Implications of BBC World Service Cuts - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Catherine Westcott, Senior Frequency Manager, BBC World Service


  • In my opinion, as someone who has worked at the World Service for many years, with a technical background and involvement with outside agencies and listeners, the proposed changes will radically change what the World Service is and does and who can access it.
  • An internal BBC email (5) details my opinion on dangers of shortwave reduction.
  • A flyer demonstrates why shortwave broadcasting is important.
  • My recommendations: more funding must be found to reverse short wave cuts and serious consideration should be made about returning to direct Government funding for World Service.


1.  I have worked for BBC World Service for over 20 years, beginning as a BBC trainee engineer and working on the maintenance of broadcast equipment and operational programme distribution in the Control Room. My role now involves overseeing the shortwave and medium wave scheduling, frequency management and distribution and also ensuring the needs of World Service and Global News operations (for whatever platform) are represented in national and international technical regulatory fora.

2.  During my time at BBC World Service I have worked with many organisations external to the BBC and also been fortunate to communicate with and sometimes meet our listeners in places as diverse as Cuba, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and Uzbekistan. My work has been very varied: I have attended conferences at the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) both as BBC and also as part of the UK delegation, given presentations to NATO, trained Afghan journalists to monitor our shortwave broadcasts and chatted to refugees about the BBC cricket coverage.


3.  I am shocked at the level and detail of the changes which have been proposed and believe that the World Service will not survive them. The changes, specifically the massive reductions to radio distribution will radically change what we do and who can access us. Our most important audiences, those who are not so easily represented in audience data and who do not have a voice than can be heard via social media, will be further dispossessed. I also think that it is disingenuous to suggest that our listeners will be more comfortable knowing that World Service is being paid for by the UK public via the licence fee. BBC World Service is consistently voted the most trusted of all the international broadcasters. Our international listeners do not appear to be uncomfortable with us being funded directly by the Government.

4.  I submit 2 documents which may contain useful information. The first is a copy of an email I sent to our senior management in November outlining my concerns about any reductions to our short wave broadcasting (copied below). The second is a flyer I wrote in 2007 to help our representations at the ITU for extra short wave spectrum.[1]


  • More funding is required to reverse the reductions to short wave and retain the WS audience and reputation.
  • Consider the long-term benefit to UK Government of returning the WS to direct Government funding.


From:Cath Westcott
Sent:08 November 2010 16:37
To:Peter Horrocks & Assistant; Jim Egan; Liliane Landor; Craig Oliver
Cc:Richard Porter & PA
Subject:Reduction of short wave broadcasting

Dear Peter, Jim, Liliane and Craig,

I realise this is a time of tough choices about where savings can be made, but feel I would not be doing my job if I did not make you all aware of some of my concerns around the extent of the reduction to short wave broadcasting which may be being considered.

I recently wrote a paper for the World Service Management Board "Options for the future distribution and consumption of World Service radio" having spent six months working with Strategy looking at developments in radio globally and the distribution of broadcasting content generally. The conclusions I reached about digital terrestrial radio were based on an assessment that alternative delivery methods (satellite, internet via fixed or mobile) will not for the foreseeable future deliver a platform that equals that provided by broadcast (universal global access, reliability, limited influence of gatekeepers ie cost and control): "Although analogue will persist in some form in many areas, the evolution of digital radio around the world is likely to be the key to broadcast radio retaining any significant audience." This assessment was based on the different audiences that can be reached by FM, medium wave and short wave broadcasting.

I can see that reductions in our shortwave delivery are necessary in the context of savings spread across all areas and to recognise the change in listening habits for some audiences. However, I want to caution against too drastic a cut across the board too soon, based what may be a short-term view of technical and political landscapes and current audience behaviour.

Latest audience figures still show the radio audience to be 90% of the any-platform WS audience and the shortwave audience to be 53% of the radio audience (47% of the any-platform audience). That still equates to a total of 85 million listeners on shortwave. As far as I am aware, it is not possible to find evidence of a global trend in short wave decline. There is measured decline in specific countries but these trends do not apply everywhere. Even taking any "best guess" overall rate of decline into consideration, short wave is likely to retain a significant audience for some years—unless most of our shortwave is closed down. In that case, how likely is it that other platforms can step in and deliver similar audience sizes and constituencies? Latest figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) show significant disparity in the growth of internet users between different global regions and this is even more pronounced with mobile broadband subscriptions. The World Summit on Information Technology (WSIS) conference has set targets to "bridge the digital divide" which recognise the role of more rational platforms ("to ensure that all of the world's population have access to television and radio services" a target which "specifically addresses the need to take advantage of broadcasting technologies to help countries move towards the information society").

Efforts to retain radio audiences have remained focussed on the development of FM broadcasting but opportunities here may have now plateau-ed. In this context, the potential offered by DRM on shortwave may offer us the only way to retain a significant audience. Crucially it also offers what analogue short wave does: access to audiences we cannot otherwise serve, freedom from political interference and licensing costs. In South Asia, recent losses in short wave audiences have followed increased availability of more attractive media alternatives. However, in India, the Government has given political and financial support to the digitalisation of radio broadcasting (seen as necessity), adopted DRM and tasked All India Radio to work on its growth and development. In this context, we could be only a few years away from a significant audience for digital radio (on short wave) in India.

Our current shortwave transmissions have a value over and above the use for the current analogue delivery because the facilities used are broadly the same for analogue or digital. It is possible to use the same frequencies; and the same sites, transmitters and arrays can be used once they have been enabled to carry digital rather than analogue transmissions. Short wave is regulated by co-ordination of frequency use and "ownership" is afforded by presence on air rather than any licensing. In common with other spectrum, valuable frequencies (low band in Europe, peak time in Africa, ME, S Asia, SE Asia) are keenly contested and usually snapped up when they become available. The removal of analogue transmissions where there may be a digital audience in future, could jeopardise any future opportunity for us.

A very significant reduction of our shortwave schedule very soon runs the risk of large audience losses which will be challenging to build back via other platforms and also of taking away a clear advantage which we currently hold in terms a future platform. Even given the situation we find ourselves in financially, I would suggest a cautious approach with short wave, where we ensure retention of both audiences and strategic analogue footholds for at least another one or two years until we can see a clearer picture of the development of DRM and ability of alternative platforms to replicate our current analogue radio audience. The BBC World Service has always been a leader in the delivery and content of international broadcasting and with this approach I think we could remain so.

8 February 2011

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