The political acrimony of the cold war provided a golden age for shortwave listening around the world. Yet, in the unfolding era of post 9-11 global chaos and corruption (when we really could use it) shortwave radio has just become another media source where Americans are likely to get less international news and opinion. On the other hand, many of our old cold war enemies (Russia, China, Vietnam, etc) continue to beam lots of English language programming this way. But more and more of our traditional (and powerful) allies just don’t bother. Most significantly, two excellent English language global news sources have turned their backs on us. First the BBC World Service cut us off in July of 2001, then Deutsche Welle shut down shortwave transmissions to North America a couple of years later. And these are just the most notable of many cutbacks depriving North American SW listeners of dependable frequencies since the 1990′s. And in case you’re wondering, you can occasionally hear the official U.S. shortwave service (VOA) in the states, but there’s actually a law on the books that prevents them from trying very hard to reach American ears. But from what I’ve heard from VOA over the last few years, we’re not missing much…
There’s not much mystery as to why all this is happening. Old lo-fi radio hasn’t been really popular here for decades. Since the 1980′s shortwave bands have become non-existent on standard consumer radios, and if you’re determined to listen to shortwave you have to go out buy a special receiver just for that purpose. And more significantly, new and powerful methods of listening to the world have come along– satellite broadcasting and internet audio options.
And for years, international radio giants like BBC and DW have been piggybacking segments of their English language content on North American (mostly FM) public stations as well. Not that long ago, WNYC in New York experimented with running the World Radio Network overnight, and like so much programming I’ve enjoyed on that station, it’s gone. Based in Britian, WRN aggregates all sorts of national radio content from around the world and offers a whole slew of programming packages grouped by language and/or targeted global region. It’s a quite a project. And it’s not a service– It’s a business. Taking a look at their website, it looks like WRN has become a real high-tech behemoth of international broadcasting since I last listened. While some stations in North America must be running their content (I found no list of affiliates on their site), their full schedule in English for North America has its own channel with Sirius Satellite Radio. At least for now, a model like this seems like the future of state-sponsored broadcasting. And if you want to get a regular dose of international news and opinion without all the fading, RF noise, and propagation issues, I’d say signing up for Sirius to receive WRN might be a good way to go.
But for now, I still prefer the difficulty, noise, and unpredictability of the old technology. It’s free and a little more mysterious. As far as I know, there aren’t any pirates or clandestine broadcasters on satellite yet. And I don’t think Iran, or Albania or North Korea are going to be included in their packages anytime soon. You get what I mean. And if Dick Cheney (or some other dictator) really does suceed in setting world on fire and high-tech telecommunication networks are damaged, hacked or shut down, your battery powered SW portable could be the only way to access information from beyond our borders.
And to wind this up, I have a clip.
Radio Netherlands – Echoes – 04-09-07.mp3
This is a complete edition of short weekly RN feature, “Echoes.” It’s a listener-outreach program featuring listener mail (or email, most likely), with plenty of promos for shows RN’s English language schedule. In this quarter hour from early April you hear an overview of programming changes and a smattering of listener feedback from around the world. The host is American ex-pat journalist, Mindy Ran. She sounds friendly enough. Reminds me of Barbara Budd, a co-host of CBC’s “As It Happens.” Echoes is also a podcast, as are many RN programs. Apparently, programs come and go on RN’s English service. In fact, as I finish this post I’ve noticed that Echoes is no longer on their schedule.
The initial reason I posted this was the series of listener letters pleading for Radio Netherlands to continue to English shortwave service. One is from Panama, another from India. Theiy bemoan their access to news and information in remote areas of the world, and how RN’s shortwave service makes a difference in their lives. But another comes from an American in Massachusetts also expressing his appreciation that RN continues to make their English programming available on shortrwave to (the eccentric?) American listeners. And from sampling other Echoes programs, these types of letters are routine. Listeners are increasingly thankful for what they can still find on shortwave. Even in America.