28 marzo 2008

Onde corte, strumento prezioso o ferrovecchio?

Dibattito a distanza, su RadioWorld Online, tra due fautori delle onde corte, Jack Quinn e Nick Olguin, e un responsabile del Broadcast Board of Governors, l'organismo governativo americano che gestisce le trasmissioni della VOA e di altre emittenti. Quinn e Olguin se la prendono proprio con la politica di graduale smantellamento degli impianti di trasmissioni in HF, mentre Vincent Nowicki replica con alcune cifre che dimostrerebbero che le onde corte stanno cadendo nel dimenticatoio, anche in nazioni che gli occidentali ritengono molto arretrate. Nowicki fa l'esempio del Pakistan, dove la gente ascolta al primo posto l'FM, seguite dalle onde medie e solo in pochi casi dalle onde corte. Anche nel caso della Birmania, prosegue Nowicki, ad un aumento delle ore di trasmissione corrisponde un notevole incremento dell'attività sui siti Web delle emittenti.
Cifre molto sensate e credibili, obiezioni del tutto condivisibili, ma io continuo a non sentirmi solo un inguaribile nostalgico nel pensare che le onde corte possono continuare a svolgere un ruolo significativo. Le "analisi di mercato", si sa, servono in genere a surrogare decisioni già prese. Del resto dobbiamo adattarci, non esiste in questo caso la controprova di una campagna di marketing mirata a stimolare l'ascolto delle onde corte tra i potenziali destinatari. Se dovessimo applicare gli stessi metri, anche la radio digitale satellitare risulterebbe a oggi un flop senza appello, da abbandonare in tutta fretta. Eppure su quel modello di business si continua a investire (soldi privati, d'accordo).
Nowicki ci ricorda che se la nostalgia non puà sostituire un approccio manageriale alla problematica della diffusione di programmi all'estero, il vecchio strumento delle onde corte non è ancora andato definitivamente in pensione. Che qualche risorsa finanziaria (pubblica) continua a essere investita in impianti e programmi. Non sono così pazzo da immaginare una inversione di tendenza, ma forse è possibile che la curva al ribasso si arresti su una linea di modesta, ma confortevole continuità.

Don’t Close Shortwaves, Improve Them

Instead of Closing Valuable Stations Like Kavala, BBG’s Engineers Should Recommend Improvements

By Jack Quinn and Nick Olguin

U.S. International Broadcasting is dysfunctional and it is time to initiate vast changes. The Broadcast Board of Governors (BBG) has done enough damage to the U.S. Public Diplomacy.
The authors have been associated with both VOA and RFE/RL their entire professional lives. We have been openly critical of many decisions reached by government policy-makers affecting U.S. international broadcasting operations. But never more so than during the last eight years since a Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was created in 1999 and placed in charge of delivering our nation’s public diplomacy messages. Members are appointed by the current President and given full responsibility for oversight of all U.S. non-military International Shortwave Broadcasting. The Board consists of 4-Democrats and 4-Republicans plus the non-voting U.S. Secretary of State.
Rather than remaining an oversight committee, it wasn’t long before the BBG basically took over day-to-day operational control of all the radios. None, repeat none, of the board members has any experience in international programming or in the technical operations of shortwave broadcasting. A few had experience in commercial U.S. AM/FM markets, also with the Internet, and with Satellite TV. One such appointee was founder and Chairman of Westwood One, a 1,000 AM/FM station nationwide network. It became immediately evident to interested observers that the BBG considers high-powered shortwave as something from medieval times. Neither did they appreciate, nor understand the technical properties, capabilities, and value of mainstay shortwave facilities. The Board began eliminating stations almost immediately, and started re-allocating associated funding to create technology with which they were more familiar. One needs only look at the U.S.’s failed public diplomacy programs around the globe, but particularly in Russia, to see what catastrophic results these efforts have wrought.

The BBG has already eliminated the following irreplaceable shortwave facilities:

Number of Sites: 8
Number of Transmitters: 71
Total KW’s 22,500
Total Effective Radiated Power in KW’s: 2,400,000.

Unfortunately, once you relinquish foreign government leased sites, and simultaneously forfeit all assigned frequencies back to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) in Geneva, Switzerland, they are nearly impossible to regain.
There is no doubt in the minds of experienced shortwave broadcasters that the internet, satellite TV, medium and shortwave can all play a role taken together in an effective public diplomacy program. BUT…you must have the technical knowledge and expertise to calculate which combination produces maximum results for a given area. Contrary to BBG beliefs, there are millions of people in the world who do not have access to either the Internet or Satellite TV. They still depend upon their World Band Shortwave Radios for outside information and news.
A prime example of the need for dependable, strong shortwave radio can, once again, be found in our old nemesis, Russia. Freedom of the press has been extinguished and there is a crying need for the free world to broadcast unbiased news to the masses of Russia. Shortwave has always been the only medium capable of reaching a maximum numbers of ex-Soviets. The irony in all of this is that the BBG recently cancelled the unexpired lease on the one shortwave location that would have guaranteed our nation’s ability to impact and affect events in Russia. The facility was the irreplaceable site located at Playa de Pals, in eastern Spain. The station stood on a pristine beach with an unobstructed one-hop signal path straight into beautiful downtown Moscow. The most ideal transmitting site for this purpose on the planet! With its abandonment, the Spanish quickly emptied the buildings and last spring demolished the station’s mammoth 530’ towers supporting 28db gain curtain antenna arrays. (See YouTube ).

Save Kavala

Once again, the BBG is readying to close another valuable U.S. property, the only one still capable of putting strong shortwave signals into Moscow and much of Russia with existing equipment. Instead of closing this valuable station located in Kavala, northern Greece, engineers serving the BBG should, for once, stand up to the board and strongly recommend improvements instead. The station now has 12 - 250kW transmitters. These should be replaced with 12 - German designed ALLISS transmitter/antennas systems. The ALLISS system consists of a 360 degree continuously rotatable curtain antenna array including either a 250 or 500 kW transmitter installed inside the concrete bunker supporting the antenna. Kavala, with new, total directional flexibility to cover other trouble spots, could hit the entire Middle East, North Africa, Russia to the Urals on one hop. It could also provide excellent coverage of Central Africa, Pakistan/India, and Central Russia on 2nd hop. Consider this: The Chinese have adjudged shortwave very important because they recently purchased 13 - ALLISS systems just to jam VOA broadcasts! Hopefully, there remains enough judgment in the Administration and motivation in the Congress to stop the Kavala station from being closed down.
The BBG may rebut this Guest Commentary. They have stables full of taxpayer funded P.R. experts, lawyers, and writers all at their disposal. Therefore, rebuttal costs are of no concern, if it saves their status quo.
It has been proven time and again that a government agency cannot be as cost-effective as private industry. Federal agencies, are hampered by complex Federal procurement laws, unionization, and bureaucratic regulations. All U.S. non-military international broadcasting should be Privatized. The successful RFE/RL Cold War format was a winner, and should be seriously considered.
Wake up America! It’s time for change!

Quinn was an engineer or engineering manager at G/E. KGEI Belmont, Calif.; CBS Hollywood; CBS/VOA Delano; and RFE Munich. He spends 30 years with Eimac Power Tube Division and was a VOA/RFE/RL consultant. Olguin worked for the U.S. Army Strategic Communications Command in the United States, Erirtea, and Iran; as a VOA plant supervisor and station manager in Greece, Germany, the Philppines, and Thailand; and as a station manager with RFE/RL in Germany and Spain.


BBG: Nostalgia Doesn’t Get the Job Done

Though Shortwave Remains Valuable, the Right ‘Media Mix’ Is the Only Way to Reach a Global Audience

Vincent Nowicki

Jack Quinn and Nick Olguin’s guest commentary on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (“Don’t Close Shortwaves, Improve Them,” Feb. 1) is out of step with the realities of today’s sophisticated audience and the strategic media markets for U.S. international broadcasting.
The BBG is keenly aware of the value of shortwave in distinct markets such as some parts of Africa and parts of Asia. Shortwave sustained international broadcasting throughout the Cold War and still makes a significant mark today in the global war on terror.
However, nostalgia for Cold War methods does not get the job done in the new millennium. We need only look at a few recent events to vividly illustrate that point.

Old meets new

In September 2007, Burma’s junta cracked down on the demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. BBG doubled Voice of America and Radio Free Asia (RFA) Burmese broadcasts in shortwave and medium wave. At the same time, daily Web traffic to VOA’s site increased by 186 percent and remains 95 percent above pre-crisis levels. There were real-time exchanges of video and sound from eyewitnesses’ cell phones and handheld devices.
Here, old and new technologies were blended with great effect. The Web supports a dynamic interactive with our audience, allowing us to get news and then share it with remarkable immediacy. The Board’s FY 2009 budget request reflects the need to invest in these transformative technologies while sustaining the proven broadcast facilities as appropriate.
In November 2007, the Pakistani government shut down all independent media inside Pakistan including VOA’s TV programs on local channels. We expanded VOA Urdu-language broadcasts from five to 12-1/2 hours daily using primarily medium wave.
Research tells us that in Pakistan, after TV, FM is the dominant medium followed by AM. Shortwave is the least popular by a wide margin, with only 8 percent ownership. Notably, there is a sharp rise in mobile phone ownership and along with it, FM radio access. In this hostile climate the solution requires determination and creativity but clearly not shortwave.
In Russia we face an even more complex challenge. The Committee to Protect Journalists described in August 2007 that: “In the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections … Russian authorities have consolidated their control on the influential broadcast media.” The CPJ described restrictive media laws, pressure, intimidation and imprisonment of journalists. Specifically, “14 journalist murders committed since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000 remain unsolved.”
BBG access to domestic radio and TV outlets has dropped, due to Russian government pressures, from 97 in 2005 to 19 today. However, only 2 percent of Russians use shortwave radio on a weekly basis, and AM usage is similarly low at just 5 percent weekly, while weekly Internet use stands at 15 percent. The Internet and other new media have become the default delivery options. Transforming our programming and shifting technical resources to reach both the policy-influencing elite and the “digital generation” is our immediate test.

Effective distribution

Our strategic approach, including network realignments and expanding our broadcasting platforms in places like the Middle East, has been pivotal to increasing our audience.
It is true that we closed our transmitting stations in Playa de Pals, Spain, in 2001 and Kavala, Greece, in 2006. However, surplus equipment from such shifts is economically and effectively redeployed at other BBG facilities on a regular basis.
In general, the shortwave broadcasting mission European-based stations have capably served for more than half a century has shifted eastward to Asia.
Our engineers successfully added more than 50 FM transmitters to our inventory over the past several years. Most operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 2007, the BBG transmitted more total hours of radio than any previous year in the last decade. In addition we operate four local television transmitters in Iraq to broadcast one of three 24-hour streams of our Arabic news and information channel, Alhurra.
Since 2002 VOA’s television production has grown significantly and its worldwide TV audience has quadrupled with television programming in 25 of its 45 languages. Collectively, this new broadcasting has boosted the BBG’s global audience levels from 100 million to 155 million in the past six years.
The single greatest challenge we face is to ensure effective distribution. Too many of the countries to which the BBG broadcasts try to jam our direct broadcasts, limit or prohibit local distribution via affiliates, enforce laws that restrict broadcast content and block our Internet sites.
We broadcast in 60 languages to more than 80 countries. Our global network of more than 60 transmitting facilities includes about 175 transmitters and 400 antennas with a combined power capability of more than 38 million watts. To track the effectiveness of and drive continuous improvements in our broadcasts, the BBG spends $9 million a year on market and audience research.
The BBG has its eyes wide open as it directs U.S. international broadcasting. Using the correct media mix — be it Internet, TV, AM, FM or shortwave radio — preferred by the audience, and not simply grasping on to old approaches, is the only way we can reach today’s worldwide audience.
This is a challenging assignment, but U.S. taxpayers can trust that we are doing our homework.

Vincent Nowicki is the director of the engineering and technical operations at the International Broadcasting Bureau. IBB provides the engineering and technical operations for BBG broadcasters.

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