A few last words, then deadly static

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The Independent Online

The assassination was swift and savage. Without warning or fanfare, the BBC World Service pulled the plug at 10.58 GMT yesterday on four shortwave frequencies in Australasia. There was not even a mournful rendition of the Last Post. The cultured tones of the continuity announcer simply gave way to static.

BBC listeners in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, heard their last World Service transmission on 11955, one of the wavelengths consigned to radio's graveyard. From today, they will be left with just three erratic frequencies, and the BBC will have lost some of its most loyal fans.

In the US and Canada, BBC audiences are in even worse straits. At 07.00 GMT today, all shortwave transmissions to North America were to be switched off, with listeners forced to rely on patchy FM rebroadcasts or an audio feed from a sluggish and congested internet.

Unmoved by a tide of angry protests, the World Service has pressed ahead with its deeply unpopular decision to axe shortwave in North America and drastically curtail it in Australasia. A total of 1.2 million people will be affected. "It's appalling. It's short-sighted," said David Norrie, a listener in New Zealand. "It's like losing a friend, someone you thought you could trust." The move will save £500,000, which Mark Byford, director of the World Service, says will be used to improve the delivery of shortwave to less developed countries. But critics say that many people in the two regions do not have access to FM rebroadcasts, and point out that the other alternative suggested by Mr Byford – the Internet – lacks the versatility of a radio.

If the World Service has misjudged its audience, other broadcasters are more canny. From today, Radio Netherlands will transmit to North America on all nine frequencies abandoned by the BBC. "Shortwave remains the only direct way to share a full range of important issues with a loyal audience in the USA and Canada," said Lodewijk Bouwens, the director-general of Radio Netherlands.

The last three hours of 11955 beamed to Australasia were a painful reminder of all that listeners will miss. First came Outlook, a daily half-hour examination of human interest issues around the world .

An interlude of Kurdish music and a poetry reading were followed by Right On, a weekly programme where listeners air their views about the BBC. One topic not discussed was the shortwave controversy; after being swamped by emails, the producers decreed a fortnight ago that a line should be drawn beneath the subject. Instead, listener Tim from Luxembourg, complained about the unwelcome distraction of music played during Sports World.

Shortly before 9pm local time in Sydney, a classical music request programme hosted by Edward Greenfield drew to a close.

"There'll be more from Edward next time," said the continuity announcer. Not for many people in Australasia and North America there won't.

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