Snap and crackle goes pop
From The Economist print edition
Life in the old wireless yet
PROPAGANDA, news, curiosity and even espionage were the fuel of short-wave radio broadcasts. Readers of a certain age may recall the thrill of hearing a crackly, venomously worded broadcast from far away, such as the Voice of Free China denouncing the communist bandits on the mainland, or Radio Peace and Progress in Moscow deriding the imperialist hullabaloo about human rights.
The huge advantage of short-wave was that such material was simple to send and hard to stop. Thanks to their high frequency and short wavelength, even low-powered signals can bounce off the ionosphere halfway round the world; anyone can listen. Jamming them—a favourite Soviet tactic, still practised by China today—is an expensive and patchy business.
The end of the cold war, deregulation and new technology made short-wave look out of date. The propaganda war between east and west abated. Poor countries liberalised their broadcasting regimes, turning information famine into abundance. New stations, transmitting on crackle-free FM, soaked up listeners. Many started partnerships with international broadcasters who had previously used short-wave. Satellite-television news from stations such as CNN provided powerful competition in meeting the needs of the news-hungry. Broadband internet connections and even mobile phones can be used to listen to a plethora of radio stations.
But short-wave's retreat has slowed. Though the BBC's World Service uses around 15 different technologies to reach its listeners, short-wave is still king: latest figures, published last week, show 105m of its 182m-strong global audience still listen that way, the majority of them in Africa. In Nigeria the short-wave audience even grew slightly last year. That's not going to change soon: the BBC is upgrading its transmitters on Ascension Island (to be powered, greenly, by a new wind farm). Mike Cronk, a BBC bigwig, says the business case was “compelling”.
As competition for slots on the spectrum has eased, private broadcasters are moving in, notably American-based religious ones such as Assemblies of Yahweh, Adventist World Radio and the Fundamental Broadcasting Network. Short-wave also stays useful after natural disasters or political crises. Foreign broadcasters such as Voice of America have been stepping up their short-wave offerings to Zimbabwe in recent weeks.
Perhaps the most loyal users of all are intelligence services. So-called “Numbers stations” such as the Cyprus-based Lincolnshire Poacher (named after the jaunty tune that precedes the broadcasts) allow Britain's MI6 and others to send messages to anyone anywhere in the world, untraceably and in unbreakable code. No other medium is as ubiquitous and as secure. The only snag would be if owning a short-wave radio were to come to be seen as so eccentric as to arouse suspicion. Indeed, fewer such sets are sold these days. But as Simon Spanswick of the Association for International Broadcasting, an industry umbrella group, notes, people rarely throw their radios away.