NASWA Journal Columns · Kim’s Column, September 2005

Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott • 5001 25th Street North • Arlington, VA 22207 kimelli◊

Kim’s Column, September 2005

Shortwave as the failsafe

First, the government of Cote d’Ivoire evicted Radio France International was evicted from its FM frequencies because of its reporting of domestic Ivorian news. Then it managed to “interrupt” RFI on the Canal Satellite Horizons DTH service, which is received in about 25,000 households in the country. And, so, RFI has decided to increase–actually, to restore–its shortwave output to Africa.

The European Broadcasting Union reports that “these relays can be shut down by the local authorities for political reasons, as seen on numerous occasions over the past few years, in particular in various African countries where FM relays operated by the BBC, RFI and Voice of America have been closed down several times.” See the RFI website for the added shortwave frequencies.

This is a good example of shortwave as the failsafe. It is the medium that gets through when other media do not. Yes, shortwave can be jammed, but usually not 100 percent effectively. Uniquely among the media available to international broadcasting, shortwave is granted by physics substantial immunity from interdiction, because (as if I need to explain this to NASWA members) the distant broadcaster is often heard with a better signal than the closer jamming transmitter.

Satellites can rather easily be jammed: a few watts on the uplink frequency can obliterate the entire footprint. More commonly, however, content via satellite is stopped by way politico-commercial pressure on the satellite company. As for websites, they are thoroughly and famously blocked by many governments. But shortwave manages to get through. International broadcasters should keep this in mind before they decommission more of their shortwave transmitters.

A replacement for the shortwave receiver?

A symptom of advancing years–the NASWA demographic–is an increased inability to sleep at night. Something about the reduced production of a hormone that regulates sleep. Thus afflicted, I like to listen to the radio during those long bouts of insomnia, with a good earphone, so as not to disturb my wife.

Much of this listening is on the medium wave (“AM”) band. It seems, however, that the new IBOC digital radio system is inevitable, even on medium wave, even at night. Digital radio bandwidths are analogous to your supermarket parking lot being full of Hummers. They can all park there, but no one can open their doors. With adjacent channel hash propagating coast to coast, long distance medium wave reception will be dead. You can listen only to your hometown AM stations. In most hometowns, that’s a bleak prospect.

Ah, but there’s always shortwave. But is there? Digital again, this time DRM. As Ralph Brandi and others know, even with AOR’s and other high-end receivers, and antennas well nigh half a kilometer long, DRM generally can’t get a usable signal across an ocean. There is no S=3. There is only S=5 or–as is usually the case over really long distances–S=0.

What you will hear is the buzz of those Hummer-sized DRM signals, unable to excite your DRM software, but entirely capable of overriding surviving analog shortwave transmissions. Amplitude modulation is dead meat.

Well, okay, maybe my natural pessimism is getting the best of me. We shouldn’t naysay DRM to death. Let’s continue to tinker with the transmitters and the receivers and the software and the algorithms, and hope that the necessary receivers become legal and available and affordable in the countries where shortwave is really needed, and maybe DRM can become a viable long distance medium.

But just in case DRM proves to be the downfall of shortwave broadcasting rather than its salvation–and I haven’t even started about BPL–I want to be ready to fall back on an alternate technology to hear radio stations from Afar (and from other countries on the NASWA country list). One possibility is a new contraption from Acoustic Energy, a U.K. company. It’s a Wi-Fi internet radio that, according to the press releases, can handle RealAudio, Windows Media, and MP3. Acoustic Energy says the device is capable of accessing over 99% of internet radio stations broadcast on-line anywhere in the world.

Would that include all those stations that use proprietary software interfaces, with elaborate registration procedures, to access their audio? Furthermore, we’ve seen plans for internet radios come and go before (remember the Kerbango?), so this is to be believed when it is actually delivered. Nevertheless, it looks nice enough: able to fit on a bedside table, with simple enough controls so that stations can be punched in during the middle of the night by the half asleep.

Magazines scrutinize Tomlinson

Kenneth Tomlinson, as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is the boss of my boss of my boss of my boss of my boss of my boss. In the past several weeks, Tomlinson has received much attention in the press for his desire, as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to restore what he sees as the CPB-mandated balance to public broadcasting content.

More recently, Tomlinson’s simultaneous job as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors has been examined in newspaper and magazine articles. Art Levine writes in The American Prospect (“Voice-Over America,” 15 August): “Under Tomlinson’s watch, VOA administrators have pressed the agency’s journalists to report pro-White House spin and too often directed them to downplay hard-hitting news in favor of puffery.”

And from The New Republic (Franklin Foer, “Bully Pulpit, 15 August–subscription required, or visit your local library): “In the Tomlinson era, VOA management has focused far more intently on burnishing the image of the Bush administration and the Republican Party–a task that falls outside the organization’s ambit.”

For the sake of balance, I’ve been looking in the journals for support for Tomlinson’s performance at the BBG, but haven’t found it yet. The closest thing is a defense by VOA director David Jackson, appointed by Tomlinson and the BBG, of his stewardship of the VOA newsroom, from my website.

Who controls Radio Free Asia?

An AP story on 20 August reported about the appointment of Jay Lefkowitz as the State Department’s new special envoy on human rights in North Korea. Specifically it stated: “As part of his job, Lefkowitz also will be responsible for expanding US-financed Radio Free Asia broadcasts to the area.” And according to the State Department’s own Washington File, 19 August, “Lefkowitz plans to increase broadcasting by Radio Free Asia into North Korea.”

Did I miss something? I thought the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 and other legislation provided autonomy to U.S. international broadcasting. Since when does a State Department functionary take on the responsibility of expanding a U.S. international radio service? (Note that VOA’s Korean Service is not mentioned, which is probably just as well for VOA.)

Anyway, typical of U.S. decision making on international broadcasting is the notion that more hours of transmission will solve problems abroad. Surveys of North Korean defectors show that most foreign radio listening in that country is done late at night, when such listening is less likely to be noticed. Tuning in foreign broadcasts can land a North Korean in prison camp, or worse. Hours of broadcasts to North Korea could be increased, but few will likely listen during those expanded hours.

Views expressed are my own. More at

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