Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Future of Shortwave Broadcasting by Bob Zanotti

The Future Of Shortwave Broadcasting by Bob Zanotti

There is much pessimistic talk today about the validity of shortwave as the prime vehicle of international broadcasting. Critics present several arguments: high operating costs, environmental considerations, a need to re-channel available funds into satellites and the Internet, and what is loosely termed a decline in shortwave. From the point of view of the broadcast planner and decision-maker, this catalogue of negative arguments appears sound and reasonable. From the perspective of a large segment of the audience, however, reductions in shortwave services are inexplicable and a source of frustration and even anger.

Let us examine the issues carefully, using the senses and instincts of the investigative journalist. We are in a period of restructuring, a contemporary buzzword that is used and abused so frequently as a catch-all excuse to justify virtually any action taken by management, regardless of how inappropriate. We are in a period where human endeavor is scientized, and we no longer have faith in our common sense judgment as human beings. This is the age of consultants and high technology. The media are ruled by time-and-motion studies and so-called market forces. Radio and television no longer produce programs, but products. Today there are no listeners, there are markets.

How did we arrive at this state of affairs? My view and that of seasoned colleagues is clear: international broadcasting is no longer directed by professional intuition. Instead, an army of theoreticians and technocrats, often with little or no broadcasting knowledge, experience or dedication, have taken control of the decision-making process in many organizations.

With limited experience of their own, these people are forced in desperation to turn to someone else for advice. These are the consultants, the industry gurus, in which so much hope is placed. But all too often, these ‘experts’ have overstated their own qualifications, and have to rely in turn on others for advice. Unfortunately, this ‘other’ advice often comes from individuals or institutions with vested commercial interests. These special interests also include broadcast technologies.

Let us get down to cases and examine the satellite broadcasting industry. Many billions of dollars have been invested in telecommunication satellite technology. It is elementary that the investors expect a return on their investments, and considering the limited life span of satellites, this return must be as fast as possible. The main thrust of broadcasting today is television, and it was for television that the current broadcast satellite technology was designed. In concrete terms, the concept of transmission capacity for these satellites was designed with TV in mind, not radio. Sound Broadcasting, to use the ITU terminology, was promoted later as a way to merchandise over-capacity and to improve the return on investment.

But the allocation and accessing of sound channels on satellites is user-unfriendly, and therefore unattractive for most people. Furthermore, although impressive statistics based on satellite-households are often quoted to support the satellite radio argument, only a very tiny fragment of this potential audience ever listens to radio via satellite. In Europe, where direct satellite radio is allegedly highly developed, an independent study revealed that a mere one percent of satellite households ever used their satellite receiver for sound broadcasting.

Mobility is another striking deficiency in present satellite sound broadcasting. Current technology does not permit us to carry a satellite receiver in our pocket and take it along on our travels. Furthermore, reception indoors is also virtually impossible. Cable distribution of international programs is often cited as a promising alternative to direct home satellite reception, but here too, cable installations are fixed; they cannot be used away from the home setting.

Superficially, the cost of shortwave as compared to satellite appears higher. But if the factors of market penetration and acceptability are considered, as well as the crucial factor of personal cost to the listener, shortwave wins hands down. There are literally millions upon millions of shortwave receivers in use. They are compact, portable, easy to use, and above all, cheap. Technically speaking, there is no other sound broadcasting medium that can compete with shortwave in these respects.

For years now, I have heard the repeated, tired refrain: “shortwave is dead”. I recall the teachings of C.G. Jung and his concept of Collective Consciousness, in which a prevailing belief or slogan, repeated often enough, and although even a lie, can influence the thinking of an entire group or even nation. Goebels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, embraced this concept, and used it to manipulate an entire nation, with cataclysmic results.

Powerful, manipulative forces are at work here. Although difficult to prove, there has even been speculation that considerable ‘promotional fees’ may have been paid in the process. A big part of the sales talk involves belittling shortwave as a relic of the past and exalting the virtues of technologies that are frankly not yet mature. This sounds good in today’s shallow-thinking, buzzword-ridden world, but in the final analysis it doesn’t make sense. To make the propaganda strategy complete, those who would question the slogans are conveniently labelled as uninformed, obstructionist, inflexible, old- fashioned, or generally lacking in vision.

Like it or not, from a purely technical point of view, the fact is, there is nothing at this moment to replace shortwave. One day there may be. In the meantime, it is good and wise to gain a foothold in the new technologies, but not to overestimate or over-represent their value. If market orientation is truly important, than we would have to admit that the demand is still for shortwave. Ironically, shortwave technology does not stand still either: there is a current effort to develop digital shortwave, which would go far in curing analogue shortwave’s qualitative shortcomings.

To quote the old saying: Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Another popular and wise saying is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I for one am in favor of new technology, provided it demonstrates a clear superiority to what is currently in use. In the case of shortwave, some would like to bury it before it has even died.

The above essay was written at a time when Internet audio streaming was still immature. Although radio over the Internet (audio or “radio” on demand, or “podcasting”) opens a new and wider vista for broadcasters and would-be broadcasters, the Internet as a primary medium exhibits the same deficiencies of mobility as does satellite broadcasting. In this sense, the terms “satellite” and “Internet” are synonymous.
Written in 2002 & revised in 2007
Bob Zanotti

1 comment:

Jspiker said...

Fantastic article!

One of my biggest worries comparing "radio" with "internet streaming" or "satellite" is basically the complexity of the process itself, and obviously, the possibility of major component failures.

The modern modes of communication always rely on very expensive satellites, and worse than that, telephone lines, and computer processing. Sending a signal out over the air eliminates this worry.

I take advantage of internet streaming myself. It's exciting and wonderful to hear anything in the world, and hear it at your convenience, but it will never replace the joy of hearing it "directly" over the air.

I think it could very well (in the long run) be a mistake to not only rely on modern technology, but also loose the freedom that "over the air" radio provides.