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International radio makes new waves


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Once the sole source of outside news for many countries, international public broadcasters have had to adapt to a new competitive environment.

Cynthia Guttman

In Budapest (Hungary), British, French and German public radio broadcasters are making a joint bid to open an FM station in 2000. The venture is emblematic of the new world in which international radios are navigating. Almost overnight, the fall of the Iron Curtain radically called into question the traditional mission of these broadcasters to send an oxygen balloon of information to citizens living in one-party states or under repressive regimes. Not that this mission has lost its relevance. Afghanistan and China are among Voice of America’s top five markets, and in the latter jamming, is standard practice, a measure of the broadcaster’s undesirable influence, at least by Chinese government standards. In times of crisis such as the recent Kosovo conflict, audiences surge. Faced with the most drastic budget cuts in the history of German public broadcasting in 1999, Deutsche Welle’s director general Dieter Weirich remained adamant about the mission of an international service: “Two thirds of humanity live in countries without freedom of the press or information. We regard it as our particular duty to provide them with uninterrupted objective information from credible sources.”

A buoy for freedom

But in many parts of the world, the end of the Cold War has taken a time-old ideological edge off the equation, forcing international broadcasters to adjust rapidly to a radically new, more fragmented environment. No longer can they claim to be the sole alternative to censored government broadcasts; no longer are they viewed as a freedom buoy to some, a subversive force to others. Furthermore, in numerous developing countries, newly elected governments have yielded control over the airwaves, often opening the way for a plurality of opinions to be expressed on new FM (frequency modulation) stations.

“Because of a different political context, radios whose main goal was to provide information to countries that didn’t have access to any outside news sources have had to change their tune and develop on trans-mission mediums other than short wave ,”explains Hugues Salord, director of international affairs at Radio France Internationale. In a sense, they have had to learn to “sell themselves”on markets with entirely different cultures and expectations, be it in Europe, Africa, Asia or Latin America. In short, external broadcasters have had to become both local and international.

The process of adapting to open markets has been tantamount to an intensive immersion course for external broadcasters. In a deregulated audiovisual landscape, the first move for all broadcasters was to strike up partnerships with FM stations around the world for rebroadcast of their programmes, or to acquire FM transmitters to set up local frequencies, a more expensive option. As a medium, FM represents a quantum quality leap over crackly short wave, all owing broadcasters to speak faster and insert music in to programmes.

The BBC, according to the World Service’s European news and current affairs editor Mark Brayne, was “streets ahead of almost anybody else” in building up FM networks, starting with Finland in 1987. In 1990, the World Service was in Romania just after the fall of the Communist regime signing deals with emerging radio stations and has built up a network of 97 local rebroadcasters .A recent study shows that the British broadcaster has captured 17 per cent of the Romanian radio audience: “We have become a national broadcaster in a sense. We cover Romanian news in quite some detail but with BBC journalistic values embedded into a solid analytical fare of international news”, says Brayne.

Africa, where broadcast markets deregulated faster than in Asia, is a particularly coveted zone. Whereveran external broadcaster can get onto FM, audiences shoot up. The BBC and RFI pull in huge audiences in their former African colonies while Ethiopia ranks among VOA’s top five markets. RFI has started to open up FM relays outside West African capitals, in the second and third largest cities, and is introducing locally produced programmes in the Bambara language in Mali.

“RFI is practically perceived as a full-fledged national radio service, with audience scores of up to 30 to 40 per cent of  the French-speaking population says Erlends Calabuig, director of foreign languages. The French broadcaster is now trying to make in roads outside the francophone zone, with the recent opening of an FM station in Ghana and one to follow in Lagos. “There is a clear desire for countries in the region to break away from their zone of traditional cultural influence, says Salord. “I think Anglophone Africa is taking a growing interest in the francophone world, not only in a linguistic sense, but also from a political, economic and cultural standpoint.

Demand for accurate information

Clearly, there is a strong demand for external broadcasters, and not only as providers of international news. “There is far greater competition on a large number of markets, but not always for accurate and impartial news,” says Caroline Thomson, deputy chief executive of the BBC World Service. “In many countries, a lot of music stations have come on  the air as a result of deregulation, but news is quite heavily regulated or of very poor quality and subject to considerable local interference.”

Voice of America’s director Sandy Unger concurs that there is a strong demand in emerging democracies for balanced and accurate information. “Where media are not fully developed, where there are criminal libel laws and all sorts of constraints on free flow of information, reliable information very often has to come from the outside”, he affirms. Evidence seems to speak for itself. Pointing to VOA’s 400 affiliate FM stations in Latin America, he asks: “Why are they signing up for this if there is no need, if they were confident that information is being provided in their societies?”

While all the major broadcasters are present on local FMs, they each have a mission to uphold. The BBC World Service stands by its reputation for trust and quality, repeatedly singled out in its audience surveys. Voice of America, which became an independent federal entity in October, upholds its mandate to report on world news and on American politics, society and culture. RFI prides itself on presenting a French reading of the news that reflects the diversity of opinion in the country. DW’s director Dieter Weirich underlines the broadcaster’s role in “forming an international awareness about the new modern Germany.” But how this mission is carried out has changed, because FM calls for a more upbeat, interactive style of programming than short wave broadcasting. And because FM stations are locally based, broadcasters have to understand and cultivate their niche audiences.

“It is really a matter of zooming in”, explains RFI’s Calabuig. “We have moved away from reaching an indiscriminate mass of listeners via one means of transmission spanning the whole globe to a focus on proximity, which means catering to the expectations of listeners”. While international news remains the backbone of all the broadcasters’ programming and has been significantly expanded over the past few years to provide round-the-clock coverage, menus have also become more eclectic, mixing music and features adapted to different regions. Local production has taken on a heightened importance.

From 1989 onwards, the BBC started recruiting younger people in the former Eastern bloc who were familiar with the target area. In Bucharest and Sofia, RFI’s subsidiaries broadcast a mix of locally produced programmes along with others from Paris offering a more Franco-European angle on events. There is a strong conviction, voiced by all European external broadcasters, that they have a role to play in “ accompanying a dialogue between Central and Eastern European countries, to offer an opening onto Europe” as Calabuig puts in. And there is also a common responsibility towards building a unified Europe: Radio E, a current events programme, is put together with contributions from several public European broadcasters, giving listeners a richer reading of regional issues.

Local language broadcasting

Broadcasting in local languages is one of the keys to reaching new audiences. RFI’s efforts to break into anglophone Africa will be stalled until the broadcaster can afford to move into local languages, namely Swahili and Hausa, as VOA, BBC and DW have all done. The BBC has introduced several languages spoken in the newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union, notably Uzbek, Azeri, Ukrainian, Kazakh and Kyrgyz. At the same time, it has shut down other language services mostly vernacular languages in Western Europe, which does not necessarily mean loss of influence.

The BBC’s strategy is to target elites, and more often than not, this can be done in English. “When we have cut languages, it’s tended to be because we thought that they were no longer effective rather than because our budget had been slashed”, says Thomson. The BBC’s most recent decision to pull out of German was taken after studies showed that most of the broadcaster’s audience in the German-speaking world listened to its programmes in English. In the U.S., the World Service’s audience has even recorded growth in recent years.

Faced with cutbacks, DW is ending its programmes in Japanese and Spanish, and is in the process of closing several other language services, including Czech, Slovak and Hungarian, judging that the countries where these languages are spoken are now “ established democracies with a great variety of media available ” .It is however expanding its Russian and English-language programmes ,and aims to make headway in the Asian market via the AsiaS at 2  satellite. Regardless  of  budget constraints, all the major players have introduced broadcasts in Albanian and Macedonian, reflecting the priority they put on being on air as fast as possible when political circumstances warrant.

Introducing new languages may be at the heart of broadcasters ’strategies in emerging democracies and developing countries, but it costs money. While all broadcasters underline their editorial independence from government, they all rely on them for funding, and none has been graced with a generous influx over the past decade. VOA ’s director Sandy Unger fears “ dramatic cuts” if Congress only grants the service a straight line budget for fiscal 2000, which would mean absorbing a 4.8per cent cost of living increase. The World Service’s budget has declined in real terms over the past eight years. RFI’s has been stable. DW ’s budget for 1999 was reduced by DM30 million ($16.6 million/4.7 per cent),and will be slashed by a further 10 per cent to DM546 million ($302.3 million), up to the year 2003—seemingly a turnabout from last year, when the newly elected government promised “an improvement in the way the country represents itself to the outside world” according to Weirich. Besides six language closures, over 700 jobs are to be cut.

In the early 1990s, Radio Canada Internationale (RCI), a smaller player on the world stage, cut seven of its 15 languages and shrunk its staff, and nearly went off the air in 1996 when it was was saved at the eleventh hour by a federal government grant. Florian Sauvageau, a professor at Laval University (Canada), argues that the crisis reflected the government’s lack of interest in international cultural relations. RCI now aims to put forward the country ’s economic strength and cultural diversity, and is boosting broadcasting to China and Africa .In this belt-tightening environment, one of the dilemmas is how to be present on all fronts.

 In politically sensitive zones, external radios have to maintain a short wave presence in addition to their FM frequencies and satellite broadcasting. Then comes investment in new technologies. The Internet is top priority for all public broadcasters. “It’s the short wave of the future”, affirms Thomson. “The trouble with FM is that you are very susceptible to local pressures”, she continues, noting that at any one time, the World Service has a couple of FM stations off the air because an item has offended the powers in place. “If you are looking at how to maintain vibrant international broadcasting in 20 years’ time, you’ve got to invest in the Internet now. It’s a much freer medium”.

Digitalizing short wave

Thanks to the net, Indian and Pakistani communities in Britain can, for example, access programmes in Hindi and Urdu. Vietnamese can do the same in their own language, whether they are in the U.S. or Vietnam. All broadcasters are also keeping a close watch on World space— direct reception via satellite on individual dishes allowing for an exceptional quality—and the imminent digitalization of short wave, which is likely to give this medium a new lease on life. Digitalized short wave will not only ensure higher listening quality, but also reduce production costs, allowing for a burst of new stations to go on air and cater to increasingly specific audience segments. Many of the countries where deregulation is underway inherited state broadcasting services from their former imperial powers.

Now, the latter are helping the liberalization process along, often by providing training courses and technical assistance. RFI recalls that its launch of the first FM station in Dakar (Senegal) in 1991 played a significant role in “opening up and enriching the radio landscape and reinvigorating national public radio.” For VOA’s Unger, in a number of developing countries, “international broadcasters are serving as an example of what can be developed”. Whichever technology wins out—and colossal investments are at stake—only contents can give external broadcasters the cutting edge. Their greatest asset, for Salord, lies in their expertise, know - h ow and worldwide network of correspondents. “International radio broadcasters have a role to play in decrypting the complexity of the world we live in .This is our job, not to give value judgments or lessons but to provide facts and elements that help the listener in forming his or her own opinion.”