According to the latest Budget Request for the BBG, the US civilian international media agency, Radio Sawa, the BBG’s Arabic-language service will end its AM & FM broadcasts to all countries except Iraq

According to the latest President’s Budget Request (for Fiscal Year 2019), released on 12 February 2018, the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) budget, which oversees all US civilian international media, will be cut by some $24m compared to the FY 2018 budget proposal, which itself was down more than $108.8m on the BBG’s FY 2017 (actual appropriation).

Cuts mean end to Radio Sawa non-Iraq broadcasts

The latest cuts for FY 2019 will translate, among other things, into an end to all non-Iraq broadcasts of Radio Sawa, the BBG’s Arabic radio service. Radio Sawa is part of the BBG’s Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), together with the 24/7 Alhurra pan-Arab news and information TV channel.

The “Summary of Increases and Decreases” for FY 2019 gives the following details for the $9.5m cuts:

Decreases: $12.5m – as follows:

–   Pan-Arab Radio (i.e. Radio Sawa) Transmission Reduction: $7.7m

–   Eliminate Sawa Pan-Arab Radio: $4.8m

Increases: $3m (Reposition Sawa Pan-Arab as Digital)

Reasons for cuts go beyond Radio Sawa

The document gives the following reasons for the cuts relevant to this (and other) service(s):

The Office of Technology, Services and Innovation (TSI) “continues to move the BBG from traditional broadcasting technologies, such as cross-border radio transmissions shortwave (SW) and medium wave (MW) serving regions where these platforms are no longer popular, to other delivery systems that are rapidly growing in effectiveness and are less expensive to operate (e.g., FM radio, DTH satellite, internet streaming, mobile, and social media. (…) As part of this move, TSI will continue support for the FM radio network in the critical target country of Iraq, but terminate distribution of and support for terrestrial radio in the rest of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.”

Radio Sawa “uses leased FM transmitters in Arab countries plus medium wave relays, and these are expensive,” retired VOA audience research analyst Kim Andrew Elliott told Radio World

Eight streams

Radio Sawa was launched in 2002. It is broadcast on MW and FM on eight sub-regional streams, including: Iraq (FM and AM); Levant (including Jordan and the West Bank – FM); the Gulf (FM and AM); Egypt (AM); Morocco (FM); Sudan, Libya, Djibouti and Yemen (FM and AM); Lebanon and Syria (FM); and Mauritania (FM). Radio Sawa is also streamed on its news and information website and through a dedicated audio streaming mobile app.

The BBG’s director of global communications and public affairs, Nasserie Carew, told Radio World that Radio Sawa’s current weekly reach was 11.7 million and Iraq was its largest stream, with 40% of its total audience (4.7 million).

Significant reach

The latest available data (FY 2015) for MBN, giving a breakdown between Alhurra and Radio Sawa (FY 2015), measured weekly audience (i.e. number of people listening to or viewing programming or online materials in the past week) show that it was 17.6m for Alhurra and 10.9m for Radio Sawa, the overall audience figure was 25.7m. For FY 2017 the actual figure was also 25.7m.

Given this latest available breakdown between the two services, it is totally unrealistic to expect that the MBN’s target measured weekly audience for FY 2019 (27.5m) can be even remotely approached with the end of Radio Sawa’s terrestrial broadcasts.

As BBC Monitoring assistant editor and media specialist Chris Greenway told Radio World: “clearly not everyone in the Arab world is willing or able to receive radio broadcasts via non-traditional means. In-car listening is an obvious example.”

Both Elliott and Greenway question whether listening online, via mobile devices or satellite services digital platforms will attract the same audience

Will other international broadcasters to the region benefit?

Two other international radio services likely to benefit most from cuts to Radio Sawa are BBC Arabic and Monte Carlo Doualiya (MCD), the Arabic-language service of France Médias Monde, the group in charge of French international broadcasting.

BBC Arabic, the largest and the first of the BBC’s non-English language services, which celebrated its 80th anniversary last January, is available 24/7 on radio, TV, online and mobile devices, it has a total weekly reach of 43 million for all these services. It will likely benefit from Radio Sawa’s cuts across the Arab world. However, reports of restructuring and planned staff cuts to the service in London emerged earlier this year. These plans include news operations being transferred to Cairo and Amman. Given the recent spat between Cairo and the BBC, with Egypt calling for Egyptian officials to boycott the BBC following a report on human rights, these plans may very well be reassessed.

MCD broadcasts to the Middle East, Mauritania, Djibouti, and South Sudan on MW, and via 27 FM transmitters in 13 countries, and also via satellite and partner radio stations. It claims a weekly audience of 7.3 million listeners (measured in 18 countries only out of the 22 it reaches). It also attracts more than 2 million visits a month to its digital platforms (2017 average) and has 3.8 million followers on Facebook and Twitter.

Other international broadcasters with Arabic-language services, such as Deutsche Welle, may also benefit from cuts to Radio Sawa services.

Leading international broadcasting organisations like the BBG (and Radio Sawa, its Arabic radio network), the BBC World Service (and its BBC Arabic service), France Médias Monde (and its Arabic-language radio Monte Carlo Doualiya – MCD), or Germany’s Deutsche Welle, are all Members of the Association for International Broadcasting (AIB). The AIB is the only global alliance of media companies that deliver, or support the delivery of, cross-border and multi-platform international broadcasting. The AIB provides information and news about its Members and the international broadcasting world, as well as a wide range of useful resources. The AIB also set up Member-only working Groups, in particular for Audience Research and for Cyber Security, with more planned in the future.

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