Point-Counterpoint with the BBC World Service
The BBC has made a number of questionable claims in relation to their decision to cease shortwave broadcasts to North America, Australia and New Zealand:
- Local placement is a suitable replacement for shortwave.
- 88% of listenership comes from local placement, with only 12% of listenership coming from shortwave.
- Only the 300,000 listeners who listen solely via shortwave will be adversely impacted by this move.
- The Internet is a suitable replacement for shortwave.
- Audio via the Internet can be just as portable as shortwave.
- Satellite radio is a suitable replacement for shortwave.
- The "real BBC listener" is one who listens via FM radio through local placement.
Local placement is a suitable replacement for shortwave.
"You can also listen to us through our many of our re-broadcasting partnerships on FM and MW."1
Local stations air BBC sporadically at best. The few stations that air a wide selection of BBC World Service programs do so between midnight and 6 am, when potential audiences are tiny. The programs that air during the daytime run the gamut from news to, er, more news. Further, they are unavailable during the hours of greatest listnership, drive time, as those hours are sewn up by domestically programs produced like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. BBC will never be able to break into the most widely-listened to time slots.
The World Service produces a huge range of programs covering arts, science, music, sports, business, entertainment, culture, and religion. None of these programs have an appreciable presence on local stations, and for all intents and purposes, will be unavailable once shortwave broadcasts to North America cease. In fact, the feed provided to US FM stations is the "24 hour news" feed, not the mainstream World Service feed, and does not include any music or arts programming. A significant portion of the possible BBC World Service output is simply not available via local placement.
Further, while it may be true that 300 FM stations in the US carry some portion of the BBC World Service, many of those stations have very small signal footprints and are not capable of serving widespread audiences. In New Zealand, the situation is equally bad; there, the only relay is a single underpowered mediumwave (AM) transmitter serving a single city, covering at most 30% of the population.
88% of listenership comes from local placement, with only 12% of listenership coming from shortwave.2
There are different ways to look at listenership numbers. Looking at the World Service's annual report, it is apparent that they are measuring the "cume", or cumulative rating over the course of the week, rather than the individual program ratings. This rating counts how many people hear the station over the course of a week rather than how many listen to a particular program. But looking at the number of listeners this way distorts the picture. Public radio stations in the United States have traditionally used the cume because looking at ratings for individual programs shows how tiny the audiences for some of them truly are, and using the cume inflates the audience to respectable levels.
Using this measure, the listener who hears part of a single program on a single day counts exactly the same as the listener who listens for hours each night.
Another way of looking at BBC listenership in North America would be to look at the amount of time listened to. This is how commercial radio stations in North America are rated. People who listen to BBC programs on local stations only hear an hour or so a day. But listeners who listen on shortwave tend to set the radio on the BBC and listen for a much longer period. Many people turn the radio to a frequency like 5975 or 6175 in the early evening and leave it there until they go to sleep. The excellent coverage of North America BBC gets from its relay stations in Canada and the Caribbean combined with the 24 hour nature of their programming service make this the only station in the world about whom this can be said. Other stations, because they only broadcast for a half-hour or an hour at a time, require you to find something else to listen to when their broadcast is finished. Only the BBC World Service enables the listener to listen for hours and hours on end.
We expect that measuring by number of listening hours would show that more person-hours are spent listening to shortwave than to rebroadcasts via local stations. It would certainly close the gap between the 88%-to-12% ratio and show that shortwave is used much more than such numbers would indicate. The measure the BBC has chosen provides the worst possible measure of the listnership on shortwave, one that is guaranteed to make shortwave look bad.
Only the 300,000 listeners who listen solely via shortwave will be adversely impacted by this move.
"We know that just under 300,000 only listen on shortwave, so we know that the vast majority of our listenership is through public radio partnerships on FM. We do know that some people obviously listen to FM and on shortwave, but the unique shortwave audience is low."3
BBC figures show that an additional 900,000 listeners combine shortwave with local placement. As only BBC news programming is available through local placement, anyone wishing to listen to the excellent feature programming produced by the BBC has to turn to shortwave.
If shortwave is as awful and local placement as wonderful as the BBC claims, why are almost a million listeners who have access to BBC programs via local placement turning to shortwave? Clearly the 1.2 million listeners who listen via shortwave are getting something via shortwave that is not available through local placement. To claim that only the 300,000 who listen solely via shortwave will be harmed by this move is disingenuous on the part of the BBC.
The Internet is a suitable replacement for shortwave.
"Well they may be deprived of their favorite programs on shortwave, but the general programs of the World Service are available on the Internet too."4
The technical infrastructure of the net as it stands today is ill suited to serve the kind of listenership that BBC World Service gets on shortwave. Audio feeds are often subject to network congestion, and the underlying protocols mean that there is no way of guaranteeing that the packets that make up the audio get through in a timely fashion. Most importantly here, though, the standards that would make it possible to broadcast signals are not widely implemented. Listening to a radio station over the net requires an individual connection for each listener. This approach scales miserably, and limits the potential audience to mere thousands, or tens of thousands if you continue to throw hardware and bandwidth at the problem. Each new listener requires more bandwidth and more expense. The technical standard that would alleviate this problem, multicast IP, which would allow a single signal to reach many computers, has so far utterly failed to catch on and is basically unavailable. Compare this to radio, where the signal can be listened to by hundreds of listeners or millions, with no change on the part of the station.
Audio via the Internet can be just as portable as shortwave.
"One of the exciting things you can already do on your PC is download our audio in the chunks that you want to listen to and stick it on an MP3 player and wander around and listen to it portably. If you want to see the kind of thing I mean, go to audiobasket or spinner.com where BBC programs are available in a downloadable form."5
Jerry Timmins, in his appearance on Communications World, suggested that World Service programs could be listened to on demand on devices such as portable MP3 players, and suggested a service like Audiobasket as a desirable way to hear your programs. A member of the coalition visited Audiobasket and could not get it to work after trying for a half hour. Even if the service had worked, the audio available on Audiobasket was out-of-date; news programs were two and three days old, which is a lifetime when it comes to news. On top of that, the format of the audio available through Audiobasket, RealAudio, is not one that can be played on the portable devices Mr. Timmins mentioned, contrary to Mr. Timmins' assertions. MP3 format was nowhere to be found.
A typical portable shortwave receiver like a Grundig Yacht Boy 400 is the size of a trade paperback book. Some, like the Sony ICF-SW100, are as small as a deck of cards. Such a radio is easily transported in a suitcase, backpack, or in the case of the smallest radios, even in a shirt pocket. It does not require a telephone or broadband Internet connection. With a five-foot piece of wire hung in a hotel window, or even in a shirt pocket for a walk along the beach, such a radio provides access to a world of programming.
Satellite radio is a suitable replacement for shortwave.
"Sirius Radio and XM Radio in the United States will be coming on stream towards the end of this year, and both those systems will be carrying programming in English, all of our news programming and all of our feature programming."6
Jerry Timmins, head of the Americas section of the World Service, mentioned that the full BBC World Service will be available on Sirius and XM satellite radio. Unfortunately, neither service is operational yet. Both have launched some of their satellites, but you cannot yet buy a radio to receive them, nor subscribe to their services. Sirius, at least at first, will not have a standalone radio available, so subscribers to their service will have to be in the car to hear the BBC. And [one of the services] will be carrying a news-only feed rather than the full news-and-features World Service that we hear on shortwave.
It is still an open question whether both or either of these services will survive. The projected service launch dates have already slipped for both services by more than a year. There is a real danger that the ramp up phase will outlast the venture capital that has funded the companies so far, and with current market conditions, it's unlikely that either would be able to raise further capital to enable them to survive much beyond their launch dates. They will need to be immediately successful and profitable in order to survive.
Further, both of these services require a monthly subscription fee of between $10 and $13. World Service Director Mark Byford was completely unaware of this fact when confronted with it on the BBC's own Write On program. If the people who have made this decision to push us toward an unavailable service are unaware of the implications, how can they be sure they have made a reasonable decision?
The "real BBC listener" is one who listens via FM radio through local placement.7
While the numbers of people who hear a BBC program via local placement may be large, describing them as the "real BBC listener" shortchanges the people who actually listen to the BBC the most. The BBC listener who listens to the World Service as a unified whole on shortwave is exceptionally valuable. We go out of our way to listen specifically to the BBC, not to hear a program as part of a larger public radio service. We tend to be much more internationally aware than the average American. We are opinion leaders, "Cosmopolitans" in the terms used in the World Service's annual report, and by our awareness of international affairs, affect the opinions of our families and friends. We have an exceptionally high regard for the BBC and for the United Kingdom, and this regard is transmitted to these families and friends. Because of the wide range of programs available to us, we have a much more finely nuanced and detailed view of the UK than those listeners who hear an occasional BBC program on a local station. Ironically, because of the local placement issues identified earlier, it is extremely unlikely that the "real BBC listener" will ever even have the chance to hear the program on which they were so described.
1. "A Message From Mark Byford, Director, BBC World Service; Changes in Receiving BBC World Service in English" posted to the World Service web site, http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/schedules/010518_byford.shtml
3. Mark Byford, Director, BBC World Service, interviewed on the BBC World Service program Write On, May 23, 2001.
4. Mark Byford, Director, BBC World Service, interviewed on the BBC World Service program Write On, May 23, 2001.
7. Unknown BBC manager on Write On, BBC World Service, May 12, 2001, in response to a message from Will Martin; this assertion quoted from Will Martin's response to this claim that he was not a "real BBC listener".