BBG Watch Commentary

Car Radio Panel showing both FM and AM (medium wave) bands.
Car Radio Panel showing both FM and AM (medium wave) bands.

 
 

Internet RadioSome International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) managers are so dead set against radio — whether using traditional receivers, car radios, or Internet radio — that when they are presented with a reasonable and possibly no extra cost option to augment Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) radio transmissions with a AM (medium wave)  to Russia (as well as Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova), they ignore it, fail to respond to a serious offer, and make the U.S. government look indifferent and unprofessional to foreign supporters of U.S. international broadcasting, sources told BBG Watch.

A bias against radio of any kind that currently exists at IBB is tremendously strong, and even more disturbingly, it also includes a bias against hard news reporting that is not easily placeable on affiliate stations in some countries. This bias continues to grow despite overwhelming evidence that radio and hard news consumption are certainly not dead by any means.

One of the many advantages of radio it that it can reach segments of the population in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine that are most susceptible to propaganda from the Kremlin — those over 40 years old who are avid consumers of news and Putin’s supporters at the same time. IBB chooses to ignore this fact, as they choose to ignore anyone who does not have a computer and an iPhone.

When one looks at a Voice of America (VOA), albeit one-sided, news report from eastern Ukraine, one can easily see who these Putin supporters are in eastern Ukraine, and no doubt also in Russia, where Putin remains highly popular and anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment is growing rather than diminishing despite the current IBB targeting strategy.

IBB strategic planners have completely ignored this group, focusing instead on the 20-to-40 age group that uses the Internet. There is nothing wrong with this focus or with multimedia, but it is a self-limiting and damaging approach if other existing options are eliminated only because of bias, poor strategic outlook, and poor understanding of the demographics of the rapidly aging countries like Russia and Ukraine.  

It is even more disturbing if additional options can be used at no extra cost but are ignored because bureaucrats are either biased or indifferent. It appears that they are and that they are offending those supporters abroad of the United States who want to help.

Not using an option that is free and serves U.S. national security interests is difficult to justify. Not using a free option that broadens the potential audience and serves as an insurance policy against any future blocking of the Internet is even more difficult to justify.

IBB planners do not think much about the large group, from which many Putin, Lukashenka, and Yanukovych supporters are recruited.  These people are not at all like them: they are older and do not use computers and mobile devices on a regular basis to get news.

Median Age in Russia

Total: 39.4 years
Male: 36.5 years
Female: 41.8 years (2009)

IBB planners probably also have no idea how poor and desperate some of the people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are. The combination of poverty and regime propaganda on television has done great damage and has caused “paranoia,” as mentioned in a VOA video report. This group should not be ignored. If anything, an extra effort should be made to bring accurate and objective news to this group.

Of course, there are also many others in the region, who are not Putin supporters and who also use AM radio: others without access to the Internet, others who can’t afford it, those living in rural areas of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, car and truck drivers (very important group of radio listeners) and many others. The well-known advantage of radio is that people can listen to it while doing other things, which can’t be said about television. Some people will even listen to radio while surfing the Internet.

Radio is far from being dead. It is a powerful medium for those who seek alternative information that may be denied to them otherwise. Radio is likely to remain an important medium (among a mix of media) in Russia, Belarus, and eastern Ukraine, especially if the crisis escalates and Putin decides to block VOA, RFE/RL and other Western news websites.

But even if Putin does not block websites as China does, the Kremlin’s propaganda war will surely intensify. There will continue to be a large segment of the population in that region, where the population is aging unlike other areas of the world, that will not use and can’t use computers or mobile devices on any regular basis to get news. (Many use TV, but most are not capable of getting or finding foreign satellite TV channels.) Take a look at this VOA video to see who these Putin supporters and Kremlin propaganda consumers are.

Voice of America Video News Report

By the way, VOA executives should be reprimanded for not having editorial standards that would add balance to such reports.

The Kremlin is actively targeting this group with its propaganda, while IBB strategic planners have all but discarded this group as irrelevant. The younger audience is of course using digital media, but that means that they can get news from many different sources, while most older — as well as some younger — consumers of news who have no Internet access and who are targeted by the Kremlin with the same propaganda TV programs have nothing to turn to except  a few shortwave RFE/RL transmissions.

IBB strategic planners should also look at some videos of anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow and in St. Petersburg and they would discover that many of the participants are in fact older, unlike similar pro-democracy demonstrators in other countries.

In fact, the older age group in Russia is very politically active and it includes many Putin supporters, but also Putin opponents.

BBG Watch has learned that IBB and RFE/RL had received several proposals from Rimantas Pleikys, a highly respected Lithuanian broadcaster and a former Minister of Communications of Lithuania. He is also a journalist and writer.

We have learned that he had proposed to IBB to launch, not shortwave, but medium wave (AM) broadcasts to Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine from transmitters in Lithuania. There have been already limited AM broadcasts to Belarus from his station Lithuania, but those were reduced and are threatened with being cut.

His proposed medium wave broadcasts to Russia were never seriously considered by IBB and no answer was given to Mr. Pleikys, sources told BBG Watch. This strong supporter and partner of U.S. international broadcasting is described by our sources as deeply concerned and offended by the treatment he received from IBB officials in Washington.

According to sources, some of his proposals to start AM broadcasts to Russia would not have cost the agency any extra money. IBB could eliminate one of their shortwave broadcasts and substitute a much more desirable AM broadcast instead.

The advantage of AM is that there are not only more AM receivers at homes than shortwave receivers. It is also easier to find a frequency on AM. The AM band is also present on car radios while most car radios do not have shortwave bands. AM programs can  heard quite well after dark while cars are driven on roads outside of major cities and even in some cities as well.

We strongly suspect that IBB will continue to ignore this proposal unless it is forced to look at it by the BBG board and the U.S. Congress. Congressional staffers have inserted strong language in favor of radio transmissions into a bill that might give the agency $10 million for surge broadcasting and media outreach to Ukraine and Russia.

If the Ukrainian government manages to keep control of eastern Ukraine, there might be an opportunity there to lease local AM and FM transmitters, but it is unlikely that rebroadcasts to Russia could also be done from Ukraine. It may be too politically risky. Russian troops might occupy some parts or all of Ukraine, and the government there may also be afraid to make a decisions on external broadcasts that might further provoke Russia.

The Lithuanian option appears to be the best one for AM radio to Russia. It is a strong insurance policy against Putin, his possible moves against the Internet, and his propaganda machine. It offers an opportunity to reach his supporters and others who cannot be reached through the Internet. This option should not be ignored.

Sources who are concerned with how IBB operates have provided BBG Watch with a document showing how external AM broadcasts to Russia would work. We are reposting it because it includes valuable information about audience composition and media preferences in Russia and Ukraine. Sources also told BBG Watch that IBB officials in Washington have also received a proposal to start shortwave radio broadcasts to Ukraine from the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station in Greenville, NC. That proposal is also likely to be ignored.

Radio should be a much stronger element of a multimedia strategy, especially since it is both inexpensive and provides substantive news content (text and audio) for the Internet that television and most video productions simply cannot provide at a reasonable cost U.S. taxpayers would be willing to support.

If radio is eliminated completely, and with it serious news reporting — a strong trend of recent years at the Voice of America — the VOA Pakistani Service below shows what international audiences might be left with to watch on the Internet if IBB strategic planners, marketing experts, and some VOA executives have their way.

And one more point: A few days before Russia’s military attack and annexation of part of the territory of Georgia in 2008, IBB officials ended not only Voice of America radio to Russia, but also VOA satellite television news program to Russia. They were also planning to end VOA radio and television to Georgia. They are now proposing to reduce VOA programs to Georgia. We think the picture is rather clear.

Very soon all of VOA can be doing this:

 

 

Link to Video on YouTube

BBG FY2015 REQUEST, MEDIUM WAVE REDUCTIONS

BROADCASTING TO BELARUS

 

 

FY2015 request quote: “Medium wave radio is little-used in Belarus at just 3% weekly. RFE/RL Belarusian reaches 1.7% of adults weekly .”

 

Comment: RFE/RL audience research data presented to me in Prague in June of 2013 when I visited RFE/RL headquarters:

 

RFE/RL weekly MW audience in Belarus:

–   2.6% of the total Belarus population;

–   4.77% of the total Belarus population including those who use other listening methods;

26.8% of the RFE/RL audience in Belarus (approx. 430 000 listeners);

–   8.1% = 1.9 million listeners – a total weekly audience of the RFE/RL Belarus service (MW + SW + Internet – all methods combined)

 

FY2015 reguest, quote: “The MW signal is spotty and reaches only one third of the country, with poor reception in the capital.”

 

COMMENTS

 

1) Between November 2012 and November 2013 audibility of the Lithuanian MW 612 kHz broadcasting in Minsk was (data collected from the IBB Remote Monitoring System in Minsk):

 

Excellent, good:  35.5%

Fair, poor:       28.8%

Inaudible:         35.7%

 

2) For a high-quality listening in Minsk a local 50-100 kW MW transmitter should be operated in Minsk (BBG Watch comment: which is politically impossible). The above presented cross-border MW reception data is normal for that kind of radio transmission.

3) MW signal quality in small towns, countryside and on the roads (in cars and trucks) is better due to the lower industrial interference levels.

4) In March of 2013 a daily Belarus programming time of RFE/RL on MW has been reduced by the BBG from 8 to 4 hours a day. It most likely negatively affected the audience size. (BBG Watch comment: IBB approach has created  a vicious cycle: radio transmissions are reduced, which reduces audience size, which in turn provides an argument to further reduce radio until it is entirely eliminated.)

5) A sky-wave signal of the Kaunas MW 75 kW transmitter covers entire Belarus. Due to the fluctuating radio wave propagation conditions at certain hours audibility is better in the western part of Belarus, at other time it is stronger in the eastern part of Belarus.

6) Since 2000, Radio Baltic Waves several times suggested to the BBG to use a high power 500 kW MW transmitter, but this option was never accepted. We also suggested to deploy in Lithuania a new solid-state transmitter and a directional antenna array of the BBG/IBB in order to ensure a better coverage of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, but all our proposals were rejected.

7) Medium wave (AM) band is available in all car radios and in other receivers of all types.

BROADCASTING TO RUSSIA

In September of 2013 Radio Baltic Waves offered to the BBG and RFE/RL to broadcast the Russian language program to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine on medium wave (666 kHz, 500 kW or 1386 kHz, 150 kW). This proposal is not related to the fiscal sequestration of the broadcasting budget. It is only a matter of the broadcasting priorities, a simple choice between the two possible technical options:

a) To continue broadcasting to Russia 15 hours a day (40 transmitter hours a day) on 3 short wave frequencies simultaneously – without any MW coverage or:

b) To broadcast to Russia on 2 short wave frequencies and on 1 medium wave frequency (suggested options: 666 kHz or 1386 kHz, 500 kW or 150 kW).

 

Argument: 4.8% of the Belarusian population tune to RFE/RL on MW. Accordingly, the estimated potential MW audience in the European part of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (total population over 150 million — countries where there are fluent Russian language speakers) is over 7 million.

By eliminating 1 of the 3 simultaneous RFE/RL Russian SW frequencies, it is possible to save 3300 transmitter/kilowatt/hours a day. Available MW capacity in Lithuania is 2250 transmitter/kilowatt/hours a day (power option 150 kW, 15 hours a day). Note: our analysis lacks the SW cost data, as there are different costs associated with broadcasting from each IBB SW site. In order to make the change from SW to MW, these must be figured in, but the IBB/BBG cots are not available for us.

In 2014 IBB performed two radio monitoring sessions of the Lithuanian MW signals (1386 kHz, 75 kW) in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk. We received the following private comment from the BBG/IBB engineering staff:

 

“Use of MW 1386 kHz is a viable option. Reduction of some SW frequencies for the addition of the MW may indeed be a good trade off”.

 

Structure of the radio audience in Russia:

 

49.9%  have a radio set at home (probably not including car radios, capable to receive MW)

79.9%  FM (Not available for RFE/RL)

11.4% “Tochka” (Cable; Not available for RFE/RL)

10.5%  Medium Wave (probably not including car radios capable of receiving MW-AM) – see data below for car radios

7.8%  UKV (OIRT FM; not available for RFE/RL)

6.4%  Short wave

 

POTENTIAL CAR AUDIENCE (MW-AM RECEIVERS)

 

Motor vehicles in the sky-wave radio coverage area of the Lithuanian MW transmitters:

Russia (European part, 60% of the total population)   22.7 mil

Ukraine                                                                       7.8 mil

Belarus                                                                        3.4 mil

Moldova                                                                      0.5 mil

TOTAL:                                                                    34.4 mil of motor vehicles

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

1. The BBG FY2015 request to eliminate the MW broadcasting to Belarus is a mistake.

2. In order to increase the RFE/RL audiences in Russia and Belarus (if necessary – in Ukraine and Moldova as well) we would recommend:

 

A. 2014 broadcasting season: To make a compilation of the RFE/RL’s Russian and Belarusian language programs (if necessary, to add Ukrainian, Moldovan) and to broadcast this content via Lithuania on MW 1386 kHz, 16 hours a day, transmission power 150 kW, using the existing equipment.

 

B. 2015 broadcasting season: To make a compilation of the RFE/R’s Russian and Belarusian language programs (if necessary, to add Ukrainian, Moldovan) and to broadcast this content via Lithuania on MW 1386 kHz, 16 hours a day, using a new solid state transmitter (any transmission power between 200 kW and 750 kW) with a new high-gain directional antenna system, provided and owned by the BBG/IBB.

 

Rimantas Pleikys

Chief Operations Officer

Radio Baltic Waves Intl.

 

 

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