July 2001
International Radio

International Radio

Does demand justify it??

Considering that the big three alone of International radio have a weekly audience of some 300 million people, more than half of this for the BBC World Service, it's clear that there is a significant demand for various reasons for this kind of eye on the world from inernational radio services.

They serve a variety of purposes: for some people they're a way of keeping in tough when on their travels; for others a major source of less-biased news about their home countries than is permitted where they live; and for yet others an opening to understanding a different culture or language .

What should they be?

To us such services should be multi faceted; they should certainly add to the diversity of views and programming that people in any locality can listen to; they should ideally not just offer news of world events but also a different and varied perspective on these events and they should do this in as many languages as possible.

Fortunately that is what they have been doing for many years, with more or less of a propaganda element depending upon the station; unfortunately the funding for these services seems to be coming under strain in many areas, foolishly so in our view, as their cost is small compared to the goodwill they can engender towards their country of origin.

So who are they for?

For many of the services, the objective from the governments that back them is a matter of engendering goodwill from those of other nations.

And what tools for influencing opinion they can be: During the Cold War many services saw themselves as "on one side" which may well have worked for some but in our view was a weakness.
In the case of the predominant player, the BBC World Service which now has more than 150 million listeners a week, policy was to play a straight editorial game and this certainly seems to have paid off both then and in today's changed climate.

Another element deserving consideration is the service these broadcasts can be to expatriate community. Where there is license-fee funding of a service there is often argument that this is skewing priorities but we would argue that expatriate listeners are just as valuable an audience as foreign nationals; if nothing else what they hear gives them a context in which to react to events and may well make them indirect propagandists for their homeland.

How should they be broadcast?

There are three main ways in which a broadcast can be international nowadays: via short wave, or AM over wider areas, via FM (and soon digital) re-broadcasts; via satellite and the Internet.

In our view there is no doubt that short wave/AM will still retain its primacy as a distribution method for some time yet, whatever may be said about changes in technology and the Internet. aslthough we have some hopes yet for satellite radio.

The argument in terms of local re-distribution has weight as in some ways does the availability of streaming Internet audio, and in the future satellite distribution may yet have an edge. One of our concerns here is that of universal standards -something which does apply to AM, FM and short wave analogue broadcasts but may not apply to digital transmissions where there is still a battle between standards. And just as differing TV standards limit International TV transmissions by satellite so could the fight between different digital standards, much to the detriment of listeners, as we would see it.

Currently for a comparatively small sum, an international traveler can purchase a portable radio that can function on the beach or in a hotel where no other service is currently viable; it seems to us that no other service can yet match this flexibility and portability.

To lose this, probably because governments can raise more money from the spectrum if it is put to different telecommunications uses, would in our view be a criminal waste.

The availability of thousands of digital channels in the future may well sound attractive and indeed be attractive in allowing new voices on air but we think that it is a future which would be all the better for a leavening of the old stalwarts and much worse if traveling from place to place meant that your receiver became useless. Long live universality and probably long-live short wave, for all its faults! .

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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