Closure of ABC shortwave service a cause for concern?

Thursday 2 February 2017

Image: John Georgiou/Creative Commons

With close to eight decades of transmission the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has cut its shortwave service to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific region.

The service, which also covered Australia’s Northern Territory, was reportedly closed due to its outdated equipment and maintenance expenses, saving around AUS$ 2million per year in transmission costs.

The closure is also in line with ABC’s commitment to expand its digital content on mobile devices, online and through DAB+ as well as expanding its FM services. This, according to ABC’s Head of International Lynley Marshall, will better serve audiences of the future who increasingly use mobile phones to access FM radio.

Yet the closure has left people throughout the Pacific region without a service that has catered for a multitude of essential needs; from being one of the few sources of transparent news media in the Solomon Islands, to a lifesaving warning system in Vanuatu, which has suffered from numerous disasters in recent years. During Fiji’s military coup ABC’s shortwave broadcasts provided much needed independent coverage of unfolding events.

Criticism from the Northern Territory has largely been centred on the concerns of remote listeners, including commercial fishermen, pastoralists and tour operators, who can struggle to receive AM or FM signals. Many remote listeners rely on shortwave as their only source of information in the territory, leading to further concerns about their mental and emotional wellbeing after the loss of live radio, as reported in The Guardian.

Yet the ABC has said in a statement that a transition programme will be available for those losing the service, with comprehensive advice on how to access emergency info, news and entertainment. It will also continue to broadcast across the Northern Territory on FM and AM bands, online, through its smartphone app and via the viewer access satellite television (VAST) service.

“The ABC will assist with the transition to new technologies as well as the use of modern and reliable devices such as emergency GPS beacons and affordable satellite telephones. Further information and specialist advice will be provided on how to access these services, including how to download catch-up radio programs and ABC podcasts to listen to whilst on the move.”, the statement said.

However, this has been of little consolation to many across the region who worry that the shut-off has taken place without ensuring audiences have the means to access services through alternative or more up-to-date technology.

These anxieties have also led to a proposed Bill that will be introduced to Australia’s parliament next week, seeking to force ABC to reinstate the service. However, assurances have been made that the Bill will not be aimed at telling the ABC what to do editorially, according to a RNZ report.

Radio New Zealand and further afield

 Concerns from Pacific states and Melanesia regarding the loss of ABC’s shortwave service have encouraged Radio New Zealand (RNZ) to reassure listeners of its commitment to regional broadcast partners as well as confirming the continuation of its international service.

Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) has been broadcasting since 1990 in analogue shortwave and more recently on digital platforms. It is a proven lifeline for remote islands and communities, especially in times of natural disaster, with close to twenty Pacific radio stations relaying RNZI content.

The closure of ABC’s shortwave service follows similar changes further afield in the Pacific. Last week we reported on the switch-off of Radio Polynésie Première’s AM signal by the French government, leaving communities in Polynesia’s valleys and remote atolls with no local service.

Yet despite adding five FM transmitters in a bid to improve its reach, the move was widely criticised for not considering the population’s access to suitable FM technology and its vulnerability to poor weather. You can read the full report here.