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The future of the World Service
22 Aug 2011
BY EMILY BUTSELAAR

In many parts of the world, the BBC is a voice of reason, providing real information to even out the state propaganda elsewhere on the radio dial. Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi recently said the BBC World Service gave her a lifeline while she was under house arrest.

Read Index’s Jo Glanville’s brilliant essay about the service’s future in London Review of Books “Auntie Mabel doesn’t give a toss about Serbia

If it is considered an important part of the World Service’s mission to impart information to audiences in countries where the media are restricted, then shortwave surely wins out as the more reliable means of communication. It can be jammed, but it cannot be wholly disabled – as the internet and mobile phone networks were in Egypt earlier this year. Shortwave’s adherents are concerned that the World Service is turning away from the people who need it in favour of an audience of ‘opinion-formers’. Its managers claim the contrary, pointing to the maintenance of shortwave in Burma as an example, but a poorer, rural audience is being left behind, and when a country’s dictator takes control of radio broadcasts, the World Service will no longer be available there in any form.

If the BBC decides that it can no longer afford to maintain the infrastructure for shortwave, and begins to close down its transmitter sites around the world as other international broadcasters have done, there will be consequences for its participation in a new form of digital radio called Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM). It is the digital version of shortwave and medium wave, providing high-quality radio with the advantage that it can be transmitted, free from political interference, over great distances. DRM is still in its early stages and receivers are not yet widely available, but India and Russia have both committed to it, and Brazil is thinking about it. The World Service is involved – one of its executives chairs the DRM consortium – but its role might be jeopardised if it pulls out of shortwave since DRM uses the same facilities and frequencies.

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