Perhaps the officials who decided on the shutdown could have given a less symbolic date, but the public broadcaster’s website speaks clearly: as of September 11, 2022, medium waves will no longer be usable. In the country that invented radio, the last medium-wave broadcast towers will soon fall, without even waiting for the centennial: the first “circular” broadcast by URI (which became EIAR and finally RAI), dates back to October 1924. The news had been circulating since September 2021, when it was learned that the new service contract, the agreement RAI has with the state to guarantee public service, specified that decommissioning would take place within a year. This is the culmination of two decades of cuts: on May 15, 2004, the medium waves of Radio2 and Radio3 had been shut down and merged into the unified Radio 1 network. Then more cuts continued in 2013 and 2014. There were few facilities left. And in September there will be a denouement. Will Guglielmo Marconi turn in his grave?
To cope with a possible energy crisis, Compromís, a political party in the Valencia region, has asked the government to consider among emergency measures whether to change the broadcasting technology for radio stations. Switching to DAB, as Norway did in 2017 and Switzerland plannes to do at the end of 2024, could reduce electricity consumption by up to 90 %, according to Carles Mulet, the party’s spokesman in the Senate. But first Mulet proposes rationalizing the medium waves by employing the savings in the implementation of a DAB network and finally turning off FM. He then cites the costs declared by Radio Nacional de España after the parliamentary question submitted by the party in March 2022: between maintenance and expenses at transmitters in 2021 the medium waves absorbed 6,823,026 euros, and 6,287,503 euros were spent for the FM network.
BETWEEN SAYING AND DOING
Shutting down a band takes years of planning (while the energy crisis could occur in a few months, with the arrival of winter) and if the transition is not well managed it can cause ratings to plummet. As was the case in Norway, where it was public radio that decided to switch to DAB (also not to renew an outdated and expensive ground network: commercial and community broadcasters are still active) and the loss of audience five years later has still not been fully recovered. Switzerland, on the other hand, is a small country that between public and private radio does not reach 200 stations but has been preparing for the switch-off for years, with advertising campaigns in favour of digital radio so much so that now only 14 out of 100 people listen only to FM. In Spain, on the other hand, there are 163 medium wave transmitters (of which 103 are public and 60 commercial) and approx. 2,500 radio stations with over 6,000 transmitters on FM, of which it is estimated that at least a thousand are unlicensed, and only a few experimental DAB radio stations in Barcelona, Madrid and in a few cities (as well as a few unlicensed private muxes).
Many Spanish broadcasters in recent years have abandoned amplitude modulation, a ‘duplication’ of FM that has become increasingly expensive. Until a few years ago they were local stations, with powers ranging from 1 to 5 kW (as explained in this article from 2015, which took stock of many closures). This year, energy prices skyrocketing due to the effect of the conflict in Ukraine, the ones throwing in the towel are heavyweight broadcasters that had resisted until now thanks to their regional catchment area.
In June, four important Cope stations bade farewell: Barcelona (783 kHz), Seville (837 kHz), Valladolid (882 kHz) and Pamplona (1135 kHz).
Public radio saves
Radio Nacional de España chose instead to reduce the power of six broadcasting centres from 300 to 100-150 kW, which becomes 75 at night. These are: Madrid (585 kHz), Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands (621 kHz), A Coruña (639 kHz), Sevilla (684 kHz), Barcelona (738 kHz) and Murcia (855 kHz). Quite a downsizing for the Spanish airwaves, which represented a conspicuous anomaly in the European radio scene, as it was the only nation with more than two hundred transmitters. Today, however, there are 163 transmitters, and public radio prevails with 104 transmitters from RNE and RNE5, against the 60 commercial ones from Ser and Cope.
Ser is not far behind
The radio group with the largest audience, Cadena Ser, is also reducing power and switching off: in June 2022, the signals of Radio Córdoba and Radio Mallorca disappeared from the airwaves. But the operation is being carried out without much fanfare. Sometimes the stations on the airwaves lack an authorised FM frequency, and the radio groups reuse the channels of other radio stations in the group (Cadena Dial, Los 40, Cadena 100 or Rock FM). This has already been done by Cope Ciudad Real and Cope Puertollano who, after broadcasting for years without a licence, have taken over the frequencies of Cadena 100.
The news of the Canadian radio station looping the song Killing in the Name by Rage Against The Machine for 30 hours went viral on 30 June 2022. Some speculated that it was a form of protest by the employees of Kiss Radio, which broadcasts on 104.9 from Vancouver, over the dismissal of two colleagues, so much so that many sites relaunched it as such (the song, in fact, contains an explicit line “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”, however, in the aired version this part was cut out). But The Guardian caught up with and interviewed the station managers, unravelling the mystery: it was just a way to get publicity. In fact, it was a typical gimmick used by broadcasters to attract the attention of listeners: when the news went viral on Twitter, spikes in online ratings were recorded from Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Europe. But it was a marketing operation, to announce a change of format for the station, which switched from soft-rock to alternative music, even changing its name to Sonic Radio.
The relative ease (budget permitting) of opening a national digital broadcaster in Italy is leading to the emergence of several stations. Thus, after Aci Radio, of the Automobile Club d’Italia, the Roman Radio Cusano Campus Italia, the Venetian Canale Italia and Canale Italia+, all hosted on the RAI-Radiotelevisione Italiana multiplex, now a football radio station could arrive. The possibility of communicating without filters with the more than 20 million Italian fans, in fact, tickles Serie A, the association of football clubs, as revealed by the business daily Milano Finanza. For the production of the programmes, contacts have reportedly been initiated with RTL 102.5 and RDS, while the broadcasting on DAB could be entrusted to RTL 102.5 (which has a national multiplex where it already carries the BBC World Service) or to RAI, even if the coverage by the public broadcaster is less capillary. Also to be understood is the content of the programmes since RAI has exclusive rights for Serie A radio broadcasts until 2024. The investment, estimated at between 4 and 5 million euros, would be recovered through advertising, given the very favourable market trend and the appeal the broadcaster would have.
It sounds incredible, as the world of radio is full of anecdotes. However, this is a true fact, which happened in June 2022. An anchorwoman of the Egyptian state radio station Wast al-Delta (Mid-Delta Radio) in Tanta, which broadcasts on 1161 kHz medium wave, was abused by her boss, who also raised his hands on her. She demanded payment of a monthly salary. Fearing a violent reaction, the presenter filmed the scene, and in the video (which can be seen on the Middle East Eye website) one can distinctly hear the heated tones of the argument, followed by the woman’s screams of pain when she was hit and injured. Amani al-Sabah filed a complaint against the CEO of the broadcaster. Amani is an uncomfortable character: in 2014, she had expressed views against the government and criticism of the media authority (National Media Committee) and has since had problems with the Egyptian authorities.
The abolition of the radio and television licence fee does not please the workers of the public broadcasters, who went on strike on 26 June. A populist measure designed to ease the burden of inflation on French households, the abolition of the licence fee was one of President Emmanuel Macron’s battle horses in his campaign for the 2022 legislative elections. But workers fear that the more than three billion euro hole that will be created will take away the independence of public broadcasters, and argue that compensatory funds cannot be decided by the government, nor face the pitfalls of the annual finance law. In France, the fee amounts to 138 euros per year (88 for residents abroad) and is only payable by households that own a TV set: those who watch programmes from smartphones, PCs, TVs and tablets pay nothing. The radio networks (France Inter, France Culture, France Musique, France Bleu, FIP), the television stations and France Media Monde (France 24, RFI and MCD) are affected.
The French group Vivendi takes another step towards control of the Lagardère group. At the end of the takeover bid (which was reopened from 29 May to 7 June 2022), Vincent Bolloré’s group reached 57.35% of the capital. The decision of the Autorité de la Concurrence is now awaited, which will have to pronounce on the 47.33% of voting rights that Vivendi acquired with the takeover bid (it currently holds 22.45%). In the meantime, the group has announced its intention to restructure the ownership and governance of the radio pole, which includes the three national networks Europe 1, RFM and Virgin Radio. The operation will have to be financially neutral, and (as ‘Les Echos’ writes) the activities could be brought together in a limited partnership in which the limited partners would be companies of the Lagardère group and the general partner Arnaud Lagardère.
From being a multi-regional broadcaster, Radio Zeta has become national, with the purchase (on May 25) of the concession that gives it the right to broadcast its signal no longer over certain regions but throughout Italy. The authorization to broadcast the signal nationwide was held by Monradio, a company in the Mediaset galaxy, the second-largest television hub after RAI (with the Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete 4 brands) and which through Mediaset Radio owns four radio networks (Radio 105, R101, RMC – Radio Monte Carlo and Virgin Radio) and the superstation Radio Subasio. To keep it from lapsing, the concession had been used for years to broadcast (lately from a single facility located in Valtellina, in the province of Sondrio, in Lombardy) Radio Orbital, a Portuguese broadcaster. Why a foreign broadcaster on Italian soil? Because the concession had been created in the 1990s (requested from the then Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications) by Radio Milano International to repeat a foreign broadcaster, VOA-Voice of America. And when Monradio took over the RMI network (which has since become Radio 101-One O One) from bankruptcy in 2005, turning it into the current R101, it found itself with a second valuable concession to use.
How many national radio stations are there?
The announcement of the acquisition was made by Lorenzo Suraci, president of RTL 102.5, during the press conference of “Future Hits Live 2022,” a festival promoted by Radio Zeta. In Suraci’s statement reported on the website of the association Confindustria Radio TV, of which the publisher is also a director, it is stated that “Radio Zeta to all intents and purposes is the 18th national radio station.” However, the same Confindustria, in a study on national advertising some time ago, had published the list that we reproduce, which counts 21. Since then Radiofreccia has turned into a commercial radio station (in 2021) thus leaving Radio Maria as the only national community radio station, while Radio Radicale, which has a commercial concession, does not carry advertising.
Radio Zeta can now complete its national coverage. It has 256 repeaters, less than half the number of Radiofreccia (the group’s other station has 545) and one-third of flagship RTL 102.5 (which can boast 765). After all, the radio station had to concentrate only on certain regions in order not to exceed coverage limits, which the law sets at 15 million potential listeners for superstations (broadcasters with multi-regional coverage). To reach uncovered areas, the broadcaster is acquiring dozens of new frequencies in different regions, either by taking over redundant channels from other broadcasters in the group or by purchasing them. This could revitalize somewhat the frequency market, which has been depressed by the crisis and with prices in free fall. This is a typical anomaly in the Italian market, in that no new authorizations have been issued since 1990 (pending regulation that never happened), so they must be purchased from other publishers.
An article written by a researcher from EuroScience (European Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology), traces the evolution of radio receivers. Debojit Acharjee, a software engineer and “geek,” as the author likes to call himself, starts from the prototypes invented by Guglielmo Marconi to digital ones. Novelties that have come since the 2000s: from the first pocket radio for listening to the DAB digital band (launched by Pure in 2003), to one for listening to broadcasters streaming on the Web (3com’s Kerbango, which debuted in the 2000s). To arrive at those without the tuning knob, there are the SDRs (Software Defined Radio): receivers that in their more advanced versions (but sold at a price comparable to that of the “transoceanic” radios of the 1970s, such as the Grundig Satellit) allow you to see the full spectrum of the FM band and record 24 MHz. The impetus to innovate? Behind every discovery is the improvement in listening quality, such as that which prompted General Electric in 1940 to invent frequency modulation, demonstrating that it was less susceptible to electromagnetic interference than amplitude modulation, used on medium waves.