End of the road for shortwave?


In this week’s Talking Point we examine the future of shortwave broadcasting. Shortwave has undoubtedly been on the retreat in developed countries, forced to share its former primacy with upstart mediums such as the internet and satellite radio. But are its days numbered even in the developing world?

The topic for this week’s Talking Point is one that is close to home for the staff of Radio Prague and for a large number of its listeners. It is the future of shortwave. Shortwave is our main broadcast medium with feedback from listeners suggesting that this is the way we reach around half of you.

But shortwave transmission has also been one of the station’s main costs, representing 13 million crowns out of a budget of just under 65 million crowns last year. And with demands from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for severe cutbacks, the whole future of shortwave broadcasting by Radio Prague has been under threat.

Station director Miroslav Krupička describes the latest situation.

“Radio Prague’s budget for this year has been reduced by 15.0 percent. It is a little bit more than we expected but we have to come to terms with it. It still makes it possible for us to continue shortwave broadcasts. What we have to do is to close one of the two short wave transmitters that we have in Litomyšl. We will be able to cover basically more or less the same territory we have been covering so far, which means the whole of Europe, North Africa, let’s say the Middle East and parts of North and South America. We won’t be reducing very much the area that we cover so far.”

Those economy measures almost halve the shortwave transmission bill to 7.0 million crowns a year. But other broadcasters have already taken the step of chopping shortwave services or dropping them altogether. The golden age when the crackly signal seemed to be the hallmark of the Cold War era are definitely gone.

Jonathan Marks has 25 years in the broadcasting business and now runs his own global media consultancy company out of the Netherlands. He outlines some of the changes.

“Major broadcasters like the BBC have actually stopped broadcasting to Europe on shortwave along with France. Denmark and Norway have gone off the air, as has Austria and Slovakia. The list goes on and on. There are a lot of transmitter facilities that are at the moment standing idle. And frankly I do not think they will ever come back to the glory that we knew say 20 to 25 years ago.”

He adds that one of shortwave’s main problems is its expense. “In terms of short wave broadcasting, you need huge powers — electricity costs — in order to make just one signal. And if you are spending hundreds of dollars to keep a 100 or 250 Kw shortwave radio transmitter on the air, that may have been physically possible 10 years ago when oil was 50$ a barrel but when it becomes 100$ a barrel it becomes a very, very expensive way of sharing an idea.”

But Radio Prague’s Mr. Krupička believes shortwave still has a major role, especially in those parts of the world where the internet has not advanced so far and so fast.

“Shortwave is one of the basics of international broadcasting. That is what I think and what I want to fight for. Because despite all of the digitalisation and all the new platforms and so on and modern means of communication, Internet and so forth; international broadcasting, very much especially outside Europe, is based on short wave.”

Even so, Radio Prague has not been putting all its eggs in one basket. Although hopes that digital shortwave would provide a cheaper, higher quality option have faded out, other technological options have come along and been grabbed. Mr Krupička:

“There are, of course, other means of broadcasting which we have been using for years. It is satellite broadcasting; it is internet broadcasting, both live streaming and on demand, and pod casting. Podcasting seems to be one of the ways, very modern and very effective ways, of spreading audio. The number of podcasts downloaded from the Radio Prague website is about 500,000 a month. It is a great number and it is growing. So I am very much in favour of pod casting and investing in podcasting and I see it as one of the very important platforms for the future for broadcasting audio content.”

Another big broadcaster out of Prague is the US-financed station Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty broadcasting to 20 countries. Julian Knapp describes how shortwave fits into its options to get the message across.

“Like everywhere, we adapt to our consumers. As consumers move more towards the internet, television, towards online video and towards these media, we adapt. So shortwave is on the decline overall. But in some markets such as Afghanistan where we have 50 percent listeners in the country — it is still very much a radio nation and radio market— shortwave is still popular although we do have FM and other wavelengths. But in some rural areas you can only reach with shortwave. So in these countries shortwave still has a big role.”

He adds that shortwave came into its own when the Georgian government starting blocking other broadcasting during a state of emergency in 2007 and in contemporary Russia. There, local stations have been leaned on to discontinue re-broadcasting arrangements so shortwave is again in vogue.

If shortwave is still part of the broadcasting picture for the moment, the question seems to be how long will that continue to be the case?

Simon Spanswick is the chief executive of the Association for International Broadcasting, an industry group covering radio and television. He sees an ever declining role.

“It is still very useful in some parts of the world. But a lot of the world has moved on, immensely far. And if you walked outside Czech Radio or go down into Wenceslas Square and asked half a dozen people when they last used a shortwave radio and then repeated that in Dubai or in Accra, Ghana, I think you will find a very small proportion of the people you ask respond positively about shortwave. Increasingly people want easy access to news, information and entertainment and shortwave radio is not the easiest to tune into, whereas a local FM station blasting out of small transistor radio is a lot more easy to find.”

Consultant Jonathan Marks believes the trend is away from stand alone radio, television and text in favour of whatever medium can deliver all three.

“I think that in some parts of the world people are increasingly using video. The good news is that the costs of making video has dropped dramatically. It used to be 10 times the price of making a radio programme. It is now probably about double the cost. Basically there is no future for radio, television and the web as it were. But there is a huge future for audiovisuals and text. And that will indeed mean to say that to many countries the way to receive that material will be through the web.”

One of Radio Prague’s problems precisely knowing who it is getting through to. It cannot afford the extremely expensive research carried out by major broadcasters but must try to get a picture of its audience from feedback in the form of letters and e-mails. That for the moment seems to be a strong enough of an argument for the paymaster, the Foreign Ministry. But for how long? Mr Krupička:

“At the time of the economic crisis, of course people start to look at things slightly differently. This could become another field for argument. It has not happened yet. But it could happen this year when negotiating the budget for next year. We will use the same arguments again and I do not know what the conclusion will be.”