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Response to Mark Byford's Letter to the Editor of 29 June, The Independent

On June 29, The Independent printed a letter from Mark Byford responding to the paper's June 27 page 3 package with the usual rationales. On July 1, I sent the following letter to the editor. We'll see if they pick it up.


Mr Byford's letter to The Independent of June 29 contains half-truths and misleading assertions. It provides such an inviting target that it's difficult to know where to start.

The idea that the Internet is a suitable replacement for shortwave is laughable. In June, Arbitron released a study of 2000 high-speed Internet users in the US that showed that streaming audio has not yet caught on. It does not generate habitual use in the way that radio does. Internet users often consume multiple media simultaneously, but when they do, their preferred media is radio and television. Fewer than 1 in 20 use streaming media while they're using their computers for other tasks. Not only is it not clear that John Tusa's "crossing point" has been reached, this study makes it clear that this point is nowhere in sight.

The Internet is not portable, and shows no signs of losing its leash in a manner that's easily affordable to the masses at any time soon. Further, it is unsuitable for use as a mass medium in its current state, as it scales poorly. This was clearly visible on the evening of the recent elections, as people could not reach BBC web sites and streaming audio feeds due to increased demand. Each listener via the Internet requires more bandwidth and more server power on the part of the provider, so each listener costs the BBC a little more money. The sums that would be required to reach their current levels of listenership via radio are staggering.

The Internet serves as radio's memory. It works well to revisit programs you want to hear again. It does not work well the way the BBC intends it to.

Mr Byford's claim that only 300,000 in North America listen solely via shortwave is designed to marginalize the shortwave audience here. The actual listenership figures, as released by BBC, are 1.2 million listeners via shortwave. 900,000 of those combine shortwave with local broadcasts.

One has to ask, if local broadcasts are an adequate means of receiving World Service broadcasts, why do people turn to shortwave? We clearly get something from shortwave that is not available via local stations, something immediately apparent when you compare the variety of programs available on shortwave to the steady diet of nothing but news the BBC offers up to local stations.

The BBC keeps changing its claims about audience size as well. They originally claimed three times as many listeners on FM as on shortwave; they recently reduced that to twice as many. If the BBC's management can't keep their numbers straight, how can we trust them to make the right decision?

Claims that the money saved is a significant feature of the cuts are also a red herring. The BBC has continually changed its story on where the money will be going. First it was to beef up their online presence. Then it was to expand on FM in the Third World. Meanwhile, the High Commission in Ottawa was sending out a fact sheet provided by the BBC shortly after the announcement of the cuts that clearly stated that money was *not* a factor, that this was a strategic move. The BBC seems to be treating this minuscule fraction of the World Service budget as a kind of Hamburger Helper, something to extend the effectiveness of whatever whim comes into Mr Byford's head at the moment.

The BBC can claim to be present in Washington DC on the basis of hour-long newscasts aired at 5 am and 1 am and to be present in Ottawa, Canada, on the basis of four six-minute newscasts a day and a half hour program aired at 3:30 am across Canada. If this is the kind of presence BBC World Service has in the other 119 capital cities, then this strategy can be seen as a failure.

July 1 has come and the World Service has gone, but www.savebbc.org remains to remind listeners that the BBC World Service is wrong to cease broadcasts to North America and the Pacific, and that this move must be reversed. We call upon British voters to contact their MPs and urge them to support Early Day Motion 26, which deplores this indefensible move by the BBC.

Ralph Brandi
Webmaster, Coalition to Save the BBC World Service