BOB GARFIELD: The world service of the British Broadcasting Corporation has set the standard for international short wave stations for some 70 years. It's long-famous for fair and balanced news coverage and respected for the wall it's tried to build between its editorial mission and its funder, the British Government. Until recently short wave radio, with its long reach but low fidelity, was the main way the BBC World Service reached its vast audience. But earlier this month it broadcast a message that signaled the beginning of the end of an era. It announced that it would end short wave transmissions aimed towards North America, Australia and New Zealand in favor of re-broadcasts on F.M. and live streaming via the Internet. David Goren has this story.
DAVID GOREN: Shortly before 6 p.m. eastern time, North American short wave listeners are tuning in to BBC World Service relay transmitters. They're waiting for the bells. [BELLS OF BIG BEN RING OUT]
ANNOUNCER: This is the BCC in London bringing you the latest news reports and business updates from around the world. BBC World Service -- news 24 hours a day.
DAVID GOREN: Since 1932, the BBC World Service has beamed its programs worldwide over the short wave bands. Each week 153 million people tune in for a different perspective on the news.
ANNOUNCER: Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh is finally executed during international condemnation, but Americans' delight.
WOMAN: [...?...] so gay. [He's] so glad that he is dead. He is gone! Can't hurt nobody else. He deserved what he got.
DON MUSSELL: I would listen to the Voice of America and hear the news at the top of the hour, and then I'd listen to the BBC news at the top of the hour -- it was like listening to a whole different planet.
DAVID GOREN: Don Mussell has been listening to the BBC and other international broadcasters since the early 1960s.
MAN: The angle from which they came to the news seemed fairly well-balanced - almost sitting back and observing - saying well over here they're doing this and over there they're doing that. [LAUGHS] In sort of a, a-- I don't know - I don't want to say disconnected - but they were sort of-- aloof perhaps. Didn't seem like they were taking any advocacy one way or the other, and it --and I know that that was important to them. I think that's the image that they wanted to project. [MUSIC]
WOMAN: BBC On Air Magazine is your complete monthly guide to every program on BBC World Service.
DAVID GOREN: In North America more than a million people tune in to the BBC each week. They're passionate about the BBC, and many have been listening for decades. Some of them bought a short wave radio just to hear the World Service. They prize what the BBC calls "the rich mix -- a blend of news, drama, documentary and music programs." Earlier this month the North American relay stations began airing this message:
ANNOUNCER: From July the 1st we'll be discontinuing short wave to North America. The majority of our listeners now hear us via our growing number of F.M. partners, by satellite, cable and of course the Internet. And we'll be on new digital radio services later this year. The money we save by closing our short wave to North America will help us invest in new technologies which will improve audibility for listeners all over the world.
JERRY TIMMINS: If you look at what has been happening to our audiences over the last 6 years or so, that really explains the decision.
DAVID GOREN: Jerry Timmins is Head of the Americas for the BBC World Service. He says BBC audience research shows rapid growth in their non-short wave audience. 2 and a half million via F.M. re-broadcasts and one and a half million over the Internet. At the same time, the short wave audiences remain stable at just over a million. Timmins says that they want to drop short wave in North America to bolster services elsewhere.
JERRY TIMMINS: The BBC faces significant investment decisions in short wave, F.M. and on line both in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, and we have to cut our cloth to fit those investments.
RALPH BRANDI: I don't think that argument holds a lot of water, to be honest.
DAVID GOREN: Ralph Brandi listens to the BBC on short wave several hours a day. He started a web site: savebbc.org.
RALPH BRANDI: If you look at how much money they're saving on this, it's, it's a half million pounds out of a budget of more than 180 million pounds. It's like 1/360th of their budget.
DAVID GOREN: Many listeners feel that the BBC is rushing to embrace new delivery methods and new technology before they're fully in place.
RALPH BRANDI: If we could move to F.M., we would! But the programs simply aren't there. The F.M. coverage is so spotty and tends to be overnight, so it's not available at the times when people want to listen. And the Internet isn't portable; isn't intimate like radio. KING GEORGE VI: Through one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled this Christmas day to speak to all my people throughout the empire -- to men and women so cut off by the snow, desert or the sea that only voices out of the air can reach them.
DAVID GOREN: That's King George VI- delivering his 1932 Christmas address to his subjects over the newly launched Empire Service, the precursor to the World Service. Sir John Reith started the Empire Service to link the British colonies together and also to counter other voices in the air, notably propaganda broadcasts from Italy and Germany. The BBC featured regular newscasts and saturated the airwaves with British culture. [CLASSICAL MUSIC] [BRIEF EXCERPTS OF FOREIGN LANGUAGE BROADCASTS] The BBC broadcasts in 43 languages including English. The Foreign Language Services began in 1938 with Arabic. They added French, German and Italian as World War II began to unfold.
ANNOUNCER: London calling in the Home, Overseas and European Services of the BBC and through United Nations Radio, Mediterranean.
DAVID GOREN: John Figliozzi writes about international broadcasting for Monitoring Times.
JOHN FIGLIOZZI: World War II was the seminal moment where people turned to the BBC as the authoritative voice of what was going on in the world, and I think that carried over with, you know, crises that took place afterwards.
ANNOUNCER: Early this morning the Soviet troops launched a general attack on Hungary. For the [sake of God] and freedom, help Hungary!
JOHN FIGLIOZZI: The reason for existence for international broadcasting after the Second World War was the Cold War. The Free World had free flow of information; the Communist World was controlled information; the BBC had that role as well as other international broadcasters in trying to punch through that Iron Curtain.
ANNOUNCER: Around me scores of people have arrived, being held back by the police, to watch this first incision into the Berlin Wall....
DAVID GOREN: After the Cold War ended, the BBC and other international broadcasters struggled to re-define themselves. Over the past 10 years, more staff have come from commercial radio and the sound of the BBC has changed. Some signature sounds, like Big Ben, have all but disappeared. Very narrowly focused programs like Farming World and On the Move about transportation have been dropped and their subjects folded into more general shows, and increasingly like other international broadcasters, they're seeking to place their programming on other media. Jerry Timmins is Head of the Americas for the BBC World Service.
JERRY TIMMINS: I'd love to have hung on to the short wave for a bit longer, but the reality is that we have investment decisions to make. You have to balance the overall long term gain against the short term pain of losing some services.
DAVID GOREN: Once the North American relay transmitters are cut off, veteran short wave listener Don Mussell says he'll miss the pleasures of plucking the BBC out of the air. [SOUNDS OF SEARCHING ON THE RADIO UP & UNDER]
DON MUSSELL: I have a short wave radio in the car, and there are large stretches of the country, especially in the Mountain West, where there's just basically nothing to listen to, and it's so nice to be able to punch up the short wave side and key in to one of the BBC transmitters and-- I guess I'm going to miss that.
DAVID GOREN: For On the Media, this is David Goren. [MUSIC]