From smoke signals, cave drawings, semaphore and heliographs, to the franchise system of the Catholic Church and religious hymns, human beings have always been excited about spreading some sort of message by any means possible. It’s all about “staying in touch,” essentially. Nations do it as well. Switzerland, for instance, has swissinfo.
Communication is what makes us feel less lonely and less vulnerable. Through communication we, as human beings in general and members of a tribe or community, become attached to a greater circle of other human beings. Not surprisingly, when radio communications began developing at the beginning of the 20th century, it became immensely popular. Not unlike the priests at the pulpit or medieval town criers, this new medium allowed news, entertainment, information and disinformation to spread to anyone with access to receiving technology – an ear, a church, a radio set – even to people who could not read or were occupied doing manual chores. It gave everyone the feeling of being connected, no matter how tenuous, illusory and one-sided the communication channel.
Once the amateur short-wave cowboys had shown the way in the 1920s – drawing parallels to the Internet explosion is inevitable – larger and wellfunded corporations jumped on the bandwidths assisted in particular by the development of the loudspeaker. The new conquerors of the air were a broad mix of bona fide news organisations like the BBC Empire Service (1932) to the noisy propaganda departments of the Soviet Union and the brand new Nazi Germany. And because the medium was relatively inexpensive, anyone with a product to sell or an axe to grind – like the notorious Father Coughlin in the USA – could suddenly reach millions of listeners with a relatively low investment.
Small country, big voice
By the early 30s, Switzerland had organised its regional radio stations into a national public broadcasting organisation and started looking beyond its borders. The League of Nations in Geneva had a short-wave transmitter that served for initial tests. Finally, in autumn of 1935, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation launched Swiss Shortwave Service, which communicated news from the home front to the 200,000 or so Swiss citizens living abroad. At the time, it was just one of the smaller fish in the great radiophonic ocean. Then came World War Two and the four-year occupation of Europe by the Nazis. While the BBC managed to draw much of the spotlight owing, perhaps, to its safer position off the continent and its access to celebrities like Charles De Gaulle, it was also a moment of glory for the Swiss broadcaster, which kept Europe informed of daily events right from the thick of it. As its fame grew, so did its number of broadcast languages, which now included English, Portuguese and Spanish on top of German, French and Italian.
It continued growing throughout the Cold War adding Arabic and more frequency hours per week. The station’s strictly independent stance was well suited to the country’s decidedly neutral status and had a high level of listener appeal, as James Wood suggested in his History of International Broadcasting. In 1978, the name changed to Swiss Radio International (SRI). When the East Bloc broke up, media representatives from the former Communist countries were invited to come to Bern, home of SRI, to learn the trade from the station’s well-trained journalists and editors. Technology continued to evolve as well. Satellite transmissions in the early 1990s enabled SRI to reach millions of homes around the world in excellent quality. Content, though, was not cheap, and as has now become usual in an economy dominated by the bottom line, it was the ants who started determining what the voice of Switzerland was going to sound like, not the grasshoppers. Radio found itself in an unusual twilight zone, ephemeral by its very nature – disembodied voices using an especially pictorial language, now, alas, defunct for the most part – quite costly, yet not nearly as hypnotising as television. For those who worked with international radio stations, the 90s were stormy. Services were drastically cut, journalists, many of whom were seasoned freelancers with vast experience, found themselves without work or facing major pay cuts. All the while, paradoxically, the need for “content” grew and grew.
End of an era
For many involved in the grand adventure of finding and reporting news, from brittle politics, to cute human interest blurbs, the inexorable rise of the Internet offered little relief, since everything virtual is expected to be virtually free-ofcharge as well. But it was an opportunity for SRI, which performed a complete reset and reboot in October 2004 when the last programme was broadcast over the air and SRI became the multimedia platform swissinfo.ch with all the flexibility that technology could offer. The new website utilised traditional text reporting and as the applications appeared, increasingly incorporated videos, podcast, audio slideshows and picture galleries, all for the purpose of informing its audiences on relevant or interesting issues. “As we receive 50 percent of our funds from the Swiss government, we have the mandate to provide information for Swiss abroad,” explains Christophe Giovannini, Editor-in- Chief of the site, “but we are completely independent in our reporting”.
When the website first went online in 1999, it only appeared in German, French, English and Portuguese, not unusual considering the generations of Portuguese who have made Switzerland their home. Over the years, in order to meet the demands of other short-term visitors or residents from other parts of the world, the website has added Japanese, Italian, and Spanish in 2000, and one year later Arabic and Chinese. According to Giovannini, 70 percent of the stories are the same across all nine languages, with 30 percent of the stories that are only available in one to three languages based on the topic and its relevancy to the specific language. The website sources its daily international news from the wires but it produces around two to four original articles daily covering economic, political and social issues concerning Switzerland, or giving a Swiss point-of-view on a specific issue. The recent events in Japan, for example were covered by interviewing academics and experts in nuclear power from Switzerland. Many swissinfo journalists are Swiss, or foreigners who have made Switzerland their permanent home. They are a mix of salaried worker and freelancer.
Wider spectrum Even though the website continues to serve its mandate of providing Switzerland issues to citizens abroad, it has also become a source of information for foreigners interested in Switzerland or expats within. The various language sites offer tips and advice for those who are interested in or are already living in Switzerland. Greater user interaction has the additional advantage of attracting more hits, thereby growing the site’s value, always a good idea when its time to renew funding. In addition to keeping up with the daily news, however, the makers of swissinfo also have to keep abreast of technology and trends if they wish to stay in the game. The website recently launched surveys to research and receive viewers’ opinions about current issues. This is part of a drive to encourage greater user participation in the site. “We would like to generate a forum of debate on different stories, and to also allow journalists to answer and interact with audiences,” says Giovannini. To that end, viewers are invited to create a personal account on the website and track their comments on certain articles or issues. This, arguably, could dilute the news or at least distract from it, since viewers do not necessarily have the expertise or the time to research in depth. But is that really what is demanded from the media these days? The Internet seems to have redefined reality by creating a virtual world. Whatever the future holds for the media and swissinfo, one thing is sure: RSI, once a dynamic radio station and a quintessentially Swiss voice, has come a long way.
article by Marton Radkai