Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2001, Media section, page 12
'Our World is Coming to an End'
Fans of BBC radio in America and Australasia are angry that short wave broadcasts stop next month. Tom Leonard reports.
Ralph Brandi is an internet editor from New Jersey and is glued to the BBC World Service for 20 hours a week. John Figliozzi, a journalist in New York, listens for two or three hours a day on a tiny portable radio he takes around the house. It is, says Mr Brandi, in a generous tribute to British broadcasting, simply the best radio station in the world. From July 1st, however, they, and many like them say that, reluctantly, they will be listening a lot less.
Next month the World Service will cease broadcasting to North America and Australasia in a controversial move to switch off its shortwave transmitters. Listeners will have to listen on the internet or rely on FM rebroadcasts on local stations - options which fans such as Mr Brandi and Mr Figliozzi insist are simply not viable alternatives.
The change which will save just half a million pounds from an annual budget of 183 million pounds, has predictably caused uproar, with hundreds of listeners writing to complain.
Mark Byford, director of the World Service, argues that his decision reflects a fundamental change in the way listeners in "developed markets" are accessing the station. The savings will be invested in poorer regions where shortwave is the only way listeners can access the service.
Meanwhile disgruntled fans such as Mr Brandi and Mr Figliozzi have formed an international coalition to lobby the BBC and the Foreign Office. On their website, the group provides a comprehensive rebuttal of the BBC's case.
The groups central point is that the BBC's sums simply don't add up. According to Mr. Brandi while 1.2 million people listen to the World Service in the United States alone, across the world the BBC website can currently support only 20,000 simultaneous internet listeners.
Despite being a heavy internet user, Mr Brandi rarely uses it to access the radio. He says it is complicated to access, relatively expensive and requires listeners to stay within earshot of the computer. He also disputes the BBC's assertion that sound quality is better on the internet. The hollow metallic digital sound that comes via a computer soon makes it tiring on the ears he says. Sports rights provide a further problem for the internet. The World Cup was just one of a number of sports events that World Service listeners could follow on short wave but could not be broadcast on the internet.
The protesters are equally dismissive of the BBC's other option. They say that of the 220 American stations listed by the BBC as carrying the World Service on FM, 100 of them broadcast it only betwen midnight and 6am. Of the rest many carry at most an hour a day of World Service, others as little as a five minute news bulletin.
Mr Brandi predicts the BBC will haemorrhage listeners, annoyed not only by the change but by the corporations condescending stance. "The BBC seems to be saying, 'Our programmes are so good we can dictate how you listen to them'
"I always thought the BBC was there to serve," says Mr Figliozzi. "If there's a sizeable number listening to short wave, they should still be there. Their most loyal listeners deserve a little more consideration."
Byford however, is unmoved by the protests of what the BBC likes to portray as a band of shortwave hobbyists.
Despite insisting that the station remains "a service for the whole world". he talks of his "target audience" of opinion formers and decision makers in the developed world listening predominantly via the internet and FM re-broadcasts.
The existence of listeners in places such as North America and New Zealand who actually prefer shortwave - and 300,000 US and Canadian listeners only tune in via short wave - doesn't fit in with the thinking at Bush House.
Byford says that the World Service has achieved its biggest ever audience - 153 million listeners - precisely because it has developed a "multi-delivery strategy" to adapt to different audiences.
"It's not about cutting but re-prioritising," he says, "We risk losing listeners but we risk losing listeners by standing still across the world."
Unfortunately for Byford, the protestors views are shared by many of his own staff. "It's just another stupid change by a stupid management. We understand in the long term that short wave will be less important but why make the change so dramatically as this?" says one senior journalist. "It's completely mad. We've gone to a lot of trouble to build up an audience and they're ready to throw it away."