Tag Archives: Why We Listen

BBC World Service program discusses Chinese jamming

BBCSWOverToYouIn the latest episode of Over To You, host Rajan Datar discusses how the BBC World Service’s shortwave transmissions are being affected by jamming in parts of Asia. It’s a short but informative episode.

Even Datar and his guest, Nigel Fry (Head of Distribution for BBC Global News), could appreciate the irony that while China is investing a substantial number of resources in jamming BBC WS English broadcasts, the BBC World Service is voluntarily trimming their English offerings anyway. What a gift to those in China trying to control access to the global press!

Thanks to the Southgate ARC for the tip.

(Source: Over To You)

Over To You explores the way that the World Service’s shortwave transmissions are being affected by jamming in parts of Asia, following up from an email from a listener in West Bengal who was having problems listening to the service. With the help of the World Service’s head of business development, we find out how jamming of the World Service shortwave transmissions inside China is spilling over into neighbouring countries, and explore what the BBC can do to redress the situation through international organisations.

Click here to listen to the full interview.

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The relevance of shortwave radio for UNESCO’s World Radio Day 2013


Student in Uganda tunes an Ears To Our World self-powered shortwave radio. (Photo: ETOW partner, The Empower Campaign, Uganda)

Wednesday, February 13th 2013 is World Radio Day.  UNESCO describes World Radio Day as “a day to celebrate radio as a medium; to improve international cooperation between broadcasters; and to encourage major networks and community radio alike to promote access to information and freedom of expression over the airwaves.”

A worthy cause.

UNESCO asked me to record a segment about our non-profit, Ears To Our World, and the relevance of radio in honor of World Radio Day.

Here’s my (brief) contribution:

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Syria stifles the Internet while Canada stifles shortwave

This past Saturday, I found the irony a bit much to take: on one hand, there was Syria, a highly volatile country struggling for stability, while on the other hand, there was…Canada? Both, on the same fateful day, effecting media shut downs.

No doubt, most every Syrian with Internet access knew their Internet had been shut down this past weekend, while very few Canadians knew that their international radio voice had been quelled.  In both cases, the government was mostly to blame, though in Canada the CBC was left holding the knife.

The venerable, yet vulnerable Internet

I’ve mentioned numerous times how vulnerable the Internet is to simply being shut off. In most cases, this happens because those in power are attempting to control free speech and communications. Unfortunately, it’s not an infrequent occurrence; if anything, it’s a growing trend. In this NPR story from Saturday, Andrew McLaughlin, former White House adviser on technology policy, was quoted as saying:

“The pattern seems to be that governments that fear mass movements on the street have realized that they might want to be able to shut off all Internet communications in the country, and have started building the infrastructure that enables them to do that[.]”

Renesys map showing vulnerable internet networks by country (click to enlarge). Note that most of the countries with low risk are those who have (or had) a strong international broadcasting presence on shortwave.

Not good.  And as unethical as it sounds for Syria (or Egypt or Libya or the Maldives or China or Burma) to have shut down the Internet, if the U.N.’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) meeting is successful, it will make Syria’s shutdown a legally supported scheme for every country in the world.

So what countries are technically vulnerable to this sort of shut down? It depends to a great extent on the diversity of a state’s communications infrastructure, and the number of its service providers that are connected to the rest of the world.  Syria, sadly, is among the most vulnerable. James Cowie, at the Web monitoring firm, Renesys, was recently quoted in the Washington Post describing just how easy this shut-down process is:

“Make a few phone calls, or turn off power in a couple of central facilities, and you’ve (legally) disconnected the domestic Internet from the global Internet.”

Information of last resort

RCI’s Sackville Transmission site went off the air Saturday, December 1st.

In January of 2011, Egypt, too, shut down its Internet service. Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) responded by adding shortwave broadcasts targeting Egypt. Since then, RNW has been silenced. I would like to think that if RNW, with its once-powerful human rights and free press missions, were still around, the organization would have leapt to the aid of the Syrians. Alas, where are they now?

True, shortwave radio is not a comprehensive replacement for the Internet any more than it is for mobile phone service. It lacks the peer-to-peer connectivity of either medium.  But it is interactive and accessible.

Indeed, recent history proves that, when all other communications systems are shut down, information still leaks from a country via various means. This very information is often broadcast by international voices over every medium, including shortwave radio.  So there exists an intimate interaction between those living under a repressive regime and the foreign press that is impossible to deny. Shortwave radio is, in a very real sense, an arm of the foreign press and diplomacy, one that still reaches out to the citizens of oppressed countries.

What about satellite?

To be fair, did Egyptians seek out shortwave radio when their country’s Internet went down? Not all, but quite a number did.  In truth, satellite TV is king in many growing countries, and the information found on satellite was still flowing freely. Therefore, many turned to satellite.

So is shortwave radio still needed? Of course. Satellite TV, like the Internet, is much easier to jam or block. Shortwave radio is the only broadcast medium that streams at the speed of light across borders with no regard for those in power, that requires no subscription or expensive equipment, and is 100% untraceable (provided you listen through headphones).

Lessons learned

I’d like to think that even the UN or similar state networks would consider pooling funds to keep shortwave radio broadcasters on the air to protect this valuable resource. Still, it’s those countries with the wealth, the stability, and the democracy, that feel shortwave is so dispensable. When budgets are being cut, governments view their foreign broadcast service as a quick chop. They don’t realize that an international radio voice is actually the most reliable, most cost-effective arm of foreign diplomacy–especially in areas of the world where information does not flow freely.  In such regions, they have a captive audience at pennies a head.

So, who will be next country to shut down their Internet services and leave their citizens in the dark? Follow the headlines.  And who will silence the next shortwave broadcaster? Follow the money.

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Radio 4: And now an urgent SOS message…

This is a fascinating Radio 4 documentary about a BBC service that typically had a target audience of one individual.  Before the proliferation of telecommunications in the 1990’s, the BBC’s SOS message service acted as a communications link of last resort for people who needed to be urgently connected with loved ones.

This radio documentary reminded me of the fact that, even in our information age, radio can interact with a large audience of listeners who are doing everything from working to driving in a uniquely efficient manor.

I listened to this documentary yesterday, but it will be available on the BBC website for 5 more days (as of time of posting). Thanks to Andy Sennitt for bringing this documentary to my attention. 

(Source: BBC)

Radio 4 used to broadcast SOS messages – “could Mr and Mrs Snodgrass, believed to be travelling in the Cotswolds please ring this hospital where their auntie is dangerously ill”.

Eddie Mair wants to know more about them. He hears from listeners whose lives were dramatically changed through the SOS service. These short messages were transmitted regularly on The Home Service, and later Radio 4, for much of the 20th century. They appealed for relatives of dying people, often on holiday and thus, before mobile phones and internet cafes, uncontactable, to return home before it was too late.

Eddie invited readers of his Radio Times column to send in their recollections of the SOS Message Service, and little did the PM Presenter expect such a rich response of vivid memories, first person experiences and in one case, unexpected consequences as a result of the broadcast.

Some of these remarkable testimonies are told, in understated, haunting and even cheery ways in this narrative tribute to radio, and a nation, – “as it was”. Best summed up by the tale of a six year old girl in the North East who while staying with a relation in 1958, was hospitalised with a very serious illness. She survived and tells Eddie her story. In the days of very few domestic telephones, the BBC’s SOS message brought her parents to her bedside from London courtesy of an observant member of the public who heard the message and recognised the car number plate that had been announced.

The SOS Service, was the vision of John Reith, the first General Manager, and later Director General of the BBC. But its heart was the listener, as Eddie reveals.

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Shortwave radios keep Burmese informed

Filed under our ever-growing tag, “why shortwave radio“:

(Source: The Guardian, via Kim Andrew Elliot)

Zigon does, however, have electricity – unlike 90% of Burmese villages – installed by the government late last year. This has meant a number of changes. One of the more significant is the arrival of television. A satellite dish has now been installed at the village tea shop, largely used to watch state TV networks and Premier League football.

Though censorship has been eased in recent months, information is still tightly controlled. News of the Arab revolts last year was blocked for weeks – though millions use cheap Chinese-made radios to listen to the BBC, Voice of America or other networks broadcasting in local languages.

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BBG: Radio audience far exceeds that of TV, internet

(Source: BBG)

(WASHINGTON, D.C.—November 15, 2011) U.S. government funded international broadcasters reached an estimated 187 million people every week in 2011, an increase of 22 million from last year’s figure, according to new audience data being made public by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

[…]The record numbers, released in the BBG Performance and Accountability Report (PAR), measure the combined audience of the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio and TV Martí, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa). The report details impact on audiences around the globe including people in the world’s most repressive media and political environments.

[R]adio remains the BBG’s number one media platform, reaching 106 million people per week, [while] television’s growth puts it at 97 million people. The Internet audience was approximately 10 million, with the largest online audiences measured in Iraq, Russia, Indonesia, Egypt and Iran.

In summary, BBG’s stats show that radio has fully 10 times the audience of the internet/SMS, and radio listeners surpass television viewers by 9 million. Clearly, radio leads the way because it is a basic technology that has been in place for decades, building a lasting infrastructure and audience. We’ve posted numerous articles proving that radio–specifically, shortwave radio–is still a viable and dynamic information medium, with no regard for borders, for the party in power, or for the economic status of the listener.

Indeed, radio is perhaps the only information medium–other than word-of-mouth–that informs both some of the most wealthiest and some of the most impoverished people on our planet.

Let’s keep it alive: remind your broadcasters that radio is a lifeline for many listeners across the planet.

Read the full BBG report here (PDF).

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Excellent video: Communication is aid

I’ve often told people that radios should be some of the first things shipped to an area after a natural disaster. Why not food or medicine? Good question. HERE is the answer: information feeds us!

Click here to view if embedded video does not appear above.

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