Shortwave Broadcasting - Challenges and Opportunities
If shortwave had been discovered today instead of eight decades ago it would be hailed as an amazing new technology with great potential for the world we live in today.
Former Director, BBC World Service
The current multi-platform media environment has created both challenges and opportunities for shortwave radio. While a number of shortwave broadcasting services have recently been severely cut or completely phased out, this distinctive medium remains relevant for a large critical audience interested in programming that focuses on both regional and international affairs and is broadcast from the perspective of different communities around the world.
Shortwave - Workhorse of the Past?
A shortwave transmitter can reach both local and global audiences. This is due to the unique long-distance propagation property of shortwave radio by means of multiple reflections from layers in the upper earth's atmosphere. Shortwave radio can provide service where other platforms such as satellite, FM or Internet are unavailable due to high cost, geographical location, lack of infrastructure, or even during natural or man-made disasters. Receivers are inexpensive and require no access fees. Shortwave radio is important for people living or travelling in isolated regions. It reaches across the digital divide to the most disadvantaged and marginalised societies. This is in keeping with the Declaration and Action Plan of the World Summit on the Information Society.
The prospect of rising affluence in many world regions creates an increasing opportunity for this specific delivery platform. Three billion people - or 50 per cent - of world population lives below the poverty line on less than 2.50 USD a day.1 Their first choice of communication devices will be a mobile telephone, a radio or both. For most, listening to a local FM channel, a community station or an international broadcast is still more affordable than a computer, a television or other electronic devices.
Shortwave Radio in Emergencies
Shortwave radio is still regarded as a powerful communications tool during emergency situations.
During disasters, local and regional communication networks can be overloaded or destroyed, resulting in an information blackout. Poor information flow during disasters is a source frustration and anger among victims. Shortwave radio often remains the only source of information for those affected.
Amateur radio enthusiasts have traditionally used shortwave communications to share information during emergencies when other communications systems fail. This practice is recognised and appreciated both by the public and the regulating bodies responsible for managing radio frequency spectrum. In contrast, professional broadcast facilities, whose transmitters are 10 to 100 times more powerful than those of amateur operators, are rarely used in emergencies.
Reduced interest and funding of shortwave broadcasting, including the dismantling of infrastructure, will make shortwave broadcasting during humanitarian disasters more difficult or even impossible.
Radio for Distance Education
Shortwave radio is an invaluable tool in distance education. It reaches children, women and men in areas where traditional education systems cannot due to lack of financial means, education infrastructure or accessibility. Shortwave radio can be used to promote literacy amongst youth and adults alike. Moreover, it can be used to empower women and girls in societies where the right to education is denied due to gender biased. Radio can also be used to provide health education and information to communities during epidemics or following a natural or man-made disaster.
New Technological Developments for Traditional Delivery
Radio continues to evolve offering opportunities in the digital age, while still facing old challenges that include planning, resourcing and regulating. The future of radio is digital and the digitisation of shortwave and AM broadcasting is already underway. The globally standardised Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) system is a high-quality replacement for current radio broadcasting on all AM bands. DRM is the only digital format approved by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for shortwave broadcasting. Given the dramatic improvement in sound quality over present analogue AM broadcasting, it is anticipated that DRM will soon become the preferred technology for shortwave radio.
Shortwave Broadcasting and Internet Applications - Competition or Synergy?
- The presence of broadcasters across all distribution platforms is important for effective worldwide delivery. Audiences are able to personalize their listening experience.
- There is evidence that radio is best for live listening —- especially for news, current affairs and sport programmes. Authentic experience is enhanced by listening live to long-distance shortwave radio stations and their programmes.
- Radio has a strong emotional appeal. People listen regularly to one or two radio stations only. This appeal of radio has been even more typical in shortwave broadcasting. Enduring bonds and contacts between listeners to shortwave stations and broadcasters have existed long before the advent of social media.
- New delivery platforms and technologies are ideal for improving the service of shortwave radio to the audience. Spoken word and music is being enriched by images and video clips. Audio on demand services have enabled the listeners to download old programmes archived by the stations.
- Social media platforms can be used to strengthen communication and dialogue between the programme makers and their audience. This in turn can help develop communities of listeners that can promote the station’s and its content.
- New technologies are ideal for the collection of the user-generated content irrespective of the distance between the source and the core broadcasting station.
- Programmes and frequency schedules of shortwave stations change quite often. The internet is an ideal medium for keeping track of these changes and promoting direct listening to shortwave stations. An interactive global programming schedule can be accessed from the UNESCO web page for the celebration of World Radio Day 2013.
- Shortwave transmitters around the world complement internet based services and are a vital communication tool during major emergencies caused by natural or man-made disasters.
A global database for international disaster communications
The High Frequency Co-ordination Conference (HFCC) has been working in close co-operation with its partners, the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) and Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU), to create a comprehensive system that has been missing in the world shortwave broadcasting community.
The global frequency database of shortwave broadcasting and online co-ordination procedure of frequencies will be managed in accordance with International Radio Regulations as the part of the International Radio for Disaster Relief (IRDR) project.
The Future of Shortwave in a changing media environment
Unfortunately the opportunity for shortwave broadcasters and millions of potential listeners might be lost due to changes in media delivery under way largely in the developed world. The decline of shortwave usage in developed nations is due to the emergence of an increasing number of new communication technologies. The image of shortwave radio as the traditional workhorse of international broadcasting is quickly fading in many countries.
There is a very simple reason to support the concept of multiplatform media distribution: consumers are unable use all available delivery technologies at a specific point in time. Their choice depends increasingly on their situation (e.g. location, personal preference, social position, availability of equipment, etc.). In the rush to embrace new digital platforms, and in the climate of economic austerity, decision-makers have sometimes moved away from funding older technologies like shortwave broadcasting. It should be evident that the exclusion of one technology will inhibit content distribution to a part of the audience in a specific situation. The fact that radio is present on many new communication platforms confirms its relevancy.
- Oldrich Cip
About the author
As Chairman of the High Frequency Co-ordination Conference (HFCC) since 1998, Oldrich Cip has been involved in radio since childhood. Starting out as an amateur radio hobbyist, Mr. Cip has worked extensively in international broadcasting for both Czechoslovak and Czech Radio. He conducted radio column for hobbyists for many years under the pen-name Peter Skala.
Mr. Cip helped to establish the roots of the HFCC following the Cold War. He championed activities to bring together broadcasters from both sides of the conflict in order to develop a new system for planning and coordinating shortwave broadcasting. This working group that he helped to establish in 1991 later became the HFCC.
Oldrich Cip authorizes radios and other users to use some or all of this article to celebrate World Radio Day.
The designations employed in this paper and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO and do not in any way commit the Organization.
1 www.statisticbrain.com, March 2012