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Monday 22 December  
Listening in Congo
Andy Sennitt's picture
Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva, Switzerland

Free access without app or web? It's called radio.

Published on : 11 February 2012 - 9:31am | By Andy Sennitt (Photo: Jos Verhoogen)
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On World Radio Day, 13 February 2012, UNESCO will remind the world that there is a medium which reaches parts that other media can't reach.

Radio is still a vital form of communication because a radio station can be set up much faster, and at much lower cost, than a terrestrial or satellite TV station. Radio is especially useful for reaching remote communities and vulnerable people such as the illiterate, the disabled and the poor. It also provides a platform for such groups to take part in the wider public debate.

Radio also plays a vital role in emergency communication and disaster relief, which was illustrated following the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December 2004. RNW was able to help several partner stations in Indonesia by sending out “radio stations in a box” – self-contained mobile FM stations providing a temporary studio and transmitter ready to be used by broadcasters whose own facilities had been destroyed.

World radio day

One billion people
do not have access to radio, let alone technically more complex media like the internet

On 3 November, 2011, the 36th General Conference of UNESCO approved the creation of an annual World Radio Day. The initial idea came from the Spanish Academy of Radio four years earlier. The date chosen was 13 February, which corresponds to the birth of United Nations radio in 1946.

World Radio Day seeks to raise awareness about the importance of radio, facilitate access to information through radio, and enhance networking among broadcasters.


World Radio Day is intended as a focal point for discussion and debate on the role of radio in supporting the most vulnerable sectors of the worldwide community. Various events have been organised around the world. In London, a mix of practitioners, academics and tools providers are coming together at the School of Oriental and African Studies for a one-day conference on “New Perspectives on Traditional Radio”.

The conference organisers point out that radio is still the world’s most active, localized broadcast technology. Because radio is a free and accessible platform, it plays a crucial role in promoting development, improving livelihoods and supporting access to education. They point out that “you don’t need an app or the internet to access the radio!“

Social engagement
But that doesn’t mean that radio has to stay in a timewarp. It’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining that the transmission platform is the only important element. For example, some shortwave hobbyists – and sometimes even broadcasters themselves – consider that when an international broadcaster stops using expensive, inefficient legacy technology like analogue shortwave, it has somehow ceased to be a proper broadcaster.

The London conference will be looking at how different technologies can serve to change the way in which radio is used as a platform for social engagement.

That’s probably the biggest change in radio during the time I’ve worked in it. When I started listening to radio, it was a passive medium, especially international radio. On some stations, the programmes often consisted of an announcer with a strong accent reading out a poorly translated text on a boring subject, guaranteed to minimise the chances of getting a reaction from the listener.

In fact RNW was one of the first international broadcasters to experiment with the kind of direct listener contact that is now the norm in radio. In the 1980s, before the advent of the internet and handheld devices, I took part in some live phone-ins for the English service, which went out in some of the Saturday transmissions. There were four transmissions to different parts of the world, and we were amazed at how many people were prepared to make an international phone call just to speak to us.

Grassroots radio
These days, much of our two-way contact with international listeners is done online via Facebook, Twitter, and our websites and blogs. But on local stations, it’s much easier to get involved via the programmes themselves.

When I was at university in the UK in the early 1970s, I experienced at first-hand just how grassroots radio worked. On a sunny day, I walked across the deserted main square to the studio, and I said on the air that it was ideal weather to take a radio outside and sit in the main square listening to us. At the end of my show, I walked back across the square and there were several hundred people, and lots of radios playing our station. Coincidence? I’d like to think not. I believe that, at a very basic level, it demonstrated the power of radio in a small community.

For more details of World Radio Day 2012, and details of events around the world, visit the official website.


Carif 14 February 2012 - 7:14am / USA

Radio Netherlands needs to take a cue from the BBC World Service by signing partnership agreements with local FM broadcasters in key locations around the world where there is a large population of audience capture.

user avatar
Andy Sennitt 14 February 2012 - 1:31pm

We already do. We have over 3,000 media partners worldwide, including 600 in Africa.

Harry de Haan 15 February 2012 - 7:58am / Australia

and are they all going to re-broadcast Radio Netherlands Free Speech propaganda and sex lessons Andy, or will RNW-English continue to provide proper programs to some parts of the world ?

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Andy Sennitt 15 February 2012 - 4:47pm

We don't currently broadcast sex lessons, but your suggestion will be passed on to our radio producers :-) I don't know what you mean by 'proper programmes'. If you mean programmes about the Netherlands, or entertainment programmes, the Dutch government doesn't want us to do that any more. Providing information to countries where free speech is restricted is now the only task that RNW will have :-(

Mike Terry 13 February 2012 - 3:58pm / United Kingdom

A wonderful article that says so much about the importance of radio in breaking boundaries and freely communicating worldwide.

Concerned SW Listener 13 February 2012 - 1:06am / USA

I remember back to the 1980's when RN was in the top ten of SW broadcasters. Listening to RN in New Zealand as a young teenager via their Bonaire relay station was very special and the signal boomed in with the "His and Hers" program. I learnt a lot about Dutch life and where Hilversum in Holland was.

Just as TV has had to reinvent itself I think SW broadcasting needs too as well. Both from the programming and technology side. In relation to programming if it needs sponsorship and advertising then so be it. In the USA PBS and NPR rely heavily on sponsorship and I see this as an efficient support stream for national SW broadcasters as being no different. On the technology side I see DRM30 offering SW broadcaster, like RN, low cost program relaying to local FM services in Dutch dependencies and added marketing benefits with the media channels DRM30 offers. While the internet and podcasting has a place in programming mediums only "rf broadcasting" is the most effective and least likely to be blocked. In addition with very low cost Chinese digital SW radios now available the potential audience can increase due to easier frequency selection and clearer audio decoding with DSP receivers. It is time for RN to reinvent itself on SW.

Harry de Haan 12 February 2012 - 5:55am

**on World Radio Day, 13 February 2012, UNESCO will remind the world that there is a medium which reaches parts that other media can't reach.
Radio is still a vital form of communication


but Andy, assuming what you're saying is correct, why is Radio Netherlands Worldwide abandoning it's short-wave services ?

is it listeners lack of interest, lack of programming, lack of direction from RNW management or lack of vision by RNW owners ?
RNW reminds me of the cruise ship Costa Concordia and captain Francesco the helm,
like the hapless Costa Concordia, RNW is being demolished , or can you convince me RNW is simply being refurbished and will continue ''better than ever....." ?

user avatar
Andy Sennitt 12 February 2012 - 2:13pm


I think you already know the answer. The Dutch government has cut our annual budget from 46 million euros a year to 14 million. A few years ago, we were spending a lot more than that on distribution alone. In the coming months, nearly three quarters of our staff will lose their jobs. RNW is not a private company, it's a public broadcaster.

But having said that, there has indeed been a massive drop in the number of regular listeners to many of our shortwave services in the past five years. This is something all international broadcasters have noted, and many have already stopped shortwave. Radio Bulgaria was the most recent, on 1st February. In three weeks, a website set up to support the continuation of shortwave by Radio Bulgaria got less than 1000 signatures from the entire world in all languages.

I can't give you any assurances about the future of RNW. I will be retiring on 1 May, so I won't be involved in it. But I can assure you that there's no lack of vision or commitment here, just a lack of finance.

Harry de Haan 13 February 2012 - 10:14am / Australia

for many years I have enjoyed your work via Radio Netherlands, the DUTCH international service, through Media Network on short-wave and now on line.
I sincerely thank you and wish you a happy retirement.
I have to disagree with you re lack of vision or commitment @ RNW , but mainly from your CEO and Editor-in-Chief..
Are you in a position to tell us what will happen to the 4 audio channels on BVN-tv's worldwide satellite network after 11 May ?

user avatar
Andy Sennitt 13 February 2012 - 12:35pm


Thanks for the good wishes. As far as I know, no decisions have yet been made about the satellite services. I believe the plan is eventuallly to replace the Dutch stream with a feed of one of the domestic channels, presumably Radio 1. But as far as I know this has not yet officially been decided. In fact, the Dutch parliament has not even formally approved the cabinet's budget cut for RNW yet. Our website(s) will inform you of decisions as soon as they are official. 

Harry de Haan 15 February 2012 - 7:12am / Australia

does your retirement on 1 May also mean The End of your excellent ?

user avatar
Andy Sennitt 15 February 2012 - 4:24pm

Yes, the blog in its present form will close.

Richard Cuff 16 February 2012 - 8:46pm / USA

The day after your last blog post will be a sad day. Many thanks for all the ways you have helped educate, inform, and entertain those of us who wanted to hear perspectives other than those available in our home countries. When I think of your work with the WRTH and RNW from the days on air with Jonathan M. up to the present, it's an important and impressive body of work - you have definitely "left a mark"...

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