Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shortwave Radio - What went wrong?

Knocking down the transmission towers in Samara, Russia in November 2013. 
I've had an unusually large number of visitors to this blog whenever I discuss broadcasting or storytelling. Perhaps it's because I'm passionate about both. And I am fascinated by what works and what fails.

Recently I've posted more about the rapid closure of shortwave radio transmitters sites around the world. Which triggers the question - if people thought it was a good idea in the second half of the 20th century to construct hundreds of powerful transmitters and run them at a cost of billions, what went wrong?  Part of the answer is that the world changed. Some closed societies opened up. And that meant that audiences were looking for much more creative programming. That message never got through to the broadcasters. (Video below was taken when they knocked down the towers of Radio Norway and Radio Denmark)

For the most part, shortwave radio programming was mindlessly boring. It didn't engage because it was often national programming translated into a foreign language and shouted across some border in the hope that it would change something "over there". I used to call them "death and disaster" networks. It was difficult for anyone inside such a network to be creative when the main task was to fill a transmission schedule, often at some ungodly hour of the night. And shortwave radio propagation was usually such that you could only get a signal into a target area at the wrong time of day for the audience. That was usually the evening - and once television came, the younger audience evaporated.

Wasteland of Creativity

When I helped to re-organise the vision of Radio Netherlands in 1994, I wish I had on-line access to disruptive thinkers like John Cleese. It would have helped me formulate our thinking in a much clearer language. For the video below about creativity is from 1991 I believe. It's actually a talk about how NOT to be creative. And what he describes is the way most international broadcasters operated for most of their existence. They were content factories, slave to an artificial transmission schedule. Because they didn't take time to be creative, then ended up sounding like a tape machine. They were run by a computer algorithm. Not a human soul. There was never room for a creative pause. Routine was the solution. And that's creativity's biggest enemy. They were also incredibly naive in thinking that a message shouted is the same as a message received and understood.

So, eventually, it all ended in tears for many stations. So where are the next group like this to get in trouble and is it for the same reasons? I'd really welcome your input.

My Lessons Learned.

  • Creative companies have to understand the difference between open and closed thinking.
  • Content factories quickly become very boring. 
  • I believe many computer driven music services are the shortwave radio stations of the 21st century. They spring up, then wither at the vine. But are there others?
  • Any station that doesn't put the audience at the heart of everything they do is doomed. It may take time, but decline is inevitable.

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