Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from BBC World Service


  This memorandum, outlining the reasons behind BBC World Service's decision to cease direct short wave broadcasts to the USA, has been produced in response to a request from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The FAC has asked the World Service to focus its response in the following areas:

    1.  Introduction

    2.  Number of short wave listeners in North America

    3.  Reasons for the short wave cuts in North America

    4.  Alternative access to the BBC World Service

    5.  Listening figures, before and after the withdrawal of the short wave service

    6.  How the World Service is reaching communities within the USA from other countries

    7.  The future of the World Service operation in North America

  The document focuses on figures and background about the World Service performance in the USA, following advice from the Clerk to the Committee.


  1.  The strategic decision to cease direct short wave broadcasts to North America was made after careful consideration and detailed study of the profound changes in listening habits in one of the world's most affluent and mature broadcasting markets. The decision to cut short wave broadcasts in the most developed areas of the world was highlighted in the Three Year Plan 2001-04 approved and supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In accordance with the plan, the savings made from the short wave reductions have been re-invested in improving medium wave transmissions to South West Asia including Afghanistan and in specific FM developments for critical urban audiences in the world's capital cities. Expanding FM presence across the world has helped the World Service achieve a record audience of 153 million weekly listeners in 2001.

  2.  Whilst our plan to cut short wave in North America upset some listeners there, our decision went with the grain of emerging listener habits in the USA. Latest audience figures in fact show increases amongst our target audiences in the key American cities of Washington, New York and Boston.

  3.  We have had evidence that some short wave listeners have migrated to frequencies, which whilst not directly targeted on the USA, can still be heard there. In addition, we have secured a growing number of FM outlets and other means of distribution in the USA in the period since 11 September.

  4.  In many other parts of the world, especially Africa and the Middle and Far East, short wave transmissions will continue to be the main means of delivery for the World Service in the foreseeable future. We are currently investing over £50 million in upgrading facilities in Oman, Singapore and Cyprus. We have no plans at this stage to make further short wave cuts.


  5.  The total audience in the USA is 2.6 million listeners.

  6.  The large majority, 2.3 million, listen via our growing number of FM rebroadcasters, and we expect this figure to have grown since September 11th as more and more stations broadcast our key news and current affairs programmes.

  7.  Before the direct short wave transmissions ceased in July 2001, the World Service estimated that it had 1.2 million short wave listeners in the USA. However, of those, at least 80 per cent also listened to us by means other than short wave; accessing us via a local public radio station on FM being the main alternative means. It is likely that the vast majority of these listeners are also connected to the internet, where they can hear our programmes 24 hours a day on demand and streamed live. The number who listened exclusively on short wave was just 260,000, about 10 per cent of the overall estimated World Service audience in the USA.


  8.  The World Service has to make hard choices in developing the right means of transmission for its diverse audiences around the world. In many areas, particularly in the least developed and developing world, this means investing more in upgrading short wave transmitters. However, in the most developed areas, FM and the internet will be the primary means of delivery to our target audience of opinion-formers and decision-makers (cosmopolitans) with other new means of digital distribution also becoming available to listeners.

  9.  North America falls firmly in this latter camp. There are clear trends in listening habits which underpin our decision.

    —  The growth in the number of FM stations, and radio listening to them.

    —  The impact of the internet, making the USA the most wired society in the world.

    —  The imminent arrival of digital audio distribution via satellite to individual consumers.

    —  The potential for distribution by cable.

  10.  Our regular audience research, and the advice of our partners on the ground, indicates these trends are becoming more widespread and in particular, amongst key opinion-formers (our target audience) in major urban centres. The evidence (see Section 5) is that this strategy is increasing the number of our listeners in these target groups in key US cities.


  11.  There are many alternative means of access available to listeners in the USA.

FM Rebroadcasts:

    —  The BBC World Service is broadcast on many FM public radio stations across the USA. We have re-broadcasting agreements with 283 USA radio stations. 257 stations are taking long form programming and 26 are taking newscasts. These are mainly public radio stations taking programmes from the World Service English news stream, with a significant number also taking The World, our Boston-based news and current affairs co-production with PRI and WGBH.

        Since 11 September, BBC World Service coverage has been extended across America by securing new partnerships with notable stations, including KXJZ in Sacramento, California (the state capital), WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, KUT in Austin, Texas (another state capital and home to George Bush), KUNR in Reno, NV and WPBX in Southampton, New York. We have also expanded in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.


    —  You can hear BBC World Service 24 hours a day at There are two offerings in English - news, current affairs and analysis 24 hours a day plus the 24-hour mixed schedule. The majority of Americans, over 160 million people, are now connected to the internet. Our site provides high quality audio both on demand and live. It was recently judged the best radio website in the world at the prestigious Webby Awards. Over half of our internet traffic comes from the USA, and we expect this has risen significantly since 11 September as overall traffic levels have doubled after the recent events in the USA.

Other Means:

    —  We are investing in new means of digital delivery. Over 270 million Americans are now being offered our 24 hour service in English by XM radio. Our news services in Spanish and English will also be carried via Sirius digital radio from February 2002.

    —  High quality audio feeds of the World Service are available to cable operators across the USA, and we intend to encourage more of them to carry our services in the future.

    —  Some short wave listening is continuing on frequencies not directly targeted at the USA. Twelve individual frequencies have been mentioned in correspondence with us and these have been publicised by listener groups in the USA. We have also contacted individual listeners with these details and we provide information on our World Service online site.


  12.  It is too early to measure the impact upon our overall audience figures in the USA, but the growth in FM outlets and internet usage augurs well for the future.

  13.  What is known as a result of surveys carried out this autumn after the decision was implemented is that the BBC World Service audience has grown year on year among Cosmopolitans in the three key cities of Boston, New York and Washington:

    —  96 per cent of Cosmopolitans are aware of the BBC World Service. The next highest international broadcaster is Radio Canada with 23 per cent awareness.

    —  In 2000, 20 per cent of Cosmopolitans in the three cities had listened in the last week to the BBC World Service. In 2001 this has increased to 24 per cent.

    —  Importantly, 97 per cent of the listening to the World Service is via local FM, while 11 per cent use short wave (some people do both). These proportions are much the same as in 2000.

    —  Those listening more frequently to the BBC World Service following the events of 11 September gave a variety of reasons for the increase in their listening, including the fact that the BBC provided a different perspective from other sources, that it provided in-depth analysis, accuracy, objectivity and that it was trustworthy.


  14.  All 43 language services are now available as audio services on our internet site which has achieved a huge growth in traffic in the past year. There is evidence that many of those accessing our Arabic, Spanish, Chinese and English sites come from the USA, following our recent investment in round the clock news presence in these key languages. We are building up the depth and the range of the site. The African pages in English are particularly popular in the USA.


  15.  The depth and quality of our news coverage, especially in relation to world events since 11 September, is making us particularly attractive as a partner for many radio and online operators in the USA. We intend to reinforce our audibility by:

    —  Increasing the number of FM partners and the depth and extent of our presence on their airwaves.

    —  Making access to our programmes easier on the internet by nurturing local online partnerships. We already have a relationship with Yahoo in the USA which enables them to transmit our radio programmes, and we have now secured the rights to extend this type of relationship with other portals and internet service providers.

    —  Promoting our presence on new digital audio platforms, and alongside BBC TV channels such as BBC America, our entertainment TV channel for the US market.

    —  Publicising the indirect short wave frequencies still audible in the USA.

  16.  We are adapting our delivery methods in response to rapidly changing audience usage.

  17.  We have worked for the past six years to build our FM audience and online presence in the USA and we took the decision with care and consideration. The vast majority of our target audience group in America - opinion-formers and decision-makers - access us through FM rebroadcasting and the internet. We are utilising the savings from the short wave reductions to enhance audibility to Afghanistan and the surrounding region. We are not cutting back on the number of countries to which the World Service has been transmitting. In many areas short wave will continue to be the most appropriate means of broadcasting the World Service and our investment in short wave facilities will grow in the years ahead. We have no plans at this stage to make further specific reductions in short wave transmissions for our audiences around the world.

BBC World Service

November 2001

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