both simulcasts and independent broadcasts. Brazil is not as far ahead with the testing as Mexico, but in Brazil there will also be tests of traditional shortwave to cover the entire country, either from transmitters inside Brazil or from DRM transmissions from Ecuador, Chile and/or French Guiana. Don explained that medium wave DRM simulcast tests are being conducted in New Zealand, and that in Germany Deutsche Welle has just completed a single frequency network into Germany from two stations in Portugal and Germany, transmitting to Germany on the same frequency.
Success with DRM in Mexico and Brazil could lead to success with DRM in the United States, Don said. He talked about the possibility of using 26 MHz frequencies in the U.S. in DRM mode for local broadcasting (and maybe even sky wave broadcasting) with low power (10 watts to 1 kilowatt) to cover small areas such as universities and towns. This could open up some new possibilities for local radio services where there are presently no frequencies available in the AM and FM bands. Don explained the FCC’s recent rules changes which now permit DRM modulation by shortwave stations in the United States that are transmitting abroad. Don said that DRM receivers will be available by the end of 2005. Don explained that the 26 MHz area is basically the 11-meter WARC allocations for international broadcasting, and that this band is not used by the traditional HF broadcasters. There would still be a need to coordinate through the HFCC–but it would be a formality, and the idea is that a local broadcaster would always use the same frequency assignment, much like in the FM band. The FCC would need to approve this concept, but would not be involved with the HFCC coordination. It was noted that Continental Electronics obtained FCC permission to operate a 26 MHz DRM transmission during a DRM meeting for one week last August, and this was very successful. A similar test was run by RIZ Transmitters in Mexico City during the 2005 HFCC Conference in February.
International Broadcasters Committee Report
Mike Adams, chairman of US DRM’s International Broadcasters Committee, was unable to attend this meeting, but he sent the following written report, which was read by Don Messer.
Report for DRM-USA Group International Broadcasters
International broadcasters need to keep a close eye on the roll-out of DRM now as we enter the true commercial launch phase of DRM.
Even if we are concerned about North America, South America, Asia or other markets in the world we need to keep an eye on Europe as this is where it will all start. In September, 2005 we will see the Commercial launch of DRM in Europe and the first truly consumer DRM radio should be out by the end of the year.
One thing that has pushed the receiver development forward has been the number of radio stations on the air. We need to plan seriously and realistically now to get stations on the air in the Americas and Asia as the next continents that have the potential to introduce DRM.
Broadcasts on air in the USA have been from foreign broadcasters up until now. We’d like to thank both Radio Netherlands and Radio Canada INTL for their broadcasts to North America. RNW is taking a short break to reorganize their DRM infrastructure, so RCI is the only station on the air to the Americas. We were pleased to have HCJB-Ecuador and CVI-Chile as well as TDF from Guyana all on the air for the first time for the DRM symposium in Dallas.
We need to get more stations on the air in the US and to the US! What can your station do?
Rent air time to get started in DRM. There are many stations that can be hired to broadcast DRM into the USA and Canada. Besides RCI, you can also talk to TDF, VT Merlin and RNW when they get back on the air. If you are unsure of your participation in DRM and don’t want to invest in equipment, then it makes sense to join together with others in a bouquet like RCI operates.
Arrange an equipment demonstration at your station. Many of the DRM equipment makers are happy to arrange a demonstration at your station to help you get on the air. This is how CVI in Chile got on the air – they borrowed an exciter with an understanding to buy it if they were satisfied. They were one of the new stations that got on the air and were received in Dallas at the symposium. The test was a great success and they have gone on to purchase the equipment.
It is also worth thinking about when DRM will really start in other continents. After Europe we will probably see DRM launch in Asia as well as the Americas. Based on a survey of Broadcasters in Asia there are several who will be prepared to launch in 2006, so I hope we see a start in Asia in 2006. It is up to us if we see a strong push in the Americas in 2005/2006 or not. Let’s put our best effort into it and see what happens!
Mike Adams, Far East Broadcasting Co.
May 5, 2005
Gary McAvin of WMLK Radio expressed his opinion that there should be some kind of overall DRM guide which explains to analog shortwave broadcasters the costs and benefits of DRM, and exactly how to go about implementing DRM transmissions. Don Messer and Adil Mina (the latter of Continental Electronics) explained that most of this information can be found in the DRM Broadcasters User Manual (BUM). Adil said that all NASB members should have a copy of the BUM. It is available for downloading from the DRM Consortium website (www.drm.org), and the DRM office in Germany also has copies available in hard copy or on CD-ROM. Don asked Jeff White to coordinate with Anne Fechner at the DRM office in Germany to make sure that all NASB members who do not currently have copies of the BUM get one.
DRM Demo at Winter SWL Fest 2005
After a pizza and pasta lunch sponsored by Continental Electronics, TCI and Thales, Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott, an audience research analyst at the Voice of America, gave a presentation about his experiences demonstrating DRM reception at the Winter Shortwave Listeners Festival in Kulpsville, Pennsylvania. He said that different receivers have been used over the last three years at the Fest. This year they bought a Ten Tec RX-320D for the demonstration, then raffled it off at the end of the event.
The Ten Tec must be used in conjunction with a PC, and Kim noted candidly that it can be quite complicated to get all of the equipment to work properly at these demonstrations. Perhaps because of propagation conditions, the only DRM signal that they were able to receive was from Sackville, Canada, where they did hear the TDP Radio program on Saturday, followed by the Voice of the NASB with a broadcast of HCJB’s DX Party Line which contained special greetings to the Winterfest participants.
Next year Kim hopes to be able to demonstrate the new self-contained DRM receivers (i.e. those which don’t need to be connected to a PC), and they hope that more DRM broadcasters will be willing to do special transmissions for the Fest during daylight hours. Kim said that complete details about the 2006 Winter SWL Fest will be available at the website www.swlfest.com. He said that Mark Fine’s website (www.fineware-swl.com) has lots of good tips for listening to DRM, and his own website (www.kimandrewelliott.com) includes general news and developments related to DRM.
Some general discussion, questions and answers followed. Don Messer said that the target price for the two to four new models of DRM receivers that should be available by December of this year is 100-150 euros. He said that some large companies are currently interested in developing DRM receivers, but he said that small manufacturers may indeed get DRM off the ground. Adil Mina of Continental Electronics said that Texas Instruments is developing a DRM chipset, but they are reluctant to give out any information about it at the moment due to competition. There are indications from the mobile telephone industry that they are looking into DRM radio in cell phones.
Adil said that DRM has not been promoted much in the United States until now; the main promotion has been in other parts of the world. “We know that receivers are a key issue,” he said. He said that the United States will be using another digital system, IBOC, on FM for sure. Adil said that “Shortwave will die without DRM. Analog shortwave transmitter sales are way down. DRM is a savior for shortwave.” He went on to say that DRM will give current U.S. shortwave stations tremendous benefits. “There are groups interested in broadcasting on shortwave to the U.S.,” he pointed out. He mentioned a plan by Ron Wilensky of TCI antennas that would permit a station to cover all of the United States in DRM with just five shortwave transmitters.
On the other hand, Graham Mytton of VT Merlin Communications voiced the opinion that we will have to continue with analog shortwave broadcasting for a long time to come.
Ralph Brandi was one of three well-known shortwave listeners and leaders of the NASWA (North American Shortwave Association) club who attended the meeting. He explained that at his location in New Jersey, he has not been able to get good DRM shortwave reception from overseas stations–just from Radio Canada’s site in Sackville. Adil Mina said he would organize some DRM tests especially for NASWA from overseas sites such as Kuwait.
Walt Ireland of the American Radio Relay League mentioned that his group is conducting DRM tests for digital amateur radio transmissions at its laboratory in California. Charlie Jacobson of HCJB said that low-power DRM could work with the amateur community on further tests.
26 MHz DRM Tests in Croatia
Darko Cvjetko of RIZ Transmitters in Croatia gave a very interesting PowerPoint presentation about his company’s DRM equipment and especially about a series of tests they are doing on 26 MHz in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. The exact frequency is 25.8 MHz, using a maximum of 200 watts of DRM power. The antenna is located on a mountain 610 meters above sea level and about 410 meters above the city of Zagreb. The transmitter is all in one 19-inch rack, which is 1.8 meters high. The antenna is a three-element yagi with vertical polarization.
The preliminary conclusions of the tests are that the entire city of Zagreb can be covered with 45 dB or more of field strength–most of it with 50-60 dB–using 100 watts of power and a 10 or 20 kHz bandwidth with this high antenna position.
Adil Mina of Continental said that it was very easy to get the 26 MHz permit for the short-term DRM transmissions from Dallas last November, but we need to be careful about the way of going about asking for permanent licenses for such transmissions from the FCC.
Graham Mytton pointed out that DRM removes the distinction between domestic and international broadcasting. “So,” he asked, “won’t shortwave become commercially attractive, and couldn’t there be a lot of competition for frequencies?”
Adil Mina answered Graham Mytton’s question by saying that “Yes, commercial concerns are interested in shortwave. They read Radio World magazine. When receivers become available, then it will be really serious.”
Don Messer said that Ron Wilensky’s idea of covering the U.S. on shortwave below 26 MHz could cause a need for changes in shortwave regulations, refering to current U.S. restrictions on domestic shortwave broadcasting.
Gary McAvin asked if power consumption will be less with DRM than with current analog shortwave transmissions. Don Messer said that the ITU recommends using 7 dB less power than for an equivalent analog broadcast, which means roughly one-fifth the amount of power. He said that a DRM transmission using one-fifth the power of a current analog transmission should have a signal that is at least as good as the analog coverage. Don said it was his understanding that existing U.S. shortwave stations could now use DRM modulation for international broadcasting simply by notifying the FCC that these transmissions will be in DRM mode, with no need for new licensing requirements. Roger Stubbe of HCJB asked what the official nomenclature is for DRM modulation type. No one present knew for sure.
Tracy Wood, another of the NASWA representatives, asked if there has been any consideration given to establishing separate parts of the band spectrum for DRM transmissions. Don Messer said that there is no such separation contemplated in the ITU regulations, and he fought hard against it, since it will be to our detriment in the long run.
Adil Mina mentioned that BPL (Broadband over Power Lines) was approved last week by the Texas legislature, and he expressed a concern that this could cause serious interference to shortwave transmissions in general, and DRM transmissions in particular. Tracy Wood says that his study of the system has led him to the conclusion that BPL will not be economically viable in the long run. It has caused a lot of fear among shortwave listeners and broadcasters, but he doesn’t think it will be used much.
In response to a question about the cost of DRM exciters, Adil Mina said that for small private shortwave broadcasters, the best thing may be to “Let the rich boys [including governments] buy the exciters now. The price will come down shortly.”
Mike Adams had proposed a DX contest for DRM listeners in North America, to try to hear as many DRM transmission sites as possible. Rich D’Angelo of NASWA said that he thought there would be interest in such a contest, and Jeff White promised to put him in contact with Mike Adams to arrange the details. Rich also said that they would be willing to include a regular or irregular DRM Report in the NASWA club bulletin, which Ralph Brandi coordinates. Someone pointed out that in the statistics on sales of the Merlin DRM software, the number one country for sales was Germany, and the United States was number 2, with a few hundred or so sold. So there should be a fair number of DRM listeners in the United States. It was pointed out that a free version of the Dream DRM software is available at drm.sourceforge.net.
Tracy Wood indicated that he would be willing to work as a point person for coordination between the US DRM Group and the US shortwave listening community. Jeff White suggested that the NASB Newsletter, which contains a lot of material from US DRM, could be sent by e-mail to interested DXers in North America.
Please note: Darko Cvjetko’s complete PowerPoint presentation about RIZ Transmitters and their 26 MHz DRM tests in Zagreb can be found at the NASB website (www.shortwave.org).
VOA Watch: This is the VOA in Hong Kong
by John Figliozzi
On April 11, the Voice of America’s Director David Jackson made an announcement that on it’s face would appear to simply reflect new realities in a globalized, 24 hour busniess world. He announced that, for seven hours a day–midnight to 7 a.m. Washington time–primary news operations are to be transferred to Hong Kong.
A statement from the VOA’s Office of External Affairs described the move as a step to expand the VOA’s presence in Asia, stating the obvious point that the region is an increasingly important one for the broadcaster. “We believe that the move will position VOA to offer better and faster-reacting coverage of news from Hong Kong, and the rest of East Asia. The move will also include adding internet staff in Hong Kong who will enable VOA to update its web presence 24 hours a day, something that is sorely needed.”
As announced, the plan is to hire three editors and five writers “as contractors” in Hong Kong to handle the news operaton there. “Stories produced in Hong Kong will be edited by full time staff currently based there and also overseen and vetted by their counterparts who will remain on the midnight shift in Washington”, where final editorial responsibility will remain.
The statement stresses that the VOA’s brand new new state of the art multimedia newsroom in Washington “is not exactly going dark” during those overnight hours, though the employees previously assigned there for news operations during that time will be moved to other day and evening shifts.
It’s also pointed out that the VOA has long had a bureau in Hong Kong, a city that “has a skilled local English-speaking workforce of journalists” and, like other broadcasters, has used foreign stringers around the world for many years. “Although this shift will result in a small savings, that is not the main point of the move. It is rather to extend and enhance our presence in Asia, assure quality coverage during Washington’s overnight hours, and achieve true 24-hour web coverage,” the statement concludes.
So, What Could Be Wrong Here?
Maybe nothing; but, on the other hand, maybe there are grounds for suspicion. For one thing, prominent and trusted individuals like Alan Heil, a former VOA deputy director and author of “The Voice of America, A History”, and Sanford Unger, who recently served as VOA Director after a career in public and commercial broadcasting, are expressing misgivings.
For another, since 1999 the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, has cut the number of its worldwide shortwave frequencies in English from 354 to 52. VOA English broadcasts can no longer be heard in Latin America or Europe (East and West) and are barely audible in the Middle East. And staff of the BBG have gone on record as stating the rather incredible opinion that English, the universal language of trade and commerce, is now largely irrelevant to U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy interests.
It is that last point that Unger highlighted as particularly misguided in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered on April 16. VOA has reduced availability of its news and other fare in English to only 16 hours a day at the same time as broadcasters like the BBC, DW and China Radio International are offering around-the-clock coverage.
Heil cites recent history warning that relocating VOA central news operations in what remains, after all, the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) for nearly a third of each day poses significant risks. In the event of another Tiananmen uprising or a Beijing assault on Taiwan, the Chinese regime could shut down in a flash VOA’s worldwide news service–which still serves around 100 million listeners weekly and hundreds of FM and TV affiliates around the world–either by cutting communications or by expelling staff. In June 1989, the China expelled two VOA Beijing correspondents after the Tiananmen massacre and–to this day–China vigorously jams VOA broadcasts into China. In that light, this hardly seems a prudent move especially without some robust back-up plans in place.
As an isolated event, this move probably would not merit more than a routine level of scrutiny. However, when seen in the context of a series of actions taken by the BBG over the last five years or so, the proposed outsourcing of news services to PRC-based contractors appears to be the latest in a series of measures aimed at dismantling the VOA and its global reach. It further calls into question the commitment of the BBG to the journalistic principles enunciated in the VOA Charter, which carry the force of law; but which do not legally apply to the growing panoply of surrogate broadcasters overseen by the BBG.
That suspicion is reinforced when the VOA Office of External Affairs cites the unpopularity of the overnight shift with staff, the obstacle that an overnight shift presents to recruitment efforts and the already-in-place communications connectivity between Washington and Hong Kong as further supporting rationale. As true as these points might be, they hardly serve as convincing arguments for virtually shutting down VOA headquarters and its central newsroom for seven hours a day. Neither does redirected cost savings of $300,000 in a $168 million budget.
Why Should You Care?
Well, you pay the taxes and these moves are all being made in your name. You’re a shortwave listener, probably more aware of international affairs and the role of broadcasting in it, and uniquely placed to offer informed perspective on the subject. The VOA is your international broadcaster and the only one strictly governed under force of law by principles for which some of your relatives and friends literally have fought and–in some cases–died. Things like truth, accuracy and objectivity in journalism.
Isn’t it time your voice was heard–in online listener forums, in Washington by your senators and congressional representative, to the BBG via the comments section of their web site, wherever peoole are talking shortwave–about all this?
This article is part of a larger article by the author that first appeared in the June 2005 issue of Monitoring Times.