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The Media Network years: the 1980s

Media Network, which covered international broadcasting developments, recently ended a 30-year run on RNW. In a series of four articles, Andy Sennitt mentions some of the highlights, and then looks ahead to how international broadcasting might develop in the next ten years.

Part One: The 1980s
When Media Network started in 1981, little did we know that it would be the last decade of the Cold War. I was assistant editor of the World Radio TV Handbook (WRTH) at the time, based in Copenhagen because the editor, Jens Frost, was Danish. I was already on the air with a weekly news update from the WRTH editorial office via World Music Radio, a private venture that broadcast via the shortwave transmitter of Radio Andorra. Jonathan Marks had just joined Radio Nederland, as it was still called, and soon took over as host and producer of the popular DX Jukebox show.

[media:image]Jonathan’s vision was of a programme that would interest a wider audience than the shortwave listeners and DXers who formed the bulk of the DX Jukebox audience. Many international broadcasters had similar shows, largely consisting of ‘DX tips’ sent in by listeners to tell other listeners what they had heard. Media Network was designed to focus on why a station was on the air, rather than just telling people how to hear it. I was invited to become part of the team, eventually totalling several hundred people, who contributed to the programme.

Politics prevailed
Most international broadcasts at the time had a political purpose, and the biggest international broadcaster of all was Radio Moscow, which had dozens of shortwave transmitting stations all over the USSR. In those days, the Soviet authorities didn’t publish their frequencies, and at the start of each new broadcast period other international broadcasters spent a few frantic days assessing which of their frequencies had to be changed to avoid interference from the Russians.

About the author

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Andy Sennitt appeared on RNW’S Media Network radio show throughout its 19-year run. In 1997, he joined the staff of RNW, working first for the internet department and later for the strategy department.

From 2003 until his retirement in April 2012, Andy ran the Media Network Weblog, reporting international media news.

The Weblog is still available in the form of a searchable archive of more than 15,000 stories. Prior to joining RNW, Andy spent 19 years at the World Radio TV Handbook, the last ten as editor-in-chief.

There was another Moscow-based operation called Radio Station Peace and Progress, which described itself as the Voice of Soviet Public Opinion. In fact, this was just another service of Radio Moscow, even sharing some of the same announcers. It gave the Soviet authorities the opportunity to put across different ideas to gauge international reaction, without them being seen as directly reflecting government policy - in other words, a sounding board. There were also a number of smaller external services from the constituent republics of the USSR. These stations tended to focus more on regional and cultural issues.

The Chinese also had a large external service, still called Radio Peking at that time. Its programme format was dreadfully old-fashioned, each broadcast beginning with a quotation from Chairman Mao. News bulletins often consisted of reading out the names of all the party officials who had attended an important function. Four years at the BBC Monitoring Service had taught me how important this seemingly boring ritual was. The order in which the names were read out gave foreign observers vital information about who was rising up the party ranks. A lot of important diplomatic information was conveyed in this way, also by the Soviets.

But there was some entertainment
I have never seen any listening figures for the Soviet or Chinese broadcasters, but I suspect that their total audience was very much smaller than for the BBC’s external services. The BBC World Service in English carried a full range of information, entertainment and sports programming, some of it taken from the domestic networks. The Voice of America was more limited in its range of programming, but still included a significant amount of music. It boasted what is probably the most listened-to music programme in the history of shortwave – the VOA Jazz Hour, hosted by the legendary Willis Conover.

Other major international broadcasters were Deutsche Welle and Radio France International. At that time, Radio Nederland was one of the most popular stations on the shortwave dial, and listener reaction indicated that our informal and lively style of presentation was highly rated, in contrast to the frequently dull and boring output of some other broadcasters.

Looking back at some of the ads that were produced by international broadcasters, I can only say it’s a good job they were not made for profit-making businesses. Whoever designed the ad for Radio Nederland decided that the shape of our building – like an aircraft – was the most important thing to tell the listeners, rather than anything about what we actually broadcast. Another major international broadcaster managed to patronise the entire readership of WRTH by suggesting that its programmes could be heard ‘provided you know how to use your receiver’.

The Falklands conflict of 1982 produced some interesting listening. The UK government took over one of the BBC’s transmitters on Ascension Island and from a studio in the basement of the foreign office operated Radio Atlantico del Sur, a clumsy attempt at psychological operations (‘psyops’) presented by two civil servants, which amused the Argentinians and embarrassed the BBC.

The Woodpecker
Something that was present on shortwave throughout the 1980s, was the so-called Woodpecker, an irritating radio signal that made a repetitive tapping noise, hence the name. The random frequency hops often disrupted legitimate shortwave broadcasts, including those of Radio Moscow and other stations in the Eastern bloc. Believed to be an over-the-horizon radar (OTH) system, this was confirmed after the fall of the Soviet Union. It finally fell silent at the end of 1989, as the Cold War neared its end.

The 1980s saw a number of attempts to establish private shortwave stations, especially those broadcasting to or from the US. Radio Earth was one such organisation, and as some of those involved were personal friends I was persuaded to join them by investing a modest sum. We had the support of the Curaçao Government, which had actually issued a licence to build a station on the island. But the Netherlands Antilles government did its best to prevent the project going ahead, and in the end there wasn’t enough commercial support. However, my involvement in the project enabled me to go on two very cheap holidays to Curaçao, including a trip to Bonaire to visit the Radio Netherlands relay station and Trans World Radio.

Projects that failed
Meanwhile, Radio Earth did make some successful broadcasts by purchasing airtime on a couple of private US shortwave stations. One was WRNO, an ambitious attempt to run a commercial rock music shortwave station based in New Orleans. It launched in 1982, and although it ultimately failed to make a profit, it was the catalyst that encouraged other US broadcasters to try their luck at shortwave. The number of private US shortwave stations increased from three to 16 by the end of the decade.

An even more ambitious venture was Alabama-based NDXE, which claimed to be building a high power shortwave station that would broadcast in stereo. It even launched a listeners’ club, which subsequently appeared to have been an attempt to raise capital to help finance the project. NDXE booked an expensive colour advertisement in the WRTH, but didn’t pay for it. Needless to say, the station was never constructed either.

[media:image3]A show fit for a king
A memorable moment for Media Network was an unplanned interview with King Hussein of Jordan in 1983. King Hussein was a keen radio amateur, using the call JY1 and regarded his 1983 contact with Owen Garriott, W5LFL, on board Space Shuttle Columbia, as a high point in his amateur radio career. This was widely reported in the press, so Jonathan rang the royal palace in Jordan hoping to get more details for the show. To his surprise, he was put through directly to the king, who enthusiastically played back a recording of the contact, which was subsequently broadcast on Media Network.

In the mid 1980s, the most modern shortwave station in the world was opened on the Flevo polder to replace the ageing Lopik site. During a visit to the Netherlands, Jonathan and I took a trip to the new shortwave station shortly before it was commissioned. The engineers from the transmitter company were still on site, and one of the 500 kW senders was on dummy load with its side panels off, and red and white tape surrounding it to prevent anyone from getting too close. It’s a sight I will never forget.

Changing places
In 1987, Jens Frost retired and I took over as editor-in-chief of the WRTH. I decided that there was no reason to stay in Denmark, which was relatively expensive, but I didn’t want to live and work in London. I concluded that the Netherlands was a better alternative, and the company that published the WRTH had opened an office in Amsterdam, so there was accommodation available. I set up home about 6 km from Hilversum, which meant I could go to the studio to record my contributions to Media Network.

As the 1980s drew to a close, so did the Cold War, with a popular revolution in Poland in 1989 spreading to Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, leading to the fall of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany. Media Network had much to report, and in addition there were to be major changes in the way international broadcasters delivered their content, as well as the start of a new chapter in my own career.

 

Archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011 Dutch government’s decided to cut funding and shift RNW in 2013 from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW’s current activities can be found at http://www.rnw.org/about-rnw