Shortwave Center, October 2005
Happy October! We have for your reading pleasure a selection of interesting articles on varied topics covering the shortwave scene from sister publications–and me. That means that once again we haven’t anything to publish from you this month. Apparently, my attempts to encourage you to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) have been met with a giant collective yawn. Whst must I do to get you to contribute your intellectual property? Sit in your kitchens, eating and drinking everything in your refrigerators and belching continuously until you relent and say, “OK, I’ll write, I’ll write”? (Does create a rather unpleasant picture, doesn’t it?) So let’s avoid such a travesty and let me have your contribution to this effort forthwith. Remember, I have access to the club membership list which includes addresses–and I have gassed up the automobile.
First this month, with the various announcements at major consumer electronics shows in Berlin and Amsterdam of a concerted rollout of consumer receivers and new Digital Radio Mondiale services targeting France, Germany and the Benelux countries by December, we reprint an excellent article from the March 2005 issue of the bulletin of the Worldwide DX Club explaining in some detail and critically “handicapping” these early efforts and future prospects.
Too Late for DRM on Shortwave?
Editorial Analysis by BBC Monitoring’s Martin Peters
Heralded as the saviour of shortwave broadcasting, Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) was supposed to breathe new life into shortwave and AM broadcasting.
DRM offers high fidelity, even stereo, reception of broadcasts using similar bandwidth to that occupied by conventional analogue broadcasts. Simple data, such as scrolling text, is another benefit for the user. For the broadcaster, robust signal reception is possible using comparatively low transmitter power, meaning a cost saving in energy.
The success of DRM and the renaissance of shortwave hinges on a number of fundamental assumptions: broadcasters’ willingness to continue to produce material for an overseas market and their readiness to upgrade transmission facilities, and the public’s interest in listening to foreign radio and their inclination to buy the receivers necessary to decode the signals.
Far from maintaining multilingual output for overseas and expatriate listeners, recent years have seen an increasing number of broadcasters downsize their external service, and in some cases, terminate it completely.
Swiss Radio International closed its foreign language shortwave outlets in October [2004-ed.], while Belgium’s Radio Vlaanderen International clos[ed] its English, French and German services [this] year. Ireland’s shortwave service ceased operations at the end of 2003. RTE electing to provide satellite receivers, free of charge, to those listeners who could demonstrate a pressing requirement.
Other recent casualties include a raft of Radio Free Europe’s eastern bloc language streams, the BBC’s programming directed to North America and a scaling back of Iran’s external service. Radio Slovakia International’s future hangs in the balance and Israel’s foreign language Network B [was reported to be] axed. With annual budget cuts an ever present threat, this statistic is undoubtedly destined to rise.
Major Players Committed to New Technology
Contrary to this downward trend, some major broadcasters are demonstrating their faith in DRM and the future of shortwave. Bonn-based Deutsche Welle already broadcast overf DRM 24 hours a day on shortwave and are investing in analogue-to-digital migration over the next few years. BBC World Service offers a DRM service for several hours a day. Others include China Radio International, Voice of Russia, Radio Netherlands and Vatican Radio. Meanwhile Radio New Zealand has recently placed an order for a DRM-enabled transmitter to cover their Pacific-region service area.
One major European broadcaster committed to DRM is Radio Television Luxembourg (RTL). The RTL group has interests in 24 television channels and 23 radio stations across eight countries.
Despite already operating a brace of regional radio outlets in Germany, RTL has ambitions to provide a nationwide service; something denied to them under the current analogue infrastructure. The group’s network of FM transmitters serving France provides only patchy reception, even in some densely populated areas. RTL views early adoption of DRM as a solution to both these challenges by using the technology to reinforce its existing channels.
Plans for opening up new markets, made feasible with DRM, include a possible fourth network in France and a relaunch of Radio Luxembourg [which did happen in September-ed.], targeting the UK. RTL is in talks with equipment manufacturers to encourage the introduction of suitable receivers in the shops by the second quarter of 2005 [now apparently delayed until at least the Christmas shopping season-ed.]
The incentive for consumers to buy into DRM would seem to rest on increased choice, effortless station acquisition and improved audio quality. Unfortunately, there may be little overlap between the type of listener interested in accessing foreign news and the desire for more stations or improved fidelity. Present shortwave programming may not be enticing enough to attract listeners. The successful new radio systems are satellite radio in the USA and Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) in the UK.
In addition, audiences who rely heavily on shortwave broadcasting for their news would include large numbers living outside of major population centres in Africa and therefore unlikely to afford to buy the relatively expensive receivers when they become available. Prices will fall if and when DRM becomes mainstream. However, so far, only one stand-alone portable radio is available: the Mayah DRM-2010, costing over 800 dollars. [The Berlin and Amsterdam shows promised new radios on the European market within a few months costing between 100 and 250 euros.-ed.]
All other available options rely on connection to a computer.
Alternative programming would draw in a new generation of listeners. To date, the programming mirrors completely that which is already available over conventional analogue on shortwave. A Germany-based bilingual music station, unique to DRM, [has just recently gone into] operation.
Another obstacle DRM must overcome is the competition from established technologies already providing a satisfactory service. Besides shortwave AM, there is an increasing number of international broadcasters available via satellite, over the internet and, in major population centres throughout the world, through part or full time FM rebroadcasts. It is now possible to listen to the BBC, Voice of America, Radio France Internationale and many others–some in stereo–on portable radios or whilst driving in many towns, even in the Third World.
Finally, and perhaps of most concern, is the threat from the distribution of broadcast Internet over power lines. Power Line Telecommunications (PLT) uses the same segment of spectrum as currently used by shortwave broadcasters.
An unfavourable side effect of the system is to pollute the airwaves, blanketing them in noise and rendering much of the spectrum unusable. The consortium is on record as saying that the adoption of PLT is incompatible with the success of DRM. In the United States, despite vociferous opposition from users of the spectrum, PLT has been given a cautious go-ahead by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Europe may follow suit, unless a viable alternative to providing broadband to otherwise unserved areas can be found.
Additional spectrum sought
The DRM consortium recently announced that it intends to seek a frequency extension to the system which currently does not permit its use above 30 MHz, generally recognised as the upper limit of shortwave. The proposal suggests that this be raised to 120 MHz, thereby embracing a significant portion of the VHF spectrum.
DRM’s precise intentions are unknown, but a 1 MHz slice of spectrum at VHF would accommodate up to around 100 radio stations for consumers within line of sight of the transmitter and largely resilient to PLT-borne interference and the vagaries of variable radio propagation; an attractive proposition to broadcasters and listeners alike.
The other contenders for the future of digital radio, in Europe and elsewhere, and hitherto seen as the sole replacement of FM analogue is Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB). In the United Kingdom, operators have elected to convey up to 10 radio stations within each multiplex with a resulting trade-off in audio quality.
In addition to bandwidth considerations, another advantage of DRM over DAB is that broadcasters need not be bundled into a multiplex, dependent on whether the national or local provider wishes to carry them. Instead, each station can be a stand-alone service, completely independent of such gatekeepers, thus providing lesser broadcasters a mechanism with which to reach their listeners via a digital medium.
With DRM’s ability to provide an outlet to niche stations at similar quality to that offered by DAB in the UK, it’s possible that there will be a struggle for supremacy between the two systems. DRM employs modern, efficient coding techniques but DAB is already dated and has only made a major impact in the UK. [A recent technology solution providing for both DRM and DAB capability in the same receiver may have the effect of reducing this particular competition.-ed.]
In the United States, neither DRM or DAB are used for domestic broadcasting, as their own home-grown systems take root.
Similar to DRM, the In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) technology has no need for additional spectrum. However, IBOC permits stations to broadcast digital versions of their analogue counterparts simultaneously on the same channel, meaning the spectrum is spectrally efficient. The system also offers seamless transition between digital and analogue, should one or other suffer from poor reception. Satellite radio, with extensive, ground-based fill-in relays, also provides a multichannel radio service.
Uncertain future for shortwave
If DRM is to be the success its backers are hoping for, a content, not industry-driven agenda is a prerequisite, as is the easy availability of affordable receivers.
The future may not lie with international broadcasting on shortwave. Declining numbers of stations and listeners; little in the way of alternative programming; threats from interference; and a target audience, many of whom earn less than a dollar a day, all add up to a considerable challenge for the proponents of DRM.
Instead, domestic use of DRM on longwave, mediumwave and the proposed VHF allocation, where armchair listeners will value increased choice and audio quality, is where the technology may more comfortably sit.
Crucially, DRM’s profile is low in the consciousness of the public. Far from appreciating what the system has to offer, most are unaware of its very existence.
[Source: BBC Monitoring Research, 26 Nov. 2004]
Next, an article by yours truly first published in the July 2005 edition of Monitoring Times discussing a certain fascination with the advent of podcasting, the sometimes dodgy plight of international broadcasting and how the two might develop a synergistic relationship.
the an Answer?
While I would not put myself in the camp of the kneejerk naysayers when it comes to new technologies, I might be easily counted as a natural skeptic–especially when something new emerges that is said to be in all ways superior to a means I might be using that has served and is still serving me well. (I think most SWLs and DXers will catch my drift here.)
That’s not to say that I’m adverse to trying out new things. While I love shortwave radio, sometimes it’s just not accessible. I’m a Sirius Satellite Radio subscriber. I often listen to the BBC and World Radio Network in the car that way. The BBC is carried by my local NPR affiliate overnights on weekdays. I listen that way too. At work in a steel frame building that is singularly inhospitable to radio waves, I multitask using my employer’s high speed internet connection to listen to any number of broadcasts and broadcasters. I am in no way a cave dweller. All of these complement shortwave and each other nicely in many respects.
I’m a recent recipient of an iPod. In my case, it’s an iPod Shuffle–the least expensive model in the range–that I secured for the princely sum of $100. It’s the size of a pack of gum and can hold up to a dozen or so hours of voice and music in its 512MB capacity drive. Is it at all possible that this little device holds within it a potential for the salvation of international broadcasting as we have known it?
Many of us who love shortwave as much for its content as for its technical fascinations harbor fear for the future of the medium from the same dual perspective. I’ve come to at least a tenuous conclusion that, despite challenges like the new man-made interference source created by broadband over power line (BPL) technology, shortwave’s “expeditionary” pleasures will remain for some time to come in one form or another. But I’ve been somewhat less optimistic about the continued quality and quantity of the programming.
As a whole, the budgets supporting what might be termed “traditional” international broadcasting continue to decline as the environment in which they operate becomes more complex. Counterintuitively (at least to this writer), as understanding interrelationships between peoples and nations become more crucial to our common futures, government interest in expending resources toward fostering stability in such relationships is demonstrably waning.
As has been discussed numerous times, international radio stations are no longer the sole source of that programming and its distribution is no longer limited to–or even primarily reliant on–shortwave. Program sources continue to diversify and are almost constantly redefining themselves and their missions, confronted as they are with an ever-changing, multilayering climate.
Therefore, audience measurement, response and interaction have become increasingly vital to the very existence of longtime international broadcasters–so vital, in fact, that some quoted statistics and methodologies can appear suspect to longtime observers. Nonetheless when survival is at stake, the measures taken can naturally become more strained or even desperate.
Add to this scenario efforts on the part of programmers to both expand the audience and simultaneously control costs through the implementation of a number of relatively new and emerging distribution platforms. Each of these at this point, appear to have their respective strengths and weaknesses; but not one of them appears able to establish itself as dominant.
In the end, it’s all a fiercely competitive and challenging balancing act.
Keeping What We Love
Of course we all know that, at its best, this programming literally soars miles above anything else. With all its management faults, the BBC World Service still provides the best, most comprehensive news reportage and analysis on the planet. It is almost alone in contributing mightily to our efforts to better understand what is happening in our world through the mass electronic media. Radio Netherlands daily demonstrates that it fully understands that the best radio is the radio that tells a story in an imaginative and intelligent way.
Radio Australia, in conjunction with its domestic partner ABC Radio National, covers the widest range of topics of any network and refuses to talk down to its audience. On the contrary, RA challenges the listener to do something that few stations have the courage to demand–that they think and learn.
China Radio International broadcasts are growing in professionalism and ubiquity almost continuously. Radio New Zealand International provides unique coverage, both culturally and in terms of news, of the Pacific island nations including its own. The Voice of Russia reminds us not only of that nation’s long, grand and often tragic history; but also of its continued significance in the world today.
Several others–like Radio Sweden, Radio Prague, Radio Slovakia, Radio Taiwan International, Radio Exterior de España, Radio Austria International and Radio Habana Cuba–do a yeoman job providing unique insight into society, culture and individuals in their own small, but truly no less significant nations.
But also at its worst, it can be some of the most boring and useless drivel imaginable–and you know what I’m talking about there as well. It can be argued that the added competition can serve to weed out this stuff; but it can just as easily force the broadcaster committed to quality into a spiral to the lowest common denominator in an effort to stave off the all-too-present cleaver wielded by those who in a too facile way equate quality with audience size and then act accordingly.
It’s an all too true maxim that money (or the lack thereof) changes everything. Lacking the ability to use some of the funding models (advertising, for example) available to other programmers, international broadcasting has always relied on a patron–typically, government or public money distributed through public corporations–to underwrite its efforts. In this way, it had been recognized that value or results could not always be measured precisely. I suppose this would make those believing in the value of cross-border broadcasting for its own sake something of a “faith-based” group. (It had to be said.)
However, in today’s economics value is value only if it can be demonstrated through some quantitative measure, even if the methodology can sometimes appear tenuous. Consequently, the kind of international broadcasting we love has come under budgetary threat just about everywhere.
At the same time, the economic model that is slowly emerging as a favorite to support all forms of media is the direct pay as you go plan. More and more, users are being asked to pay for what they want, and in more and more cases incrementally piece by piece.
It’s clear that if international broadcasting as we know it is to survive and flourish in this new era, new means of support–both in terms of verifiable, demonstrable listener numbers and cold hard cash–will have to be developed. For at least the foreseeable future, it appears that government support for international public service broadcasting will continue to wane. So, how about a new approach?
The technology exists to allow stations to offer for purchase MP3 (and other formatted) downloads of their programs. Means also exist for consumers to conduct cash and credit transactions over the internet. The Apple iTunes experience, for example, demonstrates that consumers will pay for content if it’s compelling to them and attractively priced, and the transaction is easy to conduct.
So, will listeners be willing to pay for international broadcasting? Getting back to my iPod Shuffle, I really like having the added option of downloading or copying programs (see sidebar) onto my computer’s hard drive, transferring them to my iPod and listening whenever I want—whether it’s while I walk the neighborhood, during a flight or bus commute or while mowing the lawn. (I still love shortwave radio; but it’s really not possible or at least very inconvenient to use one when I’m involved in those kind of activities.)
To me, it’s value added and if asked to pay for it, I would. I think others would too. It could have the added benefit of being a useful way of proving to the budget directors that international broadcasting has a bona-fide constituency and should continue to be supported by its government and public patrons while exploring additional sources of support.
But on the other hand, maybe I’m too optimistic about the flexibility and open-mindedness that would be required of my fellow listeners. I hope that’s not the case because it’s clear that radio is evolving into new forms and emerging on new delivery platforms and economic models. Ultimately, it would be of benefit to us all if we could find a way to preserve the essence of that which we love and find some way to influence the way it develops in the future. Maybe–just maybe–podcasting might offer that promise.
Sidebar: A Brief Podcasting Primer
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “Podcasting is a way of publishing sound files to the Internet, allowing users to subscribe to a feed and receive new audio files automatically… Users subscribe to podcasts using “podcatching” software (also called “aggregator” software) which periodically checks for and downloads new content. It can then sync the content to the user’s portable music player”… [Hence the marriage of Apple’s iPod and broadcasting into the new term podcasting, possibly first used in an article in The Guardian on February 12, 2004.] “Podcasting does not require an iPod; any digital audio player or computer with the appropriate software can play podcasts… Unlike radio or streaming media, podcasts are time-shifted, meaning that listeners have control over when they hear the recording.”
Podcasting is an adjunct to live broadcasting, not a replacement for it. For example, podcasts cannot have live participation or reach large audiences as quickly as radio can. (But it also has significant advantages over traditional methods of broadcasting in that it allows individuals to easily transmit content worldwide, transcending difficulties like limited spectrum and the need for a license. But for our purposes here, we are looking at podcasting as a reception medium.)
Several broadcasters that produce content for their international services have begun to experiment with podcasting.. These include CBC Radio One and CBC Radio Three, ABC’s Radio National and Triple J networks and the BBC. Others have likely joined this effort since this column was prepared. Domestically, KYOU radio is broadcasting podcasts made by listeners and Adam Curry is hosting a four-hour program radio program on Sirius Satellite Radio that discusses and airs podcasts. You can keep up with the rapid development of this new platform and media at www.podcastingnews.com, among other emerging resources on the internet. Just enter your favorite station and the word “podcast” or “podcasting” to learn if your favorite station or program has joined this realm.
Apple has made access to podcasts especially easy with new Windows and Mac versions of its popular, easy-to-use and versatile iTunes software. Go to www.apple.com for further information, a free download and instructions on use.
“Do It Yourself” Podcast
There also is software available that allows you to record any streamed and archived program onto your computer hard drive for transfer to an iPod or other portable digital player, even if a broadcaster has not specifically earmarked the program for podcasting. This method is a bit less efficient in that the download takes place over real time rather than instantaneously as a compressed file. Richard Cuff, who authored a recent article in MT on the subject of recording and timeshifting shortwave broadcasts recommends two programs for PC users: Replay Radio–http://www.replay-radio.com/ and Total Recorder–http://www.highcriteria.com/. Ralph Brandi of NASWA recommends for Mac users Audio Hijack or Audio Hijack Pro by Rogue Amoeba http://www.rogueamoeba.com . I’ve been using this one too and have found it very easy to install and use. The Pro version has a nice “instant record” feature built in.
Finally, this month, we have an unsigned history piece on RAE–Radiodifusion Argentina al Exterior–from the Worldwide DX Club bulletin, September 2004 edition. RAE’s haphazard reception qualities in North America make this one somewhat exotic–as does its unique offering of Argentine tangos. Can’t hear those anywhere else on HF and I consider it a real treat whenever this one comes through with decent signal strength.
The History of RAE–Radiodifusion Argentina al Exterior
RAE, The International Service of the Argentine Radio celebrated its 45th Anniversary on February 12 of 2003.
However, interest in Short Wave transmissions abroad came alive before that date, on April 11, 1949 when the then President of Argentina, Juan Domingo Peron, created the International Service of the Argentine Republic, its Spanish initials being SIRA, which broadcast in seven languages almost around the clock.
As a consequence of the military coup which overthrew Peron’s constitutional government in September 1955, the service was cut short but rekindled again as Radiodifusion Argentina al Exterior, RAE, three years later, in 1958, and has from that moment on continued its service uninterruptedly fulfilling its principal aim of informing the world about Argentina.
RAE occupied the antiquated studios of Radio del Estado (The State Radio), today Radio Nacional, until 1980, when it was housed in the General Post Office Building. It was later transferred to its own site on 1556 Ayacucho Street in this capital city and was known as Radio National proper.
And, finally in 1990, the National Radio pulled up stakes, and moved to a beautiful building especially constructed to house El Mundo Radio on 555 Maipu Street, a historical building with everything necessary for a full-fledged radio broadcaster, the only one of its kind in the country, which included an ample auditorium, generally open to the public for cultural events and musical recitals.
The building where RAE has its offices is three stories high, and is the headquarters of LRA1 Radio Nacional Buenos Aires and its three stereo FM stations: 96.7 for its classical music programmes; 98.7 for La Folklorica (which airs folkloric music) and 87.9 Faro (Lighthouse), dedicated to airing programs for the younger generation.
RAE in particular concentrates on divulging all types of activities which have to do with our everyday reality, the being and well-being of Argentines.
Transmissions focus on everything there is to know about the country, its economy, politics, industry, social and cultural life, its history, geography, traditions and customs.
In developing its information, RAE takes very much into account its known worldwide legion of listeners, knowledgeable of the fact that it represents the only permanent source of State Government news on what is daily going on in the country, which it naturally seeks to reveal and project on an international level, with a keen eye on transmitting exact and clear-cut information.
Music, of course, occupies an important space within RAE’s programming. All that deep-rooted, native, regional and folkloric music; as well as our very appreciated city music, the Tango, are always present, including new styles, always keen on giving our listeners the best of our composers and interpreters.
RAE is well known abroad, but seldom heard of locally, despite being on the air for almost 14 hours daily, from Monday to Friday, with programs in Spanish, English, German, French, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese.
And our audience is truly important judging by the large amount correspondence we receive and answer in the original aired languages, so much so in fact, that we have been able to establish some truly wonderful everlasting ties, despite the distance.
Our frequencies are also used to air diverse programs hooked directly to Radio Nacional Buenos Aires, thus giving Argentines living abroad the chance to directly listen to breaking news of the National News Panorama from Mondays to Fridays, from 09 to 12 noon UTC and on weekends, besides excellent cultural programs such as “Las Dos Caratulas”, the most important First Division Soccer League matches live.
It is not then overemphasizing when it is said that RAE is an ambassador of friendship without frontiers, the outstretched hand of a country in pursuit of peace and fraternity.
We’ll take a break this month with the VOA Watch. Would very much like to know how you feel about this feature and the Shortwave Center section in general. Drop me an e-mail at email@example.com. See you in November.