Monday, 28 July 2014

Western radio broadcasters tuning out

They are ceding the short-wave, or political 'soft power', space to China instead
By Nirmal Ghosh, The Sunday Times, 27 Jul 2014

For 67-year-old Victor Goonetilleke, sitting with his headphones on in his house in the lush green Sri Lankan countryside, June 30 was the end of an era.

Voice of America's (VOA) short-wave broadcasts to Asia abruptly went off the air, raising howls of protest from many of the US government-funded broadcaster's listeners across the region.

But as the broadcasts had already been greatly diminished, this was not a surprise. The big Western radio broadcasters have gradually ceded the political "soft power" space they once dominated to a new heavyweight: China Radio International (CRI).

In recent years, Radio Canada International and Radio Netherlands Worldwide have shut down while the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and VOA have cut back on their range of languages and hours of programming. Now, the VOA has left Asia.

Mr Goonetilleke is not just an avid radio listener. He professionally monitors radio frequencies for the VOA. He is also a former veteran radio correspondent with Radio Netherlands for 24 years in an era when short-wave radio broadcasts from the likes of the BBC, VOA, Radio Netherlands, and Deutsche Welle were often lifelines to other worlds for hundreds of millions especially in times of conflict and misery.

The BBC now broadcasts in 29 languages across the planet, down from a peak of 69 in the 1970s. CRI broadcasts in 65, up from a reported 43 in 2006. Some programmes are run by local FM stations.

These days, Mr Goonetilleke can listen to four hours of CRI broadcasts in Sinhala and Tamil daily, compared with 30 minutes each on BBC.

CRI's Tamil language broadcast is one of its oldest, run by fluent Tamil speaker Zhu Juanhua, a Shanghai native better known by her tens of thousands of listeners as Kalaiarasi.

According to the CRI website, it has 3,165 listener clubs around the planet, including CRI netizens' clubs.

"The overseas clubs contribute to spreading Chinese culture, promoting the CRI brand and deepening foreign friends' understanding about China and our friendship," says the website.

I recall that as a schoolboy in India in 1971, BBC Radio reported that India's then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had announced the country was at war with Pakistan. This was in socialist India, with only state-run radio and no television. I was 12 years old, just home from an air raid drill at my school in Kolkata, where we were taught to clench a handkerchief between our teeth and crouch below our desks with our arms over our heads when the sirens wailed.

Around that time, I was also a member of one of the BBC's radio clubs. Listening well past bedtime in my darkened room because of the time difference, I was twice delighted to hear my letters read out and responded to on the air.

My name was being mentioned in a studio in faraway London. Today, it would more likely be Beijing. China grew out of the Cold War era of predictable hard-sell political ideology about 14 years ago, with Chinese leaders and scholars like Zhao Qizheng and powerful propaganda chief Li Changchun urging a focus on "soft power''.

China could not afford to be low-profile in a world flooded with information, they said. But to move in on the short-wave space and be taken seriously by foreign audiences and China's diaspora, credibility was important; programming had to be more sophisticated.

In 2009-2010, the Chinese government allocated US$8.7 billion (S$10.8 billion) alone to "external publicity work", according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

"The beneficiaries of this largesse are mostly the Big Four state-owned media corporations - CCTV, China Radio International, Xinhua news agency, and the China Daily newspaper and website," the journal noted.

With the induction of young professionals, many of them trained overseas, the quality of programming improved exponentially.

If you chanced upon a short-wave broadcast by CRI in your native language and were not aware of the station, you could easily mistake it for the BBC or VOA, says Mr Goonetilleke.

Budget cuts, and the Internet, have killed the profile of the big Western short-wave broadcasters. And politically, there is a perception among their governments that short wave's reach among potential influencers is diminished, says the American University's assistant professor of international communication Craig Hayden, who is also the author of the 2011 book, The Rhetoric Of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy In Global Contexts, which examines the rise of China.

Unlike Washington, Beijing clearly thinks it is worthwhile to occupy the short-wave radio space. The CRI proudly proclaims that it will not give up on short-wave radio. And many analysts say China is right.

From the high mountains of Nepal to the rice fields of Sumatra and Sri Lanka, the distant sound of a voice or music that you hear in the silence of late evening still comes from a radio. Hundreds of millions of people across half the planet still rely on little radio sets, which far exceed television sets and vastly outnumber Internet connections, to keep informed.

The receiver doesn't need a cable point or satellite dish or even electricity; a small battery-powered radio will do. The waves bounce off the ionosphere, arching over man- made borders and mountain ranges. Local FM radio stations and Internet service providers can be shut down by the authorities, but it is difficult to shut down short-wave radio; it can only be jammed (North Korea does this).

As such, short wave is also a powerful propaganda tool - which is why the change in the air is like a seismic shift.

"Soft power is important in the sense that states want their actions to be seen as legitimate," says Professor Hayden. "They want to cultivate a sense of 'benefit of the doubt'. China in particular does not want its actions to be seen as irresponsible."

In Washington, there is an ongoing battle over the future of the VOA. In the context of the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, Republican Representative Ed Royce, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is calling for a "complete re-invigoration of Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America" to "offset propaganda in Russia and the Middle East".

But there has always been a struggle over the role - and soul - of the VOA, and analysts say that while the debate goes on in Washington, the space in the real world is already being lost. The VOA is unlikely to re-emerge on Asian radio sets any time soon.

But Mr Royce is right in that this absence may be ill-advised.

"It would be a mistake to universally shift to new media platforms and abandon media that is still relevant," says Prof Hayden.

The Western short-wave broadcasters were, for decades, "the strongest signals on international radio", says Mr Goonetilleke.

"Now, on the Internet, they are just one voice among millions."

Spurred by propaganda purposes
By Nirmal Ghosh, The Sunday Times, 27 Jul 2014

International broadcasting had its roots in World War I, mostly in propaganda of some kind - state or even religion.

In 1932, the BBC started a short-wave broadcast to Australia and New Zealand. By then the Vatican had begun short-wave broadcasting as well. Radio Moscow began broadcasting in 1923.

In Asia, broadcasting began in 1925 with Radio Ceylon - now the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation - the oldest in the region.

In 1942, the United States started Voice of America (VOA).

World War II saw an explosion in the use of short-wave radio for propaganda purposes. The voices of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were broadcast on short-wave radio, but so were other voices.

"It was a great equaliser. Even smaller countries could have a voice and reach the rest of the world,'' says Mr Steven Herman, a veteran VOA foreign correspondent now based in Bangkok covering Asia.

Radio frequency bands are measured in megahertz.

AM radio is the lowest band, and changes into medium wave as one goes up the frequency levels - and then becomes short wave. Essentially, the higher the frequency, the shorter the wave.

Short-wave radio bounces its broadcast waves off the ionosphere, a layer of the atmosphere about 85km to 600km from the earth's surface. Thus it can travel over the curvature of the earth. Technically, with the right receiving equipment, one would be able to hear a short-wave broadcast from the opposite end of the earth. But it is also subject to atmospheric changes. 

FM radio, the most commonly used locally in the modern world, also occupies a very high frequency. The term Frequency Modulation (FM) refers to a sound technology, not a radio technology.

But FM can broadcast for only a short distance.

For long-distance radio broadcast, short wave is still king.

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