In order to increase the number of hospital beds, the Government of Sri Lanka has converted the buildings left by the Voice of America in Iranawila, located on the western coast of the island, 70 km north of the capital Colombo. The VOA, the American international broadcaster, after having relocated their equipment to Kuwait and to Greenville (North Carolina), returned the land back to the Sri Lankan State in 2017. The original intention to develop the site as a tourist resort had been shelved due to protests by local residents. In the interim period before developing the area, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed the army commander to use the buildings for Covid-19 patients in March 2020. The new hospital can take in fifty patients and was completed at the beginning of April 2020.
25 years of propaganda
The ex relay station of the Voice of America spans an area of 1.6 km² and includes four large buildings with seven high power transmitters: four 500kW transmitters and three 250 kW transmitters, that currently broadcast programmes of Radio Free Asia. RFA was set up by the American Congress in Washington DC with the aim to transmit news and information to listeners in Asian countries ‘where complete news was not available, accurate or timely’. In 2014, RFA transmitted in 47 languages, including a large number of local dialects, to about 236.6 million listeners all over the world.
The slowdown or lockdown of businesses has led to a decrease in advertising on radio and television. The national broadcasters are increasing their programmes, but those not receiving state funding are suffering. Networks are cutting fixed costs and broadcasters are closing their less important frequencies. And if a transmitter breaks down … the risk is it’s not going to be fixed.
The BBC flexes its muscles
‘We need to pull together to get through this. That’s why the BBC will be using all of its resources – channels, stations and output – to help keep the nation informed, educated and entertained’ declared, Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC. The many measures the BBCis implementing, include their commitment not to discontinue any of their most listened to programmes on Radio One, to bring listeners up-to-date information on the Coronavirus through 5 Live, and the launching of Make a Difference, that will see every local radio station joining up with volunteer groups to help, co-ordinate and support the elderly by informing them of what help is available in their area. Their full package of measures can be found here.
Those depending on advertising are suffering
The closure of businesses has led to a collapse in commercials and a rise in unpaid invoices. These are the complaints of some of the Italian radio producers we interviewed. Some, after terminating their agreements with freelance staff and asking for government aid for their employees, are only playing music on air. However, the electricity bills for their transmitters have to be paid. In order to cut the bills, a group of broadcasters in Puglia, Italy, unable to lower radiated power (in Italy the authorisation process takes considerable time), have remediated by turning off their smaller sites. Tower operators are also having a bad time (they get paid rent for providing antenna space on their towers). Some have already received requests by some radio networks for hefty discounts on the rent. At the same time, given that the power of the transmitters are in excess, it would only need the authorities to allow radio stations to halve it. It would be a reform at zero cost and nobody would be disadvantaged.
In a breakdown, spare parts at risk
The lockdown of businesses has also hit transmitter manufacturers like Elenos, the internationally renowned company located near Ferrara. Leonardo Busi, the Chief Executive Officer, stated in an interview on Radio Globo (Lazio, Italy) that they have had to stop production due to no longer receiving the components that are indispensable for assembling the structures. The supplies are down to the bone and a radio or TV station with a breakdown could have to stop their service.
With the shutdown of businesses and stringent measures limiting movement in a large number of countries, there are those who are putting their energy into opening web radios. Pirate radio stations are opening up on air and those already functioning are raising their transmission power during this present state of emergency, knowing full well that it is highly improbable that the authorities will be checking.
Ireland: Two women from the world of show business found Radio Quarantine
“After having wasted hour after hour following the news on the imminent end of the world, we had had enough of it and decided to put our energy into making the lives of those having to stay at home more bearable”. So Anna-Rose Charleton, a film producer who had had all her work cancelled, and the London singer actress Kate McKeown, who had been forced to return to Dublin because of the Coronavirus outbreak, set up the Quaran Team, a team of experts under the guidance of Maitiú Charleton, Anna-Rosa’s quarantine partner, and started webcasting. The programmes go on air from Monday to Friday from 9.00 am to 09.00 pm GMT with music, news and guests from the show business world. They focus on listener participation and try to involve people who have a talent or a story to tell.
New ‘pirate’ radio stations set up and some increase transmission power
Having a lot more time on their hands is also spurring radio stations to go on air without authorisation. In Italy, on March 20th, 2020 it was reported that Radio Zona Rossa was transmitting on 6330 kHz on shortwave. The name was inspired by a programme invented by Radio Codogna but it concerns an autonomous radio station and its own programme. In Great Britain, a group on Facebook reported that Fusion FM, a pirate radio station near Birmingham, had a more powerful signal than those from authorised broadcasters. There is no change in Madrid, where there are a great number of unauthorised radio stations, but the authorities do not carry out checks.
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.
If the pandemic has forced radio stations to set up emergency studios in presenters’ homes in order to keep broadcasting and protect them from contagion, in Austria draconian measures were taken. The national radio station literally ‘locked up’ the presenters working for Hitradio Ö3, the pop channel of Austrian public radio ORF. Their studios in Heiligenstadt, in the 19th district of Vienna, were converted into housing and 22 people (after medical checkups) were put into isolation from March 19th to March 26th, 2020. As well as presenting their programmes live, they lived and slept in the flat for two weeks. (Hopefully none of them had tested positive after the lock in).
All the most famous voices
Apart from the Station Manager, Georg Spatt, who accompanied the team on this adventure, there were six presenters and DJs: Robert Kratky, Andi Knoll, Sheyda Kharrazi, Verena Kicker, Tina Ritschi and Tarek Adamski. The other fifteen members of staff included journalists, programming specialists and technicians. The offices were converted into rooms with bathrooms, communal areas such as a coffee bar and all essentials, from a TV to a washing machine, without forgetting the keep fit equipment. Meals were delivered through a security gate.
March 20th, 2020 will be remembered as the day European radio stations showed united solidarity during the coronavirus pandemic. At 8.45 a.m. 183 European radio stations, including RAI and the BBC, played the English group ,Gerry & The Pacemakers’ version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, an iconic, moving song considered a hymn to humanity. The song became even more popular after the Liverpool FC fans adopted it as the team’s official anthem (see here) after qualifying for the finals of Champions League in 2019).
The initiative was the idea of Sander Hoogendoorn, a disk jockey working for the Dutch pop music public channel, NPO 3FM, who wanted to bring all the radio stations in the Netherlands together. In the end the initiative went beyond their national borders (find a list of stations that participated here).
Three questions RadioReporter asked Sander Hoogendoorn
RR: Did you expect this success?
SH: No, I didn’t. The plan was to play this song with all the breakfast shows in the Netherlands. When they tagged along I was happy but then radio stations from Belgium started joining in. Then we started to make some phone calls to see if other European radio stations would like to join us. And they did!
RR: How long did it take you to arrange it?
SH: On Tuesday we started to talk to our listeners about the idea. In the same show I called some friends at other radio stations, asking them to join on Friday at 08.45. They were really happy to help. During the week more and more stations joined in, the last ones even on Friday morning. I think that all around the world more than 190 radio stations played the song!
RR: Which song would you choose to celebrate the victory over the pandemic?
SH: Queen – We Are The Champions
15.000 Italian transmitters connected
Three hours later, at 11.00 a.m., radio stations all over the peninsula united to show solidarity and bring everyone together by playing the Italian National Anthem and three very well known Italian songs: Azzurro (Adriano Celentano), La canzone del sole (Lucio Battisti) and Nel blu dipinto di blu (Domenico Modugno). The population was asked to tune in and wave the national flag. The radio stations involved included 19 private networks (Maria, Radicale and Mater only for the anthem) and more than 600 radio stations, members of Aeranti-Corallo and Confindustria Radio TV, all connected to more than 15,000 transmitters (there are 9.123 national network transmitters alone. Source: FMList and FMScan).
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.
Is the future of the sector of independent radio doubted? More restrictive laws on royalties and the shutdown of the Live 365 platform in 2016, that had encouraged web radios in the past, now is putting doubts on the future of the independent radios sector.
Those tiny realities are not capable of paying the amount of money required for royalties to a commercial radio: some web platforms that tried to replace Live 365 (paying a forfait to record companies) didn’t last and, increasing costs for the radios they’ve contributed to reduce the number of online broadcasters. The future is uncertain, as Paul Riismandel’s analysis said, a media producer, who analysed this phaenomenon in an interesting article on Radio Survivor. The article contains practical comparison on costs and on the financial effort that the radio stations had to handle in order to continue. To view the article please click here.
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.