Friday, January 24, 2020

Australia to reconsider international broadcasting?

Classic Radio Australia QSL card (Gayle Van Horn Collection)

Special thanks to Kim Elliott, for sharing his  International Broadcasting column, from the January 2020, edition of North American Shortwave Association (NASWA). 

Australia contemplates its international broadcasting

Australian pundits and politicians have lately been discussing the revival of Australian international broadcasting, now that it has reached an ebb in terms of budget and output. It is the subject of a substantial report by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank that positions itself as independent, but has been described as “center-right.” “International Public Broadcasting: A Missed Opportunity For Projecting Australia’s Soft Power” is written by Annmaree O’Keeffe and Chris Greene. It can be accessed at

The report’s key findings: “1) The past decade has seen a dramatic decline in Australia’s international public broadcasting, in large part attributable to an absence of strategic vision from both government and the ABC, exacerbated by declining funds. 2) Neglect of international broadcasting has impaired the projection of Australia’s soft power, particularly in the Pacific. Government needs to clarify its purpose and commit to significant medium-term resourcing. 3) To better project Australia’s strengths, a rejuvenated broadcaster should have a new institutional basis within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s remit.”

The report examines aspects of the global environment for international broadcasting: “The revolution in information and communication technologies has caused disruptions which have been as significant for international broadcasting as for other parts of the media and communications industry. At the turn of the millennium, the standard range of platforms for IPBs [international public broadcasters] included both traditional and new media: radio (shortwave and FM), TV (terrestrial, satellite and cable) and internet (although infrequently in multiple languages and not always continuously updated). This landscape altered dramatically in the middle of the first decade, with a game-changing bout of innovation both in the devices available and the information platforms. The advent of Facebook, the rise and fall of MySpace, the success of YouTube, Google, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, all in the first decade, completely transformed the type and range of information platforms accessible to consumers worldwide.”

Small change for Radio Australia

The authors document the decline of Australian international broadcasting: “Perhaps the most damaging blow for Radio Australia came in 2017 when ABC management decided to cut shortwave services to the Pacific. By December 2016, the Khmer, Burmese, Vietnamese, and French language services had already been discontinued, alongside a promise to increase the focus on Chinese, Indonesian and PNG audiences. The following year, the remnants of the ABC’s international services were distributed throughout the organisation.Then in July 2018, yet more re-branding of the international services took place. The international television digital service, Australia Plus, was renamed ABC Australia, while Radio Australia, which had been successful in maintaining its widely recognised call sign for close to 80 years, was to be known as ABC Radio Australia. The demise of Australia's international broadcasting was almost complete, driven by domestic political agendas on both sides of Federal Parliament, combined with the financial priorities of the government and the ABC itself, leaving Radio Australia and its sibling with small change. ...

“With a funding envelope for international broadcasting which is close to a quarter of the size of its budget a decade ago and one of the smallest in a global comparison, the ABC’s ability to effectively meet its target audiences’ expectations and demands with relevant, timely and credible programming is challenged. As scant funding is available for country and language specific programming, the ABC has little option but to opt for rebroadcasting content made for Australian audiences. This is arguably, in the absence of any reliable survey data, of little interest or relevance at least to two of the targeted audiences  – influencers in Asia and the peoples of PNG and the Pacific. …

"Ironically, the ABC’s decision to cancel domestic shortwave services to remote parts of Australia as well as international services to nearby countries catalysed a renewed debate. ... Debate has also been fuelled by China’s expanding broadcasting services into Pacific countries, which had previously been regarded as Australia’s broadcasting domain. The disappearance of Radio Australia’s language broadcasts across much of the region (except Tok Pisin), combined with the retirement of shortwave broadcasting, has created a void which China stands poised to fill."

The Lowy report concentrates on the “public diplomacy” and “soft power” aspects of international broadcasting. This suggests a process in which Australia would transmit Message A (e.g. support for Australian policies and derision of its adversaries) to Audience B resulting in Effects C. But international broadcasting does not work that way. The communication process of international broadcasting starts with the audience and its need for news that is more credible, reliable, and comprehensive than the news they get from their government-controlled domestic media. Any effects would be subtle and long term. It should be enough that a nation provides a news service that allows the people of other countries to form their own opinions about current events.

Credibility is therefore paramount. Credibility is achieved by independence, in reality and in perception. An “institutional basis within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,” as envisioned by that report would wipe out any hopes for real or perceived independence. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for all its recent difficulties, is still seen as an autonomous entity, and that includes its newsroom. And, so, Australian international broadcasting should remain under the ABC.

When Keith Glover started a family (other than his own)

Even the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has been looking at Australian international broadcasting. On December 15, it broadcast a video documentary “Australia Calling: 80 years of International Broadcasting.” The documentarian Michael Vincent wrote: “An hour. An hour of television. I'd never done more than 15 minutes. This hour was largely going to be about … radio. Hmmm, a lack of pictures was going to make it challenging to produce a TV doco but this was an opportunity to pay tribute to eight decades of work by broadcasters and journalists dedicated to international coverage.” (

And then there was this story reported by the ABC website ( “They were from two different countries and had never met or heard the other's voice. But over a number of years Anita and Humphrey Chang fell in love through the radio as their words, written in letters and read out over the airwaves, reached each other across the ocean. In 1967, Humphrey proposed and Anita accepted. Now 52 years later they are still married, with four children and multiple grandchildren. All because they were fans of the same show on the ABC's Radio Australia. The signal was so powerful it could be heard by Australians and foreigners as far away as New York City and Europe. At a time when radio was the only daily international media, Anita and Humphrey both wrote to Keith Glover's Listener's Mailbag, a program that answered various listener queries.”

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