Why the BBC's short-wave switch-off does a disservice to the English-speaking world

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The Independent Online

Chris Elliott is incandescent. "It's a disgrace," he says, his cockney tones reverberating down the telephone line from Tasmania as he fumes at plans by the BBC World Service to end short-wave transmissions to North America and drastically curtail them in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

It is 26 years since Mr Elliott emigrated to Australia, but the London-born bus driver still relies on the BBC for the football scores and for what he describes as "the best unbiased news coverage in the world".

Half a world away, Bob Cate, a San Francisco photographer, feels much the same. "I've been listening to the Beeb since 1980. This is like a member of the family dying or a trusted friend, for a reward, turning you in to the authorities for something you didn't do," he raged.

It is not nostalgia for Britain that drives Mr Cate, since he is American. Rather, it is the feeling that the World Service offers a window on to world affairs unrivalled by any other news network.

From Sunday, that window is going to be slammed shut for an estimated 1.2 million listeners in North America and the Pacific. In America, the service will be scrapped altogether; in Australasia, it will affect four out of seven frequencies, leaving only the most erratic and unreliable in operation.

Senior executives at the World Service have been unapologetic over the change. They say listeners in the United States, Canada and Australasia have many other ways of tuning in, from rebroadcasts on FM stations to the internet, with the prospect of satellite radio also just around the corner. They argue that the money saved by switching off the short-wave transmitters in industrialised English-speaking countries – about £500,000 – will free funds to expand service to areas of the Third World that even the BBC is still unable to reach.

"In the US," the World Service's chief executive, Mark Byford, argued recently, "three times as many people listen to us on FM as on shortwave and one and a half million users access us online each month. In Australia, listening to shortwave has dropped by two-thirds over the last eight years, as listeners migrate to FM rebroadcasts via ABC."

Such arguments do not impress Ralph Brandi, an enthusiast from New Jersey, who has helped to set up a campaigning website called www.savebbc.org. Thanks partly to his efforts, angry letters of protest have been flooding into embassies and consulates across the region and into Bush House, the London home of the World Service. It is proving to be a formidable grassroots rebellion.

Mr Brandi said: "The money that's being saved is half a million pounds out of a £180m budget. I'm not convinced that this move is about money at all. I think the BBC wants to be seen as 'hi-tech', you know, they want to be the first broadcasters to broadcast on the internet. But the fact is, technically speaking, there are real problems." The FM rebroadcasts are generally restricted to large urban areas and rarely provide anything resembling the full BBC service except in the middle of the night.

In the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, for example, listeners can catch just one hour's worth every lunchtime. In San Francisco, one of two public radio stations runs only the news summary at the top of the hour during daylight hours. In remoter parts of New Zealand, or in the vast expanses of the American West, it is often hard to find an FM station at all, much less one that carries the Beeb. Ryan Ellegood writes sardonically on the savebbc website: "I wonder how long it will be before I get the BBC on FM in rural Northwest Tennessee."

The BBC's answer to these people is to use the internet, but that raises its own problems. Without the kind of bandwidth still unavailable to most computer users, transmissions tend to get blocked. And, as Mr Elliott in Tasmania points out, "How do you take a computer into the garden or the shower?"

The campaigners on save bbc.com reckon the BBC is jumping the technological gun by at least three years. As they wrote in a letter to Bush House: "The ability to hear the World Service through additional means – FM rebroadcast, the internet and eventually direct digital satellite – is most welcome. Our deep reservations and objections are over the timing of this 'transition'."

The BBC admits this will, in some ways, be the end of an era. The World Service has been broadcasting on short wave since its inception in 1932.

Through that medium, the audience has grown to 153 million listeners, with more than 40 foreign-language services. But clearly times are changing and more powerful transmission tools are taking over.

For many World Service fans, the technology is not in itself the root problem, merely the symptom of a pernicious new broadcasting mindset. The BBC, they feel, has largely abandoned its commitment to public service, and now treats its listeners as statistical data to be used and abused according to the dictates of the bottom line.

According to Mr Cate, the San Francisco photographer, the rot set in in 1995 when the World Service shuffled its schedules to put more sport into prime time and push serious news programming into the late evening and night. "They did it because they knew they'd get more listeners, but it also took away part of what made the BBC special," he said. "The extraordinary thing is, they have spent all these years dumbing down but they are still the best news service."

Such sentiments were echoed in a motion filed last Friday by Austin Mitchell MP, who decried "the penny-pinching folly of abandoning a devoted audience with a real interest in Britain" and urged the BBC to reconsider what he called its "ill-considered" decision.

On the other side of the world, an Air New Zealand business systems manager, Brian Clarke, also believes the cuts are a false economy. "The World Service ... is the best advertisement for Britain that you could possibly dream up," he said. "I can tune into the BBC from anywhere; it's a lifeline to the rest of the world."

For him and hundreds of thousands of others, however, there are just four days left before that lifeline is abruptly cut.