Saturday, March 24, 2012

RNW Leaving the Airwaves After 65 Years

Service to End May 11

The Dutch government is about to do to its legendary international broadcasting service what the Nazis could not do--kill it.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide, which claims a weekly reach of about 50 million listeners, says it plans to close most of its services, including broadcasting to Dutch expatriates, and relaunch--mainly as a website--with a skeleton staff and a focus on producing content for audiences in countries "where free speech is suppressed or threatened."

An RNW spokesperson says the changes "have been forced on RNW by the Dutch government’s decision to slash our budget by 70 percent with effect from 1 January 2013."

The new budget will come from the Foreign Ministry rather than the Ministry of Education and Culture as at present.

"The editorial independence of RNW will remain sacrosanct," the spokesperson says.

RNW will hold a final, 24-hour marathon broadcast on May 10 and 11 to mark the end of its 65 years of service.

The Netherlands, ironically, is believed to have started the international broadcasting business, with regular transmissions starting in 1927 from shortwave stations to the Dutch East Indies--now Indonesia.

Broadcasts Inspired Dutch Resistance

Following the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the Dutch government in exile was granted air-time on BBC transmitters. The Radio Oranje program was a daily commentary.

The Queen of the Netherlands, Wilhelmina Helena Pauline Maria, who was forced to leave her homeland, regularly appeared on the BBC and Radio Oranje, often calling Hitler the "arch-enemy of all mankind." Her late-night broadcasts on Radio Oranje, along with those of Winston Churchill, inspired the Dutch resistance. Here is the text of one of her 1942 speeches:

All nationals of the Netherlands, today remember the countless countrymen killed in the streets and squares of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Remember those who were tortured and subjected to Fascists in police stations and concentration camps. Relatives of those who are no longer with us, we cautiously extend our deepest sympathy to the people who rebelled to help Jewish families! Because we are the Dutch, tolerant people. Because we will not tolerate that the same people as we, Jewish men and women, Jewish children are tortured and killed. That is why we rebelled!

The Nazis outlawed listening to BBC and Radio Oranje. They even banned radios; but many Dutch people used small, self-built radios that could be hidden from the enemy. Some of these sets have survived and can still be found in museums and private collections.

The Germans also used a number of radio jammers that they turned on during the broadcasts.

One of the chief commentators on Radio Oranje, Henk van den Broek, was given the task of re-starting public broadcasting once the country was liberated. He began Radio Herrijzend Nederland, which eventually became RNW, in 1946, modeling it after the BBC.

RNW's English-language shortwave broadcasts to North America were discontinued in 2008 after a survey found that more listeners to the network were using the podcasting service instead of shortwave radios.

Memo to RNW Management: Your announced focus on producing content for countries where press freedom is limited is admirable and in keeping with RNW's noble wartime history. But before abandoning all other kinds of programming, you might also consider daily, 24/7, Internet-based broadcasting--in Dutch and in English, which has become the international language--of news and entertainment, including music, from and about the Netherlands. It would be relatively inexpensive to produce two such channels, featuring a mix of live and prerecorded programming. Assuming a viable business model, you may even be able to find a partner or investor or a sustaining, institutional sponsor--say, a large company or a leading, not-for-profit foundation--for the new, online venture. This reporter would be happy to help you.

BONUS: Click here to screen an archival gem, a 1985 TV documentary about an iceskating race narrated by an RNW radio star of the time; and below, for a recent, RNW video report from Sierra Leone (which has a lively, free press) about a youth-oriented "radio station in a box" donated by a Dutch NGO.