Taiwan cuts Shortwave Broadcasts in French and Spanish – here is why it shouldn’t

Cutting Shortwave broadcasts in French and Spanish

The French and the Spanish programs of Radio Taiwan International (RTI) are no longer broadcast on shortwave. On March 5, Radio Berlin-Brandenburg‘s (RBB) Radio Eins media magazine reported that RTI would terminate its broadcasts in German on March 25, i. e. the day when the current international shortwave frequency plan (A-18) came into effect1).

A notice was added by the Radio Eins editors a few days later, saying that RTI’s German service kept denying this information. However, Radio Eins did not name the source or sources of their information, citing rather general “trade circles” (Branchenkreise).

On March 9, in a regular mailbag program, RTI’s German service reacted to listeners’ questions concerning the shortwave issue, and stated that while the Spanish and French departments were indeed to exit shortwave with effect from March 26, the German service’s shortwave broadcasts would continue.

Seventeen days later, the German service’s denial proved correct – its broadcasts have been continued, now on their traditional summer frequency of 6185 kHz, as predicted on March 9.

In its report, Radio Eins also pointed out that Radio France Internationale (RFI) had terminated its shortwave broadcasts for Asia years ago, and that this had also put an end to Radio Taiwan International’s once lower-cost access to transmissions from France (with transmitters located at Issoudun, central France). The two international broadcasters appear to have exchanged airtime in the past.

On its website, RTI hardly (if at all) communicates the decision to terminate the shortwave broadcasts in Spanish and French. However, a month before Radio Eins wrote about RTI’s shortwave closures, shortwave-watching website swling.com had quoted from an RTI email saying that the station’s French and Spanish services would “unfortunately stop broadcasting on shortwave”. There appears to have been no mention of the German programs at the time.

Following a Trend …

RTI is following a trend among foreign radio services from industrialized countries2). As noted by Radio Eins, Radio France Internationale ended its shortwave broadcasts to Asia years ago. German foreign Radio, Deutsche Welle (DW), terminated its shortwave broadcasts in Chinese with effect from January 1, 2012. Three months earlier, DW had ended its shortwave broadcasts in German.

Earlier in 2011, the BBC and the Voice of America (VoA) had announced their Chinese programs’ withdrawals from shortwave (the VoA later reversed the decision, but BBC Mandarin kept to their exit).

One of the more contested decisions to abandon shortwave was Radio Australia‘s. It took effect by the end of January, 2017. The station made a – not terribly successful, it seems – effort to communicate the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) decision.

Radio Australia’s (now abandoned) role in informing Pacific islanders about emergency situations via shortwave was deemed essential by some critics, and Radio New Zealand (RNZ), Radio Australia’s only existing competitor on shortwave in the Pacific region, leapt at the gap left by the Australians.

But funding public diplomacy is hardly popular in most free societies. Slashed budgets may irritate or infuriate the trade or the immediate users of an abandoned service, but they will hardly become known to a wider public. After all, the (noticeable) remonstrators are usually just some listeners abroad, and apart from that, they are no voters.
In RTI’s case, the question – from the audience perspective – seems to be how prepared the target areas are for the termination of shortwave broadcasts. As for France and Spain, the answer seems to be easy: industrialized, reasonably good internet connections, and with only a few people (probably) who would still listen on shortwave anyway.
But there are drawbacks. In general – this goes for countries with a highly developed internet infrastructure and Latin America or North Africa alike – it is much harder to gain new listeners, than to retain existing ones.
RTI’s management (or the lords of their budgets) may have drawn inspiration from reports like ECLAC’s 3), discussing sharply increasing internet use and access in Latin American countries, and the Caribbean.

But the ECLAC, while optimistic about the development and prospects of the internet in Latin America, also notes that no country in the region has at least 5% of its connections with speeds of more than 15Mbps, compared to 50% in advanced countries, and there is a difference of 41 percentage points in Internet penetration between urban and rural areas in the country that has the greatest gap in the region.And a report (apparently published online in December 2016) by Statista, a Hamburg-based market research company, saw the region’s average monthly internet usage at 18.6 hours in 2016. When you leave Brazil – the leading country in terms of monthly internet usage – out of the calculation, the rate will be even lower.

If the trends indicated by the two papers continue, there may be a time when switching off shortwave makes sense (at least when considering the costs, and the pressures from the broadcasters’ funders). But the data suggests that RTI’s decision to do so came too early.

… but neglecting the Facts

One of the reasons that international broadcasters stop using shortwave frequencies is that radio is a medium used by the poor, rather than by the affluent and influential. That’s not how they communicate their decision (if there is communication at all), but the trade’s high-flown jargon suggests just that.

In a press release of May 18, 2011, less than a year before abandoning shortwave broadcasts in Chinese, German (its native language) and Hindi, Deutsche Welle wrote that by focusing on the internet in many regions of the world, “info seekers” would be reached more effectively,

… especially those who are or will be influential in their countries’ public opinion, and people who actively campaign for democracy, civil liberties and progress in authoritarian states, thus strengthening civil society.

… insbesondere insbesondere jene, die Einfluss auf die öffentliche Meinung eines Landes haben oder zukünftig haben werden, sowie Menschen, die sich in autoritären Staaten aktiv für Demokratie, Freiheitsrechte und Fortschritt einsetzen und so die Zivilgesellschaft stärken.

But nobody knows who will call the shots in a target area, ten or twenty years from now. In Venezuela, it’s an ex bus driver now. Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2011, Lula da Silva, reportedly only learned to read at the age of ten, and worked as a peanut seller and shoe shine boy as a child. Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, was born to a subsistence farming family and started his political career as a rural labor unionist.

If they had been born ten or fifteen years ago, none of them would be a likely regular internet user.

Shortwave radio may not matter as a medium, when it comes to commercial viability, as the owner of a North American shortwave radio station admitted in 1991. In that light, Facebook could be a more or less “real” alternative to shortwave radio.

But on “social media”, a foreign radio station is just one “friend” among many. There may be no studies available, but if there were some, they would probably show that shortwave listeners are a much more dedicated audience than internet users.

In short: shortwave radio remains a crucial medium, especially for Taiwan. The country will almost inevitably lose all or most of its remaining “diplomatic allies” in Latin America, as it has lost official diplomatic ties with nearly every country worldwide already. If shortwave remains crucial in Taiwan’s communications with European countries may be debatable, but to maintain Taiwan’s visibility in Latin America, there can be no doubt that shortwave would be worth the (quite manageable) costs.
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Note

1) While KBS World’s German service via Woofferton, England, is announced under the broadcasting station’s name (Korean Broadcasting Station), Radio Taiwan International’s name is ommitted. Instead, the HFCC states the operator’s company name (Babcock Communications) there. The KBS frequency is also operated by Babcock, and also from Woofferton.
2) Japan may be the only exception.
3) The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The report linked to is dated September 12, 2016.

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Related

Inclusive Internet Index, Economist Group, 2018
Abandoning Shortwave & Opportunities, Oct 3, 2014
A bottomless pit of waste, PCJ, around 2014

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