I’m a licensed member of a near-secret fraternity, amateur radio operators. We have an almost religious devotion to the hum of power transformers, the warm glow of vacuum tubes and the magic of charged electrons bouncing off the ionosphere and into a lit receiver.
We “hams” are among those most saddened--and alarmed--by the news that the venerable BBC World Service will be cutting back its international shortwave broadcasts starting today. For nearly 70 years now, the BBC has defined the standard of excellence in broadcasting, beaming programs of news, interviews, music, culture, arts and the sciences to an enthusiastic global audience of millions.
Now, the huge BBC transmitters that cover the United States, Canada and broad swaths of the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, will go dark. The ‘Beeb’ will move its programming for those areas onto the Internet. This kind of downsizing is part of a trend. Swiss Radio International has already moved some 80% of its programming to the Web. Other international broadcasters are contemplating similar changes. Critics of the BBC slashes say they will leave at least some of the 1.2 million listeners without coverage in even this first, highly industrialized and wealthy zone of discontinued service. They note that the Internet is cumbersome and unreliable. And they are right.
The greater potential tragedy, though, resides in any further reduction of over-the-air international news broadcasts to less developed and less democratic parts of the world. Admittedly, listening to outlets like the BBC in media-saturated places like Los Angeles is more of a hobby or a luxury. And switching over from radio to the Internet is mostly a nuisance that might require a software upgrade. But in vast parts of the world, shortwave listening is a necessity--sometimes even a political lifeline. It’s no accident that common consumer radios built overseas often include acccess to shortwave bands. Any talk about a wholesale switch-over of broadcasts from the airwaves to the Web is an absurd notion in a world in which 60% of its population has yet to make a single phone call.
Most listeners have no idea how radio works, but when they ponder the issue they are awe-struck by its power. It is both cerebral and visceral, the most intimate medium, one that can reach its electronic fingers through the dark night and deeply touch someone listening intently, perhaps even furtively, on the other end. Its lack of pictures and its reliance on text allow listeners to fully exercise their logical as well as creative and imaginative faculties. Effective radio speaks to many thousands, even millions, simultaneously, yet on a one-to-one basis.
In times of tyranny--when the soul rebels against the uniformity of thought imposed by dictatorship--that tinny and crackling voice coming over the small speaker in the privacy of a bedroom, or even a prison cell, can be the only flicker of reassurance that someone in the world still cares.
Radio has been the bane and scourge of oppressive governments around the world. Absolute control over the airwaves is an imperative target for occupying armies--domestic or foreign. When the Johnson administration invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 to smother a popular revolt, it sent in team after team of Green Berets to silence the populist Radio Santo Domingo. In 1973, during the military coup in Chile, the Air Force rocketed the transmitters of any radio station that refused to link up with the new regime’s tightly controlled broadcast network. I was there, and remember huddling in a friend’s apartment around a radio tuned to what we hoped was a more reliable news broadcast from across the border in Uruguay. A decade later, I was in the Hotel Camino Real in the Salvadoran capital when a squad of troops swept through the hotel, seizing the transistorized shortwave receivers of the foreign press. They were determined that we not monitor Radio Venceremos, the clandestine transmitter of the insurgent guerrilla forces.
Radio--shortwave radio, in particular, because of its range--is the only medium that ignores all political frontiers and and freely traverses them. It’s the ultimate end-run around ideological umpires and local censors. Of course, the listener must exercise discretion. Since its inception, shortwave has been a pitch-perfect voice for propaganda, psychological warfare and disinformation. But, as those Salvadoran troops knew, it can also be the carrier of uncomfortable yet necessary truth. And of flawed, but still indispensable, opposing points of view. Under the military dictatorship when local media was muzzled, Chileans could turn to the less-than-trustworthy Radio Moscow to hear the voices of the opposition in exile. In the same way, Cubans can tune to commercial Florida stations or to the pointedly political and propagandistic U.S. government-funded transmitters to hear some challenge to the monochromatic official line.
We shouldn’t romanticize the Beeb, nor overly elevate its journalistic credentials. But it always has been a steady voice, one with profound global knowledge and a remarkable immunity to transitory partisan spin. From listening to the World Service at any moment in the last 25 years, it would be virtually impossible to know whether the Tories or Labor were in power. At the top of each hour, right after the signature musical theme, you’d settle down ready to listen and absorb, just as the announcer would intone, “This is London.”