by Malcolm Curtis|April 12, 2012|Tribune de Genève Blogs
Staff at World Radio Switzerland (WRS) are battling to keep alive the country’s only national English-language radio station.
Earlier this month, employees of the station owned by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) were bluntly told by the corporation’s director general, Roger de Weck, that English-language radio was no longer part of the core mandate of the public broadcaster.
De Weck put staff on notice that the SBC was considering either selling WRS or closing it down, with a decision to be made by June.
This comes five years after the station was launched in 2007, when the Swiss public broadcaster – then viewing English-language services as more of a priority – took over privately owned World Radio Geneva.
SBC officials have been at pains to say that all options are being considered and that the shutdown of the radio station is not a foregone conclusion.
But employees are understandably worried.
In a bid to drum up public support and sympathy, WRS has launched a dedicated website to stave off closure.
ThefutureofWRS.com provides updates on the status of the radio station, a forum for comments from listeners and a platform to remind people about WRS’s mission.
Chief among the station’s roles is to explain Switzerland to Anglophones through current affairs programming, while offering the Swiss an insight into the English-speaking world of international organizations and companies based in their country.
Many Anglophones in Switzerland have greeted the threat of the radio station’s closure with dismay.
In addition to providing local news and a guide to Swiss goings-on, WRS offers a range of top-quality programs from such sources as the BBC, National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
A “Save World Radio Switzerland” petition has been launched on the Internet with the hope of rallying public support.
But news of the possible closure appears so far to be less of a concern for the Swiss. The controversy has received little media coverage outside Geneva, where the radio station is based.
As a matter of disclosure, I worked last year for WRS as an interim editor for its website to cover for an employee on maternity leave.
From my inside perspective, I believe the radio station does a remarkable job, given its relatively small staff (20 full-time equivalents, with additional contributors).
Talented, hard-working people ensure that the SBC gets a very good bang for its buck from the station, which produces more than eight hours of original programming every weekday.
But WRS is hamstrung by a number of factors, including its inadequate funding.
As others have pointed out, WRS’s budget of around four million francs amounts to a tiny fraction of Swiss Broadcasting’s overall expenditures of 1.6 billion francs, which are largely financed through TV and radio license fees charged to every household.
In announcing the possible sale or shutdown of WRS, De Weck said SBC needed to cut its spending and reorder its priorities.
The public broadcaster has yet to post results for 2011, but in the previous two years it ran deficits of 12.3 million francs (2010) and 46.7 million francs (2009).
So SBC has come under pressure from politicians to reduce costs. It has already slashed spending at swissinfo.ch, its multilingual news and features website, although the site’s English-language services were spared.
As well, over the past year, French-language television and radio services were merged into RTS, a bumpy process that sparked an angry backlash from staff.
But the savings from cutting WRS would be too small to make a dent in SBC’s bloated budget, while the loss of a valued public service would be considerable.
If anything, a strong argument could be made for significantly boosting the radio station’s budget, given the importance of English as a language for business and diplomacy in Switzerland.
Extra funding would allow the station to increase its presence in German-speaking Switzerland and to enhance its already creditable current affairs offering.
WRS broadcasts on the FM band from Geneva and is only available in the rest of the country on digital (DAB) radio, or via satellite, cable and the Internet.
Yet new figures suggest that most of the station’s listeners live in German-speaking Switzerland.
WRS has a bureau in Zurich, but with just three people it is understaffed.
A strong case could also be made for giving WRS greater independence by cutting it free from its parent.
Because it is based in Geneva, WRS operates directly under RTS and suffers from the burdens of being tied into a large bureaucracy with little or no understanding of its needs.
Indeed, WRS appears to have been sidelined by top executives at RTS who are too preoccupied with their own turf wars over the French-language services.
More than anything, WRS needs a top manager from SBC to champion its cause – preferably from Bern or elsewhere in German-speaking Switzerland.
So far, that person has yet to emerge.