I don’t think the student is dumb, it may be the teacher
Advocates work to revitalise Australia’s voice in the Pacific

2017 decision to kill shortwave a disastrous error of judgement

Chris Overland
Chris Overland

CHRIS OVERLAND’s submission to the Review of Australian Broadcasting in the Asia Pacific *

ADELAIDE - I served as a Patrol Officer in then the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea between 1969 and 1974. During that time I undertook extensive patrolling in some of the most remote parts of the country and lived in a number of very isolated places for extended periods.

These included Baimuru and Kikori in the Gulf Province, Koroba and Kagua in Hela Province and Popondetta and Kokoda in Oro Province.

In those days, which long predated TV, mobile phones and the internet, communication with the outside world was severely restricted. As a consequence, there was an almost total reliance upon radio to maintain contact with what was happening in the wider world.

One of my first purchases in PNG was a short wave transistor radio. This radio was a source of both information and entertainment for me. In those days it was possible to tune into what were the “big 3” short wave radio stations, being the Voice of America, the BBC World Service and, of course, Radio Australia. The latter was the station to which I tuned the radio most of the time.

Radios were then very scarce outside of the main centres or a government Patrol Post. The administration of the time was therefore encouraging the indigenous people to purchase them and the local ABC radio stations were broadcasting programs in the two main common languages of Motu (Papua) and Pidgin (New Guinea), as well as in English.

It would be fair to say that the acquisition of a radio in a remote village was a very big deal for the people living there. They were avid listeners and would gather round the radio to hear the news as well as enjoy music programs, especially those that included local musicians who were then beginning to write and perform their own distinctive style of music.

Radio Australia was also a very popular choice for listening. The villagers who could speak English would listen to news and current affairs programs and then give their fellow villagers a digested version in their own language. For most people living in remote and rural PNG the short wave radio was literally the only way in which they could gain contact with the outside world.

Now, of course, things have greatly changed in PNG. The use of mobile phones is widespread, the internet is available in the major towns and both radio and TV stations operate across the country. Papua New Guineans are clearly now more connected with the outside world and each other than ever before.

On the face of it, one therefore could easily imagine that short wave radio is now an old and irrelevant technology. This would be an understandable but entirely erroneous assumption.

While the major centres certainly have access to the modern communication technologies, this is not the case for much of remote and rural PNG.

It is hard for a person not familiar with PNG to understand just how incredibly difficult it is to move around the country. Much of the terrain is extremely mountainous, while other parts like the Gulf of Papua or the Sepik delta are vast swamp lands through which flow innumerable rivers and creeks. The islands to the east and north of the mainland are, of course, separated by sometimes large distances. In short, those people living in rural and remote PNG remain very isolated and mostly reliant upon sometimes erratic air and sea transport to maintain physical contact with the wider world.

Such isolation includes the inability to access the more modern forms of communications which we are now used to in Australia. The notion that a mobile phone can serve as the sort of all purpose communication device that Australians take for granted is meaningless in places like Baimuru or Kokoda or Telefomin. In such circumstances, radio remains a vital means (and, very often, still the only means) by which to maintain contact with the wider world.

Of late, Australia has somewhat belatedly awoken to the activities of the Peoples Republic of China in the Pacific and Oceania. China is in the process of establishing itself as a major influence in this region and is willing to deploy large amounts of money to do so. Thus far at least, it appears to be having considerable success.

Sadly, the leaders of PNG and other Pacific nations are deeply susceptible to the prospect of easy access to large amounts of money and have little apparent regard to the potential transaction costs involved.

While China is perfectly entitled to pursue its national interests in this way it remains, at bottom, an authoritarian regime. History strongly suggests that such regimes are never really a benign force in human affairs. For this reason alone, Australia can and should be deploying its resources to maintain and, hopefully, extend its influence in the region.

Fortunately, despite the apparent largesse of China, there is good evidence that many people in PNG remain cautious if not suspicious about their new best friend. They especially dislike the way in which Chinese business interests and workers are increasingly taking up residence in their country and assuming effective control of segments of the local economy.

There is, in short, extensive unease about the PNG government’s decision to engage more closely with China through the Belt and Road initiative.

Because Australia was a largely benign colonial power in PNG and because there remain extensive business and personal links between the two countries, there is a large reservoir of goodwill in PNG directed towards Australia.

This is especially true in the remote areas, where successive PNG governments have presided over a slow decline in both the level and quality of public health, education and other services.

Those who can remember, still speak kindly of the Australian administration which, whatever its faults, strove to provide these services in even the most remote parts of the country.

Given this general context, the decision in 2017 to cease short wave radio services into PNG and the wider Pacific and Oceania was a disastrous error in judgement.

At one stroke, Australia lost its ability to communicate with and influence the thinking of a very large segment of the population in that region and simultaneously denied those people access to a well-established and valued source of information and entertainment.

The people who made this decision apparently did so without much regard to its likely impact on listeners, both short and long term. Presumably, the budget impact upon the ABC was the most important consideration.

This enquiry presents an opportunity for key decision makers to reconsider the various factors involved in this decision. It is an opportunity to give much greater weight to the geo-political, strategic and human factors involved than to the budgetary issues.

In short, it provides an opportunity to reverse an unwise and short sighted decision that has harmed Australia’s reputation in PNG and deprived it of a way to maintain contact with people whose goodwill and support is an important national asset.

Thus, for entirely selfish reasons alone it makes sense to resume short wave broadcasting across PNG and the wider Pacific. The fact that it will bring information and entertainment to people who are often starved of both is simply an added, altruistic benefit.

It is not too fanciful to suppose that, one day, Australia will again have very good reason to rely upon the goodwill and support of our nearest northern neighbour. The re-establishment of short wave radio services is an easy, sustainable and relatively inexpensive way to do this and I urge the enquiry to recommend this course of action to the government and the ABC."

Hopefully, common sense will prevail.

* Important note

The Review of Australian Broadcasting in the Asia Pacific is accepting submissions here until Friday 3 August.

Further information is available from Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific. Jemima Garrett, Sean Dorney and Sue Ahearn are happy to help you prepare a submission to the Review if you need a helping hand. You can contact them here:

Jemima Garrett garrett.jemima@gmail.com
Sean Dorney sean_dorney@hotmail.com
Sue Ahearn srahearn@hotmail.com

The Australian government's submission page is a little confusing but, in addition to completing a submission online, there are email and snail mail options too.

Along with the submission, each submitter needs answer the following questions

First name 
Last name
Name for publication
Organisation (if any)
Telephone number 
Postal address
Email (if any)
Can your submission can be made public? YES/NO

Send your submission to:

Email - asiapacificmediareview@communications.gov.au

Post (snail mail) -
The Director, National and Community Broadcasting
Department of Communications and the Arts
GPO Box 2154
Canberra ACT 2601


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Baka Bina

When I returned to the village the local AM broadcasting was dying out for want of relevant content and FM broadcasting was just starting out.

AM was becoming boring and it played boring music too. FM ran with the new music scenario but went for overkill when they repeatedly played the same songs over and over.

Then the news segment on the hour was like the news print, devoid of spiking a persons interest in the news.
Investigative reporting or talk fests were rare and if then the speakers were most times not articulate or could not speak with authority on a subject matter.

So one tended to listen to all the pinglish verbiage that poured from the one FM station with repetitive songs or on the other extreme listened to the boring AM station.

I flipped to ABC SW, BBC or VOA (which the reception was good from 9 pm PNG time).

I was trying to reintegrate back into the village as an educated village layabouts and I had to keep my sanity. I did that by taking a reading book and radio to the gardens.

Many a times, my father would have grinned at me in contempt at my attempt to be a village man. No villager went to the garden with a reading book and SW radio. He would laugh at the spade still stuck in the soil at the head of the unfinished work.

A village man worked the land according to the rain, he would say. The rain has no respect for the book or the radio.

Whatever it was, he would sit down and listen to the ABC with me trying to discern what he could understand with his limited English.
He rather had a good comprehension even though he had not gone to school. He mangi-masta-ed for a few years in his life and he said the white man always listened to the radio and he took a liking to that. but not only that he did have a good grasp of it and many a times I would hear him explain world events to his peers in the village, albeit with a few wrong misinterpretations.

It was no wonder that he was so stern with his radio when I was small. he had one that came in a leather bag and we could not touch it or he took out his belt, those huge military belt.

I spot a scar where the metal bit dug into my backside when I took it to school without asking his permission as the school radio was stolen one time.

The essence of this narrative is that even village man with as little English do listen to the ABC, BBC and VOA. It these stations are still broadcasting out there, be assured that we do listen in to you.

Michael Dom

"Hopefully, common sense will prevail."

Similar sentiments were expressed in 1939.

In one decisive action Australia will undo the sacrifice of diggers on the Trail.


In today's world economics, trade and aid are tools of war, and war is the health of the state.

"The victorious warrior enters the battlefield only when he knows he has already won" - The Tao.

Peter Salmon

Chris - Keith can fine tune/flesh this out as I believe that he was personally involved in the following comment. One of the more important functions of the shortwave radio broadcasts in PNG was the delivery of educational content, lessons to T Schools back in the days of yore.

Certainly was, and a fine array of broadcasts too. Many hundreds were produced locally especially related to current affair, music and especially to learning English. At one stage there was even a publication, My School Broadcasts Paper, which I edited in two editions (one for teachers, one for students) distributed in vast quantities to every school in the Territory. Radios were distributed free of charge, aerials were supplied and strung to the nearest tree and good old shortwave, crackling a bit, did its job - KJ


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)