ABC – A
Shutting Down of ABC Shortwave Radio
On 6 December 2016 the ABC announced that it was shutting down its long
running short wave radio service. Just over month later the transmitters were switched
off and receivers across northern Australia and the South Pacific went silent.
For Australian in remote parts of our vast nation it was their only
service and one relied upon for basic news, information and entertainment.
For international audiences it provided impartial and reliable news and
information and a point of connection to Australia.
In emergency situations, it was a service that was used to save both
Australian and International lives.
The service has been turned off ostensibly to save a small amount of
money—but comes at enormous cost.
The Committee and Secretariat has done terrific work in its compilation
of the facts relating to the history and great utility of the ABC's shortwave
service and to reveal the shallow consideration of relevant issues by the ABC
board before it ordered the service to be shutdown.
The report complements the good work carried out by the Senate Committee
examining Senator McKenzie's ABC Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill.
This Inquiry also took evidence in relation to the shutdown of ABC Shortwave.
The Importance of
An Inland Shortwave Radio Services was established in 1939 to transmit
to the 5% of Australians that had no access to medium wave stations. It was
established as 'Australia Calling' and in until 1950 was operated by the ABC
and the Department of Information. Sole responsibility for the service
transferred to the ABC in 1950. Over the years domestic shortwave ABC services
operated from a number of sites; in WA, NT and QLD. From 1944, Radio Australia
operated from Shepparton in Victoria. By the mid 1990's Radio Australia were
broadcasting internationally in English and eight other languages to a wide
audience throughout Asia, Papua New Guinea, the Pacific islands and Micronesia.
Mr Garry Cratt, Director of Tecsun Radios Australia (a company that
imports and resells portable shortwave receivers) provided a useful and
contemporary analysis of the audience derived from his extensive customer
Australian audiences included:
People travelling in remote parts of the NT, WA, NSW and SA.
Examples include stockmen, mining camp operators, outback tour operators and 'Grey
People travelling by boat around Australia and operators of
commercial fishing vessels.
People travelling overseas to locations such as Papua New Guinea,
China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines where Radio Australia
International audiences included:
People residing in the Pacific regions who want to listen to
shortwave broadcasts as their own country has no or poor shortwave coverage.
People residing in Pacific region who rely on weather reports
such as cyclones, tsunami and earthquake warnings.
The importance of the service to some cannot be overstated. ABC
Shortwave was not just about news, information and entertainment. To appreciate
ABC Shortwave's true importance one only needs to consider the submission from
the Prime Minister of the Republic of Vanuatu, the Honourable Charlot Salwai,
who outlined how the people of Vanuatu relied on shortwave radio when Cyclone
Pam struck in 2015. Prime Minister Salwai stated in his submission:
In times of crisis when other forms of media like FM and
digital services are damaged or unavailable such communities rely on broadcasts
safely transmitted from outside the disaster zone. This is exactly the role
Radio Australia shortwave broadcasts played during Cyclone Pam... people around
our nation relied on Radio Australia's shortwave broadcasts to stay up-to-date
about the cyclone's progress and they took the thorough and expert advice on
the shortwave service very seriously indeed. It is undoubtedly the case that
Radio Australia's shortwave service helped save Ni-Vanuatu lives.
ABC shortwave radio also played a valuable role in providing information
to communities during the civil disturbance that occurred in East Timor in the
lead up to independence.
Closure of the service will impact significantly on Australia's near
neighbours where these broadcasts have been a reliable source of news and
current affairs and an important and unique connection to Australia.
A Valuable Foreign Policy
A number of submissions and witnesses highlighted the foreign policy
value of shortwave and provided examples of where it had positive impact. It
was an effective tool in Australia's own 'soft power' toolbox and it beyond
comprehension that the system has been shut down.
Documents I sought under Freedom of Information laws from the Department
of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) earlier this year relating to the
discussion that took between the ABC and DFAT in the lead up to the decision to
shut the service down, show the dialogue between the two entities was
I gained no further comfort at hearing when the following exchange
occurred between myself and Mr Daniel Sloper, First Assistant Secretary,
Pacific Division, DFAT:
Senator XENOPHON: Does the department have a view about the
importance of shortwave as an exercise in soft power? I am not sure what the
lingo is in diplomatic speak. I mean something—having that level of Australian
news or giving emergency news, which is what the Republic of Vanuatu
highlighted in its submission—that does build bridges with communities. Does
the department have a view about the benefit of that in terms of Australia's
reputation in those countries?
Mr Sloper: We made clear to the ABC that we want them to
continue to meet their international charter, that they need to continue
coverage within the region, but we have not given a particular view about
shortwave itself. We have left the decision about the technology to the ABC. We
do not have the expertise on the particular technology.
I asked Mr Andrew Byrne, First Assistant Secretary, Public Diplomacy,
Communications and Scholarships Division, DFAT, a further questions relating to
DFAT's knowledge of Chinese shortwave activities in the region.
Senator XENOPHON: China has been expanding shortwave
broadcasts, has it not, in the region?
Mr Byrne: I am not sure about that.
The question was answered by Mr Dobell later in the hearing:
...My understanding of China's shortwave investment is that it
is taking up as many of allotments of shortwave frequencies and shortwave slots
as it possibly can. Its investment in broadcasting is ratcheting up at a very
large rate. So my answer is that China is investing in shortwave in a big way.
As Australia ramps down, China is filling the void. This is Australia's
mistake and Australia's mistake alone. Its impact on a nation such as
Timor-Leste cannot be understated.
A Bad Call
The Committee report deals with the size of the ABC Shortwave audience
prior to shut down. The ABC suggested the size was relatively small; others
suggested the ABC had significantly underestimated the size. What is clear is
that there was no serious effort made to actually measure audience size. I am
of the view, considering all of the evidence, the audience size was much larger
than the ABC calculated.
But even if the ABC were right (which I doubt) they did not factor the
foreign policy importance of the service. They should have factored this into
their decision, noting the requirement in the ABC charter to provide a 'comprehensive
broadcasting services', and they did not. By shutting down shortwave, the ABC
has failed the 'comprehensive' test.
The same can be said in relation to ABC's Shortwave international
audience, nothing the second requirement in the charter to 'transmit to
countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs,
entertainment and cultural enrichment'. By shutting down shortwave, the ABC has
failed the charter a second time. The ABC Board should be condemned for this
Finally, the decision to shut down ABC Shortwave is a significant
foreign policy failure. The board cannot really be blamed for this oversight;
foreign policy is a responsibility of the whole of government. In allowing the
ABC Board to shut down ABC shortwave, the Government has failed.
Shortwave must be restored. I urge all of my Senate colleagues to
support the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave
Finally, I want to pay special thanks to long distance truck driver Mr
Gary Williams of South Australia who alerted me to this issue. Mr Williams, on
his regular 6000 km round trip from Adelaide to Darwin, and the many hundreds,
if not thousands, like him can no longer receive ABC radio on a significant
part of journey. At the Darwin public hearing into the ABC Amendment (Rural and
Regional Advocacy) Bill, Mr Williams responded to the ABC's suggested remedy
plainly and simply, stating:
Mobile phone coverage only covers about 2,200 kilometres of
the round trip. To be told by people at the ABC that you can access ABC via the
app on your phone or over the internet or by VAST satellite service is
physically impossible. You just cannot do it.
That the bill be passed.
Senator for South Australia
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