By Graham Mutton
Summary of lecture given at the conference of the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters, USA, November 2000
Published in the Electronic DX Press

WHY RESEARCH MATTERS. All successful businesses need to know how well they are performing. They need information on their customers. Doing this in broadcasting is not at all easy. Radio and TV broadcasting is a rather special kind of business activity. It is unusual because when a broadcast reaches a person, no money changes hands. No physical object is either collected or handed over. Nothing happens that actually tells you for sure how many customers there were. If you are selling soft drinks, you can tell very quickly how you are doing. You can count the sales you have made.

But this kind of consumer information is not so easy to obtain in broadcasting. In the field of audience research we see the development of two specialised methodologies - personal diaries and electronic meters, designed to measure audience behaviour. But these techniques are mainly used to measure audiences for domestic radio and TV in national, regional and local markets. Most broadcasters in developed countries have up-to-date and timely data on their audiences. They know their popular programs. They know their reach, share and cumulative audiences. These data are used as the currency for buying and selling advertising time and space. They are also an essential part of the broadcasting business to aid scheduling and program making decisions.

What of international radio broadcasting? Are the same research techniques available and appropriate? Can we know, with the same level of detail, who is listening to what and when and how often? Can we know what attracts our listeners and how they make their choices?

WHAT EXISTING RESEARCH TELLS US. In my old department at the BBC we commissioned surveys in countries in all parts of the world. From these we were able to say what kinds of people the listeners are, what they like, when they listen, what kinds of radio sets they use, what reception is like and how their behaviour changes over time. However, we were never able to say how many people listened to a particular program. Our picture of the international audience for the BBC was painstakingly built up from data from separate surveys in several countries, carried out over several years.

International radio audiences are likely to be large where certain conditions prevail. These include the absence of choice in countries where the media are not free from various kinds of government restraint. Another factor can be high levels of political tension when demand for reliable news from outside the country concerned can lead many people to tune to foreign stations on shortwave. Let us look at one example -- Nigeria in 1998, before the return to democracy. The top three broadcasters -- BBC, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle -- had substantial audiences at that time. A sample of over 3,000 was selected to represent the Nigerian adult (15+) population of about 60 million. The BBC audience was estimated to be around 17 million and that of the VOA about 14 million.

Few shortwave broadcasters gain audiences large enough to measure on normal, general population audience surveys. The BBC, VOA, DW, RFI and some other broadcasters do achieve audiences in some countries that are easily measurable and some of these are very large, at times and in some countries, as large as domestic radio stations. This was the case in Nigeria and is also the case in many other countries, mostly in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and in areas of present conflict and tension, like Albania and the former Yugoslavia.

Generally speaking, levels of listening are low or very low in the more developed countries and higher in the less developed ones. And there is generally a higher level of shortwave use in countries where shortwave is used for domestic broadcasting. This is the case in nearly all African countries.

Shortwave sets are common throughout Africa. This is because all national broadcasters in Africa have used shortwave as their main means of national transmission. This is now changing and there may now be a decline in shortwave access. This will probably apply to the cheaper sets, while higher priced and more sophisticated equipment will probably continue to have shortwave bands. The same is true of India, although this may now also change as FM spreads. In other parts of Asia, radio itself has gone into decline in many countries. However, even though access to shortwave may not be very high, this does not appear to affect shortwave use as much as might be expected. Access is very low in Vietnam and this probably depresses shortwave use figures. Even so, audiences to foreign radio are not insignificant there. Pakistan data are striking in that even though only a minority of radio households has shortwave capable radio sets, the proportion listening to foreign stations is high.

There is a surprising range of levels of shortwave access in countries of the former Soviet Union. It needs to be remembered also that in some former USSR countries, most people do not have wireless sets, a legacy of the fact that the Soviet authorities encouraged the use of cable (tochka) radio, presumably to block out western radio as far as possible.

In Europe, shortwave access is quite high, especially in countries where levels of listening to foreign radio were formerly quite high. But even in Western Europe, many people may have at least one shortwave radio set. In many cases, however, the waveband may not be used. In the Americas, shortwave access is generally low, although in countries like Peru where shortwave has been used for domestic broadcasting, access is higher.

What audiences can shortwave broadcasters expect to reach? For most stations, the numbers are scattered and small. You may have audiences of less than 0.1%. But this does not mean an insignificant achievement necessarily. Just let us suppose that a shortwave international broadcaster reaches listeners in many countries but that in none of these is the audience achieved large enough to measure by the usual general population surveys. 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 be necessary to prove it.

So is the situation hopeless? What can we do practically to learn about users of shortwave and listeners to international shortwave radio programs? What can be done to help the broadcasters understand and know their audiences better?

MAIL SURVEYS. This can be used to generate addresses on a database that can be used over time to learn about those who write, track changes in what they like and listen to, learn about who they are and invite regular feedback and other useful knowledge. We know from research that responses from listeners can give an accurate picture of reception conditions. They can also tell us something valuable about an important section of the audience - the committed and keen listeners. What is more, the people who respond to you by writing may be precisely the kinds of people you wish to reach.

ON-AIR SURVEYS. If you want some more general information about those listening and you wish to stimulate response for research purposes, you can actually ask questions over the air. These can be very good value in terms of the information gleaned. The on-air appeal can attract people to write who normally would not. You can explain the value of and importance attached to feedback. Specific questions can be asked.

SPECIAL SURVEYS AMONG TARGET POPULATIONS. Instead of general surveys of whole adult populations, surveys can be specially targeted to those people who the stations wish to reach. If you are aiming to reach shortwave hobbyists, just survey them. If you want to reach Poles living abroad, the same applies. If your main objective is to reach the better-educated listener, commission research just among a sample of them.

INTERNET RESEARCH. This is a growing area for research and one from which shortwave broadcasters may learn. A good deal of Internet-based research is very like the on-air surveys mentioned earlier. Users are asked to respond. As these methods are developed by the fastest growing area in the market research business, there may be lessons to learn for shortwave broadcasting research.

RESEARCH THROUGH EXISTING SHARED AND OTHER SURVEYS. Lastly it should not be forgotten that much useful research continues to be done among general populations by or for the major international broadcasters. The BBC, the VOA, RFI and other major broadcasters commission many surveys each year. These can serve two functions for the smaller broadcasters. They can provide data on shortwave access, shortwave use, and many other relevant data. Having a general picture of the amount that shortwave is used can be a guide to the strength of the medium.


NASB members are: Adventist World Radio, Assemblies of Yahweh,, Family Radio Network, Far East Broadcasting Company, Herald Broadcasting Syndicate, High Adventure Ministries, LeSea Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Miami International, Trans World Radio, World Christian Broadcasting, World Wide Catholic Radio

NASB Associate Members are: Antenna Products, Continental Electronics, Corporation, George Jacobs and Associates, HCJB World Radio, IBB Technology for Communications Int., Thomcast, Inc.