BBG Watch Commentary

Sky-wave jammer near Kashi in Xinjian province, western China (39N20/75E46): one of 13 rotatible Thales ALLISS antennas with 500 kW Thales TSW2500 transmitters.
Sky-wave jammer near Kashi in Xinjian province, western China (39N20/75E46): one of 13 rotatible Thales ALLISS antennas with 500 kW Thales TSW2500 transmitters. Voice of America English shortwave broadcasts to China, Tibet and the rest of Asia were included in the latest round of cuts. Radio Baltic Waves Photo

Vietnamese radio jamming stations continued to jam Radio Free Asia (RFA) shortwave frequencies that had gone suddenly silent on June 30, 2014 on orders of the federal bureaucracy in charge of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) agency in Washington.

In the past, the same bureaucracy also had wanted to end Voice of America (VOA) Chinese and Tibetan shortwave radio broadcasts but was prevented by the U.S. Congress from proceeding.

This time VOA English shortwave broadcasts to China, Tibet and the rest of Asia were cut with hardly any prior announcement to audiences. Shortwave transmissions to Vietnam were cut as well.

Vietnamese regime jammers were not the only ones who were surprised and confused by the U.S. government’s latest sudden ending of many shortwave radio broadcasts to countries without free media and poor Internet infrastructure or Internet censorship in Asia, including Central Asia, Middle East, as well as Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe.

Longtime radio listeners to Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) were just as confused by hardly any prior notice from the U.S. before these shortwave cuts went into effect on June 30. VOA journalists and broadcasters were also surprised, confused and angered.

BBG Watch has obtained evidence that the bureaucracy in charge of radio transmissions for the U.S. government, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which is overseen by the bipartisan BBG Board, did not inform VOA, RFA, and RFE/RL until late Thursday night that these cuts would go into effect specifically on June 30. There was a general expectation, at least among some federal and non-federal managers that these cuts might happen, but apparently no one knew when exactly the IBB bureaucracy would implement them.

It also appears that Voice of America executives did not tell their radio program hosts and other broadcasters about the June 30th terminations of many VOA shortwave transmissions to Asia, including VOA English and VOA Special English (English teaching through news programs) until late Friday. Even then not all VOA employees were informed. VOA broadcasters were outraged at being unable to tell their audiences about these cuts with sufficient warning and to thank them for listening over many decades.

RFA and RFE/RL executives handled the situation much better in terms of informing their employees, but they were equally surprised and shocked by such a short notice from IBB about the specific date for shortwave terminations, sources told BBG Watch.

IBB executives and BBG member Matt Armstrong who is also the chair of the Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting are, according to sources, dismissing any criticism directed at them. They reportedly blame senior VOA managers for not informing their staff and their audiences about the termination of shortwave broadcasts on June 30.

VOA, RFA, and RFE/RL listeners were not the only ones caught by surprise. According to a radio monitor in Asia, Vietnamese jamming stations continued to jam shortwave radio frequencies previously used by RFA even though there was no longer anything on them.

The following email was received:

“Just to inform you that jamming was still noted yesterday on terminated RFA Vietnamese frequencies (9760 12130 13825 kHz 1400-1500 UTC)! Jammers also caught unawares!”

Another person observed:

“…the Vietnamese jammers are missing RFA. As a sad unintended consequence of the loss of RFA frequencies, a whole jamming industry in Vietnam will now collapse causing mass unemployment.”

Vietnam was jamming the Vietnamese service of Radio Free Asia with a “siren” jammer.

Radio jamming is the deliberate transmission of radio signals that disrupt communications by decreasing the signal-to-noise ratio. (Wikipedia) Jamming of shortwave transmissions, however, is never fully effective. Terminating shortwave broadcasts by the U.S. government is.

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The following information about cuts to VOA shortwave transmissions appears to have come from an agency spokesperson, but it does not appear on VOA or BBG websites:

VOA Azerbaijani 

  • Cuts: 30 minutes shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: Satellite TV (HotBird) and satellite audio (TurkSat); multimedia web and mobile sites and social media

  • Shortwave is used by just 2% of adults weekly in Azerbaijan, and does not yield significant audiences for the service (0.4% weekly reach on radio in BBG’s most recent survey). By contrast, satellite dish ownership is widespread, at 56%, and 18% use the Internet weekly. The service has both satellite and online products, which are far more likely to reach audiences in Azerbaijan. VOA Bangla 

  • Cuts: 1 hour shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: 1 hour medium-wave (AM); FM and TV affiliates; multimedia web and mobile sites; social media

  • Shortwave is not widely used in Bangladesh (just 2% weekly), and the majority of the service’s audience comes to its programming via FM and TV affiliate networks in the country. VOA English (in Asia) 

  • Cuts: 6.5 hours shortwave  (2 hours of programming that was repeated)

  • Continuing Distribution: Some medium-wave; multimedia web and mobile sites and social media

  • Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, English speakers are rarely users of shortwave radio. They are more likely to be educated and affluent, and to have access to a broad range of media. Years of BBG research questions on consumption of VOA English on shortwave have failed to find any significant audiences outside Africa, in large part because usage of shortwave radio in other regions is mostly very low. VOA Lao

  • Cuts: 30 minutes shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: 30 minutes medium-wave; 7 affiliates in Thailand on Lao border, with reach into Laos; multimedia web and mobile sites; social media

  • Shortwave is very little-used in Laos — less than 1% of adults report listening to shortwave radio weekly. In BBG’s most recent research in Laos, no surveyed listeners reported using the shortwave band to access VOA content. A majority (66%) hear VOA on FM, through affiliate stations on the Thai border that carry VOA content (Laos is so small that border FM stations have decent penetration into the country). VOA Special/Learning English 

  • Cuts: 5.5 hours shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: Learning English programs continue on shortwave on English to Africa. 30 minutes medium-wave; multimedia web and mobile sites, including special interactive teaching products; social media, including social English lessons

  • BBG audience research indicates strong interest in learning English, but very limited shortwave listenership to VOA Learning English, outside a few select markets. The service is working more closely with other VOA language services to create English learning products for distribution on more popular channels. And Learning English offers a variety of digital products that are increasingly popular, including a Skype call-in show, videos on YouTube, and a website featuring both audio and transcripts for online audiences to follow as they listen. VOA Uzbek 

  • Cuts: 30 minutes shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: Satellite audio and TV (HotBird); FM and TV affiliates in neighboring countries; multimedia web and mobile sites (with circumvention tools deployed); social media

  • SW is not widely used in Uzbekistan (just 2% weekly), and does not yield significant audiences for the service (0.3% weekly). Adults in Uzbekistan are much more likely to own a satellite dish (13%) or use the Internet (12% weekly) than to use shortwave, so the service provides content on those platforms. Uzbekistan is an especially difficult market to penetrate with USIM content, but shortwave is not an effective platform for the country. RFE/RL Persian (Farda) 

  • Cuts: 1 simultaneous shortwave frequency for 6 broadcast hours

  • Continuing Distribution: Shortwave on multiple frequencies for all 24 broadcast hours remains on, in addition to 24 hours daily medium-wave; “Radio on TV” on VOA Persian stream; 24 hours daily satellite audio with slate plus 24-hour audio on 4 other satellites including Hotbird, the most popular satellite in Iran; multimedia website (with circumvention tools deployed); social media; mobile app with anticensorship proxy server capability built-in.

  • This is only a reduction to the number of simultaneous frequencies during some of the broadcast day. Shortwave radio, with 5% weekly use in 2012, is considerably less popular than other platforms on which audiences can access Farda content, such as medium-wave (10% weekly use), satellite television (26% own a dish, and 33% watch satellite television weekly) or the Internet (39% weekly use). RFA Lao 

  • Cuts: 2 hours shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: 5 FM radio affiliates in Thailand provide cross-border coverage; multimedia web and mobile sites; social media

  • Shortwave is very little-used in Laos — less than 1% of adults report listening to shortwave radio weekly. RFA Lao’s listeners come overwhelmingly via FM stations on the Thai border — 94% of past-week listeners report hearing RFA on FM. (Laos is so small that border FM stations have decent penetration into the country). RFA Vietnamese 

  • Cuts: 2 hours shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: Medium-wave coverage of all broadcast hours remains on; multimedia web and mobile sites (with circumvention tools deployed) include webcasts and other videos; social media

  • Shortwave radio is very little-used in Vietnam — less than 1% of adults report any weekly use of the waveband, and RFA reaches just 0.2% of adults weekly on radio. Medium-wave is slightly more popular, but the future for USIM in Vietnam is likely online: 26% of Vietnamese use the Internet weekly now (with much higher rates among certain populations, like the young and the well-educated), and three in four personally own a mobile phone. While Vietnam attempts to block access to sensitive sites, Vietnam is actually the most active country in our most popular Internet Anti-Censorship tools with almost 600 million hits per day. Languages that continue on shortwave:

    VOA

  • Afan Oromo/Amharic/Tigrigna to Ethiopia and Eritrea

  • Bambara

  • Burmese

  • Cantonese

  • Dari

  • English to Africa

  • English to South Sudan

  • French to Africa

  • Hausa

  • Khmer

  • Kinyarwanda/Kirundi

  • Korean

  • Kurdish

  • Mandarin

  • Pashto (to FATA and Afghanistan)

  • Portuguese to Africa

  • Somali

  • Swahili

  • Tibetan

  • Shona/Ndebele/English to Zimbabwe

     

    OCB

  • Spanish to Cuba

    RFE/RL

  • Avar/Chechen/Circassian

  • Belarusian

  • Dari

  • Pashto (to FATA and Afghanistan)

  • Persian

  • Russian

  • Tajik

  • Turkmen

  • Uzbek RFA

  • Burmese

  • Cantonese

  • Khmer

  • Korean

  • Mandarin

  • Tibetan

  • Uyghur

     

    MBN

  • Arabic (Afia Darfur to Sudan/Chad)

 

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