Huge changes under way in international broadcasting

17-05-2004

Last week radio and television broadcasters from across the world - from China to the United States - gathered in Prague to discuss the future of international broadcasting. This was the third annual conference of the Association of International Broadcasters. This year there was a huge amount to discuss, especially with the intense and long-running debate over the role of the media in the war in Iraq. And there was also plenty of discussion over issues directly relevant to us at Radio Prague - what is the future for smaller international broadcasters in a changing international market, and where are the latest technologies taking international broadcasting? I spoke to someone who probably knows more than anyone else about the subject, Jonathan Marks, whose company Critical Distance, advises international broadcasters. I began by asking him to look into his crystal ball.

"I think the ways in which programmes get from the producing company such as Radio Prague to the listener are going to diversify. Downloading something from the Internet onto the mobile phone at the moment is probably the most expensive way of getting audio into my hand and the cheapest is switching on the good old shortwave radio. So, you're moving into an area where the question is how much money you're willing to pay to receive the content. The most expensive is to put video onto a mobile phone and the cheapest is probably to get a piece of text sent over the Internet. So, these technologies are changing."

What should be the implications for a station like Radio Prague, for example? What sort of strategic decisions should we be making in the light of all these amazing developments in technology where we are not quite sure which one is going to come out as the dominant technology, if there's going to be a dominant one at all?

"I think you should be looking at where the focus of your audience is, where the people whom you want to get the message across to are. Traditional radio has started the wrong way around. Engineers put transmitters on the air, they discovered they could reach vast areas of the world but with regards to programme making gave it to the journalists to fill the air time. Now you're moving into a situation where the distribution aspect is becoming less critical and it's also becoming much cheaper to get things around the world. So, now you're moving into an area where you have a good idea and want to share it with a particular audience and have to work out what the relevant technology is to get that message across. You must keep looking at what I regard as the relevant media, and also how you want to involve the audience in your programming. You are seeing far more interactive programming, also from the commercial now, which somehow involve the audience. It could be through mobile phones, through e-mails, the larger networks organising regular interactive programmes where the audience can participate and where we're talking about 30,000 e-mails coming into one programme. So, I have absolutely no doubt that there is a demand for interactive programming to get a really big conversation going."

As were talking here, some of our listeners are hearing us on shortwave, some by satellite, and others on FM, maybe over night for example in Canada... all over the world there are people hearing us in different ways. At Radio Prague we're trying to appeal to anybody around the world who is interested in what is going on in the Czech Republic in this little part of Central Europe. We don't really have a "specific" audience.

"I think you do. I think you have a niche. Now, not everybody listens to radio Prague and not everybody listens to the BBC or Deutsche Welle; it's a niche. Why? It's people who are motivated to hear, and curious, about what's going on in different parts of the world and how other people are viewing what's happening in the world at the moment, we're living in an unstable society. You have a niche in the sense that the first filter is language, you are speaking in English, and the second filter is that you are talking about a certain geographical area. You have an editorial policy, which says you are going to focus on features about this part of Europe. That's your niche. How people listen to it, whether they get it on the Internet or whether somebody records it on tape and brings it round to somebody else's house, frankly I don't think the listener really cares. And especially, of course, if it's feature material. If it's news, people want it now. In terms of the difference between the Internet and live shortwave broadcasting is more the convenience factor. You could say that Internet radio is a two thousand dollar shortwave radio, which is kind of the expensive way of going, plus the fact that you have to somehow get connected to the Internet. On the other hand, the quality that you can get out of the Internet at the moment is superior to shortwave."

A lot of smaller European broadcasters seem to be going through something of a crisis. There have been significant cuts made at Radio Austria International, for example, or at the station that you worked for many years - Radio Netherlands. There are other countries which have also cut their international broadcasts to some extent. How serious is this crisis and why has it come about? What should we be doing to prevent that?

"Yes, indeed, some stations have had to spend quite a lot of money in infrastructure, trying to get a signal from one part of the world to another, and have indeed faced cuts. But that is also a political decision too. A country makes the decision whether it wants to be part of the international coffee-table discussion or not... and that comes with a price tag. I don't think you would succeed if just say 'alright we'll switch all the shortwave broadcasting operation off and we'll just build a website, unless you're willing to put a lot of money into advertising and taking people to that website. In the examples I have seen, they haven't done that. So, as a result, they tend to disappear. On the other hand, you're seeing far more in terms of co-productions. If you go round the international television fairs and the international co-production fairs, which also exist, you will find a lot of what I regard as traditional broadcasters."

As far as shortwave is concerned, a lot of international broadcasters - I've been talking to people from various stations at this conference - are laying great hopes on digital shortwave, DRM, the idea of being able to pick up a quality reliable signal on your shortwave radio around the world. Do you think that DRM is really going to pick up as a popular mass means of listening to the radio?

"It will, if it's adopted by the right group of people and stations. It needs to be adopted by domestic broadcasters, both in the commercial and public services, and also by international broadcasters. If only international broadcasters use it, then I think it's going to be in trouble. On the other hand, what we are already seeing is that there are a number of DRM broadcasts happening straight away. Look at the history of DRM and compare it with the history of Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), for example. It's almost twenty years since DAB was invented and there are still only half a million radios into the market. I would argue it's because they pushed the wrong aspects of the technology. It's up to the broadcasters to make a commitment to this new medium and also to produce programmes that people think they need and then go buy one. Also I hope, and that's the message I'm getting from people I know around the world, wouldn't it be great if the DRM technology, which is basically software, could be incorporated into other devices like a mobile phone, for instance. If for an extra ten or twenty US dollars, you might be able to buy a phone with a DRM capability, then that's also going to be quite attractive. So, it's a combination of factors. At the moment it's looking good but it will really depend on commitments from the broadcasters to make the change and also to provide the programmes that people need."

When television was invented, many people predicted the demise of radio. Radio has survived and there are all sorts of other technologies coming in and there have been various other predictions that radio is not going to survive in the form that we know it. Do you think that in twenty, thirty years time, radio in the traditional form where you switch it on at home and listen to a news bulletin and to whatever is on the air, will survive?

"Actually, radio listening as such is going up. I think it will. To take your analogy, when radio was invented, people said that would be the end of books. That hasn't happened. Now, I don't think that will go away because people will always want to tell stories and there are certain wonderful aspects, which are not so much the immediate aspects, because TV can be pretty immediate, but radio can be extremely intimate and that aspect gives it a huge advantage. It's also extremely flexible and relatively speaking it's cheap to run, compared to video, even with the cost of equipment dropping. There are lots of things you can do with radio and what I see is not the future of radio but a huge future for audio on various platforms depending on where I am at the moment and how quickly I need that material."

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