The Media Network years: the 1990s

RNW 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, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at

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 Two: The 1990s
The end of 1989 and the early 1990s saw the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union itself. In most cases, the transition was peaceful, but sadly the break-up of Yugoslavia resulted in a series of wars between different ethnic groups, which gave rise to ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

[media:image]The unification of Germany was of course the iconic event that symbolised the end of the Cold War. Radio Berlin International, which had proudly operated as “the Voice of the German Democratic Republic” made some remarkable broadcasts in its final days, admitting that it had not always told the truth. Deutsche Welle, its counterpart in West Germany, had indicated its willingness to hire some of the RBI personnel, but in the event only a small number moved across.

About the author


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.

Media Network found itself playing a key role in publicising events in Lithuania, one of the first Soviet republics to seek independence from Moscow. In January 1991, Russian troops went into the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, and stormed the radio/TV building. Broadcasts free of Soviet control continued from Kaunas. Because many of these broadcasts could not be received outside Europe, Media Network was able to relay the details to other parts of the world, for example in this edition of Media Network as broadcast on 20 January 1991.

The changes in the political landscape also heralded changes in the relationship between international broadcasters. On the initiative of Ulrich Cip, the frequency manager at Radio Prague, a new organisation called the High Frequency Coordination Conference (HFCC) was set up, enabling shortwave broadcasters to work together to plan their seasonal frequency changes in advance, eliminating many of the interference problems that had plagued shortwave for decades. Now more than 70 percent of the total hours of international broadcasts on shortwave are coordinated through HFCC.

The emergence of HFCC also resulted in a big increase in the number of shortwave broadcasts via airtime swaps, which improved the audibility of many of the smaller broadcasters. Instead of being restricted to long-haul transmissions from their own territory, they were able to use airtime on transmitters much closer to the target area, providing a stronger signal to the audience. This was made easier by the spread of communications satellites which enabled broadcasters to send high quality audio to distant shortwave stations.

The BBC’s transmitting facilities in the UK were privatised in the 1990s. The shortwave sites were sold to Merlin Communications, which was acquired by VT Group plc, and in turn VT was acquired by Babcock International Group in March 2010. The same people were also awarded a contract to operate the BBC’s overseas relay stations. 

[media:image3]A new voice
In 1994, a new voice was heard on Media Network. Diana Janssen, a media researcher at Radio Netherlands, joined Jonathan Marks to co-host the show, and quickly became a valuable and popular member of the team. As time went on she acquired the skills needed to edit and produce major features, and occasionally complete programmes, such as this one. During this period, Media Network visited a number of East European countries to report on changes to the media landscape since the fall of Communism.

By the mid 1990s, the internet had become a significant platform for information. Radio Netherlands was one of the first international broadcasters to have its own website. This was very much an experiment, and the website was limited to text and simple graphics as most connections were very slow. But the growth of the internet in the second half of the 1990s was phenomenal. It’s estimated that in 1993 the internet carried only 1% of the information flowing through two-way telecommunication. By 2000 this figure had grown to 51%, and by 2007 more than 97% of all telecommunicated information was carried over the internet.

Career move
Not everyone immediately realised the importance of the Web. Publishers of traditional reference books like WRTH saw it as a threat, and I was unable to persuade my publisher to embrace the idea of having a website. At the same time, sales of the book and advertising revenue were declining, partly due to competition from Passport to World Band Radio. Relations with the publisher deteriorated as my associate editor Bart Kuperus and I struggled to keep the book afloat. Finally in 1997, as my health deteriorated, we both decided to quit after completing production of the 1998 edition.

For me, a difficult decision turned out to be blessing in disguise, and a successful career move. I was lucky enough to find work in the internet department at Radio Netherlands. Not only that, but Diana Janssen was the head of department, so we already knew each other well. It wasn’t long before we started using the website as an add-on for the radio show, where we could publish additional information that had been edited out of the programme due to time constraints. We also started transferring some of the free printed publications, such as the Receiver Shopping List and the Booklist, to the website.

Life was full of surprises
This arrangement had its amusing moments. One Thursday morning I was listening to the first transmission of Media Network, and suddenly heard Jonathan tell the audience about something that ‘Andy Sennitt has put on the Web’. The only problem was that he had suddenly thought of it while recording the programme the night before, and hadn’t had a chance to tell me. It was funny to receive an instruction via a shortwave radio programme from someone whose office was literally a few paces away!

As the decade drew to a close, everything was going very well. But soon after the dawn of the new millennium, several things happened that would send Media Network, and international broadcasting in general, in a new direction.