Second Letter to Mark Byford, 25 July 2001

On July 25th, the Coalition sent a second letter to Mark Byford, Director of the BBC World Service, in response to his response to our letter of 19 June. Mr. Byford's office has replied to this letter briefly to acknowledge their receipt of it and promised a response when Mr. Byford returns from vacation.


25 July 2001

Mark Byford
Director, BBC World Service
BBC World Service
Bush House
London
UNITED KINGDOM

Dear Mr. Byford:

Thank you for your response dated 4 July which we received on 14 July. We appreciate the attention to our expressed concerns evident in your reply, and the fact that you took time from what must be a very active schedule to do so personally.

It is not our intention here to restate points already made. However, we would be remiss if we did not take this additional opportunity to draw your attention to other data that strongly challenges the conclusions drawn by the BBC from its research on this matter. Nonetheless, given the experiences of listeners reported to us in the aftermath of the events of 1 July, it appears that there may be a clear "third way" emerging. We believe it is possible to simultaneously serve the best interests of "the BBC World Service as a whole" (as you put it), as well as that of all its listeners in North America and Australasia.

We respect the fact that you took "great care" in examining this matter prior to taking your decision. However, as you must know, there is a decided lack of consensus among various studies about the Internet and its users. Given the speed with which new ideas and changes in theories are being advanced, and sudden changes in the Internet access marketplace take place, it can be no surprise that academic research in this area does not necessarily comport with "real world" experience. It must be obvious that the objections contained in the many protests to the World Service are not those of mere short-wave hobbyists, devotees of a particular delivery method or of those who can be otherwise dismissed as simply resistant to change. It must be clear to you at this point that many listeners simply do not have the options for continued access to the World Service you believe they have.

Please consider the following facts:

While changes in media and how it is distributed are certainly in progress, the landscape is littered with the carcasses of those who had flawed business models and capitalization, regardless of their apparent initial promise. The BBC says that it is gaining new listeners via Internet streaming and program placement on local public radio stations. We agree. However, the BBC also says that this clearly indicates that listeners in developed countries are moving away from short-wave and that now is the time to end that part of its service to those regions. A studious review of all the evidence strongly challenges that conclusion.

Documented sales of new short-wave receivers in North America have totaled over one million units annually for at least the last three years. In percentage terms, there has been double-digit growth in those sales each of the last two years.

As you say, many listeners are being initially exposed to the BBC World Service and other international broadcasters through the Internet and the limited offerings of FM re-broadcasting. However, many of them are telling receiver vendors that they are just now purchasing their first shortwave radio to hear a fuller schedule of programs than what is offered on FM and to listen in venues that are inaccessible to computers and the Internet. Two plausible conclusions to be drawn are (1) that the Internet and FM rebroadcasting have actually sparked this upsurge in shortwave radio sales, and (2) that listeners prefer the convenience of being able to move among platforms.

A joint study conducted by the reputable firms of Arbitron and Coleman <http://www.arbitron.com/newsroom/archive/article3.htm>, and released in the last month, reports that even heavy users of the Internet are less than enamored with audio streaming and actually prefer to watch television or listen to the radio while they use their computers. This study contradicts the findings of other studies upon which the BBC has chosen to rely and should, at least, give pause to those who think that computers and the Internet already serve as a replacement for radio in developed areas.

Even the BBC's Mr. Timmins is quoted in a recent article in Radio World as stating, "I don't want to lose any short-wave listeners--If the alternatives today aren't that attractive, they will be in twelve months to two years." This begs the question that if the alternatives are not attractive now, what sense is there in making the move from short-wave now?

The elimination of short-wave transmissions to some regions before the alternatives cited by the BBC are fully deployed and available immediately consigns many listeners there to a second-class status. There is no question that FM re-broadcasts and high speed Internet access--while growing--still remain available only sporadically. (Incidentally, you quote the figure of 156 million Internet users in the U.S., while recent surveys conducted by Arbitron find just over 100 million such users.) Many who are still not within range of an FM re-broadcaster, or unable to obtain or afford high-speed Internet service, have lost their only opportunity to hear the World Service--via short-wave. In this regard, ending these broadcasts at this time makes as much sense as ending printed publication of books and newspapers because the latter can now be made available electronically!

However, making this move now threatens much more than just the ability of loyal listeners to hear a favorite radio station, as important as that may be. It marks a big step away from the BBC's traditional universal service commitment. It calls into serious question the BBC's consistent dedication to broadcasting as first and foremost a public service. Finally, we submit to you that it actually threatens the World Service's standing as the globe's most listened-to, and arguably most important, international broadcaster, rather than preserving it.

The situation at hand is more than merely a case of choosing which research one wants to believe. We agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that the World Service must look to the future. However, expertly crafted studies that come to conflicting conclusions should give one pause before committing completely to such a revolutionary decision as the one implemented on 1 July.

It could not have been your intention to eliminate an entire class of listeners from the World Service's audience; but the evidence mounts that this is precisely what is happening. Wouldn't it be prudent to recognize credible evidence that contradicts an initial conclusion--even though that conclusion might have been arrived at with the "great care" that you described? In such a fluid environment, there can be no shame in acknowledging new information and making the necessary adjustments. It can be said that to do so is the more courageous stand, not to mention the only one that offers the greatest chance for ultimate success.

We sense the there is a great and unique opportunity here for the BBC to acknowledge that there is merit in what its listeners have been saying, while still realizing most of the savings you say you need. As you point out in your letter of 4 July, some frequencies are working quite well in the regions ostensibly cut off, even though they are directed elsewhere. While there is still a need for restoration of frequencies targeted to these areas to preserve World Service audibility there, it has become apparent that the level of restoration required is considerably less than what was thought prior to 1 July. What better outcome than for the World Service to be seen, at home and abroad, as both responsive to its listeners and responsible with its budget? Our preliminary analysis indicates that the restoration of as few as two frequencies* are all that may be necessary to restore most of what was lost and preserve a limited, but necessary and useful, short-wave presence in the regions affected by the 1 July shutdown.

We reiterate our offer to work with you in this regard and, moreover, to serve in the future as a source of valuable overall international consumer support, feedback, and strategic insight for your broader objectives for the BBC World Service going forward.

In closing, it is not our intention to be obstructionist in these matters, but to provide the additional perspective that is clearly needed and just as clearly missing in this particular and individual case. It is our sincere intention to work to support the BBC World Service, which has provided us with so much in the way of information, education, and enrichment over many years. We thank you again for your response and hope you can see your way clear to make the adjustments we recommend and, beyond that, accept our offer of future support.

We look forward to your reply.

For the Coalition

Ralph Brandi
Richard Cuff
John Figliozzi
Sheldon Harvey
David Norrie

(*The two frequencies we have indentified are:

It appears that evening reception in the affected areas, while reduced somewhat in terms of signal quality, remains generally reliable via other frequencies targeting adjacent areas. While this is true during the current A01 season, it remains to be seen if this will remain so during B01.)