by Malcolm Curtis | Tribune de Genève Blogs | May 10, 2012
He doesn’t even live in Switzerland.
Marshall Sitten, who established a website to collect signatures in support of the beleaguered English-language public radio station, lives, rather surprisingly, in New York.
But Sitten, who studied and worked in Geneva for three years before moving back to the US last fall, felt the urge to do something when a friend sent him an article about the threatened closure of WRS.
“I’m a firm supporter of public radio because it tends to support public interests rather than private interests,” he told me in a telephone interview.
The future of WRS was thrown in doubt in early April when Roger de Weck, director general of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), told staff that English-language radio was no longer a priority for the public broadcaster.
De Weck warned that the SBC board was considering either closing down or privatizing the radio station it launched in 2007 with a decision to be made in June.
Sitten, a communications strategist who earned an International Organizations MBA from the University of Geneva, decided to mount an online campaign to gather support for WRS.
Within two weeks he gathered almost 3,000 signatures, which were delivered to the SBC board of directors on April 26.
The Save World Radio Switzerland website is continuing to accept support and the count was up to 3,682 as of of midday Thursday.
Many of the signers, ranging from CEOs and an ambassador to an au pair and retirees, gave detailed reasons why they want the station to continue broadcasting.
“It seems like a very valuable service, helping to connect English-speaking expats to the country they are living in, at a very low cost,” wrote one supporter. “Why close it down?”
Another petition signer said that if WRS goes off the air, “Geneva’s rating as one of the most desirable cities in the world in which to live (according to global ratings), will be tarnished.”
Dozens of others expressed how they would miss the station if it closes with many stating that it provides a national service that no one else is providing.
“I was happily surprised by the response,” Sitten said.
The petition is more than just a collection of names because most signers added detailed remarks about why WRS was important to them, he said.
“Anyone can click a ‘like’ button but when people attach impassioned comments, that’s pretty amazing.”
Sitten indicated keeping WRS alive is important as a “case study” although he also has pragmatic reasons for wanting to save the station.
“The thing is I’m living in New York now but I could be back in Switzerland and I still do work there,” he said.
When he lived in Geneva he, his wife and friends listened to WRS and valued the information it provided about Switzerland and the international community.
“English brings an expat culture and a polyglot society together,” he said.
Courses for his master’s degree were conducted entirely in English, which is the case for many post-graduate programs offered by the University of Geneva and at other schools, such as the Graduate Institute (HEID), he said.
“One of my professors listened to WRS to improve his English,” Sitten said.
And many other Swiss, he said, also tune in to the station to learn the language or to find out more about what makes expats tick.
In fact, statistics show that a quarter of the petition’s signers are Swiss citizens while most of them speak one of Switzerland’s three official languages – French, German and Italian.
In a letter accompanying the petition, addressed to Raymond Loretan, SBC chairman, Sitten lists key reasons why the petitioners support WRS.
Primarily, it is the only national English-language station in Switzerland covering “local, regional, national and international news and events.”
As well, “it is an educational tool for people seeking to improve their English” and it “helps integration of those who arrive on Swiss soil not speaking one of the official languages”.
Like others who want to keep WRS alive, Sitten is mystified about the motives of the SBC board in considering its closure.
The budget of the station — between 3.1 million and four million francs for a staff of 23 — is just a small fraction of the SBC’s 1.6-billion-franc budget.
And the broadcaster last week reported that it turned a profit – for the first time in five years – of almost 26 million francs.
“I’m hoping that the SBC will see beyond (the financial issues) and not step over dollar bills to pick up a few pennies,” Sitten said.
He pointed out that the SBC believed that operating an English radio station was important when it took over privately run World Radio Geneva five years ago.
Sitten is not alone in his campaign to keep WRS alive.
Staff from the station have posted a dedicated website to gather support and keep listeners informed about developments.
And the station has received endorsements from noted Swiss officials.
Closing WRS “would be irresponsible given the role of English in the world and in Switzerland,” François Nordmann, former Swiss ambassador in Paris and London, said in an opinion piece written for Le Temps newspaper.
“It would be irresponsible to willingly shut down such a source of information and culture, and to close an open window on Swiss politics, society and culture.”
Olivier Coutau, the canton of Geneva’s official responsible for liaising with international organizations, is also a fan.
“Many Genevans listen to WRS, it’s a way to discover the world of expatriates, a world that is not always reflected in other media,” he told the Tribune de Genève.
Geneva’s city council executive also sent a letter to SBC raising its concerns about the threat to WRS underlining “the attachment of Geneva to the existence of a public service that serves the foreign population.”
Sitten, meanwhile, is unconcerned about a rival petition being circulated by Anglo Media, a private company that is lobbying to replace WRS if it closes. (See my previous blog.)
“The SaveWRS petition is about preserving a public service for the public interest, and the Radio Frontier petition is about acquiring a piece of public property for private financial gain,” he said.
“Changing the WRS to a privatized, ad-supported model would shift the station’s incentives so that advertisers, not the audience, are the main priority of the station.”