Sunday, May 13, 2012

Free Voice or No Voice- What remains for RNW?

The closedown of Radio Netherlands Dutch language radio service on May 11th was a fitting tribute to a job well done. Having studied the station's history several times for various anniversaries and specials, I came to the conclusion that despite being only a shadow of much larger operations like BBC World Service, VOA or Deutsche Welle, the station managed to punch well above it weight. 

The station PCJJ which preceded it was set up as a commercial venture - Philips couldn't sell radios in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) if there was nothing to listen to. And the discovery that was a propagation path at certain times of the day between Holland and Indonesia meant programmes on shortwave made sense. After the war, as Holland recovered from Nazi occupation, many Dutch emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada. 

So I would argue that Radio Nederland Wereldomroep was probably one of the first social networks. It provided a way for Dutch speakers to keep in touch with the shared experiences of family and friends separated by distance. It was crude by today's standards, requiring quite a lot of energy to produce a crackly voice in a loudspeaker thousands of miles away. But it was a human voice. And that was one of the advantages of the programmes from Hilversum. They sounded like they were made by human beings rather than government officials. In the marathon 24 hour closedown transmission last week, they celebrated the people who had made RNW what it was, rather than the network itself. Dutch speakers abroad still have access to BVN satellite television and websites from domestic radio and TV stations as well as newspaper publishers and on-line news channels like

The perception by the general Dutch public now is that the Wereldomroep is no more. Indeed, Radio has gone, Nederlands has gone and as legislation is being changed, so the Wereldomroep (literally World broadcasting) will be taken out of the statute books. 

From now on, Holland will only have public broadcasters on a local, regional and national level. I had hoped to hear a clear signal from RNW last Friday as to what will happen next. After all, 14 million Euro had been earmarked for some kind of external broadcasting activity as from January 1st next year. But the on-air debate broadcast in the final hour of the Dutch service was sadly the weakest link in the whole production. It was muddled, confusing and those arguing for stopping it altogether had jibes that quickly dominated. Definitely a case of the blind leading the blind and an important one-time opportunity missed.

Yes, there's a plan on how that 14 million Euro of public money could be spent. But it's not based on a clearly defined audience need in the same way that RNW was the answer back in 1947. It's politically driven piece rather like the lists that NHK Radio Japan used to get from the Japanese government - "Here is some money, you are commanded to broadcast so many hours a day to North Korea, etc. Do the best you can". Frankly, that's no way to run a modern media company. Never has been. Government make terrible programmes because they are interested in themselves not the audience - It's all about shouting a message above the noise, not listening to what people are saying from within.

Other NGOs in Holland are running radio stations into specific areas like Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Iran. They have focus and, at least in the case of Sudan, are filling a void that hasn't yet been filled by others. It's a project, so when the mission is over, it will evaporate. Success is driven and measured by audience need. 

This all reminds me of that poster in the window of Bush House referring to BBC World Service - audiences are at the heart of everything we do. For RNW, that heart has stopped beating because everything it stood for has been removed. End of a era. Over and out. That leaves me with a huge respect for the past. But no hope for the least not like this.

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