ENGLISH-SPEAKING RADIO IN GENEVA Interview with Mark Butcher, Director of World Radio Switzerland

Since September 2013, there have been changes in English-speaking radio in the Geneva area. Radio Frontier took over World Radio Switzerland (WRS), but decided to keep the old name WRS. Furthermore, in preparation for the move to Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), the Swiss Federal Government decided to close the FM wavelength used by WRS. Mark Butcher explains.
Q: Can you tell us how you came to be doing what you are doing?
I have always been in radio ever since I left school. At first I worked in London for some years, but in 1992 I saw a job advertised with Swiss Radio International in Berne. After I arrived, they were in the process of setting up an English-speaking FM radio station in Geneva, which became World Radio Geneva (WRG). So in 1996 I moved to Geneva to work for WRG ‒‒ it was the same management team. Apart from a short break, I have always been involved in English-speaking radio in Geneva.
I believed that I was coming to Switzerland for a couple of years, but, like a lot of people, I ended up staying here. Twenty years later I find myself settled ‒‒ I got married and bought a house. That is a very common story for many people. I have enjoyed being here, since English-language radio in Geneva is an interesting niche. I have very much enjoyed being part of the international community and it has been a fantastic opportunity to meet people in Geneva.
Q: What is the structure of English-language radio in Geneva?
This is the big issue. With the exception of Radio 74 which has got its own mission, there is only one English-speaking radio station in the region ‒‒ WRS. With all due respect for the people at Radio 74, its mission is not intended to be of value to the community. The mission of WRS is to be of value to the community.
When it comes down to English-speaking radio, we have implemented a deliberate policy to make it “local” radio for the Lake Geneva region. We think that this is important and appreciated by the listeners. Since we are a commercial station, it is also of more value to the advertisers who wish to reach the community in this region. At each level it makes good programming sense, good advertising sense and therefore good business sense.
Q: How is your radio station financed?
Purely on advertising. We have not asked the Swiss Government for any subsidies and we receive no other subsidies. Although we have not been given a public-service mandate, we feel that we should be of public service because it is good business to do so. We need listeners in order to sell ourselves to our advertisers. We are a business and need to make a profit. We have great backing from our investors. While no-one wants to throw money away, at this stage they are not interested in seeing a massive return on their money. We are at present in a situation where the profits from broadcasting will be fed back into the station. Over the next few years we want to increase the number of people we employ.
I have been asked by people how they can help; they have even offered money. We do not actually want to go down that road; we want to be a commercially funded radio station. We have had offers from corporate entities who have asked how they can help us since they perceive our radio station as of value to their employees. We are talking to some corporations about receiving money from them, to which we have replied that we will invest it in people and programming. You will see an instant difference in what we are doing.
Q: The vast majority of people listen to radio on the FM wavelength. Is DAB an advantage or a disadvantage?
Most people know what digital audio broadcasting (DAB) is. It has been around for quite some time ‒‒ at least fifteen years in the United Kingdom. FM is still the dominant radio platform ‒‒ especially for cars ‒‒ but this is obviously an important issue in many ways.
During the change from Radio Frontier to WRS in September 2013, the Swiss Government gave us one month on the previous FM wavelength to facilitate the change. During that month we spoke about DAB all the time. No-one should have been surprised when the FM wavelength ceased to function, and we did not receive many telephone calls asking us what had happened.
So, people know about DAB. We have our own preferred fitter who is able to put DAB equipment into cars ‒‒ he has converted 400 cars in the last three weeks and this shows no signs of slowing down. People have been buying DAB radios in recent years. In some cases they did not realise that their FM radio was also capable of receiving DAB broadcasts. It was only when they were forced to check it out that they found they were already capable of receiving DAB. From now on, it will be increasingly difficult to go to a shop and buy an FM radio. It is the equivalent of trying to buy a black-and-white television! We are very encouraged about the level of DAB take-up. We know that cars are a bit of a challenge but people are buying car radios for about CHF150.-, and for a little bit more you can have them fitted. You end up with an invisible fitted radio in your car.
Obviously, we would have preferred to stay on FM because it would have given us the opportunity to increase our advertising revenues from the outset. This has had a big impact on the level of service we can provide. When we began negotiations with the Swiss Broadcasting Service (SSR) about taking over WRS, we promised them that we would take on half of the staff of the old radio station ‒‒ as long as we kept the FM wavelength. When the FM wavelength was rejected by the Swiss Government, we had to go back to the SSR and say that there is no way we can take all these people on. In fairness to the SSR, they fully agreed and released us from that commitment. Barring a few of the contributors, we haven’t actually taken any of the former staff of the old WRS on because we simply could not afford it.
Q: Has the old WRS wavelength been given to someone else?
No, the SSR switched it off. It’s part of the Swiss Government’s philosophy of encouraging people to move everything to DAB. We would have liked them to allow us to use it for another couple of years enabling us to achieve a sound financial footing and creating a better service. What it means is that the audience is getting less service from this radio station.
There is a general policy across Europe to switch FM off in 2018 ‒‒ the scheduled change-over date. However, this will probably not happen ‒‒ I suspect that there will be a bit of slippage in some of these deadlines. Nevertheless, Scandinavia is already quite advanced along the DAB path. The United Kingdom says it will be making the switch in the next couple of years. There is no question that it will happen because European governments have spent a fortune in making the DAB networks function.
Our advice to anybody these days is that if you are buying a new car make sure that it has DAB in it. If you were to sell your car in a few years’ time, the FM radio will no longer work.
Q: What is likely to happen in the short term/long term about English-speaking radio in Geneva?
WRS is in many ways now a brand-new radio station. What we would like to see is for our audience to increase which would enable us to recruit more people so that we can actually do more live news, more radio content and more information about what’s going on. If more and more people listened to us and switched to DAB, we would be able to charge more for advertising and we would invest that increased revenue back into people and content. This would enable us to be more engaged with the community. That’s what we aim to do. We are all working very hard, but in my role as programme controller I know that we should be doing more.
Q: Is there anything you want to say to our readers and/or your potential audience?
Bear with us and understand the situation that we are in. We know from the comments that we have been receiving that people do understand that we are building this radio station from scratch. We are not yet equivalent to the former WRS. We cannot provide the number of news programmes that they did because we just do not have the staff.
One of the best ways in which people can help us is by listening to the commercials on our radio and understand that these are companies who have put their faith in us to deliver their message to an audience. These are businesses that want to engage with the international community. So I would say that if you hear an advertisement on WRS and if you are thinking of, for instance, buying a new car or asking for financial advice, think of the people who have advertised with us. They have taken the step of engaging with the international community and would obviously be delighted to hear from you ‒‒ and it would be very helpful for us as well because they will say: “It worked”. It is in this way that people could help this radio station to survive. Please do not buy their product if you don’t want it, but bear in mind when you do hear that company advertise that they have stepped up to engage with us, they want to reach the international community, and they should be given a chance to receive your custom.