When I travel overseas, wherever it may be, my first interest is in the home media: domestic TV dramas, the nation’s cinema, local newspapers (preferably English-language papers for obvious reasons) and so on.
But for this year’s vacation in Thailand I decided to bring my Roberts World Service radio, determined to practise the rather old-hat but historically crucial phenomenon known as tuning an analogue receiver into short-wave frequencies. Allied soldiers did the same thing during World War Two, desperately trawling the airwaves for an English-speaking voice informing them of developments on the home front, so why shouldn’t I?
The BBC World Service has experienced a series of cuts over recent years, affecting non-Commonwealth regions in particular, and the short-wave coverage in Bangkok is not at all good. Transmissions are only made at certain times (4am-1oam, 4pm-10pm Thai time) and the quality of reception is poor, especially during the monsoon season. I spent most of the time fine-tuning around freq 6195 on metre-band 49 – but without much success. Things improved a little when I placed the receiver at a certain angle, as high as possible from ground level, but this hardly made for a pleasant listening experience!
Actually, I had more success receiving VoA (Voice of America) – basically the US equivalent of BBC World Service, the CNN of international radio. This may have something to do with the long recent history of American military presence in Thailand, especially during the anti-communist initiatives against Laos and Vietnam. The remnants of US media and cultural imperialism don’t fade away easily.
In the end I resorted to the other means of accessing BBC radio news – through bulletins on local FM English-language stations. In Bangkok that means Wave FM 88 (mostly 80s/90s pop music with half-hourly bulletins), Met FM 107 (music for a younger audience, plus hourly bulletins) and Good FM 98.5 (which, despite its name, is actually very bad on the music front). In Pattaya I tuned into the best of the lot, Mix FM 88.5.
Listening to the radio is not the pleasure I’m sure it once was though, so I succumbed to modern trends and tried out BBC World via the wonderful medium of satellite television – until, that is, the monsoons arrive and reception is no better than short-wave radio. BBC World was also the main news channel available on the Emirates flights to and from Thailand. You can’t knock it – they do a damn good job - and the interactive World Have Your Say is well worthy of attempts at responsible citizen engagement. But some of the documentaries/news items leave traces of that 0ld, paternalistic, Anglo-American-centric BBC – and that great competitor, CNN, with its emphasis on bold headlines and visual drama, is preferred by Thais for whom English remains a foreign language.
Still, at least BBC World has shorter commercial breaks – though it was rather odd for me, of course, to see any advertising at all on a BBC channel. Most of the ads are tourist-related anyway – VISIT MALAYSIA …. SPECTACULAR SINGAPORE – so perhaps a similar, carefully regulated, partially commercialised BBC in Britain would not be such a bad thing after all… if it helped reduce the licence fee.