Grassroots effort uses shortwave radio to broadcast VOA in Ukraine, Russia
A grassroots funding effort is underway to raise money to transmit Voice of America programming into Eastern Europe through shortwave radio, a more dated form of technology that can circumvent Russia’s crackdown on tech companies.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the parent agency for Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has chosen not to transmit the programming in the region through shortwave radio.
But organizers behind a crowdfunding campaign have already secured one station in Florida to share VOA’s daily English programming about Ukraine within days of the effort’s launch.
Shortwave radio may not be the most popular way for the public to gain information in the digital age, but supporters of the effort said that during a crisis like the war in Ukraine, it’s critical to use a method that can break through the Kremlin’s obstruction of outside media.
“In times of crisis if the content is compelling, the audience will go where they know the information is,” said Gerhard Straub, the former director of the broadcast technologies division at USAGM.
Straub, who retired from the USAGM last January, has been providing technical assistance to supporters looking to transmit Voice of America and Radio Free Europe programming into the Eastern European region.
Within two days of launching an online fundraising campaign, the supporters of the group “Shortwaves for Freedom” raised $2,495 of the $10,000 goal and have transmitted VOA programming through a station in Florida.
Since VOA material is public domain, it can be downloaded off the website or listened to during live broadcast at 4 p.m. ET through the Miami Radio International station.
Jeff White, the general manager at Miami Radio International, said after “Shortwaves for Freedom” reached out, his station started playing VOA’s “Flashpoint Ukraine” program.
There are also plans to expand the transmission and play programming in Ukrainian.
The effort began after a number of current and former VOA staffers became frustrated that existing infrastructure wasn’t being turned on to reach people in Russia, Ukraine and Poland through shortwave radio, a veteran VOA staffer told The Hill.
The staffer compared shortwave radio to a flashlight in a blackout.
“As long as your electricity is on and your lights are on, you don’t need that flashlight. But when the electricity goes off, that flashlight becomes something very critical,” the staffer said.
Kate Neiswender, a California-based lawyer involved in organizing the crowdfunding campaign said it was a “logical step to take.”
“It’s just such a logical step to take. Until the VOA and its various entities decide to move forward, we’ll be there doing this shortwave or medium wave transmission as long as necessary.”
White said the station is committed to keep up transmissions, whether the money is there or not.
“We’re not doing it for the money, we’re doing it because it needs to be done,” he said.
“It can’t be stopped at borders, it doesn’t need permission, it can’t be cut off like a satellite. It’s the only medium that’s really direct communication from the transmitter to the listener, wherever they may be,” White said.
VOA has a history of using radio to spread information dating back to World War II, and expanded the use of shortwave during the Cold War.
Even as it has expanded into digital mediums, USAGM still has the capability to transmit through shortwave if it chooses to do so, Straub said. There’s a transmitter in Greenville, N.C., that was designed with the capability to broadcast to Ukraine and Russia, he added.
Globally, the VOA is still using shortwave broadcasting and even expanding it across parts of Africa, he added.
A spokesperson for VOA referred The Hill to USAGM for comment.
USAGM spokesperson Laurie Moy said USAGM content currently reaches audiences in Russia, Ukraine and the region through TV, FM and medium wave radio, digital and direct-to-home satellite.
“We have and continue to expand transmissions to bring unbiased information to light at this crucial time. Any grassroots effort to enhance the distribution of our programs affirms the work our journalists do,” Moy said in a statement.
Moy also said USAGM determines transmission strategies based on audience research and delivers programming on the platforms “where it will have the highest impact.”
Unlike VOA, the BBC said it would resume its shortwave broadcasts in Russia after its websites were blocked in the country. VOA and Radio Free Europe’s sites were similarly blocked by the Kremlin.
“People see shortwave as being an obsolete form of communication. The fact is, it’s not obsolete. It’s out there. It’s useful. It’s easy to fire up an old shortwave transmitter and be able to receive information in this fashion,” Neiswender said.
“It’s very much a doable thing. And when people in Russia find out that this information is out there, they’re going to start pulling their short waves out of their attics,” she added.
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