World Radio Switzerland needs – and deserves – a savior

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.

Peter Sibleysays:

  1. Hi Malcolm,

    Enjoyed your blog about WRS, but as with some of the Swiss press there seems to be a deficit of information about a possible ‘private’ saviour for English radio in Switzerland which is already known to the Executive Board of SSR and Ofcom. Radio Frontier and it’s specialist media investment group Anglo Media has offered to take financial responsibility for English radio in Switzerland if the decision to close WRS is made.

    You may know that in many European countries public funds are often used to support services that don’t have a commercial model or private funding (look at BBC Radio 6 for example) and wouldn’t exist otherwise. We are providing an alternative privately funded route for English radio and have the backing and business model to support it. We are not vying for WRS to close – although we have clearly divided the audience in the region as there audience numbers in the Lake Geneva region have tumbled since it became national – but we are trying to suggest a constructive and business like alternative if the decision is made.

    You’re clearly engaged and informed about one side of the issue and we respect your views, but we believe that all media commentators need to have a complete picture of this situation as opposed to a simple ‘save WRS’.

    Our own petition – asking the international community to support independent English radio – can be found at http://www.supportenglishradio.ch. It’s already getting extremely strong support in just a few days.

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About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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2 Responses to World Radio Switzerland needs – and deserves – a savior

  1. Debra Taylor says:

    Thank you for your terrific article about the possible fate of WRS. I’m a Canadian Expat who didn’t discover this wonderful service until I had lived here for 4 months and was so excited to finally hear things Swiss spoken in English. I’m signing the petition and sending my comments to WRS with my support. Sincerely, a faithful WRS listener, Debra.

  2. Mary says:

    Thanks for the article and shining a light on the dubious practice of Radio Frontier. I feel that they are confusing the issue with their competing petition – it really muddies the water for people who want to support WRS. it’s really trying to take advantage of an unfortunate situation in an ethically suspect manner that reeks of schadenfreude… I have no connection to WRS but I write this anon. as I don’t want the wratch of Radio Frontier to come down on me,…

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