Nearly a century has passed since the beginning of radio broadcasting in Spain (the anniversary will be in 2024) and we are preparing to celebrate it. But who really deserves the podium?
There is a curious struggle for radio primacy that is recounted in the newspaper La Vanguardia by Jesus Fraiz Ordonez, author of “La Barcelona de antes,” a series that recovers the historical memory of the Catalan city. Talking about the first radio stations (in every country there is always someone who boasts of having broadcast first) he reconstructs what happened almost a hundred years ago. To go on the air first was Madrid’s Radio Ibérica. But perhaps its promoters did not read well the ordinance that required a prior visit by an official of the Directorate General of Communications to apply for an official license. It thus began illegally (a custom that has remained to this day: there are over a thousand unlicensed radio stations in the country), while in Radio Barcelona they followed the procedures and the radio received the coveted EAJ-1 license. The fascinating story of what happened can be read here. (Written by Fabrizio Carnevalini)
The Iberian country is lagging behind in the transition of radio to DAB. Eighteen years after the activation of multiplexes, digital broadcasting seems not to have emerged from the experimental phase: they are active in Madrid and Barcelona, and a few other cities, still broadcasting in the old standard DAB and not in DAB+. The few programs carried are those of Radio Nacional de Espana (Radio 1, Radio 5: Radio Clásica, and Radio 3 remain excluded), and the main networks (the missing ones are, for example, Cadena Dial, Los 40, Rock FM). Similarly to FM, where inertia in granting authorizations has proliferated illegal frequencies, to which networks also resort, unauthorized multiplexes have been turned on. The number of official ones active mainly in tourist areas (the Costa del Sol and Canary Islands) is doubled.
Avalanche of appeals
Given the competition made to official radio stations by unauthorized ones, many broadcasters interested in digital broadcasting have appealed to the Spanish Constitutional Court, which between September and October 2022 upheld sixteen “recurso de amparo”, which added to those already pending bringing the total to 22. This ”recurso” is a legal formula that allows Spanish citizens to appeal to the supreme court when they believe constitutional norms have been violated. Giving an accurate picture of the situation is the magazine Panorama Audiovisual, which reconstructs its evolution since 2018 when broadcasters began turning to autonomous communities to apply for authorizations. Since some regions have refused, despite having an obligation to grant them, even though they did not proceed with the allocations, alaw firm has recommended appeals to the Constitutional Court. Will they be upheld? Let’s keep our fingers crossed! (Written by Fabrizio Carnevalini)
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.
Many Spanish municipalities make their voice heard on the airwaves: they operate the ‘Emisora Municipal‘ (although not all of them have the word municipal radio in their names), a station that usually has its studios in the municipal building and broadcasts at low power (from 50 to a few hundred watts, just enough to cover the city) between 106 and 108 MHz. Madrid also has one. Or rather, there was: it was closed down three years ago (2019) by the new mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida (Partido Popular, allied with Ciudadanos and Vox to govern the city), who, in order to denigrate the work of the old administration (Manuela Carmena, PSOE socialist), had described the station as a six-million-euro beach bar for 400 people. But three years on, it seems that the capital’s first citizen has had second thoughts (he’s been in government since 2019) and wants to “make radio” as he puts it (El Confidencial has tried to investigate, but the administration has not leaked plans to use it so it’s still not clear what editorial project they’re working on). The mayor had not calculated that leaving the old frequency free would be a big mistake: there are dozens of pirate radio stations in the capital. It would have been enough to leave a low-power, modulated signal on to prevent occupation.
Millions in the wind (the value of a valuable canal in a capital city)
Madrid’s 88.6 is a valuable frequency, located at the lower end of the FM band, where the most important radio stations are and where most listeners cross. When manually tuned receivers were used, the channels at the beginning of the band were the most sought-after. El Confidencial examines the case in detail, talking about the labyrinth in which the administration has got itself into in order to identify which of the many territorial and state administrations is competent to intervene and resolve the problem. So a pirate radio station occupied the frequency and the administration filed a complaint against unknown persons. Waiting for something to move in the organizational machine of the State or of whoever should control the airwaves. Difficult, given that in the country there are not only pirate radio stations but thousands of unauthorised broadcasters who are also national networks. The final hoax: the Madrid City Council is continuing to pay the State the annual fee for the use of the frequency. This and more in the article, in which you can also find information on the old municipal radio station: M21 (the radio station is nicknamed Radio Carmena, after the mayor who started the station: Manuela Carmena, judge emeritus of the Supreme Court of Spain).
The Superior Court of Justice of Madrid (Tribunal Superior de Justicia – TSJ) annulled the dismissal of a sound technician of Cope (Cadena de Ondas Populares Españolas, owned by the Spanish Episcopal Conference), and ordered the company to reinstate him and pay his back wages. The employee had written a comment on Twitter about a Spanish satirical film where Jesus is portrayed as a homosexual. The court upheld the appeal because an employee is not obliged to share a company’s ideology or decalogue of good practices and cannot be expelled for this reason. Moreover, he was not a journalist, broadcasting news or opinions, but a sound recording assistant; his Twitter profile was personal and did not indicate that he was an employee of the Catholic radio station. Therefore, the followers of the post could not have damaged the company’s image, as they were unaware of who he worked for.
The UGT (Sindicato Unión General de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores de España) has formally asked public broadcasting to modify its strategic plan, providing for new measures to plug budget losses. RTVE lost 31.6 million euros in 2020, and by the end of April 2021, the debt had reached 184 million euros. The main demand concerns advertising, which the union is asking to reintroduce, at least in a limited way, also to re-establish competition, today very limited because in fact 95% of the market is controlled by a duopoly. An article published in the economics section of the newspaper El País goes into the details of the proposal, analyzing the similarities with the “French model”, which inspired the financial law of the Spanish government, which provides four channels of financing for public radio and television.
How are public broadcasting executives elected? A comparison of the procedures adopted by six European countries
In recent months, when the top management of Radiotelevisión Española (RTVE) was being renewed, a debate was opened in the country on the mechanisms that govern these choices. An article in the periodical Vozpópuli compared the Spanish situation with that of five other European countries: the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Italy and Germany. In Spain, the president of RTVE is chosen from a shortlist of ten candidates, six of whom are appointed by the Congress of Deputies and four by the Senate.
In Germany, the TV channel ZDF enjoys greater autonomy from political forces and the executive, in order to focus on the professionalism of the management.
A challenge between two Spanish journalists, kings of the ratings and rulers of the fans, took place in Spain at the end of the last century. The programs they invented aired on two networks after midnight, and were followed by millions of Spaniards. Thirty years later, that epic battle is being celebrated by a TV series
It is a beautiful story that the Italian magazine Contrasti, a sports and cultural magazine, dedicates to the challenge between two Spanish football commentators, which took place in Spain between the eighties and nineties of the last century. The protagonists are José Maria Garcia, the true “dominus” of commentators, who earned more than soccer players (in 1987 his cachet was one billion pesetas, equal to 6 million euros today, without indexation) and his antagonist, José Ramón de la Morena.
Garcia used to broadcast on Cadena Ser (an acronym for “Sociedad Española de Radiodifusión”: today it has about 250 owned and almost 200 associated stations,) but it was from 1982, when he moved to Antena 3 Radio (a national network closed in 1994) that his season of success began. “Supergarcía“, his program aired from midnight onwards (he decided at what time to close the microphones) would be followed by over a million people. Thanks to his program, the flagship of the network, Antena 3, exceeded Cadena Ser in terms of ratings, but when the station was purchased by the competitor (which absorbed its 93 stations) Garcia moved to the antagonist network, the Catholic Cadena Cope (acronym of “Cadena de Ondas Populares Españolas”, where he remained until 2000, and then moved to Onda Cero (third in ratings, it has 220 stations), where he remained until 2002. Garcia was so popular and powerful that he could tell team presidents and ministers to go to hell, and he had a special relationship with King Juan Carlos, who gave him exclusive interviews.
But at some point on his way, Cadena Ser bet on a young antagonist, José Ramón de la Morena, who created a new format for the program, managing over the years to catch up, then keep up and finally overtake him. In 2002, Garcia threw in the towel, thus breaking the magic of this no-holds-barred challenge (well described in the Contrasts article). So much so that a few years later, Ramon De la Morena also lost the scepter.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is having an impact on broadcasters’ turnover, which according to the InfoAdex study on advertising investment in Spain in 2020 will drop by 22.9% for all stations. This is a total of 111.5 million euros that will be lost and which will impact mainly on the large commercial networks such as Cadena Ser and Cope (which have lost 25.4 and 24.4% respectively). Broadcasters consider intervening again in the contracts of the big stars (including Pepa Bueno and Carlos Herrera), cutting them for the second consecutive year and probably until the end of 2021. And the situation shows no sign of improving, as the January 2021 InfoAdex figures put the decline at 26.7%.
More details on the smaller radio stations in the article by the independent newspaper El Español.