The Shortwave Audience

What kind of audience can a specific shortwave broadcaster hope to reach? Dr. Graham Mytton, former head of BBC World Service audience research, says: "You may have audiences of less than 0.1%.... But this does not mean an insignificant achievement necessarily. Shortwave broadcasters are niche broadcasters. Often they are not aiming to reach mass audiences , but people with specific needs, interests and tastes.... If your average reach was, let us say, one person in 10,000, that is 0.01%. On a global scale that is a lot of people -- about 350,000 of them. The problem is that we can never afford the scale and number of surveys that would necessarily prove it."
The Resurgence of Shortwave Radio
However, many sources agree that shortwave radio is experiencing a resurgence. According to VT Communications, which operates the BBC's worldwide transmitter sites, "latest research shows that shortwave radio listeners are growing globally, with shortwave penetration at its highest in the developing countries. That is not to say that shortwave is not having an impact in the developed countries. The increase in the shortwave audience, says VT Communications, is "spelt out dramatically by just one factory in China that is frantically producing 300,000 shortwave radio sets per month just to support demand. Grundig in America report growth each year on their sales of shortwave receivers. There are at least 600 million shortwave radio sets worldwide."
Surveys cited by VT Communications show that in France, 70% of households with radio have access to shortwave. In Slovakia, the figure is 77%, "What is most interesting," according to VTC, "is the growth over the last 10 years in shortwave usage by business travellers, diplomats, aid workers and others who move about the world as a result of their jobs. This change has occurred because of the portability of new sets and the simplicity of their use. Modern synthesized sets, which have the facility of actually entering the precise frequency number, made shortwave easy for everyone. People learned to pre-tune their sets, forgetting about kHz, MHz and wavebands. The new sets went in pockets, handbags and briefcases. Now sets weigh as little as 220 grams and are easily available and affordable."
TeleDiffusion de France, which operates Radio France International's extensive shortwave transmitter network, says that "an estimated 2.5 billion people tune in to programs broadcast on shortwave, and about a billion receivers pick up shortwave transmissions. At any given moment, over 200 million receivers are tuned in to shortwave broadcasts. Shortwave remains the only means of reaching a broad audience anywhere in the world, via a simple portable radio that can be bought for around $25. Listeners include expatriates, business travellers, tourists or simply people who want to hear programs in a language other than their own or who want to open a new window on the world."
Large government-owned broadcasters like the BBC and the Voice of America have been able to carry out listenership surveys in certain countries. These surveys reveal that around 1% of the population of Jamaica and the United States listens regularly to shortwave radio stations. In Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Trinidad, listenership to shortwave is between 1% and 5% of the population. In Ecuador, it is between 5 and 10%. Guyana in South America has a shortwave listenership rate of between 10 and 30% of the population. Other countries -- especially certain African countries -- have a shortwave listenership rate of over 30%. In Barbados, 39% of households with radios have access to shortwave. Listening rates are often higher in countries like Peru and Brazil, where shortwave is used for domestic broadcasting as well. The Voice of America has estimated its weekly Spanish-language audience in Latin America at 3.2 million adults, and this does not include the Radio Marti broadcasts to Cuba. Country-by-country listening rates for VOA in Spanish range from 1% to 10% of the adult population.
In 1998, Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica carried out international radio listening surveys in 18 Latin American countries. Regarding shortwave stations, Medios y Mercados said: "When we consider any local market, their audiences may be miniscule. However, their strengths lie in their broad coverage and they may have sizeable listenership when aggregated across many local markets." Indeed, the survey found that 9.2 million people between the ages of 12 and 64 in the 18 countries surveyed had listened to at least one of the eight government-owned shortwave stations included in the survey within the past 30 days. The highest rating was for Radio Nacional do Brasil, with 3.5 million listeners. "In terms of demographics," the study concluded, "the listeners to the international radio broadcasters are more affluent, better educated and have a higher occupational status (owners, managers, professionals)."
The Cuban shortwave audience is a special case. Since the government controls all media on the island, a great many Cubans tune in to foreign radio stations for news and other programming. And thanks to the Soviet legacy, many if not most radio receivers in Cuba have shortwave bands on them, so listening to shortwave is very commonplace on the island. In a 1988 survey in four cities (Havana, Santa Clara, Holguin and Santiago) carried out for the U.S. Government's station Radio Marti, about half of all adults reported having access to shortwave radio, and 12% had listened to a shortwave stations within the last week (22% within the last 12 months). As much as 21% of respondents in the city of Santiago indicated they had listened to Radio Marti within the past week, and Radio Marti had a total weekly audience of 220,000 in the four cities. One Cuban exile program aired by Radio Miami International, La Voz de la Fundación, had a 2% weekly audience rating in Santa Clara.
Listener correspondence can also provide some helpful information about a station's audience. An analysis of listener letters received by WRMI in 1999 showed that the largest percentage of correspondence (39%) came from Latin America and the Caribbean, and the second-largest (29%) was from the United States and Canada. (The North American service of WRMI had just begun at that time.) Europeans produced 23% of the correspondence, which is interesting since we don't specifically target that continent. Six percent of the letters came from Asia and the Pacific, and the remaining 3% were from Africa. Breaking down the origin of the correspondence from Latin America, by far the largest amount (35%) was from Cuba. Brazilians contributed fully 20% of our Latin American correspondence, even though we have very few programs in Portuguese. (The Brazilians listen to Spanish and English programming, as well as Portuguese.) After Brazil came Argentina (13%), Venezuela (11%), Mexico (7%), Uruguay (5%) and Peru (4%).