Letter to Mark Byford, 19 June 2001
On June 19th, the Coalition sent a letter to Mark Byford, Director of the BBC World Service, asking for opportunities for further dialog with listeners regarding the cutbacks planned for 1 July. According to the Daily Telegraph of 25 June, the BBC is currently preparing their response to this request. The letter the Coalition sent is reproduced below.
June 19, 2001
Director, BBC World Service
BBC World Service
Dear Mr. Byford:
The Coalition wishes to acknowledge with gratitude your willingness to respond on-air (Newshour, 2000 GMT, 16 June) to the expressed concerns of listeners prompted by the BBC's announced decision to end use of shortwave to North America and Australasia. Many have written to us expressing dismay over what had been perceived as the BBC's lack of respect for its loyal listeners in these parts of the world. It is heartening to learn that you are, at least, hearing these concerns and are willing to respond.
Your explanation regarding the challenges involved in attempting to efficiently and effectively deploy transmission resources do not fall on deaf ears here. The advent of new technologies for distribution of international media, in some ways, are both a blessing and a curse. They offer means to access new and additional audiences that, for one reason or another, have not been reached through shortwave radio. At the same time, though, they markedly increase the expense and complexity involved in devising strategies to do so.
To be clear, our argument here is not so much with the policy itself. The ability to hear the World Service through additional means--FM rebroadcast, the Internet and eventually direct digital satellite--is most welcome. Our deep reservations and objections are over the timing of this "transition", as you put it. Unfortunately, the complex interplay of these various delivery methods has not progressed to the point that any one or combination of these can serve as an effective replacement for another. This is true, still at present, even in North America. Please carefully consider the following facts:
- FM Rebroadcast: While it is true that the World Service is "available" via over 200 FM stations, in the main these stations carry only short news bulletins a few times a day or one or two hours of BBC news and information. Any relay of longer or more diverse segments of World Service programming occur only during overnight, when most listeners are asleep. These stations have their own programs or are affiliated with networks like NPR in the U.S. and the ABC in Australia. It is most unlikely that many of them will choose to significantly increase their BBC content. They most certainly will not become full-time BBC affiliates. Furthermore, in an area as large as North America, even 200 FM stations does not begin to cover the entire landscape. There are major, significant gaps in coverage, as a result. (Please refer to the detailed study attached.)
- Direct Digital Satellite: The XM and Sirius satellite services are not yet actually on offer and each has already experienced technical problems and delays in rolling out the service. There is no guarantee that the most recently announced start date will not be further delayed. When the services become available, the receivers they use will initially be incompatible. Since the BBC has apparently chosen to use one service to relay the 24 hour news feed and the other service to relay the information and entertainment feed, listeners will be required to purchase two receivers and pay two subscription fees if they wish to have access to both channels. Eventually, the incompatibility between the two standards will be reconciled, but this will take a few years. Services like these don't even appear to be on the drawing board in Australasia.
- Internet Audio: Having several channels of the World Service available over the Internet, and the added advantage of having World Service programs available to listeners "on-demand", are indeed major improvements that should not be underemphasized. However, the Internet is still developing and has yet to effectively overcome several important deficiencies that, also, should not be overlooked. Comfortable use of the Internet is marred by persistent technical shortcomings that produce random and annoying unavailability, interruptions and defects in audio feeds. Having to be in close proximity to a computer terminal and wired connections to access the Internet is, at best, an inconvenience. Furthermore, both the instrument and the fees that need to be paid to use it are expensive. The Internet is also not yet universally available--even in North America. In time, these problems will no doubt be overcome; but they remain for at least the short-term future.
Spotty FM rebroadcasts, incompatible direct-to-user digital satellite services that are not yet available and a predominately un-portable Internet all point to one essential fact: In the short term, shortwave needs to remain in the mix of delivery methods if the World Service is still to be heard effectively in North America and Australasia. This reality is further underscored by the dramatically increased expense listeners are being asked to shoulder to access the BBC. Consequently, the Coalition strongly believes that the time has not yet come for the World Service to abandon its use of shortwave into our regions and, again, urges the BBC to reconsider.
One further thought you might want to consider: The shortwave audience in these regions are, for the most part, the only listeners that have had the "rich mix" of BBC World Service available to them over a prolonged period of time. It is that audience--and that one alone--that is aware of Britain's accomplishments in drama, literature, science, music, and many other endeavors. Consequently, the shortwave audience truly can be said to be the service's core audience.
On the other hand, listeners via FM rebroadcast--though somewhat larger in number--have come across the BBC haphazardly and largely by accident and are familiar only with the service's reputation for news. Dropping shortwave access prematurely puts the BBC's core audience in the region at considerable risk. As you can see, it is that core audience that would fight to maintain the World Service should the service itself ever come under threat.
We respectfully request opportunities for further dialogue. Perhaps there is a way to preserve adequate and basic shortwave presence in North America and Australasia, while reducing expenditure and earmarking some savings for the equally worthy policy of further developing alternate delivery methods. We already know from experience that some of the frequencies that will remain to serve other regions propagate quite well into ours. Our knowledge of the shortwave spectrum--both its weaknesses and its strengths--and the fact that our membership stretches throughout the affected regions could be of considerable value to you as you pursue your objectives.
This Coalition was formed--first and foremost--out of the strong respect and admiration that its members have for the BBC World Service. In very tangible ways, each of us has benefitted from having the World Service available to us as a source for reliable information, cultural enrichment and educational advancement. It is apprehension over the prospective loss of this valuable resource that has caused us to raise these concerns with you. We hope for the opportunity to continue the dialogue you began on Newshour on Friday and remain hopeful for a solution that preserves and extends that which we both evidently hold in such high esteem--the World Service.
For the Coalition,