Net advantages push shortwave aside on international airwaves

Nothing illustrates the endless flexibility of the English language better than the version of it they speak in New Guinea. Pidgin English (or “tok pisin”) bears much the same relationship to standard English as chop suey to the stuff they serve you in Beijing, but it has a certain raw charm nonetheless.

“Bikpela ami man bilong America igo toktok wantaim Kuwait,” I read. My tok pisin’s a little rusty, but I think that translates roughly as: “Senior American military officer in Kuwait for discussions.”

It’s the headline on a news story, detailing how “bos bilong America efos” (the head of the US airforce) has “bin go toktok” with “ol difens ofisal bilong Kuwait” (the Kuwaiti military top brass) regarding “tingting bilong bomim Iraq” (matters concerning the bombing of Iraq).

You can find this linguistically challenging insight into world affairs on Radio Australia’s Website, one of at least 38 sites maintained by international broadcasters from Adventist World Radio to YLE Finland, the Voice of Greece to Radio Warsaw.

Radio Australia doesn’t apparently offer an audio version of its “tok pisin” service, but plenty of other broadcasters are using the Internet not just to put up news stories, programme schedules and pretty pictures, but to relay programmes themselves.

Most international broadcasters still rely on shortwave radio, a technology out of the steam age of wireless with iffy reception at the best of times, and prone to jamming by authoritarian governments.

Shortwave still has a large and loyal audience – the BBC World Service claims 140 million listeners worldwide for its transmissions in 44 languages – but even in the least developed corners of the world, FM radio and commercial television are having a devastating impact on shortwave listening.

So everyone from the BBC and Voice of America to Radio Norway International are turning to the Net instead. Even elderly PCs, with the right software and a speaker or two, can be turned into radios. The sound is near FM quality (a lot better than shortwave) and you can choose to tune in live or download recorded programmes stored on the broadcaster’s server.

Voice of America offers 54 different broadcasts in 24 languages from Arabic to Urdu. The BBC World Service offers live English-language programmes 24 hours a day, plus a special five minute recorded news bulletin, updated hourly, and programmes in a handful of other languages.

Better sound quality isn’t the only advantage of the Internet over shortwave. The Net can’t be jammed and even countries which restrict access to it can’t prevent residents logging on if they’re prepared to make an international phone call.

And while shortwave radio has plenty of life in it yet in under-developed areas such as Africa, there’s a whole new audience for broadcasters like the BBC in the wired communities of the West: Poles in Chicago, Cubans in Miami, Turks in Germany and exiles of all nationalities in every corner of the world.

But, just as significantly, the Internet is now home to radio and TV stations without an avowedly international brief. For its 24-hour live stream the World Service uses the servers of a Dallas-based outfit called Audionet, which offers Netsurfers more than 250 US radio stations and a handful of TV stations. Some of these are Internet-only services, including one station playing nothing but Grateful Dead songs. Others are specials, like audio reports on the Nagano Winter Olympics.

In theory, Audionet is advertising-supported, although there’s little advertising in evidence on the site. The promised ratecard turns out to offer nothing more than a form for prospective advertisers to fill out, indicating how much they’re prepared to spend and how many impressions they’re hoping for among Audionet’s users – who are, predictably, 80 per cent male, mainly aged between 35 and 54 and earning on average more than $50,000 (30,600) a year.

We hear a lot about the prospect of access to the Internet via our TV sets at some point in the digital future.

We hear about British Interactive Broadcasting (BIB), the joint venture between BT and BSkyB, which will offer limited access to the Net (10,000 pages, perhaps) as well as “transactional” services, though this is currently mired in problems with European competition regulators.

We hear, just last week, that BSkyB’s British pay-TV rival, Flextech, is in talks with Microsoft and its subsidiary, Web TV, about putting together a digital TV service to compete with Sky’s, and using a much more Internet-friendly technology (since it is derived from Net browser software).

But the traffic doesn’t have to be all one-way. Yes, broadcasters are looking for ways to offer TV viewers Net access. But the Net is busily developing audio and video technology too – although most of the fuzzy, jerky video is barely watchable as yet.

The Net might just get there first, full as cyberspace is of inventive types who flourish in a world of no regulation and no government controls over anything, including content.

If they’re really that clever, they may even find a way of making personal computer TV and radio pay.

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