Russia forces World Service off FM radio

Russia forces World Service off FM radio

· BBC partner station told to halt broadcasts
· Move linked to diplomat row with Britain

Luke Harding in Moscow
Saturday August 18, 2007
The Guardian

The fallout from the diplomatic row between Britain and Russia spread to the BBC yesterday when Russia announced it was closing down the World Service's main Russian-language broadcasts.

The BBC World Service said it had been told it could no longer broadcast on the FM frequency in Russia. All broadcasts ceased at 5pm local time yesterday. On Thursday the Russian licensing authorities ordered the BBC World Service's Russian partner, Bolshoye Radio, to drop the BBC from its programming or lose its licence.

Bolshoye Radio rebroadcasts the BBC Russian service to thousands of listeners across Moscow. It said it had no choice but to comply. It was now working on a new concept, it added.

Media commentators said there was little doubt that the move was the result of Kremlin anger at Britain following the recent diplomatic row that culminated last month in the tit-for-tat expulsion of four Russian and British diplomats.

Yesterday Sarah Gibson, head of the BBC's Russian service, said the decision was "highly irregular and extremely disappointing.

"The timing is clearly suspicious and the climate is fairly suspicious," she said. "I'm not sure this is a way you want to regulate. But I can't say that this is due to the deteriorating climate between Britain and Russia."

She added: "If we can't be available on an FM station to people in St Petersburg and Moscow it's a very serious blow."

BBC insiders said the World Service - which is funded by the British government - was being targeted. "We've been caught in the crossfire," one said.

The BBC has appealed to Russia's licensing regulator to reverse its decision. The BBC Russian service can still be heard via short- and medium-wave frequencies but the service is inferior and erratic.

Bolshoye Radio was the Russian service's last FM partner station in Russia. Last November another partner, Radio Leningrad, axed the BBC two days after it broadcast an interview with Alexander Litvinenko in which he said the Kremlin could have had a role in his poisoning.

A second station, Radio Arsenal, dropped the BBC on November 24 - a day after Litvinenko's death. It resumed broadcasts two weeks later but terminated them again in January this year. The BBC Russian service restarted FM broadcasts via Bolshoye Radio in May.

The Kremlin was last year accused of jamming broadcasts by foreign radio stations - a tactic of the Soviet Union in the 1960s. It has also been accused of pressuring Russian stations to end rebroadcasting agreements with other foreign broadcasters, including the US-government funded Voice of America and Radio Liberty.

Russia's main liberal radio station, Ekho Moskvy - one of the last media outlets in Russia regularly critical of the Kremlin - has faced similar problems with its rebroadcasting arrangements.

Yesterday Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of global news, said: "We are extremely disappointed that listeners to Bolshoye Radio in Moscow will be unable to listen to our impartial and independent news and information programming in the high-quality audibility of FM. The BBC has invested a great deal of energy and resources into developing high-quality programming for the station.

"The BBC has similar broadcasting arrangements with partner stations around the world. Our services are available on FM in over 150 capital cities - some 75% of the global total."

Yesterday's decision appears to be the latest chapter in a long-running Kremlin campaign against British interests. Previous targets have included Britain's ambassador in Moscow, Tony Brenton - harassed and intimidated by a pro-Kremlin youth group - and the British Council.

Kremlin officials have also been involved in a campaign within the Russian media to blame the murder of Alexander Litvinenko on British government spies and Boris Berezovsky, the London-based former oligarch.

Yesterday Yevgeny Strelchik of Rosokhrankultura, the federal media regulator, said the shutdown had nothing to do with the Kremlin. He told the Guardian: "Why do you bother calling me now when this happens to the BBC? When the same thing happens to Russian media like Echo Moskvy you don't react. This process [of terminating rebroadcasting agreements] has been going on for at least two years. It's a question for radio partner stations, not for us." He then hung up.


Fragmenting audiences challenge shortwave broadcasters

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Fragmenting audiences challenge shortwave broadcasters

Analysis by Ian Liston-Smith of BBC Monitoring on 31 July

International radio broadcasting - predominantly via shortwave - has been with us since the 1930s. The BBC started its Empire Service in December 1932, and what is now the BBC World Service celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. But radio listening, particularly to international stations, is now in steep decline in many countries.

The political landscape in which these stations thrived has now completely changed. Access to FM radio, satellite and cable TV, and the internet continues to spread rapidly across the world. These facts are challenging the role of international radio broadcasting.

In the past three-quarters of a century many nations opened an international radio service, and they did so for a variety of reasons. Some did it in an attempt to spread political doctrine, or to project a government's foreign policy objectives, or perhaps just to keep expatriates in touch with news from home. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, public awareness and popularity of listening to "exotic" foreign stations was such that even manufacturers of budget radios often fitted a shortwave band as standard.

During the Second World War, governments exploited the power and influence of radio and in the post-war years many more opened or expanded their overseas services. In the 1960s and 70s, relay stations were built around the world in countries friendly to the broadcaster in order to beam stronger and more reliable signals into their target zones.

Cold War
The stand-off between East and West was perhaps the zenith of international broadcasting, forcing the West to build greater numbers of more powerful transmitters to overcome the deliberate jamming from the East. The East countered Western broadcasts by also building more and bigger shortwave transmitters.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall brought all that to an end. Some of the East's jamming transmitters were even converted for broadcast use.

As political hostilities ebbed away, international broadcasters such as the BBC and VOA struck up agreements in host countries to relay programmes in major cities on medium wave and FM. Growing numbers of urban listeners now no longer need to battle against the vagaries of shortwave reception to hear these stations.

Multiple choice
There is now a huge choice of information sources and platforms available in the developed world and these are also rapidly spreading into the developing world. The public in many countries have access to satellite radio, television and the internet. The number of states launching their own international television news channels also continues to grow.

It is in the face of this increasing choice that shortwave radio listening in many parts of the world is declining. For example, radio audiences in India and China have shrunk significantly in towns and cities as cable and satellite television penetrate deeper into these communities. This decline will no doubt continue as wealth and development spread further into rural areas.

Broadcasters are forced by their paymasters to cut transmissions when their own audience research shows they have too few listeners. A number of broadcasters - including the BBC - have dramatically cut back shortwave programming to North America, Europe and parts of Asia. The USA's Radio Liberty (which beamed signals into eastern Europe) closed and demolished its transmitter site at Playa de Pals, Spain in March 2006; VOA faces big cuts next year and Radio Budapest's foreign-language service closed in June this year.

Paradoxically, all this is happening when the cost of shortwave radios continues to fall while their performance and ease of use increases. However, in the 2007 issue of the World Radio TV Handbook, the director of BBC World Service, Nigel Chapman says that 66 per cent of the audience is still listening via shortwave and although declining "...it's declining rather more slowly than we thought it would five years ago".

Dr Kim Andrew Elliott of the US International Broadcasting Bureau describes it as the "medium of last resort" and says: "Modern means of international mass communications will be blocked, destroyed, or swamped from overuse. That is when a global shortwave network will become the failsafe. We reduce that network at our peril."

Shortwave advantages
The technology of shortwave broadcasting may have been around since the 1930s, but it still has advantages over satellite broadcasting and the internet. The ability of shortwave signals to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles via high altitude reflective atmospheric layers makes them ideal for long-distance broadcasting.

Although the influence of satellite television is spreading rapidly, the receiving dishes and auxiliary equipment are expensive and the internet is only accessible by the relatively wealthy and literate. Both of these mediums rely on a good infrastructure and electricity supply. Therefore many media professionals think that international shortwave broadcasting with its multitude of stations, languages and relatively cheap radios is very far from dead.

Relays and rebroadcast agreements of international stations in major cities may provide a better signal than shortwave, but they have problems of their own; they rely on the continuing goodwill of the host nation. Any controversial programming can - and does - lead to the sudden ending of the agreement. Shortwave broadcasting rarely suffers from these "gate-keeper" issues.

At times of international crisis, even some listeners in the developed nations tune in to shortwave stations for news with an alternative outlook. This is confirmed by Grundig's US operations director, John Smith. The Detroit Free Press quotes him as reporting a 500 per cent increase in shortwave radio sales in the weeks following 9/11.

In countries where the population mistrusts their domestic media, shortwave listening also increases during the unfolding of important national events.

Shortwave broadcasts reach audiences across borders and programmes can still be heard in a myriad of languages. Although jamming has always been possible, it is rarely completely effective.

A poor literacy rate in many countries makes the medium of radio attractive and listening clubs set up by NGOs such as Unicef in Africa spread advice about health and agriculture, building upon the habit of radio listening.

Dodging state-controlled media
News from the bigger international broadcasters provides balance and context in countries where the media is "independent", but not necessarily accurate or impartial. In countries with state-controlled media or where satellite television and internet use is either prohibitively expensive or illegal, shortwave radio continues to provide clandestine access to the outside world.

An example of this is North Korea, where radios and televisions are provided pre-tuned to receive only state broadcasts and tampering with them can result in imprisonment. Nevertheless, according to some reports, cheap shortwave radios from China are flooding into the country and at least four radio stations beam programmes into this isolated nation.

Zimbabwe is another country with a tightly-controlled state media where the population is eager to get an alternative view of national and international events. Although access to satellite television and the internet is not legally restricted, it is completely out of the reach of much of the population due to cost or infrastructure limitations. Zimbabwe therefore is another nation to which broadcasters like SW Radio Africa and VOA's Studio 7 specifically beam programmes, much to the annoyance of the Mugabe government. To counteract what the Zimbabwean government sees as a "bombardment" of hostile foreign-based broadcasts, it has itself recently said it will open a station on shortwave to broadcast its own version of Zimbabwean and African news to what it describes as a "world audience".

Last chance for shortwave?
A digital transmission format may give shortwave broadcasting a new lease of life in the developed nations.

The Digital Radio Mondial (DRM) consortium was formed in March 1998, when a group of broadcasters and manufacturers joined forces to create digital system for the broadcasting bands below 30 MHz. The BBC and other major broadcasters have been running test transmissions for some years and the long-term aim is to replace AM broadcasting on the long-, medium- and shortwave bands. The system is designed to carry audio content and it integrates text and data.

Once the listener has purchased a DRM receiver, the main advantage is the improved audio quality ease of tuning.

There was optimism around these digital radios at Berlin's 2005 IFA consumer electronics exhibition, but they have not reached the market as quickly as hoped. The head of broadcast services at VT Communications, Richard Hurd, who is closely involved with DRM, says in an interview in this year's WRTH that the system is still being developed, but also says the main blow had been the lack of receivers. But manufacturers are now addressing this situation. At least two DRM-capable receivers have recently reached the market-place, although fairly specialist PC-controlled DRM equipment has been available for some time.

The controller of business development for the BBC World Service, Ruxandra Obreja, says that DRM is likely to expand as a platform for international broadcasting once countries start using it nationally and listeners discover that overseas stations are also audible with good sound quality.

Source: BBC Monitoring research in 31 Jul 07.
Reprinted by permission/ NASB August News)