The State of Media in Russia

I read with interest the Radio World Article: Why reviving Shortwave is a non-starter. The main premise of the article is that reviving Shortwave broadcasting to Russia is just wishful thinking. Since I am still in contact with persons in Russia, I figured I would attempt to ask them what they thought about it (without putting them at risk, of course).

The short answer; the opinion by Daniel Robinson and Keith Perron is correct. Shortwave is a non-starter in Russia. I asked a series of questions of my Russian friends and received the following answers:

Question: Do Russians own AM/FM radios?

Answer: Yes, especially those with cars. Most listening to analog AM or FM radio is done in cars and sometimes at work wearing headphones.

Question: How about Shortwave or Longwave sets?

Answer: Amateur radio operators and some hobbyists may own these radios, but not the general population.

Question: Are there any left over shortwave sets from Soviet times/the cold war period?

Answer: Not likely, and if there are, they probably don’t work. Soviet equipment was not high quality.

Question: What about listening to the radio at home?

Answer: Not very many people do this. Most people watch TV while at home or stream movies.

Question: Where do most people get their news?

Answer: The state media TV services (Russia-1 or Channel-1). A few people may stream news from overseas, although this is getting harder and harder to do. Anyone who does this will likely use a VPN.

Question: How many people can find, download, install and configure a VPN?

Answer: Mostly young people will do this, but it is getting harder to find VPN apps. They are getting removed from on line sources and people are afraid to install them on their mobile devices in case they have interactions with the police. Approximately 10% might be using a VPN.

Question: Could Russia disconnect the internet completely from the rest of the world?

Answer: Yes, but it would be difficult. The internet in Russia was not designed to do this the same way as say North Korea or the Great Firewall of China. There are many physical connections out of the country and not everything is well documented. It is much more likely that they will block, censor and track users rather than completely disconnect.

Question: Are there any sources of outside information available in Russia right now?

Answer: For those that are searching for it, yes but likely not for much longer.

Question: If Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty where available on AM/FM or Shortwave, would people listen to it?

Answer: No one cares. Unlike during Soviet times, no one really cares about western news or opinion. Things changed in 2014 with the first set of western sanctions. The cultural ministry (Roskomnadzor) began blocking access to internet sites they deemed detrimental. There were few independent media voices left. With the 2016 US election and anti-Russia investigations, most Russians believe that the west is turned against them. The news, as presented on Russia-1 is believed as truth.

As a radio professional, I believe in the medium including HF broadcasting. The point of my Russian friends; even if the programs were directly receivable via radio (of any type), most Russian people would ignore them. It is not a technical matter of getting programming to them. It is more a perception problem, brought on by years of propaganda and negative press from the west. If shortwave had been reinstated in 2007 when the first signs of censorship began to appear in Russia, things might be different. Instead, no one seemed to notice or care.

HF broadcasting, like all radio services, can be effective when nothing else works. Much of the VOA’s HF service is targeted to Africa and Cuba, two places that do not have a high percentage of internet users. It is very expensive to build and operate. To revive HF, it will need to get smaller and less expensive. DRM (Digital Radio Mondial) shows promise in this regard, but there is a dearth of available receivers (a quick search on Amazon nets zero usable results). Instead of trying to burn holes through the ionosphere with giant 500 KW AM modulated transmitters coupled to huge antennas with +20 dB gain or more, smaller digitally modulated transmitters with simpler antennas could net the same or better results. If these systems were placed closer to the intended target audience, so much the better.

Clearly, the world has changed. It is time to re-examine (and perhaps update) some of this old technology for 21st century use. Whatever happens, there are no short, quick, or easy answers. It took decades of time and a momentous effort to bring western ideas to the communist block. This was all undone in a few years by budget cuts.


An open letter to my Russian friends

I’ve made no secret here over the years, I have many friends and acquaintances in various parts of Russia. It is a fascinating culture with great art, literature and music. I am watching with growing concern, the level or Russian demonization from seemingly every quarter being aimed at Russian people and business here. It seems that a great number of people have lost perspective. It also shows the power of propaganda. Theirs and ours.

To be sure, watching the situation unfold in Ukraine on social media is disconcerting. No one in their right mind can look at those images and say “Oh, that is normal.” It is greatly disturbing. It is also war. All wars are like this and have been like this since the beginning of time. The images of dead civilians, bombed out cities, mass graves and so on are broadcast to the world on social media in almost real time. That is the difference this time.

This situation in Ukraine is complicated. It is a war of gas and ambition. There are many questions, good questions which can be asked; Why is NATO a concern? Why does Putin feel threatened by the EU? What is the Azov regiment? What did the natural gas fields discovered in 2010 have to do with the 2014 overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych? How much corruption is there with the Zelenskyy government? How did the US know that there was to be an invasion? What, if any, does the Bo Biden/Berisma thing have to do with this?

I mentioned in a previous post about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shortwave broadcasts during the cold war. I am heartened to see that there is a private effort to use the facilities of WRMI to broadcast information to that area of the world. The VOA has stated that they are not making plans to make broadcasts via shortwave because few people in that part of the world have shortwave receivers. I know first hand, that is not true. There are many shortwave sets still in existence and there are people who remember how to hook them up. As Russia becomes more isolated from the world, those shortwave sets are going to get dusted off and put into service.

Novo-Rossiya

Currently, WRMI is transmitting Russian language broadcasts on 7730 KHz from 0200-0500 UTC and 9370 KHz from 1900-2000 UTC. They have funding to buy broadcast time into summer months. They are also leasing time on 1395 KHz medium wave, which I think is the public broadcaster in Armenia:

Radio International Broadcasting Center, 1395 KHz 500 KW

On the downside, shortwave transmission facilities are expensive to build and run. Unlike internet distribution, there is no way to measure audience engagement or gather audience data. On the upside, it is very difficult to effectively jam HF signals across large areas. It is also very expensive and it would take a fair amount of time to rebuild the old soviet jamming networks. In the mean time, people will be looking for good sources of information about a number of topics.

The one thing that I do know, Putin is the aggressor and he cannot be allowed to win.

Ukraine

I have been watching and listening to the news from Ukraine. It is somewhat horrifying to see the wanton disregard for human life. It is especially concerning when combatants begin shelling a nuclear power plant. A breach of one of those reactor containment buildings might have contaminated a wide swath of eastern Europe. Such an act demonstrates that the Russians no longer seem to care about anyone, themselves included. A man can be very dangerous when he has nothing left to lose.

I have known many Russians over the years through email exchanges, video chats, and meeting in person. People seem to be celebrating with glee over the sanctions but it just makes me sad. Obviously, the war of aggression is wrong. However, you cannot conflate ordinary citizens with the terrible acts of their government, whether in Russia or anyplace else.

Roskomnadzor is has removed almost all outside sources of information from the Russian internet. As of this writing; CNN, BBC, Facebook, Twitter, Google (YouTube) have all been band. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty still exist, however, they are either on FM or use the internet for distribution.

Close up curtain array

I have to wonder if the VOA is going to step up with some shortwave broadcasts to the region. I know that the BBC as restored two frequencies so far. I believe that the European VOA relay sites have been shut down. That means either leasing time with someone or using Greenville. That is a long way away from eastern Europe, however, HF propagation is currently good and those old Continental 420As could use a little workout. Looks like they still have a row of curtain arrays aligned along 30-40 degrees true North.

Continental Electronics 420A 500 KW Shortwave transmitter

As the Chief Engineer of Radio Australia once said, HF will get through when nothing else will.

In the mean time, it might be a wise idea to dust off those old cold war contingency plans and review them. At appears a new iron curtain has arisen, stretching from St. Petersburg to Odessa.

Radio Guide; The Magazine

As some of you may have noticed, recently I have been writing some articles for Radio Guide. There are several good reasons for this, but the most important one is education. I believe that terrestrial radio will be around for a few more years. As others have noted, there are fewer and fewer broadcast engineers. Those that understand high power RF and all its intricacies are fewer still. It is important that a cadre of knowledgeable broadcast engineers carry on.

The internet is a great thing. However, it depends on cables of some type to exist. As we know, cables can be damaged. In addition to cables there are routers, core switches, servers and so on. All of that equipment can fail for various reasons. People have been working hard to improve the resiliency of the internet. That is a good cause, to be sure. However small it may be, there is still a chance that the internet can fail. Worse still, this can happen during some type of natural disaster or other emergency. Thus, during such an emergency, Radio can and will function as a vital information source provided that the station is on the air and has a program feed. That is also a good reason to keep the current RF STL paths in place as much as possible.

The Radio Guide articles are a great way to pass along some of that hard earned experience to others. I also want to put supplemental information here for those interested to download. Things like charts, forms, pictures, videos, etc.

What I am planning on is to list the articles here, then put links to any supplemental information provided below that sub heading.