by Malcolm Curtis | Tribune de Genève Blogs |May 3, 2012
While supporters of publicly owned World Radio Switzerland (WRS) have gathered around 3,000 signatures in a bid to save the country’s only national English-language radio station, a private group is offering another option.
Anglo Media, a small investment group headed by British expats Peter Sibley and Mark Butcher, says it can finance public radio stations in Geneva and Zurich to replace WRS if it closes.
And it has begun a petition of its own to rally public backing, collecting by its count 1,500 names in less than two weeks.
The possibility of WRS’s shutdown emerged in early April when Roger de Weck, the director of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), told the station’s staff that English-language radio was no longer a priority for the public broadcaster.
De Weck warned that the SBC, which is looking to significantly cut its overall 1.6-billion-franc budget, was considering either closing down WRS or privatizing it, with a decision to be made by June.
The station was launched in 2007 after the public broadcaster took over privately owned World Radio Geneva (WRG).
SBC officials insist no decision has been made about WRS, which employs a staff of 23 (including part-timers) with an annual budget of around four million francs.
But sensing an opportunity, Anglo Media is already proposing to fill the void.
“We offer a safe pair of hands that understands the international community,” Sibley told me in an interview.
Founded in February 2011 with funding from “wealthy individuals from the international community,” Anglo Media operates Radio Frontier, an unregulated English-language radio station that broadcasts from studios in Meyrin through the Internet and on cable.
The station “without borders,” begun in June 2011, aims its programming at expats living in the Lake Geneva area, including neighboring France.
Anglo Media’s Butcher, a 15-year veteran of WRS and WRG, hosts the station’s flagship morning show, called Butcher’s Breakfast.
Tilting against WRS’s The National, the program is resolutely oriented toward local affairs in the Geneva region.
Other shows and segments on Radio Frontier cover local business and sports news, with features such as book reviews and fitness tips mixed in with programmed pop music.
Sibley would not disclose the station’s audience figures because they have yet to be presented to the company’s board, but he said the advertiser-supported station is “doing well . . . we’re ahead of our business plan.”
Unlike WRS, which broadcasts on FM in the Geneva area and nationally via digital technology (DAB+), Radio Frontier transmits through the Internet and a cable service provided by Naxoo in Geneva.
Sibley said “a strong percentage,” around 17 to 18 percent, of Radio Frontier’s listeners tune into the station on smart phones, using an app that can be downloaded from the station’s website.
The company has the possibility of broadcasting on DAB+ later this year but has yet to decide whether that is the best platform to use, he said.
Different technologies are emerging with the FM band scheduled to disappear in Switzerland by 2018, Sibley noted.
But if WRS folds, its FM license will be up for grabs.
With no other obvious contenders in sight, Anglo Media feels it is in the pole position to apply for the license should the opportunity arise.
Sibley said he has been in contact with Ofcom, Switzerland’s broadcast regulator, for the past two years and Anglo Media has also notified SBC of its interest in providing an alternative to WRS.
In its petition, the company says it can offer funding for the continuation of independent English-language broadcast media in Switzerland “ for the long term” and “without the ongoing risk of public funds being withdrawn”.
Sibley says while Anglo Media will focus on coverage of local news and activities in Geneva and Zurich it will also be able to provide international news and programming through such sources as the BBC, just as WRS does.
Currently with a staff of 12, Anglo Media proposes to operate a separate station in Zurich to provide expats in German-speaking Switzerland with fare similar to that offered by Radio Frontier.
The company’s business plan counts on revenues from advertising, sponsorship and selling media services, such as video and web production, Sibley said.
He cited his background as a founder and CEO of World Television, a British-based international video communications firm, with a budget “three or four times the size of WRS’s” as proof of his experience in the field.
Radio Frontier has succeeded in drawing Geneva-area listeners away from WRS, although it is difficult to know how many.
Fans of Butcher say Radio Frontier offers a return to the kind of programming presented by World Radio Geneva before it was taken over by SBC.
“The days of WRG are sorely missed,” wrote one supporter in a typical comment on the Radio Frontier website, adding that it was great to have a “radio station back again that is relevant to the Geneva area.”
Sibley insisted that Anglo Media is not taking a position on whether WRG should be closed.
“There’s no argument (from us) against it continuing and there’s no competition with WRS,” he said, noting that Radio Frontier is serving a different audience that appreciates local coverage.
But Sibley maintained the number of WRS listeners in the Geneva area has tumbled since it “went national” with a mandate to cover all of Switzerland.
“We think there was a strategic error made by WRS.”
(For its part, WRS says its audience has actually risen by 60 percent since 2010-11, with most of its listeners now in German-speaking Switzerland. Research company Radiocontrol says the station had 72,000 regular listeners across Switzerland last year, while WRS says an additional 15,000 tune in via the Internet.)
Sibley also said there is a good economic reason to support commercial radio, given its “advantages” over public radio for businesses that want to reach Switzerland’s international community.
In my next post, find out about who initiated the petition to keep WRS going.