posted by Matthew Wallin on October 15, 2012 at 3:11 pm
In recent days, there has been a bit of an uproar over the news broke that Radio Liberty (RL) fired a large number of staff operating its Russian language staff. This comes on the heels of the recent passing of a Russian law prohibiting AM/medium wave frequency broadcasts by foreign owned entities. Radio Liberty is known locally in Russia as Radio Svoboda.
The closing down of Radio Svoboda’s Russian broadcasting is emblematic of exactly why it is still needed. The Russian law is nothing more than an effort to stifle the intrusion of Western democratic viewpoints and information into the greater political discussion. It represents a metaphoric return to the Cold War Era tactic of radio jamming, though through institutional means. So why not simply return to the Cold War strategy of radio broadcasts from outside Russia?
Returning to a Cold War strategy would involve broadcasting from outside of Russia using shortwave radio. Younger generations of Americans, growing up on FM frequencies or satellite, may have never heard of shortwave radio. Shortwave occupies a range of frequencies that is capable of being broadcast over distances significantly greater than AM/medium wave (MW) or FM. This is exceptionally important in international radio broadcasting, where a broadcaster may be unable to physically station equipment in the territory of a target country. These shortwave radios ultimately faded from popularity in the United States during the Cold War, as the AM/MW standard became more prominent. This may also have been a reflect of the the shorter ranges of AM/FM radios, making them more ideal for local broadcasting without interference from thousands of miles away.
Russia, like many more developed countries, has experienced an evolution in communications standards and technologies which relegate shortwave radios to a niche constituency amongst older generations. Simply, there is no longer a significant enough audience to return to the old format. According to the BBG, which is responsible for America’s overseas broadcasting, shortwave still remains a viable format in some developing countries, albeit with limits.
The loss of Svoboda’s AM broadcasting is yet another major loss for American interests in Russia. Prior to this, the expulsion of USAID from Russia sent shockwaves through the development community.
Clearly, the U.S. still has an interest in making sure it has a voice in Russia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union complained to the U.S. that it had very limited broadcast capabilities due to low shortwave receiver ownership, and argued that jamming was a tactic for leveling the playing field. In the interest of modern reciprocity, especially given the growth of Russia Today, what can the U.S. do to reestablish a voice in Russia, without relying exclusively on online mediums to do so?