Radio Free Europe - How European Radio Works
June 21, 2016
[THE REFERENDUM REFERRED TO IS THURSDAY 23 JUNE]
As I write this, the UK - where I was born - is having a referendum. Should we stay in Europe? Or shouldn't we? The polls say its split 50/50, and my Facebook newsfeed is full of Brits eagerly telling their friends which way they plan to vote. Referendum posters are being eagerly printed off, taped to windows, and photographed on Facebook. People are sharing video - and, yes, audio - of viewpoints they agree with in an attempt to convince people of the right view to take.
From a radio point of view, however, there almost isn't such a thing as "Europe." From a content point of view, there's little that binds the EU together. Indeed, the European radio landscape is one of contrasts.
Across Europe, radio reaches 84% of people each week. Public radio is strong, too: on average, 47% of Europeans listen to public radio every week, with a market share of 36%. This overall figure hides some very wide variations, though.
In Norway, as one example, NRK P1, a mix of music and speech, has a market share of 45% just on its own; the public broadcaster operates many more channels. By the way - NRK P's website is worth a look: a really nice way of making a visual experience from a radio show, and allowing you to navigate through the programs you've just missed.
In Denmark, which like Norway uses PPMs, there's a bunch of fascinating research on how they're consuming media. Radio listening there actually increased last year, and DR's public P4 channel has a 35.5% market share. In contrast, Spain is dominated by Cadena SER, a commercial radio network owned by PRISA, with over 4.4m listeners nationwide.
In much of Europe, there are regulations which can appear strange. 40% of the music on French radio needs to be in the French language: something that broadcasters are fighting against. Irish radio has a speech quota which it has to hit, and an Irish music quota is actively being debated.
Radio licensing also differs between EU countries. Ireland or the UK have a set number of FM licenses and a set music format for each; however, in Italy, I'm told anyone can broadcast on FM as long as no interference is caused to any other broadcaster. I'm not sure how true that is, but a quick look at Virgin Radio Italy's FM frequencies page does underline how many transmitters are in operation there! (And let's not get started on the costs of using music for radio in each country - yes, that differs wildly too).
From a technology point of view, DAB is present - in varying degrees - in most European countries these days. AM is also not universal; and only Norway has made the decision to turn FM off.
Perhaps the most obvious thing about European radio is language and culture. It makes networked radio very difficult. So, there are few EU-wide programs; instead, you see shared brands - most notably Virgin Radio in Turkey, Italy, France and the UK), and NRJ, also known as ENERGY, in France and Germany. There is very limited content-sharing: overnight programming on classical public radio stations is provided via the EBU, with gaps for presenters in each language. You might also hear jingle packages re-sung in different languages.
It might be a question for British people whether they want to be in, or out, of Europe; but I can't tell you how European radio works, because I'm not sure there's any such thing... which, of course, makes it all the more fascinating.