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When Guglielmo Marconi started practical experiments with wireless communication, he had a problem to solve: How could one communicate with ships on sea, or with a remote place somewhere on this planet, where no cable telegraph line had yet arrived? Fast communication already then was essential for business because a lot of time could be saved. The first „radio“ transmissions were business communication, in the form of telegrams transmitted in Morse code.
Marconi’s practical work started in 1895 and was based on research by Ferdinand Braun, Heinrich Hertz, Nikola Tesla and Alexander Popow. In 1903, the first trans-Atlantic messages were exchanged.
On Christmas Eve 1906, the first program consisting of talk and music was transmitted by researchers in Brant Rock (Massachusetts). Listeners were seamen on ships in the Atlantic.
Tube-based transmitters were patented in 1913, and the first real radio programme was broadcast in November 1919 in the Netherlands, from a private apartment. Commercial radio started 1920 in Pittsburgh (USA), and Westinghouse provided the first receivers. Between 1920 and 1924, radio transmissions started also in Europe. This website has many dates and details from this period.
In the beginning, the number of listeners was really low. Not only did you have to buy or construct the equipment, but in some countries you also needed a license to be allowed to listen. By 1926, easy-to-use tube-based receiver had replaced the “crystal detector” which had required some patience in tuning and a headphone for listening.
During WW2, radio was popular – not only because it was the cheapest form of entertainment – but as it reached everyone, it was used as a means of mass communication and propaganda. After the war, radio continued as mass media, entertaining, informing and educating the listeners. While tube radios were still used in the 1960s, the invention of the transistor allowed small receivers that could run on battery, and the radio made its way into the car and into our pockets.
Everything will fade into past memories, but it is worth seeing some of the photographs taken in these last few months again. They include announcers and journalists broadcasting live from home, and courses for listeners on how to make their own radio programmes. It is also worth mentioning the vade mecums that have appeared in online magazines and on the websites of various associations. Their advice goes from how to choose equipment and software for a home studio to the procedures needed to protect radio station studios from contagion. There are even broadcasters that have put their studio disinfection procedures on show or have used their facemasks for self-promotion.
Radio stations broadcasting live from home
Belgium: While a lot of broadcasters, in spite of homely backgrounds, are narrowing the field of view with close-ups to give a professional touch, with the photographs of VRT Studio Brussel, a Flemish speaking public radio station, your eye tends to be drawn to the furnishings which reflect the personality of the announcer and goes from the large philodendron in the foreground to the bookcase on the right, and the door opening onto another room, making you wonder where it goes to.
Italy: When Roberto Zicchitella was conducting Radio3 Mondo live from his flat, his curious cat leapt onto his desk to sniff his tablet. The international news programme is on air on the public radio station, Rai Radio 3.
Spain: The SER network teaching listeners how to make a radio programme
The journalist, Pedro Blanco of Cadena Ser (a network of 202 radio stations we have spoken about in a previous article) on air with a radio workshop teaching listeners how to make their own programmes to then send to the radio station.
Canada: How to go on air from a distance
ARC, a Canadian alliance of community radio stations, explains how to equip yourself to produce your own show from home without excessive costs. They suggest a selection of hardware and software, some free of charge.
An antivirus guide for radio stations
This guide in the American magazine ‘Inside Radio’ lists 12 things to do in order to prevent contagion in radio stations.
And in Italy?
After disinfecting the Milan studios of Radio Millennium, the ‘ghostbusters’ pose for a photograph.
Radio Rock ‘designer’ masks: Back in the golden years of free radio, listeners used to stick adhesives of their favourite radio stations onto their cars. Today the Roman station, Radio Rock, has made face masks with their own logos on them. Will this become a fashion with other stations?
Several countries have allocated funds to support broadcasting stations suffering from the drop in advertising. However, some are reducing salaries or putting their personnel on holiday leave. The USA has allocated 75 million dollars to the American non-commercial radio and TV stations.
Included in the act, passed by the House of Representatives on March 27th, 2020 to support the American economy during the state of emergency, there are also 75 million dollars allocated to the public radio and TV stations. This is in addition to the annual 445 million dollars, managed by the CPB – Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an independent non-profit corporation that distributes the funding to about 1,500 radio and television stations. President Trump wanted to cancel the annual funds in 2017, even though, according to the President of CPB Patricia Harrisins, the cost to each American citizen was only 1.35 dollars a year.
Spain: 15 million for television, cuts for Cope
On March 31st, 2020, the Spanish government allocated 15 million euros in support of television stations provided that they guarantee identical territorial coverage for the next six months. The funding will take advertising income into account in order to give greater help to stations with lower revenues. A Spanish radio station is cost cutting: The President of Cadena Cope, Fernando Gimenez Barriocanal, has written to the staff suggesting a 20% cut in salaries. They are currently negotiating with the trade unions.
France: National networks economising
Aiming to limit the consequences of a considerable drop in business caused by the epidemic, the Lagardere group has decided to lay off journalists in Europe 1, RFM, and Virgin Radio. This went into effect for Europe 1 on April 1st, 2020. The group, in reply to President Macron’s appeal to not pay dividends to their shareholders, has set aside 5 million euros. The group is present in over 40 countries, employing more than 30,000 people and had a turnover in 2019 of 7,211 million euros. The Radio France management, according to the national trade union centre CGT, have encouraged their employees to take at least five days holiday by the middle of May.
UK: Sport news station ‘tightens the belt’
Due to pausing sports transmissions because of the pandemic, Love Sport Radio, broadcasting nationwide on DAB, has streamlined its programming schedules. Listeners were informed in a pre-recorded announcement by the owner, Kelvin MacKenzie, who had also furloughed a large number of staff.
A great deal of fake news circulated at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but now media and regulators seek to firmly counteract it.
Alongside the battle against the Coronavirus, another front has opened up to counteract fake news. It was realised early on how much damage misinformation could cause by favouring the spread of the pandemic, so much that the media started increasing checks to counteract it more firmly. We can see what happened in China where strict Chinese censorship created a void of information which led other countries to underestimate the problem (today experts are even questioning the official number of deaths in China). And when the number of cases in Europe began to multiply, fear and a thirst for news favoured the spread of media hoaxes. These were generally limited to the social networks and chats but there were also programmes put on air that gave credit to odd theses and thus reinforced their credibility. This caused some people to really go around burning 5G telephone repeaters, accusing them of having created the epidemic. This resulted in the necessity for the British Government to intervene. In addition, President Trump’s press conferences could have also created confusion and misinformation when he tried to minimise the impact of the pandemic.
KUOW-FM no longer broadcasts Trump live
Even playing down the risks of Covid-19, as the Americans have tried, can cause damage and open up immense prairies to the virus. In April 2020 they can boast of winning the sad prize of being the first in the world for the number of cases. Since March 25th, 2020, a national public radio station in Seattle has suspended all live press conferences of President Trump. It was not a political policy, the KUOW editorial board clarified, but deontological and will be reconsidered from day to day. After the first two weeks they realised that the statements being issued needed to be verified first (an arduous task with the time limitations of live broadcasting) to avoid spreading false or misleading information. Among examples cited is the statement issued on March 19th, 2020: ‘Nobody knew there’d be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion’ despite warnings given by the secret services at the beginning of the year. Then on March 20th, 2020 ‘You’re seeing very few empty shelves,’ while on television one could plainly see that the shops had run out of basic necessities including hand soap.
KUOW-FM, owned by the University of Washington, is operated by a non-profit community organisation. They transmit in Seattle on 94.9 fm with 100kW, power that enables them to cover a wide area, as you can see on the FMScan map above. It is a member station of NPR (National Public Radio) that has about a thousand non-profit transmitters.
British radio station forced to rectify
Ofcom, the UKs communications regulator, has imposed a sanction on Uckfield FM for having breached the Broadcasting Code. The community radio station that transmits on 105.0 MHz from Uckfield, a town 80 km south of London in East Sussex, on February 28th, 2020, had broadcast potentially damaging and misleading information by linking the explosion of the epidemic in Wuhan to the launch of 5G technology, one of the pieces of fake news going around the globe. It is a sensitive geopolitical topic (the UK has started launching 5G in Britain and hence ‘are betraying’ their American ally), but if people start believing the hoax, trouble will follow. At the end of March several vandals destroyed repeaters in Birmingham, Liverpool, Melling and Belfast with the shouts of ‘f**k 5G’. The PDF of Ofcom’s decisions can be viewed here or downloaded below.
Italy is studying the phenomena and sets up fake news unit
On March 31st, 2020, RAI appointed Antonio Di Bella, the director of RaiNews, to lead a new unit to enable the public broadcasting service to avoid spreading misleading or fake news. A scientific committee will be set up to check the deluge of information that arrives for the editorial staff. Di Bella will be assisted by Gerardo D’Amico, in charge of scientific information at Rai News 24. One episode a week of the programme, Tutta Salute, will be dedicated to the fake news that is circulating about Coronavirus.
Agcom, the Authority for Communications Guarantees, has increased its usual monthly monitoring of the media by producing a special report on Coronavirus. Apart from online sources, they have also studied the amount of time dedicated to news about the pandemic on radio and television networks. You can find details of the research about national radio stations here. In order to counteract misinformation, the authority is involving research centres and academic institutions to set up teams to carry out advanced studies into the phenomena.
In China, radio stations were involved in the national day of mourning, which was organised as a sign of the country gaining closure from Covid 19. But in the rest of the world, the pandemic is fast and furious and has not spared infecting radio and television staff and producers.
All Chinese radio websites in black and white
April 4th, 2020 was decreed by the State Council as China’s day of national mourning. The Chinese Government gave a signal to the world as it moves to returning to normality. Radio stations took part in paying their respects to the Coronavirus victims by removing colour from their websites. Among the mourners were the state broadcaster CNR (China National Radio), Qingting, one of the biggest sites of audio streaming in the country, which interrupted transmission of all their programmes for the whole day, and Baidu, the most popular research engine in China. Flags were lowered to half-mast all over the country and at their Embassies around the world. Public entertainment was suspended. Three minutes of silence were observed at 10 am with car and train horns, ship and air raid sirens sounding in the background.
Radio and TV personalities among those infected
At first count, based on the social media, the most hit today are in Italy (up to April 4th, 2020), the first European country to be attacked by the virus. Among the infected are Enrico Gualdi and Clarissa Martinelli from Radio Bruno, Claudio Chiari and Luca Viscardi from Radio Number One, and Graziano Fanelli of Radio Studio Più. Television personalities include two presenters from Rete 4: Piero Chiambretti, the presenter of La Repubblica delle Donne and Nicola Porro who presents Quarta Repubblica.
Others, unfortunately, have not recovered. These are Raffaele Masto, a journalist for Radio Popolare, Raniero Cecchini, one of the founders of Veronica HitRadio in Pesaro, and Franco Lo Conte, who in the seventies was the founder of Cine Radio Sud in Ariano Irpino, a province of Avellino. Our thoughts go to their families.
In Spain, where the contagion swept in after Italy, Jordi Basté has tested positive. His voice has the most listeners in Catalonia with his programme El mon (the world) on air on the regional station RAC1 from 8 to 9 in the morning with 270,000 listeners tuning in. Condolences to Radio Nacional de Espana for the passing of one of the most famous faces of Iberian news, Jose Maria “Chema” Candela, a sports journalist who specialised in Atletico Madrid and had had a long career both in radio and on TV. For further information please click here.
In France, Jean-Jacques Lester, a radio host at France Bleu Loire-Atlantique, one of the French regional public radio stations based in Nantes, recovered from the virus.
Chris Cuomo, presenter for CNN, the TV station broadcasting through cable in the United States and via satellite to the rest of the world. Although the virus arrived late on the American continent, it has already struck public figures. Among the most famous is probably Chris Cuomo, a popular presenter for CNN and brother of Andrew, the Governor of New York, who speaks about his experience here. While in Mexico the infection has hit Esteban Arce, a Televisa presenter.
Sadly, Julio Quintanilla did not win his fight against Coronavirus. Originally Salvadorian, he was a speaker on WUNR 1600AM, one of Boston, Massachusetts, oldest ethnic radio stations. He had presented the news, events and sports programme ‘Impacto Centroamericano’ for 25 years.
Some international broadcasters have been downsizing. Radio schedules have been cancelled on Radio Exterior de Espana, an international service on short wave, that since March 16th, 2020, has been repeating bulletins on coronavirus transmitted by Radio Nacional de Espana (a national broadcaster on medium wave and FM).
There is an identical situation in Argentina with RAE (Radiodifusion Argentina al Exterior), which is broadcasting programmes transmitted by Radio Nacional.
Drastic cuts in India. Since March 22nd, 2020, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reduced the national radio broadcasters down to Vividh Bharati (a propaganda radio station set up in 1957 to combat Radio Ceylon) transmitting from Mumbai, to All India Radio in New Delhi with news coverage, and to regional stations that cover local news. All entertainment, music and sport has been cancelled. Digital transmissions on medium wave have been converted back to analogue to enable reception on common commercial radio receivers.
Ireland: Commercial stations are in crisis
From Galway, our correspondent John Walsh, from Flirt FM: The radio sector in Ireland is also struggling to deal with the COVID-19 crisis both in terms of staying on air and because of the financial implications of collapsed advertising revenue. In a special edition of the programme Wireless on Flirt FM, a community station in Galway, representatives of community and commercial stations explained the challenges in ensuring continuity of service and speculated about the future of the radio sector. Independent Broadcasters of Ireland which represent commercial stations have warned of the collapse of the radio industry. Note: Ireland is in lockdown from March 24th to April 19th, 2020. You can listen to the transmission of March 23rd, 2020 by clicking here.
Italy: Radio stations and TV broadcasters seeking finance
We have already spoken about the problem caused by falling advertising revenue in a previous article, but with the passing of time the problem is worsening. Franco Siddi, the President of Confindustria Radio Television (the association that represents all the major categories of the radio and television broadcasting industry) has written an open letter to the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
The Association Aeranti-Corallo, that represents 439 local radio and television stations, has requested 130 million euro: 80 million to double the annual government funding (from 80 to 90 million euro in 2019, to be distributed on the basis of a list of 903 broadcasters: 137 commercial radio stations 274 local community TV stations, 172 commercial radio stations, and 320 local community radio stations) and another 50 million as a 50% tax credit in order to cover the costs of studio rent, transmitters and electricity (for the months from March to June 2020). We must keep in mind that an expected funding of 40 million euro was cancelled at the last moment by the decree Cura Italia on March 16th, 2020.
How are radio stations reacting to the state of emergency? We checked this in Italy, the first country the pandemic spread to in Europe. On March 16, five days after the government issued a decree advising the population to restrict their movements, we visited all the active websites of the 1,094 radio stations transmitting on FM, the 273 on Dab and the 12 on medium wave on the FMLIST and FMSCAN. A hundred or so sites gave wide coverage to the exceptional circumstances of the situation. Among the networks and the superstations (those covering multiple regions), only Dimensione Suono Roma gave good coverage to the Government’s message. Their home page contains the hashtag #stamoseneacasa ( in Roman dialect advising everyone to stay at home).
More active local radio stations
Diverse approaches by local and community radio stations: Radio C1 in Pescara sends a message of hope, Radio Punto Nuovo in Naples interviews a radio presenter from Radio Zona Rossa, the Radio Codogna programme on air since February 23. They broadcast two daily news programmes covering the spread of the virus in the town, which following the Chinese approach, was one of the first to be locked down. Radio Nuova Macerata focuses on useful information such as free grocery delivery services which are beneficial for the elderly so they are not obliged to leave their homes and risk contagion.
The sacred and the profane in Puglia
There is no shortage of curiosities: Radio Montecalvo, a broadcasting station in Foggia announces a prayer to Padre Pio for protection against the coronavirus. On the contrary, Radio Made in Italy in Bari draws particular attention to their special offer regarding the red light portal Porno Hub, giving free access to the premium services in order to ….. lighten quarantine.
Luckily someone thinks about children
With the school closures and parents having to control their hyperactive smaller children, Radio Millennium has come up with a highly appreciated idea for children by broadcasting fairy tales, recorded by the theatre company Teatro del Cerchio in Parma. However focusing on children is not an Italian prerogative. In Germany, for example, the regional radio stations NDR and SWR have increased their numbers of educational programmes for the young.
Codogno, one of the first Italian towns put into quarantine on February 21st, 2020, with all access roads blocked until midnight on March 9th, 2020, has a half hour programme called ‘Radio Zona Rossa’ on the parish radio station Radio Codogno. The aim of the transmission is to give information through brief, live news updates to all those confined at home in the town. Community broadcasters serve the local populations more efficiently in emergencies and their work should be much more appreciated by governments.
More funds less bureaucracy
In Italy funding is required. The associations of broadcasters are asking the government for financial aid due to them not being able to continue giving information about the coronavirus crisis because of lack of investment in advertising.
Whereas in India a simplified bureaucratic system would be sufficient. The national association of Indian community broadcasters has asked for more streamlined bureaucratic procedures to enable them to restart transmitting immediately when radio studios suffer damage by natural disasters. This is in order not to have a repetition of the calamity on May 3rd, 2019, when Cyclone Fani interrupted broadcasting of a number of radio stations in the municipality of Puri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
The right words to prevent panic
Managing emergency transmissions involves enormous responsibility. Radio presenters must choose the words they use with great care to avoid spreading panic. In countries like Australia, where bush fires devastated the continent until the middle of February, broadcasters are obliged to follow the guidance of the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience. They provide specific measures to be followed when deciding not only if and when to report the news and the way it should be made public, but they also outline how to structure the content and choice of words.
Less commercials, cancelled events and audience loss: in Italy, first European country to quarantine its citizens, also the radio is suffering from Coronavirus.
With companies closed and consumptions limited to basic commodities (shopping at the pharmacy or at the supermarket) the consequences on advertisings revenue is the same for every media. Consequently, the Italian government had planned (and later cancelled) to assign 40 million Euros as a bonus to help radio-television broadcasters, out of the 25 billion Euros allocated to support economy (decree of March 16th, 2020, called “Cura Italia”) . This was based on the relevant cuts in advertising’s investments reported by Confindustria Radio Televisioni, an association that represents the main networks.
Record audience for TV
According to Auditel’s data, however, during the first quarantine week a boom of TV-audience has been noticed, forcing the research institute (that does the scan with the meter) to postpone the report’s publication. On March 10th, 2020, the first day of quarantine for the whole country, the viewers increased by 1,7 million against one week before, with 2,65 million more during prime time.
On March 15th, 2020, despite sport programmes and other popular shows had been cancelled, the prime time viewers increased by 5,1 million. A rise in audience like this surely increases the value of commercials, but is still not enough to make up for the general loss in advertising investment.
And what about Radio?
Radio broadcasters did register a loss of audience especially during the morning, usually rich in commercials: in car the traditional radio listening still prevails, but will the quarantined commuters still listen to the transmission that accompanied them on their way to work? Or are they going to sleep for an extra hour?
On the other hand, the ones that are experiencing smart working, or the ones that are at home forced by the temporary closure of their companies, are they going to turn on their radios or their TV sets? In a couple of months we’ll have some statistics that will tell us if radios took advantage of this epidemic, or if TV or other media prevail. To know that, we have to wait for the next Ter’s research ( the “Tavolo Editori Radiofonici” published on March 10th, 2020, the results of the first round, made of 30.000 surveys done since January 21st, 2020)