ABC decision to can Pacific shortwave radio broadcasts is plain dumb

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Olympic pool, Suva.

During a recent reporting visit to Fiji, I was delighted to hear a new phrase – the “Coconut Wireless”.

This is local slang for the spread of information and rumour over long distances, including vast expanses of sea, and often by word of mouth.

One of my contacts in Suva said her mother once telephoned her from a distant island to say that she had heard of a tsunami warning in the Fijian capital.

My contact told her mother that no warning had been issued. She attributed it to the “Coconut wireless” being at work, in much the same way that the Bush Telegraph operates in Australia.

On the same trip, I repeatedly heard about the importance of radio in the Pacific as a source of news and information.

Hence, I was stumped by this week’s muted announcement by the ABC that the national broadcaster had decided to end shortwave broadcasts within Australia and internationally from the end of January 2017

Link to ABC statement: http://about.abc.net.au/press-releases/shortwave-radio/

As things stand, Radio Australia broadcasts shortwave services to PNG and the Pacific islands nations which are important (and strategic) neighbours for Australia.

The ABC claims the savings from decommissioning the service will be reinvested in a “more robust” FM transmitter network and an expanded content offering for the region that will include English and in-language audio content.

The ABC’s director of radio, Michael Mason, argued that while shortwave technology has served audiences well for many decades, it was “now nearly a century old and serves a very limited audience.”

“The ABC is seeking efficiencies and will instead service this audience through modern technology,” Mason said.

The story was picked by Radio New Zealand, which said the decision had caused “upset around the Pacific” because shortwave remained a vital communication link in remote areas.

The report noted that many remote islands had no access to the internet and the ABC planned to shut down the shortwave service in the middle of the cyclone season.

Radio NZ interviewed Lowy Institute fellow, Sean Dorney, who worked for decades as a foreign correspondent in the Pacific for the ABC.

“There seems to be a belief in the ABC in Sydney that there’s no one living in the Pacific, let alone listening to shortwave radio,” Dorney said.

“For instance my wife is from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea … her brother who lives in the village, still listens to Radio Australia on shortwave.”

“So there’s a listenership out there. I think this I probably a money saving venture but I think this is a very, very sad decision, especially for those people in the Pacific who have relied quite considerably over the years on Radio Australia.”

Link to Radio NZ report:
http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/201826840/pacific-listeners-upset-at-abc-ending-shortwave-service

Within Australia, most publicity over the planned shut down of the ABC’s shortwave radio had dealt with the impact on remote areas in the Northern Territory, which also needs to be considered.

But the decision seems to be shortsighted when it comes to the Pacific, another instance of Australian officialdom not weighing the modest costs of a service against the value it provides in our part of the world.

It came during a bipartisan visit this week to the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Vanuatu and Samoa by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, and her Labor counterpart, Penny Wong.

Maybe these two perceptive politicians can put in a good word for Radio Australia’s shortwave service to the ABC management.

Statement by Bishop on her visit with Wong:

http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/Pages/2016/jb_mr_161206.aspx?w=tb1CaGpkPX%2FlS0K%2Bg9ZKEg%3D%3D

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