Shortwave Tunes In to a Changed World
The voices that emerge from shortwave radio's crackling and squealing, the voices that take time and concentration to precisely tune in, the voices that helped tumble the Soviet empire are beginning to fade.
For decades shortwave has beamed information to closed societies, empowered dissidents, and helped educate the poor and isolated. But the end of the cold war and new technology are changing all that. "Shortwave isn't dying, but it has begun its long slow denouement," says Kim Andrew Elliot, producer of "Communication World" for the Voice of America (VOA).
The outbreak of democracy in many countries has given people access to their own, however nascent, free press. Technology has made AM and FM broadcasting less expensive and more available to millions. And today, the consistent, clear satellite broadcast of digital audio threatens to overtake the unreliable shortwave signal altogether.
International broadcasters, such as the imposing British Broadcasting Company (BBC), the Voice of America (VOA), and Germany's Deutsche Welle, have also become convenient targets for government budget-cutters.
But if this is the beginning of shortwave's final act, it's a rich and complicated one, full of contradictions. International broadcasters have proven to be flexible entrepreneurs, adapting to change by hawking their programs for rebroadcast on the new, competing AM and FM stations in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The world also has plenty of authoritarian regimes left that control access to information; shortwave can still penetrate them. Millions of other listeners live in rural poverty, sometimes too poor for shoes, but so determined to be informed that they own a shortwave radio.
"It's difficult to overestimate the role radio plays in the sub-Saharan countries," says Joyce Hackel, Africa correspondent for Monitor Radio, the broadcast service of The Christian Science Monitor, which is broadcast on the Monitor's shortwave World Service daily.
Radio keeps the African continent connected, informed. Primarily state-controlled, radio within Africa has been used to keep authoritarians in power and, in places like Rwanda, to incite genocide and slaughter. Shortwave thrives there.
"You'll be in a dusty, blown-out back alley of Mogadishu and the BBC comes on," Ms. Hackel says. "Everyone - militiamen, khat dealers, women in veils - drops what they're doing to gather around the shortwave sets."
In almost a dozen African countries, recent deregulation has allowed information to flow more freely. In 1982, there were only two private radio stations in all of Africa's 58 countries. There are now more than 200.
In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, two new commercial FM stations recently went on the air. Three years ago, surveys had shown that 14 percent of the audience there listened to VOA broadcasts. After the new stations began, the VOA shortwave audience dropped to 2 percent. Then the VOA contracted with one of the new FM stations to rebroadcast its programming. Surveys now show that 14 percent of the audience listens to the VOA on FM. With shortwave, that's a net gain of 2 percent.
Around the world, international broadcasters are using that two-pronged strategy, keeping shortwave where warranted and aggressively getting onto new local stations. By year's end, the VOA will be on local stations in every major Russian population center. The programming is usually offered free, giving struggling new businesses a boost.
The boom in private radio in the former Soviet Union started after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Restrictions on the importation of radio equipment were lifted, the military began leasing its frequencies for commercial use, and people were hungry for a local source of news.
Hundreds of private stations went on the air, like Echo Moscow. It was started by a group of journalists and came into its own during the 1991 coup.
"It broadcast the real news as it was happening, as opposed to the government station which was broadcasting what the putschists wanted," says Russian journalist Andrei Zolotov.
That helped turn Echo Moscow into one of Russia's leading stations and taught the international broadcasters a lesson. If local radio can provide balanced, fair information, people tend to tune out shortwave. Some international broadcasters, like the BBC, have started new language services and boosted audiences. Others have put their energies into teaching basic journalistic standards to help build the kind of independent local press organizations that nurture democracy.
"A lot of these countries place a great emphasis on journalistic training and seminars as part of the programming exchange," says Betty Tseu, VOA marketing officer for the East Asia region. In Vietnam and Cambodia, the VOA lags in rebroadcast stations, in part because of the political situation (which thawed when the US and Vietnam reopened diplomatic ties this summer) but also because of a lack of training resources.
In China, however, which has recently allowed some commercial radio broadcasts, shortwave's balanced, comprehensive news is still so threatening that the regime routinely jams shortwave signals. Burma (Myanmar) also began jamming this summer after the BBC ran an interview with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The demand for shortwave is still high," says Graham Mytton, head of BBC audience research.
Amid all the change and fluctuation worldwide, international broadcasters are also having to fight for their budgets.
The BBC was level-funded this year, which translates into a 3 or 4 percent cut, after inflation. During the last two years the VOA has been slashed 20 percent, and Congress is looking to cut more.
"To make significant cuts in international broadcasting now would be the equivalent of disarming unilaterally in the information age," says Geoffrey Cowan, director of the VOA.
IRONICALLY, shortwave is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the very industrialized countries that are cutting back.
The BBC's shortwave audience in the United States has increased by more than 100,000 since the Gulf war in 1991, bringing the total US audience to more than 1 million regular listeners (not including those who listen to BBC rebroadcasts on public radio). Some analysts credit the new digital shortwave radios that make scanning for channels as easy as pushing a button. BBC analysts see the same forces at work that motivate listeners worldwide.
"If people perceive that their local media isn't delivering what they want ..., people will hunt elsewhere for news," says Jerry Timmons, head of Region Americas for the BBC World Service. He sees a dearth of in-depth international news the US. "Particularly among the better-educated and professional classes there is a hunger to get as much information as they can," he says.
Digital technology promises to feed that hunger worldwide. The BBC and Swiss Radio International recently began broadcasting static-free digital audio by satellite. But its future is uncertain: The international community has not agreed on a uniform standard, and digital receivers are expensive.
For the foreseeable future, shortwave will remain the world's only truly global medium that can educate, inform, and - with its soothing voices - also comfort.