South Africa’s voice on shortwave goes silent

April 1st, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EngineerIT

Shortwave is where radio communication began. Once a powerful voice to tell the story of South Africa to the world, this voice has gone silent as Sentech closed down its shortwave broadcasting facility at Bloemendal near Meyerton on 30 March 2019.

Sentech inherited South Africa’s Bloemendal shortwave radio station near Meyerton when Radio RSA was closed down. Radio RSA started its broadcast on 1 May 1966 and by 1976 the station transmitted for 36 hours a week in twelve languages including English, French, Portuguese, and Afrikaans. The service was discontinued in 1992. The only transmission that survived the close down was a broadcast into Africa, renamed Channel Africa which has daily programmes in Chinyanja, Silozi, Portuguese, Swahili, and English. The SABC also transmits Radio Sonder Grense (RSG) on shortwave to the Northern Cape.

Sentech made the decision to close down its analogue shortwave facilities on technology obsolescence and financial sustainability grounds. The transmission equipment and antennas are old and costly to maintain. The transmitters are, by modern standards, inefficient and high energy guzzlers. They should have been replaced many years ago but with low appetite for digital radio mondiale (DRM), Sentech assured continuity of shortwave to date. There comes a time when spares are no longer available and if they are, they are priced absurdly high.

There are many critics who believe that South Africa has lost a golden opportunity to let its voice be heard around the world. But there are different views, including that of emergence of alternative online platforms. The head of BBC distribution, Nigel Fry, said during the panel discussion hosted by Sentech last year that shortwave is an essential means of reaching people in conflict areas and in areas where no reliable broadcasting exists, either because of environmental issues or military intervention. This creates a vacuum for information which often can only be filled by shortwave broadcasters. The fact that Sentech currently relays programmes into Africa on behalf of the BBC, the Voice of America, and other smaller broadcasters, supports the point made by Fry, that shortwave fills a huge void in reaching people.

With some if its keen customers, Sentech is exploring the DRM replacement digital technology to drive audience access through a high quality and cost-efficient platform.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) last year closed their shortwave radio service but may have to return to shortwave if the labour party wins the next election on 19 May 2019. Australia’s Labour opposition party has pledged to restore shortwave radio service to Australia’s remote and sparsely-populated Northern Territory. Currently, the northern territory has to rely on the BBC and other international broadcasters for reliable news. Bloemendal’ s closure places many South Africans living in the Northern Cape and other parts of Africa in the same position.

Panel discussion members at last year’s Sentech Forum agreed that, for many years to come, shortwave broadcasting will continue to play an important role and South Africa still has an important contribution to make, particularly on the educational front. The question is, however, who should fund this? Could it be commercialised and carry advertising, or would the US model of public radio work? US public radio is financed from grants by companies, philanthropic institutions and listeners. Solly Phetoe of Channel Africa made the strong point that the channel could better support business development in Africa by carrying advertising which it currently does not. This appears to be more of a policy issue than a legal restriction. Would international companies advertise if such a service was offered?

One of the reasons why foreign broadcasters have been using Sentech to reach their audiences in Africa is about efficiency and the much lower power required to deliver a good signal. Shortwave broadcasters have, up to now, used amplitude modulation (AM), which is not an efficient use of power. For some years single-sideband modulation (SSB) was considered, but as the digital age is taking shape, DRM is the obvious answer. It is digital, provides better signal quality and is less energy-intensive. Currently several international broadcasters such as Radio France International, Radio New Zealand and the BBC have daily shortwave broadcasts using DRM. But as with all new technology, it is a question of volume. DRM shortwave receivers are still expensive. Cheaper options would be a dongle on a laptop and DRM software. However, the ultimate would be an inexpensive DRM shortwave radio. One of the Sentech panellists remarked, it is the chicken and the egg situation. It would need injection of government funding to make it happen.

For Sentech, analogue shortwave broadcasting has become a financial burden. If we want to have our voice heard in Africa and the rest of the world, there needs to be a new funding model and an investment in modern transmitting equipment and antennas. This clearly is not happening. Or will DIRCO wake up realise the powerful tool they have just lost? Do we have companies and institutions in South Africa that will come to the rescue and fund a new modern facility? Many questions for now, but no answers!

There are rumours that Channel Africa has approached Sentech, asking it not to close down Meyerton and to give Channel Africa more time to make alternative arrangements. EngineerIT posed a question to Sentech’s CEO, Mlamli Booi: Will Sentech, for the time being, continue to broadcast Channel Africa? He confirmed that he was aware of such a request but he declined to make any additional comments. Would  Transworld Radio, which has shortwave facilities in Swaziland, be interested in coming to Channel Africa’s rescue?


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