Wednesday, 2 May 2007

WRN: Global Voices, Diverse Views, One Station

World Radio Network - Global Voices, Diverse Views, One Station

by Chrissy Brand (first published in Radio Active Jan 2005)

The World Radio Network (WRN) commenced back in 1992. The aim was to produce a satellite radio station to re-broadcast the best output from shortwave international radio stations. It was soon able to beam the words of these international stations into the homes of a wider audience through the then comparatively new technology of satellite broadcasting.

WRN was set up by three former BBC Senior Staff, namely WRN Managing Director Karl Miosga, Technical Operations Director Jim Ashburner, and Director of Development Jeff Cohen. Jeff has been a shortwave enthusiast since boyhood, and he had the initial idea of a satellite radio network that could raise the profile of the best of shortwave content.

WRN is a small company employing 21 people at its Vauxhall Headquarters in South London, a Freddie Flintoff boundary hit away from the Oval cricket ground. It reaches a global audience and the station mantra of `Global voices, diverse views - all on one station' serves them well. WRN has five core service areas, namely Broadcast, Transmission, Internet, Consulting and Commercial. We shall concern ourselves here with the first two of these, which will be of most interest to Radio Active readers.

Looking at the WRN broadcasts, there are currently four language services. There are also multilingual services to different parts of the world, in languages such as Czech, Finnish, Hungarian, Polish and Spanish. These are:
WRN English to Europe, Africa, Asia Pacific, North and South America.
WRN German to Europe and Africa.
WRN French to Europe and Africa and North America
WRN Russian to Europe and Russia.

WRN Russian to Europe and Russia is the latest service, which is also being developed on a medium wave frequency in Moscow. One of the licence conditions for the Moscow based outlet is that 30% of output is local programming.

Global technical operations
Broadcast distribution is through satellite, Internet, wireless applications, cable television, cable FM and AM via local radio stations, and Worldspace. But before the distribution can begin, WRN needs to receive, collate and order each station's programme output.

The huge variety of programming (or `bouquet' in satellite speak) are sent from the originating radio stations and production companies to WRN by various delivery methods. These feeds are sent on a daily and sometimes weekly basis and arrive at WRN's multi-playout centre in London via the Internet, FTP (File Transfer Protocol), Satellite or through lines in Bush House (BBC World Service HQ). The one-woman operation that is Radio Wales International's Celtic Notes actually send their programmes in on CD, proving that new and old methods work equally efficiently.

WRN is then in a position to transmit. The output is continuously monitored by two technicians in the spacious London studio and technical gallery, crammed full of computer screens, mixing desks and banks of glowing electrical gadgetry.

In the past two years WRN's transmission services business have seen a major expansion, with the goal of becoming one of the world's pre-eminent transmission service providers. With the explosion of new digital delivery platforms, coupled with the demand from listeners for increased radio choice, WRN is ensuring that its radio broadcasting clients, big or small, publicly or privately funded, have access to the most suitable digital delivery platforms, allowing their radio services to develop and expand.

For example, in 2000 WRN invested in a Philips Digital Audio Distribution System that is now at the heart of its new digital radio multiplex on the Eutelsat Hotbird 6 satellite. At the same time, WRN still offers analogue distribution services for broadcasters wanting to reach the parts of the world where full digital broadcasting is not yet in place. WRN is available on Sky Digital in the UK, and European networks are available on the new digital cable systems rolling out across Europe. Examples being Telewest's Activedigital in the UK and Swissfun cable and Telegeneve's digicable service in Switzerland which carry WRN.

As well as the WRN network on Satellite, a number of radio stations carry WRN programming as an overnight sustaining service. Some stations re-broadcast a pick and mix selection of what WRN has to offer. In south-east England Spectrum radio rebroadcasts WRN during the night on 558 kHz medium wave.

You can even hear WRN on DAB if you are in Stockholm via Stockholm International 89.6 FM and DAB. Elsewhere in Scandinavia Finland has Helsinki's Capital FM 103.7 FM, Turku's Radio Aurora 96.7 FM and Lahti's Radio Kuopio on 88.1 FM. Throughout Denmark several radio stations, cable services and the Thor II satellite all carry WRN. Many other European countries carry WRN on cable from Austria to Switzerland as well as the UK.

Further afield WRN output can be heard on FM in Berlin and Moscow and on AM across Western Europe, south-west Russia (and St Petersburg), Ukraine and Romania. WRN identifies the most appropriate transmitters, undertakes local negotiations and monitors the output on behalf of the broadcasting organisations.

There are dozens of other radio stations across the globe who are linked with WRN and re-broadcast their programmes to a local audience. These include: SA FM 104-107 across South Africa, Cape Town's Bush Radio 89.5 FM and Johannesburg's Al Saut (The Voice) on 94.5 FM. Elsewhere on the African continent WRN is heard across Malawi on FM 101 POWER, Namibia on UNAM Radio and Zambia on Radio Choice 107.8FM.

In Australia Radio Adelaide on 101.5 FM, KLFM 96.5 FM Bendigo and 106.3FM in Castlemaine all take the programmes, as does New Zealand's Jukebox Radio 99.1FM in Waipu, Northland.

Another effective and exciting delivery method that has been successfully tested in the U.S.A is that of sending WRN onto mobile phone networks. Sirius Satellite Radio in the USA is also now delivering multi-channel commercial-free radio to Americans in their cars via satellite and WRN is one of the major news channels alongside other providers such as ABC, and CNN. WRN also use traditional methods such as shortwave transmitters, including old transmitters in Moldova, east of Romania.

Providing listeners with quality technical programmes from the best of shortwave is just one part of WRN's business. They were the first British broadcaster offering live radio on the World Wide Web and the WRN website is a major portal for international radio. The site has live streams of WRN's radio networks and audio files in over 20 languages.

Programmes and stations
Because of the nature of WRN, with stations sending programmes in advance, and slots being booked by such a wide number of stations, it is not geared up to cover breaking news stories, in the way that ional state broadcaster such as the BBC can. It may occasionally be caught out by a news story that conflicts with pre-recorded material going out on the air at the time. However, strengths lay more in the topical current affairs programmes that emerge after an international crisis or incident.

As an example, on 9/11 it was not in a position to cover events live, nor was it within its remit. However, as reaction unfolded around the world, and various stations produced programmes reflecting the disaster, WRN was able to quickly provide views from across the globe, from China to Channel Africa, New Zealand to the Netherlands. The local radio stations that take WRN programming in the USA overnight, and the listeners, were impressed and supported by hearing such global support from the people in the street to the experts in the studios.

Looking in more detail at the 24 hour a day English to Europe programming, there are currently broadcasters from 26 countries. China, as well as state broadcasting giant China Radio International, is also represented by Radio Guangdong, which commenced back in 1949. Guangdong is a southern province of the country on the South China Sea, and the station's programmes reflect the diversity of the region. Guangdong Today can include features on festivals, international relations and tourism.

Radio Korea International is another Asian voice that makes the most of WRN, whilst Israel Radio is currently the only Middle East broadcaster on the network. The Middle East is one of the geo-political regions where WRN hopes to add other broadcasters. Amongst the many other broadcasters using WRN to carry their words far and wide in non-English languages are YLE Finland, the Hispanic Radio Network and the Voice of Turkey.

The old Eastern European bloc was quick to see how WRN could help vent post-Communist voices and since the 1990s has maintained a representative presence on Satellite. Radio Budapest, Radio Polonia, Radio Prague, Radio Romania International, Radio Slovakia and the Voice of Russia all have English language slots. And in more comfortable and predictable listening conditions than those offered on shortwave, you can hear programming gems such as what Slovaks think of cricket, how Romania's 20 television channels are fighting for viewer figures, and the legend of Czech medieval princess Libuse.

Western voices
Wales Radio International air a high quality weekly programme Celtic Notes, with presenter Jenny O'Brien. Everything from business opportunities to Welsh poetry are covered in a lively and professional manner. Another Celtic view is provided by RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann) in Dublin, who have added WRN to their transmission arsenal, having left shortwave last year, but taken up the 252 kHz longwave frequency. Other stations such as UN Radio, Pacifica Radio and Banns Radio (from Copenhagen) add to a wide and unique selection of stations.

Broadcasters that have been familiar and friendly voices on shortwave for decades include Radio Netherlands and Radio Australia. The latter's excellent `Rural Reporter' programme is on WRN. Just one week could include behind the scenes at a fireworks spectacular; a woman unafraid of back breaking work in the shearing shed; and some old sailors who have given up the high seas in favour of model boats. `The Buzz' covers science and engineering and I was enthralled by an item on steganography (the science of hiding messages) It's origins are ancient but steganography has really come to the fore in the digital world. Another technology piece was on wireless sensor networks, which will be used to gather and relay information back to a central point, especially in factories, cars, ships and planes.

Much of the best of Radio Netherlands is re-broadcast on WRN. Vox Humana, Research File, Euro Quest and A Good Life are all heard regularly. Radio Sweden's Nordic Lights and Street Talk are an entertaining listen, looking at whether it is true that everyone in Sweden is called either `Björn' or `Lars' or `Inga' or `Anna'? `Street Talk' went round Stockholm to find out if there is any truth to the stereotypes.

Across the pond recent offerings from Radio Canada International included Ontario's University of Waterloo setting a world record by driving their solar-powered car, Midnight Sun VII for 15,079 kilometres.

Stations that originally broadcast in WRN but have left include the BBC World Service, Swiss Radio International/Swiss Info (who now operate an Internet-only service) and Radio France International, who may return at some point with German language programming.

Channel Africa, Deutsche Welle, Radio Vlaanderen International (Belgium), Vatican Radio and Radio New Zealand International are other established shortwave stations that do utilise the excellent services offered by WRN to promulgate their messages, be they of tourism, politics, religion or just good old entertainment for the listeners!

Specialist programmes
As well as radio stations booking airtime to play a selection of their scheduled programmes, WRN re-broadcasts a number of specialist programmes made by independent production companies, which include a number of programmes also heard on U.S.A radio stations. Glenn Hauser's World of Radio is a weekly highlight for me and carries the latest communication news. Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion is another on my `not to be missed' list with its variety and dry humour format now in its 30th anniversary year.

Pulse of the Planet and Eco Zone cover environmental and global issues, Earth & Sky looks at popular science, and This Way Out is an international gay and lesbian radio magazine based in Los Angeles with interesting features for a wide radio audience. National Geographic and Spotlight are two other slots in the scheduling worth making time for.

Future plans
WRN continues to seek out and develop relations with potential new partners, especially in areas of the world which aren't currently covered by the network. (e.g. Latin American and Middle Eastern radio for its English language services). It will be fascinating to monitor how the radio schedules evolve in the next few years. There are also plans investigating how Arabic and Spanish radio networks could be developed.

WRN recently released a press statement stating their intention to progress the multimedia side of the organisation. Such future plans may include a television model of WRN. Taking the format and technical expertise developed for satellite radio in the past decade and coming up with a World Television Network would be a very exciting, and challenging, development.

Another mouth-watering prospect that might be in the pipeline is the design and manufacture of portable radios that will be able to receive satellite radio stations. What a boon this will be for all of us who are limited in our satellite radio listening by the fact that most satellite set-ups are located in the main family room in the house. Being able to carry a portable satellite radio around the home rather than have to compete with the family for the remote control will increase listening opportunities for many of us.

WRN has come a long way in its past 12 years on modest resources. It has achieved a lot when you consider the explosion of communications technology in the past decade, and the competitive marketplace for media audiences. A future marker for success might, somewhat ironically, be for WRN to develop a lower profile from the listeners point of view, with the station output being a seamless and continuous mix of variety and quality from global radio stations.

Simultaneously WRN itself might seek to raise its profile within the broadcasting industry to ensure the best of the world's radio makes it onto the WRN networks, and that it becomes a platform for as wide a range of voices from across the planet as can be fitted into its programme schedules.
To close on an optimistic note from WRN themselves; “There is a rising demand from listeners around the world for increased radio choice and WRN is committed to continuing to work on behalf of its clients in seeking out new and dynamic ways to reach listeners all across the globe. From our perspective, international radio has a bright, and very exciting future.” I am sure we all second that.

Tuning in
It is said that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or in this case, listening. Here are some of the ways to tune into WRN in Western Europe.

By Satellite:
Sky Digital channel 872 (Eurobird satellite at 28.2 degrees East).

Eutelsat Hotbird 6 satellite at 13º East, Transponder 94, 12.597 GHz. Vertical, Symbol Rate 27.500 Mbaud, FEC 3/4, MPEG2 DVB audio stream. Select WRN English from audio menu.

By radio:
Spectrum 558 kHz medium wave in London and South East of England (overnight from 1 a.m).
Also on Worldspace radios via WorldSpace AfriStar satellite service.

Via the Internet:
Simply go to and follow links to schedules and programmes (by station), which lead to audio links.

WRN also transmits on numerous cable and European local radio stations. Check the WRN website for latest details.

With thanks to WRN and BDXC

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