Friday, July 11, 2014

HCJB Australia is now Reach Beyond Australia, and they have DRM plans!

I had the distinct pleasure to interview Derek Kickbush, Media Manager for Reach Beyond Australia, previously HCJB Australia. Their website is here. Their new website, due this month, will be here. Additional photos are here.

Derek, What are Reach Beyond Australia's plans for DRM?
·         Reach Beyond Australia is taking a “gently does it” approach to DRM broadcasting.  We have the liberty of time being on our side as the only country taking up DRM within our licensed international area is India.  This country made the decision some years ago to convert their domestic MW/FM and international radio services to DRM. The process has already begun and they have a completion date of 2017.  It is a big project for India so we will monitor how the changeover progresses.  In many cases it is not so much a changeover at present but as an additional service where the same programs are being carried on multiple platforms.
What equipment will you use?
·         At present there are plans for only one HC-100 transmitter to operate a DRM service.  This 100KW transmitter is currently undergoing conversion and upgrade at the Reach Beyond Global Technology Centre (Center ha!) in Elkhart, Indianna.  It is expected to be DRM / Analogue switchable. 

·         Our current antennas will serve us well for India as the whole transmission site at Kununurra, Western Australia has been upgraded.  HF antenna options are a narrow beam parabolic reflector which originally served in a different configuration with HCJB in Quito, Ecuador.  It is currently configured for 16 and 19 metres.  Another option is a 2x4 dipole antenna for 19 and 25 metres. [That’s 2 wide by 4 high].  Finally we have a 4x4 TCI611 which is our LF antenna and operates between 6-12MHz or 49 to 25 metres.

 What is the most encouraging news you have heard about DRM?
·         The more countries that take up the DRM system the better.  Currently the big players are India, Russia and Brazil.  I saw recently where trials have taken place in South Africa.  These large audience countries ensure that the technology, wonderful as it is, is likely to survive in a forever changing technological world.  Operationally one of the encouraging features of DRM is that is not as power hungry as an analogue transmitter attempting to achieve a similar target and signal strength.  Estimates say it is in the range of 30-40% of the analogue use of electricity which is a huge saving given the rising cost of power today. Naturally being able to broadcast and be received with a near FM quality signal is every shortwave operators dream.  

What is the most discouraging news you have heard about DRM?
·         It has to be about the availability of receivers - or lack of them.  When a country such as India is considered it is absolutely essential that for the benefits of DRM to be appreciated across the population, receivers must be priced within the reach of the masses.  There seems to have been a Mexican stand-off between broadcasters and set manufacturers about who should go first when in reality there is a need for both to work together.  As DRM is adopted by the high population countries it will encourage set manufacturers to become more confident – and with mass production the price will fall.  Current DRM set prices will only be afforded by the wealthy or the radio enthusiast.  And into that mix also comes the situation of sets which are multi-system capable such as DAB and DAB+.

What is your timeline for regular DRM broadcasting?
·         Perhaps late 2016 into 2017 depending on the availability and take-up of DRM sets within India.

Does shortwave remain a viable media in general, especially for the mission field? 
·         The phrase ‘viable media’ is possibly open to interpretation and it will depend on the objectives of any individual broadcaster.  There is no doubt that governments are winding back their transmission hours or leaving the field altogether to replace it with other technologies.  It was interesting to note that several large broadcasters such as the BBC immediately increased shortwave broadcast hours into Thailand during the recent military coup.  Countries which are under some form of repression, or who have been freed from repression are often found to have large numbers of shortwave sets.  Let’s take another look at the term ‘viable media.’  Viable by what criteria?  In the west we are a very results driven society so the inclination is to only be interested in the bottom line.  We have a need to quantify everything and look for a return on capital invested.  The Christian shortwave operator has a different perspective because there is often no reliable method to gain the information required to make bottom line judgements.  When much of your audience, say in Myanmar, is operating at a subsistence level, they are not about to call a number, write a letter or SMS to a radio station overseas or sometimes even a local contact.  They have far greater issues with which to contend – but it does not mean they are not listening or even responding.  It is just that it is not happening in the way that more advanced societies think it should happen.  ‘Viable’ is often clinging on to the crumbs of information that come our way from time to time.    

·         In terms of the Christian mission field which is the reason Reach Beyond Australia is into shortwave, it remains a viable media, at least for the present.  Together with FEBC, TWR, IBRA, Adventist Radio and ourselves there are still many hours of shortwave broadcasting happening within Asia Pacific, our part of the world.  But there is no doubt shortwave broadcasters are being more selective in where and when they broadcast – almost what we might term ‘niche marketing.’  In part that comes down to the considerable cost of power and infrastructure – but also because new technologies are available and have been adopted at the expense of shortwave in some countries.  Also, as far as Christian broadcasters are concerned, there is a view to engage with ethnic language groups rather than a more generic approach to a whole country.  For Reach Beyond Australia it is about ‘reaching those unreached people groups with the gospel’ and ‘reaching those who have little exposure to the gospel.’

What are you currently doing on shortwave?
·         Reach Beyond Australia is currently on air for 75 hours per week in 26 different languages.  Our priority audiences are India, Myanmar and Japan but we also have programs for Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan, China, East Malaysia, Indonesia and wherever English is spoken across Asia and the Pacific.  Many of the programs are produced ‘in-country’ as the producers are aware of hot issues but also because they best understand the language, customs and culture.  This makes for more effective program content.

Wow Derek, lots of great information here. Thanks for your time. In conclusion, is there anything else you'd like DRMNA readers to know?
·         Reach Beyond Australia is but one part, and a fully autonomous part of Reach Beyond around the world.  After 83 years, the mission changed its name in 2014 from HCJB which were the call letters of the organisations first radio station in Quito, Ecuador – The Voice of the Andes – established on Christmas Day, 1931.  The shortwave station commenced broadcasting from Australia in 2003 when it took over the South Pacific service which had originated in Quito.  Within a few months South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia was added to the schedule.  It will be interesting to see how the DRM component develops over the next few years.  With the increase in signal quality I suspect different types of programs to the current stream will be the order of the day.

Thank you Derek for such an informative interview!