Radio World: “The Internet’s Impact on International Radio”

The Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station Control Room

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors, Dennis, Eric, and Michael who share the following story from Radio World. Please note my comments below following a short excerpt from this piece:

OTTAWA — During the height of the Cold War (1947–1991), the shortwave radio bands were alive with international state-run broadcasters; transmitting their respective views in multiple languages to listeners around the globe.

The western bloc’s advocates were led by the BBC World Service, and included Voice of America, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Radio Canada International and a host of influential European broadcasters. The eastern bloc’s de facto team captain was the USSR’s Radio Moscow (with its unique hollow, echoing sound), supplemented by broadcasters in Soviet satellite countries (like East Germany’s Radio Berlin International) and allies like Fidel Castro’s Radio Havana Cuba.

Then 1991 arrived, and the Cold War apparently ended with the fall of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

In the seeming peace that followed, many governments no longer saw the sense in spending millions on multi-megawatt transmitters and vast antenna farms to keep broadcasting their messages globally.

The leader among them, the BBC World Service (BBCWS), trumpeted the web and webcasting as modern, cost-effective alternatives to expensive shortwave broadcasting (along with satellite radio and leasing local FM airtime in the countries they used to broadcast to). This is why the BBCWS ceased shortwave transmissions to North America and Australia in 2001 and Europe in 2008, while retaining SW broadcasts in less-developed parts of the globe.[…]

The full article is available here and quite a good piece exploring how the Internet has had an impact on shortwave radio broadcasting.

I, along with a number of fiends in the shortwave community–Bob Zanotti, Jeff White, Colin Newell, and Ian McFarland to name a few–we’re quoted in this piece.

As with most any published piece, quotes and statements are trimmed and edited to fit the print space. If you read the full article, you will have noticed some quotes from me. Here’s a larger portion of my full statement for this piece:

Most audience analysts agree that the number of shortwave listeners has been on the decline at the same time Internet access has been on the rise. Moreover, shortwave listener numbers are hard to quantify due to the very nature of anonymous listening; no one can truly “track” a shortwave radio listener. On the other hand, there is nothing anonymous about those who listen to or watch Internet content–not only can the audience be measured by numbers, but a much deeper and more invasive set of data can be gleaned from an online audience. Thus the decline in shortwave also denotes a loss of anonymity on the part of the listener.

This is not to say there aren’t shortwave listeners. A significant number of listeners are radio enthusiasts/DXers who appreciate the shortwave medium. But perhaps more meaningfully, shortwave listeners are those living in rural and remote parts of the world who benefit from the instant, free, and anonymous information shortwave provides.

At Ears To Our World, we received this photo from a school in rural Tanzania in June 2019. The teacher has been using one of our self-powered shortwave radios to listen to news and improve language skills.

Some broadcasters effectively target both of these audiences. Large government broadcasters, however, have always tried to reach the “influencers” in a country–those who might eventually help guide a country’s policy and international relationships. And the great majority of these influencers, according to audience research, have moved to social media and the Internet as a source of information.

Note that I received the photo above in June. At Ears To Our World, we still work with communities that appreciate the accessibility of radio. Perhaps our partners are more the exception than the rule, but there are still those who benefit from radio–especially those living in rural and remote areas. Where large government shortwave broadcasters are pulling out of the scene, often community-driven stations are taking their place. We’ve been working with Radio Taboo in Cameroon, for example, and they are an amazing case in point.

As a radio enthusiast, I’ll also add that I love the homegrown nature of shortwave broadcasting these days. As private broadcasters have a larger market share of the airwaves, individuals have an opportunity to buy their own broadcast time and produce amazing, unique shows like VORW, Free Radio Skybird, Encore, From the Isle of Music and Uncle Bill’s Melting Pot. These are just a few examples–if you’d like more, just check out the latest edition of Alan Roe’s guide to music over shortwave.


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16 thoughts on “Radio World: “The Internet’s Impact on International Radio”

  1. Mangosman

    Firstly, Short Wave could do with a new image. Short wave is plagued with poor frequency response hence is useless for music, excessive noise particularly being generated by power line insulators, electric trains//trams and virtually every electrical/electronic devices including lighting containing interference generating switch mode power supplies and interference from other broadcasters as well as phase distortion caused by multipaths back from the ionosphere.

    https://news.silabs.com/2019-07-29-Silicon-Labs-Enhances-Popular-Si479xx-Automotive-Tuner-Family-with-Software-Defined-Radio-Technology will tune all broadcast bands including high frequency (Short Wave) and will demodulate AM which is used by short wave, DRM. It will also receive DAB+ and HD radio which do not operate at high frequency.
    If this chip were to be used in portable receivers the HF bands are available at no extra cost and if listening to DRM all of the problems of Short Wave disappear and also tuning is by broadcaster name which will make HF listening easy for the not technical.

    Unfortunately in automotive environment is inherently noisy which will only get worse with old electric cars. As a result a coil/voltage controlled capacitor will be required to remove this noise particularly in the high and medium frequency bands. This cause a small increase in cost. If the filter is not connected between the antenna and the receiver chip, digital reception could become unreliable. Vehicle manufacturers are intent of trying to remove any form of antenna which is bad news for any frequency below GPS and mobile phone frequencies. The efficiency of the receiving antenna becomes much less as the frequency is reduced. We need the return of the motor erecting telescopic antenna.

    Unfortunately there are no DRM broadcasts in the USA and none aimed at the USA from overseas with the exception of Radio New Zealand Pacific which has overshot its target zone.

    Reply
  2. 13dka

    First off, I strongly second Dan’s and Thomas’ points about getting away from the noise, today’s broadcasters don’t have the power and frequency diversity of government-funded stations back then, and the noise of the digital world is easily drowning all the cool stuff that’s still there. If you go out and bring a) a radio and b) a bit of time you will find that the big stations made way for small private stations, more musical content,more unfiltered free speech, and it’s not all Brother Stairs. There are also other and new nutjobs and villains, there are still pirates, clandestine, number and other mystery stations and signals, ham radio is almost as alive and vibrant as in the old days and the generally less crowded bands gives us new opportunities to hear everything that’s still bouncing off the ionosphere.

    Now to the cited article itself and this one reporting it – the article points out at least two important implications of relying on the internet to broadcast governmental standpoints – budget cutdowns eventually leading to the closure of the entire service/department, and the internet’s inherent vulnerability to censorship and content manipulation vs. the difficulties of keeping shortwave programming from reaching its audience. I want to add, almost all were throwing away their most reliable and techologically simple fallback systems, be it shortwave or local AM stations (in Europe) being not only closed but demolished and the property sold and rededicated, which may or may not turn out to be a bad idea when desaster strikes hard, or when future political quarrels lead to full-on digital warfare. But as much as I loved some of the programs inviting my mind to “wireless traveling” – at least to me, shortwave has always been more than that and big broadcasters fighting the information war were the least part of it.

    I anticipated a number of “shortwave = dead” reactions on this article and I can see how turning on a portable in the living room will lead to that perception. But IMO the closure of government-funded 500kW stations didn’t mark the beginning of the end of the medium. Yes, the audience shrunk in the past 30 years and yes, the agenda of broadcasters and the content changed accordingly. The western world is not target of political agitation or tourism attraction via shortwave anymore but tbh, I don’t miss Radio Moscow much and programs describing the country and its people were rare even back then.

    It’s maybe a bit like the “death” of vinyl – the big acts stopped publishing on vinyl but a different group of smaller acts deliberately started using vinyl at that point, a steady core of enthusiasts kept demanding vinyl over the decades and there still is a surprisingly high monthly number of new vinyl releases in 2019. It almost feels like the market was merely sanitized off the incredible number of “Best of” and sampler albums one could buy in every other store on main street everywhere. This is all despite the fact that the vinyl crowd is rather small, there are fewer new turntables to buy and many of the records are made in very few and very old pressing plants and of course it doesn’t mean there’s only quality on today’s vinyl records. To me, that sounds a lot like the situation of shortwave today, there’s even still an actual need for shortwave in some spots on the globe, there still IS a lot to hear and there’s a crowd loving the medium for a variety of reasons, causing an industry to make new radios and stations. The condemned live longer, and they may actually live a better life than before.

    Reply
    1. Keith Perron

      Shortwave and LPs are totally different. New LP releases have been around for the last 10 years plus. Shortwave would be like saying lets go back to using VHS.

      Shortwave still has importance in some areas. But these areas are getting even more fewer as new communication networks are being built. The medium could have faired and survived much better if DRM had taken off, but by the time DRM appeared in the late 90s. New technologies were already in the works and the manufactures pulled out leaving a few fringe companies making DRM receivers, but with no market or demand.

      There are not fewer new turn tables. The market is flooded with new turntables.

      As for shortwave I can use Burma as an example. The first time I went to the country in 2005. it was still fairly easy find people outside the city listening to shortwave and even finding a shortwave receive in some shops. And now in these exact same areas nothing.

      When the commission was set up into cutting shortwave broadcasts at the ABC you had this one side saying millions of people were affected. When it was shown than fewer than 10 people contacted them about dropping shortwave. The case to support the return of shortwave fell apart. Some of the people that spoke in support of Radio Australia were citing information from 15 years earlier.

      Like the save RCI people. They kept going back to report on RCI from the 1990s saying they had these millions of listeners. When at the hearing in Ottawa on this member of the commission asked for something more recent it went quiet.

      A few months before Radio Netherlands starting cutting shortwave to certain reason. They never announced it, except for in the transmissions to the areas that would be cut. This was done for about 2 months Around 200 people actually wrote emails and letters, 80% of which were dxers and not actually listeners from the target areas.

      DXERS have done more harm than good. While they had good intentions. International broadcaster hate dxers.

      Reply
      1. Dean

        When I saw this article pop up on my RSS feed, I knew we’d be hearing from Keith Perron in the comments. Articles on the longevity of shortwave radio and especially DRM always prompt him to comment. And not surprising, another “DXERS have done more harm than good” sweeping statement.

        To Keith’s credit, he starting broadcasting on shortwave radio in 2009 or so with his redux of the Happy Station Show. When so many of the stations he’s mentioned above either had one foot out the door or had abandoned the medium altogether Keith was hanging his shingle and was busting with shortwave enthusiasm. At first I noticed that he was leasing air time, then we learned he even built a shortwave transmitting site in Taiwan. **This decade.** Not in the “VHS era.” During that time Keith also embraced and enticed DXers with prizes and the like. Keith I know you jettisoned the fake listener reports, but you actively solicited listener correspondence.

        It doesn’t seem that venture worked out the way you had planned and losses were simply cut. That’s okay and frankly that’s business. I’ve been there myself in a completely different industry, but I personally believe it all left you quite bitter.

        I’ve found the group on this site to be quite diverse…some being interested in the technology, the content, the history, the music, the pirate radio activity, the ham radio side of things, or even just the underground nature of the shortwaves these days. Me I like building antennas. None of us truly expect Radio Moscow to pop back on the scene, we’re just enjoying it for what it is. What I **love** about this site are the good people in the community. On more than one occasion they’ve helped me offline.

        Keith I’m sure you’re a great chap and you have my sympathy but as others have said maybe radio simply isn’t your thing anymore?? I mean this sincerely. It would probably do you some good to let your past be in the past. Go elsewhere to play as it’s such a big world out there and it sounds like you’re passionate about other things. Otherwise, your strategic comments simply smack of trolling. That’s kind of sad. Surely that’s not what you want.

        Reply
  3. Keith Perron

    The Internet did play a role, but we must not forget after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the USSR. In 1991 most international broadcasters were asking themselves the question of “What now?”.

    Shortwave is a dead medium, with the exception of a few regions where it is still used. But as communication infrastructure being built in these areas. Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and including dozens more. Shortwave radio days are now numbered even faster than it was 5 years ago.

    Even the global sales of shortwave receivers is nothing. Up until the mid 90s shortwave radio sales accounted for nearly 80% of their business. Today its less than 2%. Some might point to Tecsun, but Tecsun is a SOE (State Owned Enterprise) so even if they don’t even sell one radio. It would make no difference. Tecsun is operated just as SOEs were in the former GDR and USSR.

    Shortwave broadcasters love saying they reach X number of listeners. But there is a difference between how many you reach and how many are actually listening.

    Reply
  4. Bob Colegrove

    The “Radio World” article makes a couple of key points about the demise of shortwave, but the situation is much more complex than transmission cost and the rise of the Internet. A few that come to mind:

    1. One additional cost factor, at least as significant as transmission, is that of maintaining a staff and studio to generate a constant flow of program content.

    2. For North America, a potential, affluent audience never embraced the use of shortwave as other parts of the world. Shortwave has largely been an exotic curiosity. World band hardware simply never occupied much shelf space in stores. We still have thousands of AM and FM stations providing blanket coverage, even in remote areas. There never has been a need.

    3. For the tropical parts of the world, shortwave was once a means of overcoming the more severe atmospheric noise for regional broadcasting. In the last 20 years this has gone over to FM at somewhat lower cost. Instead, we now hear CODAR noise over much of 60 meters.

    4. Our listening habits have changed. On-demand sources of information and entertainment have largely supplanted the need to “tune-in” to radio or television at prescribed times.

    The irony is equipment and information for listening to shortwave broadcasts has never been better than it is right now. What I could have done with a PL-880 when I started out in 1958? What I would have given for any one of the many reliable, definitive, up-to-date shortwave broadcast listings available for free today on the Internet? Times have changed my friends, and they tell us denial is the first stage of grief.

    Bob C.

    Reply
  5. Kekinash

    Unfortunately Radio, and specially SW is dead. I just bought a Tecsun PL-880 SW Radio and I only can hear the crazy cubans shortwave transmissions and the fanatical religious transmissions, that’s it, the rest is just noise from our computers, electronic devices and such. It’s going back (Thanks Amazon for your returns policies!). Radio is like the beta tapes or cassette tapes, something from our glorious past, but dead.

    Reply
    1. DanH

      Shortwave broadcasting is far from dead. It takes takes some time and tools to learn how to find all of the stations that may be available in your region. An external antenna placed outdoors will do much to reduce household RFI. The old adage “the antenna is as important as the radio” still holds true. Top tier portables like the 909X and 880 are designed to take advantage of good and often inexpensive antennas. Inexpensive portables, not so much.

      If possible, turn RFI-spewing devices off or unplug them during listening sessions. Here in Northern California I use a Sangean ATS-909X multiband portable radio and DIY wire antennas to enjoy English language broadcasts from BBC, RNZI, RHC, CRI, RR, VOK, and KBS on a daily basis. I’m not including excellent relays of shortwave programming from Argentina, Slovakia and others from WRMI in Florida or non-English language stations with great music like VO Greece, NHK or RN Amazonia. Of course, one must be listening at the right time to catch the propagation for these stations and that is often not the most convenient time for the listener to be tuned in.

      We are about six months away from the forecast nadir of the solar minimum. That means shortwave radio propagation is at or very near it’s weakest point during the 11–year solar cycle. Don’t expect any meaningful improvement in SW propagation for another two years. Solar minimum or not, long-distance sky wave propagation is still happening on most of the shortwave bands but two years from now more and more stations will begin to emerge from the noise floor.

      The best way to reduce ill effects of RFI on shortwave reception is to get the radio and the antenna away from it. My best DXing is done by taking the 909X three miles out of town and using a mag-mount 20′ whip antenna or a long wire antenna. Listening to nearly 11,000 mile DX from Madagascar from the driver’s seat of my car or under a nice shade tree is quite an experience.

      Reply
      1. Thomas Post author

        Excellent points, Dan!

        Honestly, I’m quite amazed at the variety of programming I receive here in the eastern US. While many of the big broadcasters are gone, there’s such an interesting variety of the smaller stations. I’m a massive fan of the Voice of Greece, Radio Romania, Alcaravan, Amazonia, Radio Exterior de España, Voice of Turkey, AIR, and many, many others.

        As Dan points out, it’s all about getting away from the RFI that simply invades our homes these days and overwhelms portable receivers. The variety is there…it’s all about listening.

        -Thomas

        Reply
        1. Roger Fitzharris

          Thomas,
          Below are two excerpts from Jerome S. Berg. Perhaps they can lend some perspective to what this hobby is all about.

          “Recounting in 1931, the first rebroadcasts of KDKA shortwave by the BBC at the end of 1923, Westinghouse Vice President Harry P. Davis said this:
          ‘Here occurred an epoch in human history, for man had truly conquered space. The world’s boundaries had been shifted. A human voice was heard simultaneously in North America and Europe – a greeting to millions of people spanning Nature’s barriers; with no connecting media, except the invisible and unknown. Probably, in all the years of history, no greater feat of science had been recorded.’
          “At the 1925 opening of the LW station in Daventry, England, a town in which two years later, would host the first BBC experimental SW transmission, a wireless correspondent for the Yorkshire Evening News, Leslie Bailey, captured the very essence of the sentiment echoed by Mr. Davis two years earlier:
          ‘Here outside in the night air, all was quiet. Silence – and yet one felt the mystery of these invisible waves, the miracle of the hidden voices, sweeping out through the night.’
          Nearly a century later, nowhere is the miracle greater than on the shortwave, it was true back then – and, for many shortwave listeners, it still holds true today.”
          (The Early Shortwave Stations: A Broadcasting History through 1945 by Jerome S. Berg)

          “In 1995, RCI on air- host Ian McFarland said this about shortwave listening:
          ‘There are, no doubt, many different shades to the magic of shortwave for different people. It can be something as simple as just being able to hear a radio broadcast from a country that you’ve only seen on a world map. Or, it can be having the opportunity to hear about things that are happening around the world; things that you’d never in a, million years hear about any other way. There’s also the pleasure of hearing the far away voices who have become “good friends” over the many years that they have hosted some of our favorite programs.’
          Now, over two decades later, and after all the changes in the SW landscape, it is still the magic of pulling a distant signal out of the air and connecting with a far away place that makes SW unique, and not replicable by any other media.”
          (Broadcasting on the Shortwaves,1945 to Today by Jerome S. Berg)

          Cheers and 73,
          Roger F.

          Reply
          1. Laurence N.

            I like shortwave too, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with this: “it is still the magic of pulling a distant signal out of the air and connecting with a far away place that makes SW unique, and not replicable by any other media.” I’m afraid that’s not true by most metrics. This is what drew me to shortwave, and the reason I’m still in the hobby. A lot of the other things people like about shortwave don’t interest me much, but the stations from long distances are enthralling. They are also online. Think about it. For every station you can receive from shortwave, they almost certainly have a webstream as well. The only one that might not is VOK, but I’m not sure they don’t. Everyone else has one. And though I still frequently pull out my receiver instead of my computer to listen, I consider switching each time RFI or the whims of the ionosphere causes me to miss the interesting part of a sentence. However, I’ll state here that I will stay faithful and keep using shortwave rather than web streams. Problem solved? Not at all. I don’t matter. The people who are interested in the things I’m interested in are the problem. Many of them won’t ever get a shortwave receiver. Many of those who do will abandon it. They are not as faithful as I am, and more and more broadcasters are seeing this and deciding they can do without us SWLers until we also tune into their streams.
            There’s another metric as well. In the glory days of shortwave, we could definitely connect with far away countries. Well, we could connect with the governments of far away countries, and the crazy people of America. Nobody else really had one, unless you were in the tropics, in which case you had the typical radio of the country next door to yours. Now, we aren’t limited to the state broadcasters. We can tune in private radio stations from many places, including those who aren’t directing their broadcasting at us or even an international audience. This feels, at least to me, a lot more connective. I don’t just get the stories the government of [insert country here] thinks are important and I’ll listen to. I get the news as it is heard by the people in a specific location. If I don’t like that provider, I can tune around and find another one. The primary difficulty is that there are too many streams to know them all. I can do this at any time. I don’t need the ionosphere to be compliant, or the program to be on when I’m available, or a specific piece of hardware. That convenience and breadth is inviting, I must admit that. If we’re going to support shortwave, let’s consider honestly the benefits of its competitors. By ignoring them, we only paint ourselves as luddites or unwilling to accept alternatives. By acknowledging them, we can conduct a comparison that is truly reflective of each medium.

          2. Roger Fitzharris

            The real question, Laurence N., is why we persist in investing in a legacy technology, when we could easily get most of the same information without expending so much time and energy.
            I think our choice has been best explained by Marshall McLuhan in 1964:
            1) Our choice of media is an extension of ourselves.
            2) And SW radio has been explained as a “hot” medium,
            3) which by its very nature engenders specialization and fragmentation (sound familiar?)
            4) Furthermore, McLuhan hypothesizes that we: “experience far more than we understand; yet it is the experience, rather than the understanding, that most influences our behavior.”
            That is why, I still enjoy (and will continue to do so) pulling my RF signals out of the air [warts (QRM, QRN, and QSB) and all] – and not off of some Internet server or Cell tower – that is just plain “cold.”

            Cheers and 73

          3. Laurence N.

            I’m afraid I don’t understand McLuhan’s point here. I get that you enjoy the mechanics of shortwave listening, and that’s great. I can somewhat concur–when a station rises from the static though its antennas are thousands of kilometers away, I do feel something I don’t feel online. However, you haven’t really addressed my point of disagreement. If we leave the realm of emotions, where all of us like shortwave and many who don’t read articles here don’t, we enter the realm of facts. And it is a fact that many aspects of internet broadcasting are more convenient and better than shortwave. Not by any means all of them, and one could easily argue that it’s closer to “some” than “most”, but the differences do exist. I have mentioned some above.
            I have said this on other articles, and my apologies for the repetitive nature of this comment, but we should really care about what those who choose not to listen to shortwave are thinking. It’s not enough to discount them as a lost cause, because those of us who do care aren’t a large enough community to convince stations to stay on air. Without new listeners, nothing will prevent the remaining stations from closing down. I’m sure some pirates and crazy people will remain, but when the news and the commentary stop, I’ll be putting my receiver away. And if we insist on bypassing the arguments against shortwave, we will fail to convince people of its merits.

      1. Michael Meyer

        I don’t disagree with Keith regarding the end of the golden days for shortwave, unlike in the eighties with many big broadcasters available and much more entertainment, compared to today with so many bending their heads over their smartphones. But being dead is a little bit of an overestimate; even Keith seems to read the Swling Post on a regular basis?

        Personally, I listen because of the content and because I also love the travel to reach that content, though at times a little challenging due to RFI.

        Some people like McDonalds and could spend an entire life there – fair enough, one will not die from hunger! Others walk the long way and cook themselves and deal with the inconvenience to buy different ingredients at different stores. In my country, Denmark, DAB+ covers the whole country with the national broadcaster DR and the private broadcaster Bauer, delivering around 15 mainstream channels. So who could ask for more? Thank God, Swedish Radio 2 with their classical music can be received on FM, despite transmitter is around 150 km away!

        The reason I love shortwave radio is the option to listen to something different and not always mainstream, and without sharing my life with the commercial advertising platforms (so-called social media). When I’m off work, In the mornings, I often tune in NHK in english, followed by Austria’s ORF classical music. Afternoon and evening, Radio Farda, VO Turkey plays good music, VO Greece is very enjoyable as well. And in the weekends, a guy in a neighbour village do a local music show (he just got an official license- OZVIOLA.DK). CRI and religious broadcasters are dead boring and never tuned in (except from Vaticans Latin Mass on Sundays)!

        And I’m not that old: 50 years, master degree in human biology, married, house and garden, so I do keep myself busy. But you’re welcome to call me irrational and weird – I can handle that ??.

        So Keith: Got your point. Perhaps radio is not your thing anymore?

        Best regards, Michael from Denmark

        Reply

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