Larry Magne commentary, NPR's Morning Edition 2 July 2001
A new silence has fallen over the airwaves. This week, Britain has pulled the plug on shortwave broadcasts to North America from the BBC World Service. For decades, it has influenced and entertained millions from Ed Murrow to David Letterman. Yet, it is giving up most of its audience so that a budgetary pittance can be shifted to such emerging technologies as satellite radio and the Internet. This is the silliest British idea since the Stamp Act. Some BBC News will still air over local public radio, but news is only a pale shadow of its full schedule: history, drama, comedy, science, music, sports and current affairs.
On the face of it, Webcasting should eliminate interest in shortwave broadcasts, but it hasn't. Radio dealers report that many shortwave radio sales are to customers who are already wired. They find shortwave works better and is more convenient, just like those who prefer ordinary newspapers, books and magazines to electronic clones. Radio manufacturers say that American listeners often discover the BBC News on public radio first, then buy a shortwave radio so they can hear the BBC's other programs. No wonder Sony and other manufacturers report double-digit growth in shortwave purchases. Grundig now claims sales of a million shortwave portables a year in North America.
In an open society like ours, the growing preference for shortwave is all about convenience and accessibility. Shortwave is even more important in closed societies. It is the only broadcasting medium that is virtually impossible to jam completely, defying censorship. Nearly every democratic leader in the former Soviet bloc credits shortwave as being central to the demise of communism, more so than the military or the economy.
Britain's decision is symbolic of a failure on both sides of the pond to understand the foreign policy impact of government-sponsored international broadcasting. The Bush administration is closing a shortwave facility in Spain that excels in overcoming jamming. The proposed White House budget implies that shortwave is passe, stressing the use of unspecified, emerging technologies instead of focusing on audience impact. Just as disturbing is the increasing use of non-American AM and FM local stations in target countries to carry American programs. This makes it tempting for Washington to water down content so controversial material won't be censored by foreign officials and station managers. Governments everywhere might do well to remember ideas rule and shortwave is what gets through.