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John Metzler Archive
Monday, August 23, 2010

Radio: Still critical in the worldwide marketplace
of ideas

UNITED NATIONS — The familiar words, “BBC World Service and now the news…” became a near iconic radio sign-on for generations around the world, during the Cold War. The British Broadcasting Corporation was one of a few global broadcasters with global reach and more importantly stature and clout. Recently the British government announced a new cutbacks and radio listener numbers took a serious tumble.


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Though many readers may shrug “So What?” today there’s an internet, 24/7 cable stations, and a plethora of media beyond the traditional shortwave radio signals from the BBC, Voice of America, or Radio Canada for that matter, the point is that in the competing battle of ideas, especially in the developing world, such radio broadcasts remain vital as to maintain a free flow of balanced and alternative information.

Americans and Canadians have a myriad of media options. But when the BBC cuts its Arabic service for Sudan as they did, the listeners there are deprived of an alternative voice and source of accurate unbiased information. In Third World countries, it’s not like “well there’s no BBC,” so let’s go online and surf or even watch Fox TV or tune into Al-Jazeera. In regions lacking dependable power and electric such alternatives are simply not an option, whereas radio is, precisely because it is cheap and available.

While Western broadcasters are cutting traditional shortwave radio broadcasts, we actually should be expanding them to places like Islamic Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the myriad of other Stans which emerged from the rubble of the old Soviet Union. These countries need fair, serious and balanced information to counterbalance a muzzled or constricted press.

To a degree we are addressing the issue. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty which was set up during the 1950’s and successfully brought free news and information to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, in the post Cold war era has, reinvented itself and remained a serious player in the battle of ideas. Based in Prague, which in itself is an amazing irony given the nature of the old Czech communist regime before 1989, (Thank you Ronald Reagan and Vlacav Havel),RFE/RL today has redefined its mission and broadcasts to 21 countries in 28 languages.

For example, places like Belarus, Uzbekistan, Serbia and Islamic Republic of Iran. In Iran’s case broadcasts are sent via satellite, shortwave and medium wave (AM) from nearby transmitters in Saudi Arabia. In Serbia where a quasi-free media exists, RFE broadcasts via the Hotbird Satellite to 38 local station affiliates throughout the country. In Belgrade the signal is carried on the crusading independent station B-92. In Belarus where the regime holds a tight lid on media freedom, the station uses the more traditional broadcast from outside transmitting from Lithuania. RFE/RL creatively delivers a free flow of information. The UN Radio uses a similar method of having program packages aired on local stations worldwide.

Equally Washington wisely has kept the influential Radio Marti, broadcasting news and information to communist Cuba, as well as the respected Radio Free Asia broadcasting to Burma, Cambodia and Mainland China. But the battle of ideas continues unabated.

Don’t think for a moment the field is clear. China Radio International has become a major player with mega budgets and an increasingly slick news presentation. Emerging from the old Radio Peking which whose propaganda fare and Maoist hit parade never had much of an audience outside the Third World and leftwing enclaves like Berkeley, California, the new CRI is light on propaganda and smooth in presentation. CRI broadcasts in 58 languages and 1,520 hours weekly.

Importantly using local relay stations in the USA in places like Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, the CRI message is also on Medium wave — that’s AM on your radio dial!

The Beijing leadership has pumped $7 billion into CRI for its global influence reach, not just in the developing world, but equally now in North America!

Naturally there’s probably no better known TV station overseas than Al-Jazeera, which broadcasts from Qatar. A well-funded news operation which uses mostly professional British journalists, Al Jazeera remains a major player in the Middle East.

Of course there’s BBC-TV, France 24, and Deutsche Welle.

Few however are familiar with Iran’s contribution to the airwaves; the innocuous sounding Press TV which is slick and increasingly popping up in feature segments even in major countries. Though connected to the rather creepy sounding Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the controversial Press TV hosts a 24 hour English language service headquartered in Teheran.

So what should we do? Respected players like Voice of America, BBC, Radio Netherlands, and Deutsche Welle, should concentrate on refining and expanding services for Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to name a few. This is obvious. But it’s equally important not to overlook both the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa.

The free flow of dependable information and alternative opinion remains crucial to political discourse in so many parts of the world. Radio delivered through a mix of mediums remains far more cost effective that TV, is more accessible, and effective for opinion makers. In this global battle of ideas, we should do no less.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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