Outback workers fight closure of ABC’s shortwave service

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors Phil Brennan and London Shortwave for sharing the following story from The Guardian (my comments follow):

‘It’s essential’: outback workers fight ABC decision to ditch shortwave radio

For some living and working in Australia’s outback, shortwave radio is the only way they can listen to the ABC – and their main daily contact with the rest of the world. But the ABC will end the service in two weeks

“People that live out in contracting camps or mustering stock camps or outstations, and even a lot of the people who live in the bush on cattle stations, spend probably 100% of their waking hours out on the land and have very minimal contact with other human beings,” says Tracey Hayes, the chief executive of the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association.

“You can imagine how isolating that would be without having access to the outside world via radio during the day while you’re out in the workplace. But I don’t think they took that into consideration.”

Hayes is referring to a recent announcement by the ABC that, at the end of January, it would terminate its shortwave radio service, which broadcasts to the NT, Papua New Guinea and some parts of the Pacific region.

[…]For some people living and working in the outback, shortwave is the only way they can listen to the ABC.

AM and FM bands don’t have the geographic reach across the sparsely populated territory and online streaming and Vast satellite radio is largely only available at home, close to the required infrastructure.

But as essential as the service’s supporters say it is, they are few in number. And so the ABC decided in early December it would reinvest the $1.2m into bringing digital radio to Darwin and Hobart.

Hayes has spent her life on cattle stations. She suggests the ABC decision-makers on the east coast have little understanding of the isolation of outback living and how big a role the ABC can play in people’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

“It’s essential, to keep feeling mentally stimulated and feeling like you’re in touch with the world and the rest of the community, to listen to our national broadcaster,” she says, and accuses the ABC of “loftiness” in dismissing their reliance on shortwave.

Michael Mason, the ABC’s director of radio, said in December the broadcaster would service the “limited audience” of shortwave radio “through modern technology” instead.

Hayes says that technology is of little help to people who aren’t in an office or home, and she questions the fairness of the ABC sacrificing their only remote mobile service in order to give city-dwellers yet another way of tuning in.

“When I live in Darwin I enjoy listening to the radio via the broadcast app, I can hear it in my car, we don’t really need another one,” she says.

“I’d certainly like to see the provision of resources go to people to people who are already disadvantaged.”

[…]The ABC has largely dismissed the backlash, with the managing director, Michelle Guthrie, claiming just a handful of complaints had been made and many of them were from ham radio enthusiasts.

[…]ABC local radio is the official national emergency broadcaster and all Australians are instructed to tune in during events such as bushfires, floods and cyclones. Ranger services told the ABC’s Country Hour they relied on it during long remote trips, rather than secondhand reports over HF radio.

But the ABC has sought to reassure people emergency alerts and weather updates can still be heard, via the Bureau of Meteorology and the rural flying doctors service’s HF broadcasts. It’s also urged people to tune into VHF radio, primarily used by mariners.

“It’s not just about picking up the weather, it’s about picking up a lot more than that,” says Jay Mohr-Bell, a cattle station manager 100km southwest of Katherine.

“They’re discounting the value of everything else that’s being picked up – even just a bit of local news. You listen to a show like the Country Hour and it’s info you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

Mohr-Bell claims he and others in the Katherine region approached the ABC a few years ago about moving local radio to the AM band so they could pick it up more often. He says the ABC refused at the time, specifically citing the shortwave service as a reason it was unnecessary.

“It just goes to show it’s a decision that was made and they don’t care about the consequences and it’s done and dusted,” he says.

[…]“You should be left in no doubt that the ABC has failed to adequately or properly assess the needs of Territorians who see shortwave as their only option.”

Mohr notes there are lower level ABC staff, including rural reporters, who understand the importance of the service, but there’s nothing they can do. It’s the final nail in the coffin for him.

“Once they shut this down for us out here, we’ve got no relevance with the ABC. We won’t be continuing to support them at all.”

The ABC did not respond to questions.

Click here to read the full story on The Guardian.

The closure of the Northern Territory shortwave service reminds me very much of Radio Canada International’s closure in 2012. With the number of other quality international broadcasters on shortwave (The BBC, DW, Radio Australia, RFI, Radio Japan, etc.) and with the cuts to RCI’s programming from previous years, in comparison RCI wasn’t a big a player on the international scene.

However, the CBC North Quebec Service–which was relayed from the RCI Sackville site on 9,625 kHz shortwave–covered a vast broadcast footprint into the northern reaches of Canada. The North Quebec relay could be heard in remote First Nations communities scattered across Labrador, Quebec, Nunavut, Iqaluit, and even into the Northwest Territories. Many of these communities are only accessible by air or sea. The CBC replaced the service with FM relays, but of course the reach of an FM site in no way compares to that of a shortwave service.

Fortunately, some remote communities in Labrador and possibly further west can still receive the CKZN shortwave relay from St. John’s Newfoundland. At 1,000 watts of power, however, it has a less reliable reach than the North Quebec Service did for so many decades.

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to communities with which you simply have no connection. I would never fault a commercial broadcaster from pulling the plug when they have no viable audience to cover the costs of sponsoring their content.

When you have a public broadcaster like the ABC–which is funded in part by taxpayers from remote, rural communities–I believe the needs of the full audience must be taken into consideration and must be taken…well…seriously.

The ABC should revisit their published Diversity and Inclusion statement which specifically points out providing quality, diverse content in audience-accessible forms.

1.2 million dollars–while a lot of money to most of us–is a drop in the bucket when compared with other items in the Australian budget.

In reality? It sounds like the ABC isn’t even prepared to acknowledge the needs of their rural audiences, let alone address them.

17 thoughts on “Outback workers fight closure of ABC’s shortwave service

  1. Barry Sallade

    Sorry to hear this and i can imagine their frustration, something like this happened in America years ago when Clear Channel took so many stations over.

    Well, as i said before, there is always pirate radio, just need someone in the right geographic area with some fairly powerful gear to pick up the broadcast and relay it to these ranches. Seriously, i so no other alternative here.

    Reply
  2. Phil from Darwin

    Thanks for your insightful comments Thomas. Senator McCarthy from the NT, who is incidentally a former ABC broadcaster, met with the ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie today and again pressed upon her the importance of retaining the service. It’s hard to believe they can remain so intransigent in their views, but when you have no knowledge or understanding of the situation on the ground or the people affected then it’s easy to dismiss their concerns.

    Reply
  3. Robert Gulley

    I hate to be cynical, but it sounds to me like someone is likely getting a bonus paycheck for making the cuts. I mean really! 1.2 million dollars is pocket change to a government the size of Canada – no one is pushing this for cost savings – something else is behind this. Or maybe it’s a political back-scratching thing – to ignore this segment of the population is clearly wrong for a public broadcasting service, and so there is a reason they are being intransigent on this issue.

    Reply
  4. Kire

    1or 2 million australian dollars? The issue isn’t money is it. I think it is just going with the crowd. They don’t want an international presence on the airwaves, they are ‘modern’ and ‘with it’, by ditching shortwave for internet and couple of FM translators.

    Reply
  5. DanH

    “The ABC has largely dismissed the backlash, with the managing director, Michelle Guthrie, claiming just a handful of complaints had been made and many of them were from ham radio enthusiasts.”

    Who are they kidding? Hams don’t communicate with ABC. SWL listeners listen to it. Maybe they send in reception reports that ABC won’t responded to. Most SWLs are not “hams”.

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    1. DanH

      ABC has no provision for receiving SWL reception reports. I know. I have tried. They couldn’t care less about the SWL audience. I’ll continue listening to Radio New Zealand. It is a lot more interesting, anyway. Yes, RNZI gives e-QSLs.

      Reply
      1. DanH

        Yes, on a national scale 1.2 million to continue a SW service is a drop in the bucket. The loss of the Pacific Service to the West Coast of the USA will cost Australia millions per year in US tourist dollars. Hope you like that.

        Reply
  6. Tim Marecki

    Thomas,
    I agree with you 100 percent. I’ve been a shortwave listener since 1977.Since the early 90’s, I’ve begun to
    see a sharp decline in coverage. For example, with the shutdown of Radio Sweden, there is no longer any
    news coverage of Scandinavia. Also, when Radio Canada International was shutdown, we also lost our North American English relay of Radio Japan; as well as any other station that relayed via RCI.
    I am truly grateful to Jeff White for his relays on WRMI! Let us hope these continue without interruption.

    Still, in spite of it all, I’m sure HF will still find use—even if by only radio pirates!

    Reply
  7. Jason

    As an Australian who lives in a city, the obsession with digital radio is nonsensical, especially in a place like Darwin where digital would provide no increase in sound quality at all, since local radio is already on FM in Darwin.

    Even in other Australian cities, we really don’t need digital radio. Inside inner city buildings almost everyone has high speed internet at their desk and/or via their mobile phone. Digital doesn’t get out very far from the transmitter, the transmission equipment is expensive preventing community based radio from moving to it, there is no more slots available for digital stations in our cities (but there are many AM/FM frequencies still available), the sound quality is actually poorer than FM since most Australian stations broadcast at 48 or even 32kbps AAC+

    The internet overcomes all of these issues, with the only con being the marginal data use, however that’s becoming less of an issue as more people move to high quota 4G plans with more than 5GB available.

    Digital radio has clearly shown in the US, UK and Australia that it is an elitist system for the world’s richest companies to lock out smaller broadcasters, further concentrating control of what people hear on the air to 2-3 large companies + a public broadcaster, with no great benefit to listeners.

    Instead of shutting down shortwave, they should shut down digital radio. Once 5G mobile internet is common place and everyone has 100GB+ quotas in cities, digital radio will no longer be relevant. Unfortunately, mobile phones don’t reach the most isolated areas of our country and neither does the NBN (even using satellite as noted in the article), but we have a reliable 20th century technology that does. The radios are cheap and can run for months on one set of batteries.

    I just don’t get it. All so that global media companies can have more control. This is why people pirate and if someone can find a way to use solar to power a shortwave transmission tower I wish them the best of luck servicing these communities.

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  8. Ross

    As someone who spend s a fair amount of time in remote areas of far Western Queensland and SE Northern Territory I regularly listen to R’Australia broadcasts on my Pioneer 2 SW band truck radio.
    The only reliable signals in English are R’ Aust, RNZ and China Drive Bejing. Local MW radio is virtually
    non existant during daylight hours with severe fading, FM just forget it , line of sight and no local transmitters for 100’s of Klm.
    One again the citicentric values of Sydney/Canberra are imposed on those of us who live without the manifold benefits the coast and major cities take for granted.
    A 100KW AM station broadcasting local ABC throughout Western QLD and southern territory would give us the road conditions, new, weather. flood/storm and fire warnings so neccessary in a remote environment where conditions change quickly but again HF facilities already exist, $1-2 million is a small cost and not if but when the digital/satellite networks fail HF will be more capable of maintaining communications.
    Alternatively smaller MW repeater stations relaying ABC maybe using microwave relay sites?
    As for the comment that many of the complaints came from amateur radio ops , many of us use hf tranceivers to keep contact over these large areas whether it be via the VKS-737 outback radio service, Royal Flying doctor radio service or the amateur radio network in an area where mobile telephone service is non-existant and Satellite phones are not always reliable during severe weather events.
    My point being that many of us have taken up HF for local and communications in comparison to other more populated parts of the countryout of necessity for contact that city based politicians take for granted.
    Not many homesteads (stations) in outback Australia without UHF and HF comms equipment and therefore the ability to tune in to the only reliable radio signals from R’Aust.
    I have written to the local Federal member Bob Katter in MT ISA who I know is well versed in outback needs and trust he may be able to bang a few heads together in Canberra!
    regards Ross AKA Farmlad.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Ross knows firsthand the importance of ABC/Radio Australia shortwave | The SWLing Post

    1. Mike

      We’re paying the bill now Keith. We’re also flipping the bill for many services we’ll never use because they’re never offered here. We’re a cash cow for the urban areas in our country. Guessing you don’t live in Australia so you probably don’t realize that the ABC is a public broadcaster payed for by the taxpayer. It is not commercial like most broadcasters around the globe.

      Information is a public service our country can afford to provide to every citizen.

      Reply
  10. Ross Wood

    Again in regard to the cessation of R’ Australia radio services to outback areas and the pacific.
    At a rough count Sydney alone had 54 broadcast radio stations , a combination of commercial, govt funded and community stations, maybe more, and 28 free to air television stations!
    City and the eastern and southern coastal areas take this for granted.
    Surely remote areas of Australia deserve at least one reliable station/signal for news , weather and critical event warnings and info.
    There is more happening in outback areas than many Australians realise, and many travellers in the May – November period.
    Sydney alone spent $900,00 or $45,000 per minute on fireworks at the 2017 New Year celebrations, Melbourne spent $537,000 on smoke and installation let alone the other major centers.
    This seems somewhat frivolous to many rural and outback workers, dwellers and tourists especially when they have no reliable weather event info to turn to.
    These areas can become cut off by raging rivers and huge flood areas when it rains 100’s of Klm away and every year people are stranded and cut off from supplies and safety.
    Govt funded local ABC reports are the best information sources to prepare and avoid stranding or serious harm.
    Or are these ABC broadcasts only for those in mainstream population areas to be informed about their conditions in areas well resourced off often far less likely to suffer extreme events.
    We’re not short of govt funding for ministerial junkets and grandstanding O/S …note …$230,000,000 renovations to the Australian Embassy in Washington DC and much much more!
    The cost of incarceration of refugees in Australias offshore detention centers is PER PERSON $400,000 per year but in Australia it would be $239,00 per year.
    To maintain R’ Australias shortwave service to the pacific and these central regions is peanuts in comparison,
    ABC states it is expanding its DAB broadcsting service but again this is unavailable exept in major metropoiltan areas already well served by numerous media services.
    The primeminister and LNP govt needs to step up to the plate here and guarantee already disadvantaged regions some communication security!
    Our close Pacific Island neighbours will also be highly appreciative to receive otherwise sparse news and weather information and the goodwill generated by R’ Australia is under appreciated I believe.
    just my take Ross AKA Farmlad.

    Reply

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