[ Save the BBC World Service to North America and Oceania! ]

If you found this site through a reference in a newspaper article or other source, you may also want to know about the Coalition to Save the BBC World Service, of which I am the webmaster. The Coalition web site contains many of the same arguments I make in this letter, along with contact information so you can make your own protest.

An Open Letter to the BBC World Service

May 23, 2001

BBC World Service
Bush House
United Kingdom


I am writing in response to the recently announced decision of the BBC World Service to discontinue broadcast to the United States, Canada, and Australia on the shortwave bands as of July, 2001. I think this is a terrible decision that will harm the interests of the United Kingdom, the BBC, and most especially the many listeners the BBC World Service has in these parts of the world. I base my understanding of these events on the announcement released by the BBC, as well as on the statements of the head of the Americas section of the World Service, Jerry Timmins, on the program Communications World of May 12th on the Voice of America, where Mr. Timmins was interviewed by host Kim Andrew Elliott.

The Fallacy of Local Placement

I have considered this action and tried to understand the reasoning the BBC used to come to this decision. I believe that it is based on an incorrect understanding of the North American market and on a faulty analysis of the current BBC audience in North America. (I do not address Australia, as I am less familiar with the situation there, but suspect that much the same logic applies.)

From all appearances, the BBC has decided that placing programs on local stations in North America is the best way to reach the audience here. Currently, BBC World Service programs are heard on many public radio stations in the US. Mr. Timmins stated in the VOA broadcast mentioned above that 88% of BBC listenership in North America comes from such program placement, while only 12% comes from shortwave.

There are different ways to get to these numbers. Looking at your annual report it's apparent that you 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. It seems entirely plausible to me that, during the course of a broadcast week, the number of people who listen to a public radio station and hear a program from the BBC dwarfs the number who listen on shortwave. The surprise to me isn't that 88% of your listenership, counted in this manner, comes from FM, it's that that number isn't much higher. Getting 88% of your listenership from FM seems like failure to me; the BBC should be intending to reach a much larger listenership.

But looking at the number of listeners this way distorts the picture. Another way of looking at BBC listenership in North America would be to look at the number of hours listened to. People who listen to BBC programs on local stations, by virtue of the way they are scheduled here, 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. I know many people who 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 you get from your relay stations in Canada and the Caribbean combined with the 24 hour nature of your 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. I 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 you have chosen provides the worst possible view of the listnership on shortwave.

The American listener who listens to program placement of BBC programs on local public radio outlets is generally going to hear one thing and one thing only, and that's news. Given that your news programs are a significant draw and that you can sell them to American public radio programmers, that's what you think the American public wants. That accounts for almost the entire output of the BBC that we can hear on local stations.

Where I live in the metropolitan New York City area, we have two National Public Radio outlets in New York, WNYC AM and FM; WNYE-FM, owned by the New York Board of Education; WBJB-FM, an NPR outlet in Monmouth county, where I live; and a state-operated public radio network, New Jersey Network Radio, WNJN, that is inaudible in my part of the state. On these programs, I get a pretty weak tea of BBC programming. WBJB, my local station, carries no BBC programming at all. WNYC AM, which puts out a weak signal to New Jersey that is often subject to more noise and interference than a typical BBC World Service signal on shortwave, airs World Update Monday-Friday between 5 and 6 am; The World Monday-Friday between 3 and 4 pm; BBC International News Monday-Friday from 10 to 11 pm; and BBC News Sunday-Thursday from midnight to 1 am. WNYC-FM airs no BBC-produced programming. WNYE airs the World Service schedule from 1 to 6 am. WNJN airs BBC Newshour from 9 to 10 am and The World from 3 to 4 pm. None of these times fall into what's generally described as drive time, the prime hours for radio listening, and most fall at hours when the majority of the potential audience is asleep. Moreover, except for the overnight service of WNYE, all programs are news. Note that this is the case for the largest media market in the world; if this is all the exposure BBC gets in New York, how awful is the situation elsewhere?

World Service as a Full Service Station

Here in the US, we used to have a great many "full service" local radio stations, that is, stations that had news, sports, entertainment, the whole gamut from soup to nuts. That sounds a lot like the role television plays today, and the full service station in America is less common these days. That's not to say that they're not valued, but the companies that run radio today find they can make more money with more focused programming. Full service stations here tend to be family-owned and more concerned with the community they serve (and usually live in) than with making buckets of money. The World Service as broadcast on shortwave is like those full service stations. But the BBC WS apparently feels that there's no market in North America for a full service station covering the world. The hundreds of thousands of listeners to BBC WS on shortwave in North America would argue otherwise. Nevertheless, you've apparently made a decision to refocus your efforts in North America as a news service and forgo the concept of full service.

However, many people still enjoy the full service station. Whereas a news station tends to get a lot of listeners for short periods of time ("Give us 22 minutes and we'll give you the world", or something similar, is the slogan on many of our all-news stations), listeners to full service stations tend to put the station on and leave it there for hours at a time. The move away from a full service approach in North America shortchanges a valuable audience, one that is committed to knowing about international affairs and that listens for long periods of time. The BBC produces some excellent feature programs, some of the best that radio has to offer anywhere. News-related programs like From Our Own Correspondent and Analysis keep me riveted to the radio. But even those programs don't make it on to local stations in the US. There's little chance for non-news programming like Omnibus, Meridian, John Peel, World of Music or Just a Minute to gain the attention of public radio programmers here. The full World Service gives a far more nuanced and rich depiction of the United Kingdom and its place in the world than does an occasional broadcast dropped into a local schedule without the surrounding context.

BBC has made a decision that North America is not interested in its feature programs. That's sad, and, I think, wrong. It does a disservice to the North American audience, and it does violence to the image of the United Kingdom here.

The Myth of the Internet

Jerry Timmins, on VOA's Communications World program, suggested that for those people who insist on using the World Service as a full service station, there are still alternatives. Most prominently mentioned was the Internet. Now, I am a big advocate of the Internet. I have been on the net since 1987, and have been creating web sites since 1993. I met my fiancée on the Internet. I work as the webmaster for a prominent commercial research laboratory, who have created many of the technologies upon which the net is based. Before I worked on the web, I wrote manuals for networking hardware and network management software. I know how the net works, on a social level and on a technical level. Yet I feel that the net is a terrible substitute for shortwave, even to North America, where net penetration is at some of the highest levels in the world.

I work from home three days a week. Right next to the computer at which I do all my work, I have a shortwave radio which, more often than not, is tuned to the BBC World Service, which I listen to throughout the day as I work. I don't listen on the computer, even though the signal is allegedly better. During the course of the day, I often switch my network connection between the cable modem that connects me to the wider Internet and the phone line I use to connect to my company's intranet. That switching means that I cannot maintain a connection to the servers that provide World Service audio. Further, I'm using my computer to do my work; I cannot afford to run the Real Player in the background, which slows down my computer and keeps me from getting my work done as quickly as I need to. In addition, Real Player tends to stutter and stop when I run it in the background while doing my work. I am using my computer for other things; it is not available to use as a radio.

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.

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. I visited Audiobasket and could not get it to work after trying for a half hour. Even if I had been able to get the service to work, 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. It appeared to me that the audio could not be downloaded and made portable, contrary to Mr. Timmins' assertions.

Satellite Radio is Ahead of the Curve and Not Yet Proven

Mr. Timmins mentioned that the full BBC World Service will be available on Sirius and XM satellite radio. That's wonderful, except for one thing; 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. I understand that XM will have a rather large, marginally portable boom-box-type receiver available in the home, so they will not only be available in the car.

It's questionable 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's a real danger that the test phase will outlast the venture capital that has funded the companies so far, and in the current market, 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. I am skeptical that they will, and it is disingenuous of the BBC to suggest that listeners utilize a service that is not even available to us yet to replace the service that you are discontinuing. Not to mention that it's foolish of you to put your eggs in this particular basket long before it's proven that either or both services will survive and prosper.

Further, it is in the nature of satellite broadcasting that not everyone will be able to subscribe. Listeners who don't happen to have a clear view to the equatorial orbit of the satellites will be unable to use the radios at home. Kim Elliott made this point in his essay on Communications World where he mentioned that as much as he loves listening to the BBC World Service, he is not going to cut down the tall trees that will prevent him from using the satellite system you seem to be so intent on relying on.

Shortwave is Portable

As I write this letter, I am sitting in a hotel room in a resort town on the New Jersey coast. I've brought with me a shortwave radio the size of a deck of playing cards, and with it, I can receive the World Service loud and clear. I can sit on the beach with the radio in my pocket and hear you, and I often do. (I live near another resort town, and often take my radio with me while I eat lunch on the beach.) I have no Internet connection here. I have no satellite radio. I have no local station carrying your programs. If not for shortwave, you would have no voice at all in the town I sit in right now.

Shortchanging the Devoted Listener

On the BBC program Write On, devoted to listener feedback, when the question of eliminating shortwave broadcasts to North America was broached, the person answering the question described the "real BBC listener" as someone listening to the BBC over a local radio station. As described earlier, these stations provide a meager diet of BBC programming, and while the numbers of people who hear a BBC program in this manner 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 your 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. By describing your most devoted audience as "not real BBC listeners", you deeply insult those listeners whom you should value most and who have the most influence in furthering the interests of the BBC and the UK. Incidentally, because of the local placement issues identified earlier, it is extremely unlikely that your "real BBC listener" will ever even have the chance to hear the program on which they were described.

Harming the BBC Brand in America

By relying on program placement with local radio stations, you dilute the BBC brand here in America, sublimating the brand to the larger NPR and PRI brands here. Many people who listen to BBC programs on NPR stations will be unaware that they are listening to BBC programs, particularly for programs like "The World" that are voiced by Americans and are identified as coming from PRI, not BBC. This at a time when the BBC has gone to great expense to launch a TV channel devoted entirely to BBC programming, BBC America. At the same time, you are essentially eliminating the BBC brand on radio. This strikes me as foolish and contrary to the interests of the BBC.

Shortwave Radio has an Image Problem

Compared to the siren song of the Internet, shortwave radio is seen as retro-tech, old hat, last century's model. The view of the person who listens to shortwave radio in North America is of the geeky hobbyist sending away for QSLs and listening to rare and difficult-to-hear stations. The only letters this person writes are to secure a station verification. Dieter Weirich, the former head of Deutsche Welle, the German international broadcasting service, characterized such people as "radio freaks" and claimed that his station did not cater to such listeners. This is an inaccurate portrait of the BBC listener who listens via shortwave radio. The BBC puts such a strong signal into North America that it sounds as good as most local AM (MW) stations, so you don't need to be a "radio freak" to listen; most listeners aren't. Many people have bought shortwave radios just to hear the BBC World Service; people think that highly of the service. Such people tend not to have any contact with the "radio freak" subculture, and they don't write many letters. After all, we don't write letters to local radio stations here in North America. The advent of e-mail has changed this somewhat due to the lower amount of effort it takes to send off an e-mail compared to an international airmail letter. But the image persists. It is inaccurate, especially when it comes to the BBC World Service. If you get the impression that it is only the "radio freaks" who are upset about this move, that is probably because the vast majority of the coverage of this story so far has been in the radio hobbyist press to the cognoscenti. For every "radio freak" out there who is upset about this before it happens, there are hundreds of average listeners who do not yet know what is going to hit them, and will be quite upset when they do find out.


I apologize for the length of this letter; I've tried to cover a lot of ground. Even at this length, I've had to leave some things out.

The method of determining audience numbers, as stated by Mr. Timmins, is flawed and distorts the practice of North American listeners to BBC World Service programs. This distorted vision has lead you to proclaim your intention to discontinue shortwave broadcasts to North America, but without a reasonable alternative method to take its place. For technical reasons, the Internet cannot reach the number of people that shortwave broadcasts do, and the suggested satellite alternatives do not yet exist and their survival is questionable. The alternatives lack the ability to be easily portable

The US and UK are said to have a "special relationship", but Britons are much more aware of that than Americans are. I would think that the BBC would want to take advantage of every possible medium to tend to this relationship, but that appears to not be true any more. You would rather be just another program provider in the oligopoly of the American public broadcasting infrastructure, with your unique message getting lost in the blur of mostly-mediocre programs on most public radio stations here. I don't see how this serves the interests of the BBC or of your government paymasters. I believe you'll find that you reach more people but touch them far less deeply and with far less impact.

If this decision stands, it will do irreparable damage to the BBC brand in North America, as well as to the image of the BBC and of the United Kingdom. It will disenfranchise your most loyal and valuable audience. Your view of this loyal audience is, oddly, laced with contempt. Once this damage is done, it will take years to rebuild the audience for the bulk of the World Service programs, if that is at all possible. Moreover, reversing this action once it has been put into place will be more expensive and difficult than if it had never been implemented in the first place. I urge you to reverse this decision before it is implemented.


Ralph Brandi

[ Save the BBC World Service to North America and Oceania! ]

If you found this site through a reference in a newspaper article or other source, you may also want to know about the Coalition to Save the BBC World Service, of which I am the webmaster. The Coalition web site contains many of the same arguments I make in this letter, along with contact information so you can make your own protest.

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