by Malcolm Curtis | Tribune de Genève Blogs | June 5, 2012
A secret proposal from the management of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) could determine whether World Radio Switzerland will continue operating. Raymond Loretan, SBC chairman, said in a May 14 letter that board of directors would “reach a decision (about WRS) in due course based on a proposal presented by the general management.”
Loretan added that the proposal, which he did not disclose, was made in the context of the review of the SBC’s “overall public radio and television offer.” His letter was sent to organizers of a petition to save WRS, Switzerland’s only national English-language radio station, that has now amassed around 4,000 signatures.
With the board decision expected later this month, supporters are justifiably concerned that the management proposal has not been made public, believing that a more transparent process should be used to decide the publicly operated station’s future. While the proposal remains a mystery, Roger de Weck, director general of SBC, warned employees back in April that management was considering either closing down or privatizing WRS, just five years after it was launched.
Continuing to operate the Geneva-based station or providing it with a bigger budget were not among the stated options. However, Loretan said in his letter that the SBC “is keen to guarantee an efficient public service.”
He also stated that the board of directors “are aware of challenges faced by Geneva’s international community, to which Roger de Weck and I have demonstrated a strong commitment.”
In response, Marshall Sitten, organizer of the “Save WRS” petition, said that Loretan is mistaken in seeing WRS as an issue only linked to Geneva’s international community. “WRS is heard by far more than just Geneva residents,” Sitten wrote in a follow-up letter sent to Loretan last week.
He noted that more than 60 percent of petition respondents live outside of Geneva and that 30 percent are Swiss citizens. Sitten added that there are more stakeholders involved in the future of WRS than its listeners.
Academic institutions, such as Geneva’s Graduate Institute (an “haute école” once headed by De Weck that offers courses entirely in English), United Nations agencies, the multinational business community and even the Swiss tourism industry benefit directly or indirectly from the services provided by WRS, he said.
With an annual budget of less than four million francs, the radio station only accounts for a sliver of SBC’s overall 1.6-billion-franc budget. And the broadcaster made a profit of almost 26 million francs for 2011.
So financial concerns are not a credible factor in determining whether WRS should continue operating or not. Indeed, the reasoning behind De Weck’s threat to close or privatize the station is not clear at all.
With its mixture of public affairs programs and those offered by partners such as the BBC and NPR, WRS provides a public service highly valued by Anglophones in Switzerland who, like other residents, pay annual radio and TV license fees that help fund SBC. It is apparent that Swiss citizens and other non-Anglophone residents of the country also appreciate the radio station’s programs.
So, De Weck should have the courage to make public his proposal for WRS – and the reasons behind it – before it goes to the board. Indeed, this should have been done before WRS’s small staff of around 20 people were bluntly told – without any reasonable explanation – that the station could be shut down.
In a positive development, Geneva politicians seem prepared to back the radio station. Patrick Saudan, a Liberal member of Geneva’s parliament, told WRS that cantonal lawmakers are expected to vote in favor of an “urgent” resolution on Friday to save the station.
“There is broad political support,” Saudan said, noting the importance of providing public English-language radio and its help in integrating Anglophones in Switzerland. He linked the prosperity of Geneva with the fact it has an “international label” that depends on English.
WRS also could do with support from politicians in German-speaking Switzerland, where most of the station’s listeners live, according to the latest audience surveys. But most of all, the station deserves a more open and accountable decision-making process that clearly spells out the way forward.