Where am I going with this?
This article will be outside the mission of Off Grid Ham but I hope you’ll stay with me. I’m going to drift away from my usual schtick and use my substantial internet platform to bring attention to this neglected issue.
My point can be stated quite succinctly. Recent world events and the rise of dictators and tyrants necessitate expanding international shortwave broadcasts from the United States and other democratic nations.
In the beginning.
Shortwave broadcasts started in earnest during World War II. In the following Cold War years they were a potent tool used by the United States for expressing American views to the world. Some called it legitimate diplomacy, some called it cultural outreach, and others called it propaganda. It was really a little of all these things. Powerful transmitters sent pro-American news and information in dozens of languages to millions of foreign listeners. Western democracies such as Great Britain, France, and Australia also presented their version of democracy via international radio. It was a two way street: Nations not friendly to the United States put their side of the story on the air too. We were in a radio Cold War.
The USA and other Western democracies sent news and information all over the world to listeners whose governments were opposed to citizens being exposed to any free media not cleared through state channels. Radio Marti was dedicated solely to broadcasting anti-communist content to Cuba. Radio Free Europe & Radio Liberty fulfilled a similar mission against the former Soviet Union and to a lesser extent, the Middle East. Day and night, voices of freedom beamed around the world to the oppressed. The shortwave broadcasts were effective. Why else would tyrannical governments try to jam the transmissions and/or punish anyone caught listening?
And then the internet happened.
Since the 1990s, Voice of America closed two of their three transmitter sites in the United States. The venerable International Service of the BBC, the only entity that came even close to having a reach equal to the VOA, has become a shell of its former self. Australia, The Netherlands, France, and other nations who used to have a strong presence on the shortwave bands have cut back drastically or gone completely dark.
Of special note, recent data has communist China broadcasting more than two times as much international programming as Voice of America. We are being beaten at our own game.
The Golden Years of shortwave is well behind us, thanks to the internet. Computers propagate news and information more quickly. Internet audio quality is far superior to shortwave broadcasts and the listening audience can leave comments, repost articles, and actively participate as opposed to listen passively.
But there’s a catch.
The internet affords little privacy, anonymity, or security. IP addresses can be tracked. It’s fairly easy to know who is accessing what content. Plus, the internet depends on a complex system of routers, servers, and data circuits to connect them. Oppressive governments can and do control what information is accessible within their borders and severely punish anyone who crosses the line.
Shortwave broadcasts have no borders.
The success of the shortwave broadcasts of yesteryear was due to the fact that radio has no borders and defeats attempts at censorship. No one can know for sure who is listening because a received signal cannot be tracked to any individual. Somebody, somewhere can tell when and where you do anything on the internet. But if you had a radio on, who would know? Unless you have Amazon Alexa or some similar connected device eavesdropping in the background no one can tell what you listen to on the radio.
For all the arguments against shortwave broadcasts vs. the internet, archaic analog radio has two major attributes that the internet cannot match: Anonymity and no need for infrastructure that can be controlled by adversarial governments.
It’s not that hard.
The technology that makes shortwave broadcasts work is over one hundred years old and relatively inexpensive. There is nothing to invent, nothing to innovate, and nothing to discover. A nation such as the United States has the resources to put stations on the air in a matter of months. It really is that easy.
Voice of America, Radio Marti, and Radio Free Europe still make regular broadcasts but are far from their former glory. Overall activity on the shortwave bands is a mere fraction of what it was in pre-internet times. That leaves people living under dictatorships with no options other than state run trash media.
Oppressive regimes exist in North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, China, most of Africa, and the entire Middle East except for Israel. The United States should take the lead and immediately restore local language shortwave broadcasts to these areas.
A legacy of freedom and liberty.
For decades, oppressed people all over the world found hope and inspiration in shortwave broadcasts from free nations. The internet allows a depth and breadth of content that makes analog radio seem like driving a horse & buggy down the information superhighway. Unfortunately, none of that whizz-bang technology matters if tyrannical governments are blocking the highway. Shortwave radio is its own “highway”.
If the United States and other democratic nations seek to establish peace and freedom and liberty in subjugated areas of the world, they must send their message over a medium that will arrive at the intended destination without censorship or interference. I don’t particularly trust my government…but I trust other governments even less.
The victims of tyrants, dictators, communism, socialism, religious persecution, and slavery need and want to hear truthful information. They want to know the free world is thinking about them. We can also put dictators and tyrants on notice that their oppression will not go unanswered. Shortwave broadcasts achieve all these goals with less complexity and more reliability than the internet.
We shouldn’t be too concerned about the transmission facilities ever becoming unneeded. When the current generation of scumbag governments fade away, more will come up behind them. No one should think radio alone will rid the world of evil. The mission of the shortwave broadcasts will never be complete.
I am calling on every democratized country, starting with the United States, to put the transmitters back online! We should then build as many radio stations as needed to cover every single square inhabited inch of this planet with an unstoppable voice of freedom and liberty.
Editor’s note: This article is cross posted on my commentary blog, Twenty First Summer.