Shortwave slowly fades off air


From 1932 until long after the sun set on the British Empire, the British Broadcasting Corp. World Service - with its sonorous and reassuring "This is London" at the top of each hour - was heard around the globe via shortwave radio.

Saturday will bring the end of that era in North America, when the grande dame of international broadcasting shuts down its shortwave transmitters serving the United States and Canada, as well as vast areas of the Pacific, and distributes its programs online.

"What we are not doing is saying shortwave is dead," says Jerry Timmins, head of the Americas region for the BBC World Service. "The vast majority of our listeners still access us on shortwave. But a shift is happening, no question about it."

Shortwave radio - the once-ubiquitous voice of colonial empire, international intrigue and Cold War propaganda - is falling victim to the Internet, a medium that's cheaper to run and often more convenient for listeners.

The BBC follows the Voice of America, which has ended its shortwave broadcasts to the once-pivotal ideological battleground of Central Europe. Smaller operations have made even more drastic cuts. Swiss Radio International has dropped 80 percent of shortwave programming in favor of the Internet.

In an age of instant satellite broadcasts and international jet travel, the fading of shortwave marks the passing of a romantic time when a faint and tinny voice might serve as the only link to a home half a world away.

When BBC began broadcasting what was originally called the Empire Service, it was the first live voice many listeners heard from a distant land. During World War II, Allied broadcasts offered hope to occupied Europe. Today, it remains a vital link to the outside world for countries isolated geographically, economically or ideologically.

But shortwave is expensive to operate. Swiss Radio International spent more than a third of its $20 million annual budget leasing transmitters in South America. And in many developed and developing countries, more people have computers than shortwave radios. For shortwave broadcasters making the leap to the Internet, it's common sense - and survival.

In the past year, the number of people accessing the World Service online doubled, according to a BBC study, helping the service reach an all-time high of 153 million weekly listeners. The Voice of America Web site includes continuous streaming of its broadcasts and video views of its announcers.

But online radio comes with its set of problems. Although newer computers running the latest software can handle streaming signals fairly easily, machines just a couple of years old can be difficult to configure. Also, unlike portable shortwave radios, home computers are generally tied to telephone or cable lines - making it tough to listen to a broadcast in the kitchen.

And the model is practical only in places such as the United States where Internet access is cheap and reliable. In many countries - even developed nations - unlimited service for a flat monthly fee is unavailable.

On the Internet, the World Service is always there, live and ready to be accessed by anyone with a fairly recent computer and the free software needed to run streaming audio. In addition, most shortwave sites feature an extensive audio-on-demand archive of programs. The BBC offers its most recent top-of-the-hour news broadcast that can be accessed anytime that hour.

On-air announcements of the BBC shortwave cutbacks are scheduled to begin soon, Timmins says, and they are not likely to be received kindly by stalwart listeners. "The World Service generates enormous loyalty," says Timmins. In 1996, when cost-cutting British officials proposed internal changes in the service, protests were voiced worldwide by such luminaries as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

Shortwave radio grew in popularity in the 1930s because it could cover a much wider area than AM signals. (FM was still in the developmental stage.) By bouncing signals off earth's ionosphere, shortwave broadcasters were able to beam their messages farther.

If a day can be pinpointed when the mystique of shortwave began to die, it was July 10, 1962, when Telstar, the first communications satellite relayed a broadcast to France. High-quality radio and television broadcasts from far reaches of the globe became common. Satellites also made telephone communications more efficient and cheaper.

These relayed broadcasts were not only of far better quality, they were much more dependable and did not have to rely on frequency shifts tailored to changes in ionospheric conditions.

Internet broadcasting is cheaper and simpler still, and offers users more flexibility in when they want to listen to programs.

Nonetheless, some shortwave broadcasters - especially those that don't target the United States, where shortwave has not been a popular medium for decades - have assured listeners they will maintain their broadcast schedule, even while bolstering their online services.

"We have no plans to cut back on shortwave," says Peter Verschoor, head of Radio Netherlands' online service. "Radio Netherlands serves certain areas, like Indonesia, where there are many people who do not have Internet connections."

Deutsche Welle Radio of Germany streams in all 31 of its broadcast languages, including Sanskrit, an ancient language of India now largely unused. But DW is not contemplating a shortwave cutback. "Shortwave would probably not be the best way to reach an audience in the U.S., but for much of the rest of the world it makes sense," said Holger Hank of DW.

And so shortwave, with its signals that can rapidly wax and wane with changes in the ionosphere, will hold on at least for the foreseeable future. But its days as a major medium for state-owned, international broadcasters are likely numbered.

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