International Broadcasting Stations of the United States (May 15, 1939)
Government Broadcasting,  International Media

Shortwave Radio: Reaching Dissidents in China? Good theory, but…

Shortwave radio was a mainstay of international news and information programs. It was the “new media” embraced to bypass and overcome the censorship of cables, the “old media.” This was particularly true in the United States. Radio broadcasting was seen as such an important and critical element to our national security a century ago that the Secretary of the Navy, a newspaper owner interested in the psychological defense of the nation, tried several times to nationalize wireless transmitters. He may have failed, but he contributed to forcing a British firm to sell their U.S. broadcasting assets which became the Radio Corporation of America. Indicative of the importance of the medium, RCA voting stock could only be owned by U.S. citizens, a restriction that was not removed until the 1980s. 

Shortwave radio was used by nations for engagement, to distribute news and information to faraway places. It is not surprising then to see a new article urging the use of shortwave today to penetrate censorship in China.

This is brought to the public’s attention in “How Dissidents Are Using Shortwave Radio to Broadcast News Into China.” The basic proposal sounds great in theory, but reality is something else.

In 2014, I chaired and directed a special subcommittee at the then-named Broadcasting Board of Governors to look into the utility and value of shortwave broadcasting as it related to the agency’s mission. There were severe pressures to eliminate all shortwave broadcasting on the a) assumption that digital could reach everyone (or reach anyone that mattered) and b) basis that shortwave infrastructure is relatively very expensive, especially if the target audience is quite small, and the money could be better used on other technologies. The report, To Be Where the Audience Is (August 2014), was the result of internal analysis, interviews and analysis from outside the agency, comments from State Department, including from officials in the areas then being served by BBG shortwave, comments from the Defense Department, and comments from the public (inside and outside the U.S.).

There were some regions where shortwave remained (five years ago) critical. In places like China, the shortwave audience had shrunk considerably. One thing about shortwave radio users is once they leave, they rarely come back. Besides being asynchronous mode of communication (you need to be listening at the moment of broadcast), the channel (frequency) will change according to time of year and environmental issues, requiring additional work on the part of the user to get the signal. This latter point is significant for the new or inexperienced user than the “old hands” and it can be overcome by advertising on other mediums and word of mouth.

Shortwave has value, but it appeals most to hobbyists and to those who hear the concept but not the practical realities. It does reach across huge distances, readily flowing from one country to another irrespective of national boundaries. A single broadcast can blanket an entire country or broad regions. Shortwave radios, and kits to make the radios were relatively inexpensive and widely available. Users could tune in to hear the news and languages of faraway lands. Newspapers printed broadcast schedules and dedicated columns to programs discovered on the air. Some towns even instituted “silent nights” where local radio stations went off the air to reduce interference and improve reception of long-distance shortwave signals.

From NYT's Radio's Shortwaves, August 8, 1937
From “Radio’s Short Waves,” New York Times, August 8, 1937. The discussion at the top left is about employing a “universal language” for “broadcasting purposes which is said to be without grammar or idiom, and capable of being understood in all civilized tongues without prolonged study.”

Shortwave is often a lossy format, which means it is not clean and clear as one often hears from the local FM station. It is suited for long-form storytelling when not hearing a word every now and then does not lose the listener.

It is also easy to jam and China has historically spent vast resources on jamming signals quickly and continuously. Jamming is easy: broadcast a noise of some kind (words, static, music, etc) at the same frequency. Considering the Chinese government’s transmitters are closer to the target users in this (and most) cases, jamming is relatively easy, efficient, and effective.

Not mentioned in the article is DRM, or “digital shortwave.” This is understandable as it is an unrealistic alternative for this target audience, but it is worth mentioning. The sets are expensive, hard to get, and not a superior alternative in the eyes of potential users. There is limited content available (because there are relatively few users, a classic chicken-and-egg problem) and, in 2014, a DRM set was, five years ago, at least twice the price of a complete Ku Band satellite dish setup that offered rich video and audio content.

By the way, India was, in 2014, investing heavily in DRM, for domestic and foreign audiences (including, interestingly, in Russian to Russian territories). They later ended that program.

With regard to BBG (now USAGM) audience in China, the estimated shortwave audience in China (Mandarin) was 0.03%. Even if we inflate that number x10, that is a very high “listener-for-dollar” cost that suggests other methods of engagement, or information delivery, maybe more effective. Most alternatives are asynchronous, which has its own advantages. For example, the audio (or video or text, or a combination) can be uploaded to platforms like GitHub or AWS, which Beijing cannot or does not block or censor effectively (see the idea of “Collateral Freedom“).

There were, and probably will continue to be, reports that Chinese dissidents listened shortwave, but this is at a very high cost.

There is another side that shortwave proponents may raise: when disaster strikes in China, at least up until five years ago, the authorities distributed SW sets to enable information delivery to stricken areas when the information infrastructure was knocked out. But, as noted above, this is not the preferred consumer’s platform and revert to using more vibrant, richer, easier to use, entertaining alternatives.

Research has shown repeatedly that once users leave the platform, they do not come back. There was an argument that shortwave is an alternative to an information blackout (ie shutting down internet access), but at the time of the report, there were many recent examples showing that users preferred to, essentially, “sit in the dark” or sought workarounds rather than return to the legacy shortwave platform.

This raises more questions about who to reach and why. Presumably, the Sound of Hope wants to reach, and influence, more than farmers in deeply rural and disconnected villages far from cities, where jamming is less effective due to the great expanses. If Sound of Hope’s audiences are in the cities, it is likely their target audiences will see shortwave as an inconvenience, or at best, a novelty, and will be more likely the target of effective jamming. Maybe the Chinese that seek avocado on toast will want their parent’s shortwave set?

For some audiences and markets, shortwave remains important. China is not one of them.

On the point made early in the article that shortwave is a gray area, that is not accurate. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has long held (effectively “forever”) that shortwave is an “international broadcast service.” That has not prevented jamming, but it is not illegal to broadcast shortwave into another country while it is illegal to broadcast FM or AM under the same circumstances.

9 Comments

  • Steven Herman

    Shortwave obviously no longer has the advantage it once does. However, people in rural areas in the developing world do still listen to it and it has value in reaching countries where the internet is not available and satellite dishes are forbidden (North Korea, for one).

    It makes sense for USAGM and others to retain some shortwave for times of crisis, or dare I say, a post-apocalyptic scenario as recreating the infrastructure would be challenging.

    And if shortwave is of scant value why are the Chinese continuing to expand their use of it for external broadcasting?

    • Matt Armstrong

      I don’t know if this is rhetorical or a question to me. I did state that it is still useful: “For some audiences and markets, shortwave remains important. China is not one of them.” This is predicated on realistic budgeting aligned with a coherent mission. There are people in China that shortwave can reach, but two fundamental questions must be asked: are they the audience to reach and are they an audience that will listen?

      That China uses it to reach external audiences is not germane to the discussion of reaching audiences inside of China.

    • Kai Ludwig

      It is a myth that China still expands its use of shortwave for external broadcasting. Indeed almost fifty transmitters of 500 kW each (and further ones of 100 kW) have been installed after 1990, but they were done with this by 2005, almost 15 years ago. The situation is just that all this equipment is still in use while in the meantime more and more other broadcasts ceased, thus China dominates the shortwave bands more and more. But how many listeners has China Radio International on shortwave, or in fact on any distribution platform, in reality? Do they ever ask themselves such questions at all?

      I really support (if anyone cares even the slightest bit about this) all efforts to prevent a quick extinguishing of the whole shortwave broadcasting platform, but I fear that weak arguments just won’t work. Here I think as an example of a recent article in Radio World which, I fear, was no help but rather counterproductive.

  • Daniel Robinson

    First, on the comments above — Steve Herman’s response is typical of what emerges from within the USAGM structure where jobs are at stake — which is to make a case that shortwave somehow can still play some crucial role in so-called information-deprived areas.

    Like Steve, I am a longtime fan of shortwave, but let’s face facts — this mode of delivery is fast approaching ZERO value, even in these places due to the spread of mobile phones and Internet.

    For decades, USAGM (formerly BBG) rode along on the coattails of shortwave delivery to these information-deprived areas, of which the primary one remains North Korea. VOA as well as Radio Free Asia have Korean language websites and broadcasts (by the way, just one of the examples of ongoing duplication within the USAGM structure — others include Chinese, Cambodian, Tibetan and Burmese).

    But in North Korea specifically, anyone caught listening to foreign media like USAGM, or BBC (which began Korean-language broadcasts for North Korea — supposedly also for South Koreans and anyone speaking the language globally) can suffer severe punishment, up to and including death.

    [By the way, BBC also added 11 other languages (Afaan, Oromo, Amharic, Gujarati, Igbo, Korean, Marathi, Pidgin, Punjabi, Serbian, Telugu, Tigrinya and Yoruba). BBC sold the additional expense of these efforts to the UK government on grounds of its well-established global reputation for “fairness and impartiality”]

    USAGM continues to sell Congress, thus the American taxpayer, on the alleged critical need to continue pouring content into North Korea via shortwave. But an increasing number of observers outside the USAGM are asking, to what end?

    Since global international broadcasting began many decades ago during the 20th century, it has been funded primarily by governments — the main point to “educate and inform” foreign populations about the originating country’s policies, culture, government, etc. (USAGM likes to use the word “connect”). During World War II, VOA was funded to counter the Nazi propaganda machine.

    But let’s face it, a key objective of what became a tangled web of broadcasters under the old USIA, the Board for International Broadcasting (remember that one?), and later the BBG and now USAGM was also hasten regime change where it was seen to be necessary, and in the interests of the United States.

    Today, what are USAGM broadcasts to North Korea accomplishing, given the potential harsh penalties — much more severe actually than those who listened in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe — for those caught consuming this external programming?

    Ongoing taxpayer funding of USAGM is being spent in a number of other areas such as training of journalists in developing nations, and on anti-Internet Censorship technologies. As of now, taxpayer funding to USAGM — at $800 million plus per year — is certainly keeping hundreds of people employed.

    But if USAGM disappeared tomorrow, there would be barely a ripple of reaction around the world to its sudden absence, unlike the BBC which has established itself as a 24/7 global news leader.

  • Keith Perron

    Just like Dan, I was also a fan of shortwave. But its usefulness has long passed.

    Now some very often point to China. I worked at China Radio International from 2001 to 2008 and was the first ever foreigner appointed as a manager for a newly created department called Overseas Programs for Domestic Use (direct Chinese translation so it sounds funny as a name). Even though were were directly under Li Ping (head of English at the time), we operated separately to the rest of CRI. our mandate was to produce programs for broadcast on stations outside of China and for the web.

    One of the advantages I had as a foreigner and my background in international broadcasting was at meetings with officials, very often I would confront the CRI leadership on what they would tell officials. CRI’s expansion of shortwave as someone pointed out actually ended around 2005. This expansion had nothing to do with shortwave or even reaching listeners. It was for internal propaganda purposes. Internal as in CRI’s relationship with the Central Committee, SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film & Television), Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Defense. All of which contribute to CRI’s annual budget.

    I use the term “internal propaganda” because in the 1990s. China’s leadership who consisted of Zhao Ziyang, Li Peng and members of the state council were obsessed with the BBC and the VOA and how many these two broadcasters had on air. Around the time Radio Beijing switched its name to China Radio International in 1993. CRI to obtain more funds. Handed a plan to the members of the Central Committee and Standing Committee for a massive budget increase for shortwave transmitters so as to expand to the level of hours and languages equal or more than the VOA and the BBC.

    At nearly ever meeting I attended with officials. CRI was always pushing now we have more hours on air than the BBC and VOA. But never any mention on how many people were listening. Two years before I left CRI they were discussing adding new languages to as to pass the BBC and the VOA. The languages they eventually added were Dutch, Swedish, Greek, Hebrew, Belarusian, and even Icelandic (Icelandic was eventually dropped after 1 year as they were unable to find any staff).

    I still remember being at the meeting in 2007 when CRI leadership proposed this to the government. I actually laughed at them. An official from the Central Committee asked me why and I told him. Dutch? you’ve got to be kidding me. Icelandic? Swedish? He also agreed that it was ridiculous. But he said the problem was the Central Committee leadership only want to hear number of languages and number of hours and is it more than the BBC and the VOA. If people listen or not isn’t important.

    What I find most amusing about shortwave is the only time I ever hear about it being important and millions and millions of people are listening. Is always from people who don’t work in broadcasting and don’t work in international broadcasting.

    Some of you might remember or heard of the Group of Seven? This was founded after 1991 of small to medium size international broadcasters. It included Radio Canada International, Radio Netherlands, Swiss Radio International, Radio Australia, Radio Sweden, Radio Japan and Radio Korea International (DW joined later). The big discussion that took place at he first meeting was “What do we do now?”. The only broadcaster at that was focused on the future was Radio Netherlands, who only a couple of years later created a website (only text) and had started testing audio over the internet. By the meetings of the late 90s everyone knew shortwave days were numbered, but most were still pushing it as a way to keep their budgets, which by this time were getting smaller.

    Shortwave had a good run, but its time has passed.

    During my first visit to Burma in 2006. Finding people who listened to shortwave outside the capital was easy. last year when I went to the same areas. I didn’t even see one shortwave radio. Up until 2010 both the Changi Aiport and Hong Kong International Airport. All had shortwave radios for sale in the departure lounges. As did other international airports in the Asia/Pacific region. I haven’t seen any now for the past 9 years.

    Sangean, which is 10 minute drive from my place is a good example of how things are. In the early 90s. Shortwave radio accounted for nearly 85% of their business. Today its less than 2%. In 2008 they had around 25 people working in their shortwave department. As people started to retire they were never replaced. Now at this point someone will say what about Tecsun? Well Tecsun is an SOE (State Owned Enterprise), which gets its money from the government to employ people no matter if they sell anything or not. Just like how companies in the former GDR and USSR were set up.

    Things change and we need to move forward and stop holding onto the past.

  • Kim Andrew Elliott

    More and more countries are finding more and more ways to block the internet. There are circumvention tools, but those same countries are finding new ways to stymie those, as well. The ultimate interdiction method is to shut off, or physically cut, the lines that bring internet traffic into a country from abroad. Then no IP-based circumvention tool will work.

    So if there is any hope of delivering uncensored information to a denied country, it will have to be via some RF (radio frequency) medium. Satellite receiving equipment is expensive and conspicuous. Satellites are relatively easy to jam. (The planned LEO constellations promising to deliver global internet are intriguing, in that they might bring down the costs of receivers and could be more difficult to jam.)

    This leaves us with shortwave. The VOA Radiogram and now Shortwave Radiogram experiments have shown that text and images — the stuff of web pages — can be transmitted by any old shortwave broadcast transmitter designed for voice and music. Reception can be on any shortwave radio. The tones are decoded by a PC using free software or a mobile device using a free app. This software needs to be simplified and even incorporated into future shortwave radios. This new use of an old technology is more robust (survives difficult reception conditions) than traditional voice via shortwave, and has even been shown to survive jamming.

    The audience for shortwave broadcasting will never again be large. But the remaining small and dedicated shortwave audience will be able to receive and relay vital news and pass it on to compatriots via what becomes the target country’s intranet.

    In the next major crisis or, heaven forbid, war, a country without some shortwave capacity will find itself unable to inform audiences most in need of that information.

  • Hologram Wireless

    Avoid conflating shortwave with state-owned international broadcasting. The future of shortwave is smaller, more numerous facilities and ownership by non-state actors; domestic use, and transmission of digital content as more robust than analog voice in an era of poor solar conditions. The hoary U.S. shortwave rules are still based on a 1930s regime, preventing the kind of renaissance we are seeing with small shortwave stations in Europe. The current FCC administration, hell-bent on cutting down reams of consumer-protective regulations, should direct its sharp implements to the absurdly obsolete shortwave rules and allow experiments and innovation to flourish.

  • Ben Dawson

    This article does not make mention of international broadcasting by high power directionalized “medium wave” or “medium frequency” AM. MF AM is used by USAGM, the BBC, Radio France, and several other international broadcasters, and can be more effective than HF broadcasting when location and propagation conditions are favorable. And MF AM receivers are very ubiquitous even in very poor and “underdeveloped” places.

    (Note that I’m a consulting engineer and MF AM transmission systems are a considerable part of my firm’s practice, so I’m not exactly unprejudiced on the subject!)

    • Matt Armstrong

      No, my reply did not mention medium wave, and that was intentional. FM is only mentioned because the original article made specific, if incorrect or misleading, reference to FM. If Sound of Hope used, or planned on using, MW to reach their target audience in China, it would be a different discussion. The range of MW, and the related matter of accessing appropriately placed and powered transmitters, would be a whole different conversation, one that focused a lot more on where Sound of Hope’s audience is.

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