Voice of America operator plans "sunset" for shortwave radio broadcasts

shutterstock_2404626.jpg The sun is setting on Voice of America's shortwave radio service, heard worldwide in dozens of languages for 70 years. A strategic technology plan prepared by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency responsible for Voice of America, Alhurra, Radio Free Asia and other international stations, concludes that it should end many shortwave broadcasts in favor of "more effective" media such as internet radio. "The intrinsic high cost of operating high powered shortwave stations is constantly being weighed against the rapidly diminishing effectiveness of shortwave within a growing number of countries," the report states. "... the cost effectiveness of shortwave transmissions continues to wane and is expected to be circumscribed to a very small number of target countries in the relatively near future." The "sun-setting strategy" proposed will reduce the number of stations owned by the BBG in favor of lease or sharing arrangements with—or outsourcing to—independent broadcasters. A "long-term analysis" of each country and language, and in-house research on shortwave's effectiveness in each, would determine which areas retain service.
The report, released following a Freedom of Information Act request by Government Attic, took six months to surface and it isn't clear to what extent its recommendations have been implemented. In February, however, Voice of America ceased shortwave broadcasts in China. Its authors anticipate "political pressure" to continue widespread use of shortwave radio broadcasts. The BBG's own 2012 Budget Request (PDF) reported that it "must continue to broadcast via traditional technologies such as shortwave [because] the impact of not investing in infrastructure improvements will be the loss of capability and the loss of audience." It noted Burmese listeners as particularly dependent on shortwave service. Titled 2010-2012 BBG Technology Strategic Plan, the report claims that BBG-funded broadcasts reach 101.9m people worldwide by radio, 81.5m by television, and 2.4m via internet. Internet broadcasts accounts for 1.4 percent of the unduplicated total audience. The largest internet audiences are in Iraq, China and India, with large percentages of the population listening online in Oman, Kosovo and Morocco. The report notes that Voice of America's audience in Iran was about half that of the BBC World Service during recent electoral unrest there. A brief overview of anti-censorship software the BBG supports, such as Freegate and Tor, was also offered. Much of report, however, is dedicated to describing the upgrades and management shake-ups required to address problems within the BBG's apparently shambolic I.T. department, whose failures are covered in detail and illustrated with photographs. Throughout, the complexities of maintaining and staffing a worldwide, multilanguage broadcast media network weigh heavily on the report's author. But criticisms often fall upon particularly egregious lapses such as servers hidden under nests of network cabling, major software choices determined by the "dogmatic beliefs" of influential staffers, and redundant systems standing idle. "The most serious situation presents itself at the heart of the BBG IT network," the report states. "Currently, the network is dependent on a single enterprise-class Cisco core router whose failure would severely cripple the entire agency for an extended period of time." Adds the author: "Many other such situations exist ... such as servers equipped with dual power supplies but with both power cords plugged into the same electrical circuit." While the engineering section is said to be well-functioning, disaster recovery plans rely on "the presence of key individuals." The department lacks "baseline operational discipline" and labors under "several historical and personality-related 'accommodations' designed to isolate certain individuals and maintain legacy reporting relationships." Even the email system is outmoded, according to the report, which recommends platform consolidation, virtualization, systems colocation, cloud computing to cut the number of physical servers in use, "clear standards and expectations for interpersonal behavior," and adoption of MPEG-4 for broadcast and archive use, as part of a two-year plan to fix the problems while trimming costs. The report was released after a FOIA request from Government Attic, which posted it in full at its archives early Monday morning. One paragraph of the report, concerning disaster recovery, was redacted.


  1. That’s right, stop the short wave broadcasts and put it all on internet radio.

    That way, people in countries who are subject to torture and imprisonment if found listening to “subversive” broadcasts in the relative privacy of their own home on their commonly-available short wave radios need now simply pop into their local uncensored, “no records of your activities kept unless required to do so by the relevant law agencies”, internet cafe and listen amongst a group of complete strangers which won’t include any government informers.

    Marvellous brainwave!

  2. This is also happening to the BBC World Service. I guess it makes sense, given these stations are basically means of distributing propaganda, to move to more modern/effective ways of spreading the message. But it’s a shame nonetheless.

  3. I hate this sunsetting of quality shortwave content. While I find VOA to be reasonably boring with terrible music selection but it follows in the footsteps of the BBC which is great for hourly news updates, I don’t like the trend. There have been episodes of jamming in the past but like old school numeric paging or wired pay phones it is a technology easily made available even to the poor that is robust and requires little infrastructure for the impact it can have.
    Also I don’t want my great customized shortwave travel radio to become obsolete, it is brilliant for bicycle tours in non-English countries.
    I guess we can all just rely on CRI China Radio International for as long as we need shortwave.

  4. Wait isn’t this the same gang who gave us Radio Free Europe back in the 50’s? When they decided that the Hungarian rebellion against the USSR wasn’t worth even mentioning at all because the rebels had red flags over their heads?

    I mean its shit that its going… but it was the west information-version of the KGB. To me I think we could just as well make a blood rose of it.

  5. Coming to light a few days after internet access from Syria was effectively blocked because of political unrest, this report does look a bit idiotic.

    Yes, issues in the IT dept. should be addressed (I suspect they’re not much different from what you get in your average bureaucracy anyway), but completely renouncing such a resilient propaganda and communication tool would be extremely short-sighted.

    Looks like our Empire cannot afford to send regular messengers to its most remote outposts anymore… quite a sign of decadence.

  6. Wait isn’t this the same gang who gave us Radio Free Europe back in the 50’s? When they decided that the Hungarian rebellion against the USSR wasn’t worth even mentioning at all because the rebels had red flags over their heads?

    As someone who’s lived in Hungary for many years, I find your version of history to be completely at odds with what really happened.

    Hungarian-language Radio Free Europe, far from not mentioning the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, talked incessantly about it and in fact made promises to the rebels that American assistance would be coming if they continued to fight the Soviets, despite the cautioning of RFE bosses against this type of talk. Since this did not happen, many Hungarians even today hold this against us, as I myself have found out on occasion.

    As for your comment about rebels with “red flags over their heads,” I have no idea what you mean. I’ve never heard anything like that. The only thing the rebels did with their national flags was cut out the hammer and sickle in the middle, as it was a symbols of Soviet dictatorship. So the Hungarian tricolor flag with a hole was a symbol of the revolution.

  7. While living in a rural community as a Peace Corps Volunteer, VOA on shortwave was at times my sole connection to home. Listening to it was where I found solace after hard days working in a strange country, speaking a strange language, and longing for a little taste of home. When you are the only American for miles, let alone the only foreigner, VOA is invaluable to maintaining sanity. Furthermore, I worry how many students of English in those same rural communities will suffer as a result of limited exposure to English broadcasting. VOA still is part of our foreign policy toolbox. Before we shut down VOA, perhaps we should take a closer look at the useless radio/TV Martí.

  8. This is a great idea – give up the shortwave radio, which worked if you have an untraceable and unblockable cheap radio which would work on batteries or a hand crank in return for internet radio, which requires a more expensive computer, connected to a more expensive power grid which might not be reliable, a costly internet provider which can be closely monitored, throttled or shut down completely by the very governments who this station is supposed to broadcast propaganda against.

    “Its authors anticipate “political pressure” to continue widespread use of shortwave radio broadcasts.”

    Political? No, in this sense just common sense shows you that changing to internet broadcasting will gut the effectiveness of the stations – but than, maybe that’s what this group wants to do :)

    1. Exactly! The Technopoly must go forward! If oppressed people around the world now and in the future want to surrepitiously gain access to sources of outside information, let them first build a chip making factory, develop code-breaking software, and construct and connect to their own electric grid. If they aren’t capable of those things, well then they deserve to be oppressed, right?

    2. But isn’t that the way all things are heading now? People buying walled garden devices that can be remotely deactivated, cloud computing… we’re turning over our keys to others and hoping for the best.

      Some people consider amateur radio to be obsolete… things Hams could only do a few decades ago anyone with a decent internet connection and PC can now do. This is a GOOD thing of course.

      But if the internet somehow fails, Ham & shortwave radio still works.

  9. I think it’s stupid: as others have noted, if you are spreading news and/or propaganda you want it to be heard or at least be available. With countries making internet firewalls to block off huge numbers of sites they find dangerous, shortwave is still simple enough to find even with jamming atttempts. I doubt many North Koreans even have access to the internet, but radios can be hacked to pickup SW bands.

  10. By all means, let’s switch over all of our rapid, long-distance communication to a technology that can be switched off by the government at an injunction’s notice. What could possibly go wrong? If we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear, right?

    Now if you’ll excuse me I have some Morse code to study.

  11. Ending shortwave broadcasts is absurd. Shortwave is not dependent on infrastructure; it gets through to places where infrastructure is nonexistent or where the local government is hostile to the information presented. Back in the day VOA penetrated the Iron Curtain with American culture, unbiased news, and our views on international affairs. It is still needed, to present this information in places where firewalling or logging is a threat to the listener. The target audiences have changed, but the need has not. If we lose this resource we will not be able to re-create it easily or quickly when needed. The expense of international broadcasting is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of the military misadventures which have *lost* us hearts and minds all over the world.

  12. By going off the air they are promoting the internet, my internet. With this newly opened Bandwidth they can force services up the bands down to shortwave and give out the upper frequencies to cellphone companies. All of this so I can keep up on the Hollywood celebrity gossip on my hand held wireless device. Progress.

  13. I was really shocked at how empty the shortwave bands were when I got out my shortwave radio last year and ran a wire out the window to a tree.

    I used to be able to tune in the world. Now it’s mostly static, except for Latin and Christian stations. :-(

  14. the beauty of radio, it doesn’t recognize the political boundaries on the map. It goes however far the ether will carry it.

    For the people at the other end, radio is simple, needs very little infrastructure, just a few batteries or a hand to crank it. It brings news, music, views, stories into places that aren’t even wired for electricity. Heck there are a humber of places I can’t even get cellular telephone services here in the states, usually that means wireless internet, too, but will certainly here all sorts of things via AM, FM and shortwave radio.

    so it seems BBC, VOA, DW, just to name a few of the Big Gun shortwave stations are going to scale back or eliminate their services because of the internet. It just doesnt seem wise, especially after the “Middle East Spring” we had with all the dissent and political changes. BBC did say they would turn services back on if ME Spring services were to happen again, but I seriously doubt that, once closed, it will probably stay closed.

    What a sad, sad day.

  15. Not good

    Internet can be monitored
    Radio can’t
    Internet can be controlled or shut down MUCH MORE easily
    But it cost a lot to broadcast
    It is just no comparison
    New technology is good but it can’t match Old Radio and perhaps it never will.

  16. As a IBB/VOA IT insider, let me say that this report is over a year old and numerous improvements have been made both to personnel and infrastructure. While there is still a long way to go, numerous single points of failures have been identified and corrected and the IT posts decent numbers when it comes to reliability.

    1. Concerning the email system which is supposedly “outmoded”. The system has been globally replaced in the past two years and while the author of the report may be unhappy with the choice of software, the fact is that the new system is extremely robust and has operated at the 99.99% reliability level for the first six months of 2011.

  17. I’ll echo one of the anons: I just bought a shortwave radio, first I’d had since I was a kid, and the only English-speaking stations I can get are Christian broadcasts – admittedly some from exotic locations, but what difference does that make if they’re all discussing the Bible and nothing else? There are also many Latin-sounding stations but I don’t speak Spanish or Portuguese so I can’t comment on their content.

    I remember picking up English-language newscasts and topical discussions of all sorts from Moscow, Johannesburg, even Canberra, all kinds of places. Of course it isn’t as if I can’t get news from those places via the Internet, as the report says, but even for a relatively wealthy New Worlder like myself with Internet access and all, there’s something to be missed in not being able to tune in those kinds of programs any more.

  18. How much do these things really cost to run? From looking around, it seems like we’re probably talking about an average of 200kW, although they can apparently get a lot higher. Even assuming full American residential electricity rates, that comes out to around $30 an hour.

  19. Seems like the only thing I’ll get to listen to on shortwave broadcast is Radio Havana and religious wing-nuttery. All the big broadcasters are shutting down shortwave broadcasts, one by one.

    Good thing there’s always ham radio. :)

  20. Its tragic that shortwave is dying, many people in the world are poor and cannot afford, or have access to, the internet.

  21. Terrible idea. Especially considering all the unrest (the good kind) going on in many places in the world. Places like Syria, China, Libya, North Korea keep strict watch over the internet and limit what sites may be accessed. Furthermore, many people do not own computers and if they do, they certainly will not be working during critical times. Look at what happened in Cairo, everything was effectively shutoff. However, you cannot shutoff a radio signal (you can jam it sure, but then the freq. must be changed). It is a shame that the BBC stopped its shortwave broadcasts and it will be a shame when VOA did. Its much easier to listen to a radio station than an internet feed. Plus the radio is portable and not dependent on internet connections.

    Close Radio Marti first. Its a cash sucking station that is ineffective. Nowadays it only appeases a small segment of American’s (Cubans). Cuba is not a threat to us anymore, if we really want to start having a cultural influence on the country, maybe we should stop the embargo and allow travel there. The problem is that Cuban American’s vote (as we all should) so nobody wants to upset them.
    If more American’s voted than this wouldn’t be much of an issue.

  22. During the time since 1972 until now, when I lived and worked outside the US, I depended on the BBC World Service for news and radio entertainment. Recently, the BBC has largely discontinued its SW broadcasting and, instead, ‘borrowed’ local AM and FM stations for news and infrequent general interest programs. I am disappointed in this change but recognize the budgetary and listenership reasons for it. I now find the VOA doing the same thing and am equally disappointed.

    I must confess that I seldom listen to the VOA because of its ‘Special English’ and its blatant emphasis on US news and policy. (Hey, that’s its job!) The BBC, on the other hand has sought to inform curious listeners about current events and and other items of general interest while, at the same time, subtly educating listeners in the advantages of a democratic and open society.

    As an educator and a communication professional, I believe the service-providing professionals are better in tune with the administrative and technological aspects of broadcasting and less familiar or concerned with the circumstances of the listeners: age, location, habits, interests, access and familiarity with newer forms of communication and the necessary equipment for listening. The administrators seem to be mostly interested in the newest technological fix and fail to appreciate the long and admittedly ‘thinning tai’ of faithful listeners.

    The latest developments in listening technology may excite the international broadcasters, but the potential listeners are still – I believe – more comfortable with older, traditional technical systems of listening. The VOA, and the BBC, were very effective and I believe their traditional methods still have a place in international broadcasting and should not be completely replaced by new, and more expensive means of listening.

  23. See also shutdown of DW (Deutsche Welle) stations! Discussed here: http://bit.ly/lu5O4K

    It is a worldwide strategy to shift information from free sources to the internet to have more control on the contents. So my opinion.


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