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Connecting people through radio

Shortwave radio used to be a powerful means to reach people all over the world. Nowadays new media technologies, such as broadband, mobiles and tablets, enable us to listen via the world wide web. Are the programming formats used by radio makers in the past still present in the digital age? Dr Vincent Kuitenbrouwer (University of Amsterdam) started as embedded researcher in the archives of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision to research the history of the Radio Nederland Wereldomroep (RNW). 

In november 1919 radio broadcasting in the Netherlands started with the station of radio pioneer Idzerda. Listeners from the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom could hear his channel PCGG. In 2019 a century of radio will be celebrated in the Netherlands. Vincent Kuitenbrouwer writes a chapter on transnational radio in a book on the history of Dutch radio, edited by Prof. Dr. Huub Wijfjes. A central theme in Kuitenbrouwer’s project is how people in the past have used radio to connect to other communities around the world.

10 year anniversary of the Wereldomroep (Polygoon, 1955)

Broadcasting the Dutch way of thinking

The first world services in the Netherlands were created by Philips. The company experimented with shortwave in the 1920s to reach the Dutch colonies in the East via the PHOHI channel and experiments of international broadcasts via the PCJ shortwave transmitter. During the chaos of World War II and its aftermath these experiments were severely strained. In 1947 the Radio Netherlands World Service was launched. The idea was to establish a channel that would broadcast the Dutch way of thinking about peace and friendship. After a few weeks of research, Vincent Kuitenbrouwer found the evidence of this thought in the annual reports, in the archived broadcasts, transcripts of early programmes and personal documents of one of the most prominent radio hosts, Eddy Startz.

Opening new studio in Hilversum (Polygoon, 1961)

Sounds of international harmony

The RNW broadcasted with the thought that Unesco describes in its mission: to support people in understanding each other and working together to build lasting peace. To do so the RNW made programmes in seven languages, including Spanish, English and Bahasa Indonesia. Connecting to people meant that the response of listeners was crucial and used in the programmes. The music request by the audience were sounds of international harmony and the letters and postcards were quoted in their original language. The Happy Station was the most eloquent example of the entertaining voice of the World service, it ran from 1928 (PHOHI) until 1995. In 2009 Keith Perron revived the legendary programme on his PCJ web channel from Taiwan.

Independent news gathering

News service was the spine of the RNW organisation. Broadcasts were not only about world politics, also regional issues were discussed in the local language. The station tried to offer independent and objective information about situations. For instance by telling about the articles in a variety of newspapers, thus offering different perspectives on the same issue, without taking a position. For many people it was an alternative to State media, essential to hear about events that were happening in their own region. RNW played an important part in former colonies of the Netherlands. This was the case in Surinam in the 1980s after the so called December killings and in the protests in Indonesia in the late 1990s. For the world services independent newsgathering was important for the reputation of the Netherlands and thus for the Dutch way of democracy. In the 1970s radio was used as development aid for third world countries. The RNW educated on public health issues and agricultural methods for a better harvest in radio shows.

New radio towers on Bonaire (Polygoon, 1968)

A connection to home

Another important function of international radio broadcasting from the Netherlands, throughout the decades, has been providing Dutchmen with a connection home – in their native tongue. Philips started with broadcasts aimed at Dutch colonials in Southeast Asia, the programmes of the RNW have also always been important for expats. From the late 1960s onwards the RNW also became more important for travellers during summer holidays. People listened to sports, news and requests of people to contact the family at home in case of emergency. Nowadays the Internet enables to listen to all Dutch stations. This was one of the main arguments forwarded by the Dutch government to slash the funding of RNW, which effectively ended the international broadcasting activities of this organisation in 2012.

Researching the RNW

The challenge of researching the rich and mostly unwritten history of RNW is in tracking down recordings of the original broadcasts, of which many are not available yet in the archive of Sound and Vision. The RNW had their own archives and handed over their material after their shutdown in 2012. Currently plans are being made to enable researchers to study the rich archival collections of RNW (paper and audio). Further research concentrates on connecting the broadcasts with the official view of the RNW and the practical views and standards of the presenters and producers, for instance by browsing through interviews in newspaper in which they tell about their work.

Researcher Vincent Kuitenbrouwer at Sound and Vision

Kuitenbrouwer’s first studies suggest that the formats that RNW developed in its programmes were created in the 1920s and have continued to be used throughout its history. A good example is Radio Uruzgan (2006-2010) that was produced for the Dutch UN batallion in Afghanistan, including one hour a day during which friends and family of the soldiers could send messages from the Netherlands to their loved ones abroad. During the Decolonisation War in Indonesia (1945-1949) the RNW was the connection with home for the Dutch soldiers in a similar way. This kind of connections form the essence of international radio. In early days it took time for letters to arrive, digital technology has sped up this connection. In the flow of the digital change, the art of making radio has been neglected according to Kuitenbrouwer. It took commitment to get response of the audience, it still does if you want more than just a like.