Media Network, which covered international broadcasting developments, recently ended a 30-year run on RNW. In this 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 three: the noughties
The new millennium didn’t start well for Media Network. In September 2000, Diana Janssen left Radio Netherlands for a new career. There was nobody else in the building suitable to replace her. As the winter broadcast season was fast approaching, Jonathan Marks had a difficult decision to make. As Creative Director at Radio Netherlands, he had limited time to produce a weekly half hour show. Rather than produce a sub-standard programme, he decided that the show would end. Jonathan’s decision was as big a shock to me as it was to the listeners.
RNW gave shortwave listeners an unexpected bonus in July 2001 when the BBC ceased its shortwave transmissions to North America. We managed to hire all of the frequencies that the BBC had been using, and for a couple of weeks they carried Radio Netherlands programming as a PR exercise. We were told by an insider that BBC management were furious at this cheeky move.
On 11 September 2001, a meeting of the ‘Group of Six’ international broadcasters was held in Hilversum. I was invited to attend, to hear the representative from Swiss Radio International explain the reasons for their decision to end shortwave and move to the internet. But I never got to hear the whole presentation. During the meeting, a white-faced colleague interrupted proceedings to tell us that an aircraft had hit the twin towers of the New York Trade Center. With other RNW staff I walked silently out of the meeting to return to my normal duties. Seconds later, I entered the internet department where my colleagues were watching CNN in disbelief. So began the longest and most stressful working day of my career.
We will never know how international broadcasting might have developed if the tragedy of 9/11 hadn’t happened. But it’s my belief that priorities changed in the aftermath of that day. The first decade of the new millennium saw international broadcasting become more politicised, as it had been in the Cold War. The BBC World Service closed several of its language services to divert funds to its new Arabic TV channel. Radio Netherlands had ended its Arabic programmes in 1994 due to insufficient impact, but decided a mere seven years later that Arabic was again a priority.
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.
DRM fails to take off
Satellite TV channels are, in fact, a major reason why international radio broadcasting has significantly declined since the turn of the millennium. More and more countries have set up international TV channels in English and other major languages, and in many cases major cuts have been made to existing radio services to pay for them.
Shortwave has been especially hard hit by these changes. It had been hoped that digital transmissions using DRM technology would give a new lease of life to shortwave. Colleagues at RNW were closely involved in getting the DRM standard approved. But while they were busy working on the technical parameters, the whole focus of international broadcasting was changing. Even after the technical standard was finalised, the momentum was lost because none of the radio manufacturers was prepared to take a gamble and develop affordable DRM receivers. Meanwhile, shortwave sites that could have been customers for DRM transmitters were closing down.
The second Gulf War
In 2003, coalition forces started bombing Baghdad in the second Gulf War. There was a lot of media news to report, as the internet and satellite TV had become major information platforms. So we started a blog to follow events on a day-to-day basis. In the blog I suggested that a new station called Radio Tikrit, claiming to be broadcasting from Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, was a ‘black clandestine’ operated by the Americans. A black clandestine station pretends to be supporting one side to gain credibility, then abruptly switches sides. Properly done, this can be quite effective. But Radio Tikrit was very poorly produced, and my monitoring experience convinced me it wasn’t genuine. A week later, it did indeed reveal its true allegiance.
After Saddam was captured and the media news from Iraq began to dry up, we decided to keep the Weblog and cover international media news. Jonathan Marks left RNW in 2003 to set up a private media consultancy, but the Media Network Weblog continued to flourish until a massive government budget cut for RNW forced me to take early retirement in April 2012. The Weblog is now a searchable archive of over 15,000 media stories.
As the internet became mainstream, an internal reorganisation saw the separate Internet department disappear, just as Jonathan Marks had predicted it would, and I moved across to a new department called Strategy and Business Development. I jokingly remarked that if we got the strategy right the business development would follow automatically. A short time later, the department shortened its name to Strategy. But I missed the regular contact with our audience, and my head of department suggested I should work part time for the English website. That turned out to be a good move, and I continued this dual role up until my retirement.
[media:image3]A notable feature of the second half of the decade was a string of announcements by smaller international broadcasters that they were ending their shortwave transmissions. The rising cost of fuel, rapidly declining audiences and the global financial crisis of 2008 all played a part.
Sadly RNW was not immune to these problems, and it was decided that the Bonaire relay station would close at the end of 2012. But the decision of the Dutch government to cut our budget by 70% from 1 January 2013, announced in mid-2011, still came as a shock. It means that almost three quarters of our staff will have to leave the organisation by the end of 2012.
Other parts of the series
As I write this, the government which made this decision has itself fallen, and new elections are due to be held later in 2012. But this is unlikely to make any difference to the position of RNW, as whatever parties form the next coalition will be faced with the same grim economic situation.
It’s hard to justify spending money on international broadcasting in an era of satellite TV, internet and handheld devices, while cutting budgets for things like healthcare and education. So what does the future hold in store for the people who still work in this declining industry? That’s what I will try to predict in the final part of this series.
- The Media Network Vintage Vault - digitised studio recordings of selected original shows