Kim’s Column, January 2006
[Editor’s note: We were unable to run this column in the January NASWA Journal due to space limitations. We present it here on the NASWA web site to prevent it from going unread.]
Best quote of the month
“Is it arrogance or honesty that drives Mr. Chirac to indicate that his ‘news’ channel (CFII) will be the de facto voice of the French republic? Or is it simply blindness to the idea that world over, what most people want from their news is simply the facts and to be left free to make up their own minds?”
And that really is the essence of successful international broadcasting. Report simply the facts and let the audience make up its own mind. If the broadcasting country’s policies are wise and virtuous, the audience will tend to make up its mind in a manner satisfactory to the broadcasting country. The alternative is propaganda, a naïve form of international broadcasting. The audience immediately recognizes it for what it is.
The quote is from an essay by K.A. Dilday, which explores the history of French international broadcasting, going back to La Poste Colonial and Paris Mondial. That information is by way of background to Mr. Dilday’s conclusions about the planned French international television channel, CFII.
CFII is slated to begin broadcasting in late 2006. It will be 24 hours in—of course—French. Some English may also be—probably grudgingly—included.
Already on the air, and 24 hours in English, is Russia Today. This is sort of the son of Radio Moscow. However, watching Russia Today could be a challenge. There was no live internet video, or audio, stream at the station’s website, and the website was closed when I checked on December 20, promising to be available after December 20. When the website worked, it showed a satellite footprint for North America, but did not specify the satellite.
One similarity between CFII and Russia Today is that they do not involve the international radio stations of their respective countries: respectively, Radio France International and Voice of Russia. So there will be competition rather than synergy in French and Russian international broadcasting, much as is the case with U.S. international broadcasting.
Australia’s international television channel, ABC Asia Pacific, continues on the air, and it continues to be operated by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This is after an open tender process in which Sky News Australia also bid for the Australian government contract to operate the service. If Sky had won the bid, then Australia would have been another country where the international television and international radio services would have been operated by separate entities.
Meanwhile, is international radio losing steam?
This pattern of expansion into international television services comes at a time when international radio seems to be fading into the sunset. Radio Slovakia International may, finally, be forced off the air because of cuts to the public broadcasting budget in that country. Radio Tirana, the remnant external service of its mighty namesake of the Enver Hoxha era, has gone missing, also probably due to financial problems afflicting public broadcasting in Albania. Even here in the United States, one of the two VOA (officially International Broadcasting Bureau) shortwave transmitting sites in Greenville, North Carolina, is now in “caretaker status.” And by the time you read this, BBC radio services in Czech, Bulgarian, and other East European languages will be off the air, though they had already been off shortwave for some time.
The decline of international radio is occurring at an alarming rate. It pains me to do so, but I see a parallel in the replacement of railroad steam locomotives by diesels. That largely happened within twenty years. DRM digital is sometimes touted as the salvation of shortwave. But I wonder if DRM is analogous to steam turbine locomotives. In the 1940s, some manufacturers and railroads tried steam turbines powering electric traction motors as a way to maintain coal as the fuel for railway transportation. These efforts failed, and diesels have been dominant in railroading since the mid 1950s.
I hope my analogy is wrong. I want DRM to work. We should give DRM every benefit of the doubt and help it along with our own experiments with receivers and software.
Some reminders of why shortwave still matters
An odd example of international radio was the existence of FM relays of London commercial stations Capital FM and Capital Gold in, of all places, Brunei. Alas, those relays have recently been taken off the air. Radio listeners in Brunei seeking western contemporary music may have to resort to shortwave if their internet connections are not up to the stress of receiving audio streams.
And the nut-case, holocaust-denying, perhaps soon nuke-possessing president of Iran has banned western music—from hip-hop to classical—on Iranian domestic radio and television. Shortwave to the rescue again, although some listeners in Iran can hear Radio Farda via nearby medium wave relays.
Indonesia may soon implement broadcast regulations that could restrict or eliminate relays of VOA, BBC, and Radio Australia by domestic FM and television stations in that country.
BBC FM relays in Pakistan and Nepal have been cut off by government action, although challenges to these are working their way through the courts.
In D.C., the Washington Post reported that local public radio station WETA has been losing audience share since it dropped classical music in favor of more news programs, including relays of BBC World Service programs. Next year, WETA will drop some BBC content to make room for its own talk show. Washington listeners wishing to continue to hear those BBC programs can tune in on shortwave—oops, sorry, World Service dropped its shortwave to North America a few years back, didn’t it?
Here’s your homework before we meet here next month. First, you will want to read at least parts of the report of the U.K. Foreign Office’s Public Diplomacy Review. This document actually changes the definition of U.K. public diplomacy to: “Work aiming to inform and engage individuals and organisations overseas, in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals.” This wider definition is an attempt to include the work of BBC World Service under the “public diplomacy” rubric. In reality, BBC World Service and U.K. public diplomacy are separate activities, and any definition should reflect that. [See also BBC’s carefully worded response.]
The Public Diplomacy Review is divided, rather inconveniently, into 16 PDF documents. See especially “International Approaches to Public Diplomacy,” which shows how much money key countries spend on public diplomacy and international broadcasting.
From another publication, this definition for psychological operations: the “systematic process of conveying messages to selected foreign groups to promote particular themes that result in desired foreign attitudes and behaviors.” This is from an article in Government Executive about psyops conducted by the U.S. Army and various contractors. According to one expert: “Psyops has really only worked in tactical/operations contexts, but in today’s global infosphere, there’s no longer any such thing as tactical information—everything has a strategic capability.”
Finally, a compact commentary by Ashis Ray, writing in DNA (India), manages to cover the history of international broadcasting, from the Cold War years to the advent of international television in our times. Mr. Ray does not get every detail correct, but it’s clear he has an uncommon knowledge of the subject.
Views expressed are my own. More at kimandrewelliott.com.