The Forgotten Firsts — Remembering Radio Netherlands
By Jonathan Marks, Editor Media Network.
Science & Technology Producer August 1980–9. Head of English Language Department, Programme Director, Creative Director 1991–2003.
Every country claims to have invented radio. In the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum they have so far focused on the radio pioneer Hanso Idzerda. He set up a business to make and sell his radios. And he realised that no-one would buy his radios if there was nothing to listen to. I think the evidence shows that he was one of the first, if not the first person to make regular broadcasts following a pre-announced schedule. But I would like to suggest he started off a chain of Dutch “firsts”, many of which are now in danger of being forgotten.
First, Idzerda started international broadcasting. From a rooftop antenna in the Hague, his low power mediumwave signal could be heard in the Southern part of the UK. And he capitalised on that by broadcasting an hour of concert music between 4 and 5 on a Sunday afternoon, responding to listeners correspondence. And he managed to get the programme paid for by the Daily Mail newspaper in London. So, the first international broadcasts were commercial. They were also the world’s first broadcasts using what today we would call narrow band frequency modulation. It wasn’t until 1933 that American engineer Edwin Armstrong, discovered this technique was capable of transmitting much better audio fidelity if you used much higher frequencies and more sensitive receivers.
In 1920’s, no-one understood radio propagation
But in 1919 no-one really understood how radio waves worked and the influence the sun has on the way they propagate. I’m guessing that Idzerda would have had most of his UK listeners in mid-winter when it was starting to get dark.
By 1925, various things were happening in parallel. Physicists like Edward Appelton were showing that there was a layer in the earth’s atmosphere which they later called the ionosphere. It acted like a mirror to radio waves. And the path of the signal followed was dependent on frequency.
So while Radio Kootwijk was using a high-power long-wave transmitter to try and send Morse code messages to the Dutch colony of the East Indies, now Indonesia, engineers at Philips in Eindhoven realised that shorter wavelengths were best suited to long distance communication using much less power than the 400kW being used in Kootwijk. They ran experiments in 1925 which were received in Malabar Indonesia. A certain Dr de Groot is listed is some accounts as a radio enthusiast. It’s just that he happened to be the head of the Dutch telegraph station in Sitoebondo, East Java and had been busy since 1916 trying to establish a reliable, direct connection between The Netherlands and its colonies. The Dutch were making use of long-distance phone cables owned by the British who were listening in to all the communications.
At the PTT Lab in Parkstraat, The Hague, radio engineers had built a shortwave transmitter with a power output of a couple hundred watts. On August 7th 1925, the first two way connection using Morse code was made between The Hague and Malabar, Indonesia.
On June 1st 1927 the world’s first royal was broadcast by a reigning monarch to the colonies. There was also coverage in the New York Times later in 1927 about the Dutch relaying British broadcasts.
But Eddy Startz could claim some firsts as well. On December 26th 1929 Eindhoven was on the front page of the New York Times as Holland, England, Germany and the United States organised the world’s first live programme exchange. So one station came on the air with a shortwave broadcast, closed down and the other station took over.
And by 1937, Philips had built the world’s first rotating shortwave antenna in Huizen. Rather than needing a set of separate directional antenna, the wooden antenna would rotate with broadcasts towards Indonesia on 15220 kHz around lunchtime, then to Southern Africa in late afternoon and to North America and the Netherlands Antilles in the evening.
PCJ was suspended during Nazi occupation. There is some evidence that the transmitters in Huizen were used by the Germans with propaganda towards Indonesia before Japanese occupation. Some say they were locked in a position that beamed the signal to the North and South Pole. Meanwhile in London, the BBC granted airtime to governments in exile. So, alongside BBC Dutch which had a monopoly on the official news, Radio Oranje operated from offices in Stratton Street from where they broadcast commentaries and skits back to occupied Holland and to the Netherlands West Indies.
As Europe started to reconstruct after the war, this was another golden era for radio listeners. The radio sets were getting better. The largest radio factory in the world was Philips radio at what is now Strijp S in Eindhoven.
There was a magic in distance. But also, with large emigration wave from The Netherlands to Canada and the Pacific, a curiosity to keep in touch. No TV, no Facebook, and no-one would dream of making a casual international phone call at around 4 Euro per minute.
A lot of international broadcasting, especially during the cold war era was very political and often very boring. It was often a translation of a talk originally given in another language. And most stations, like RNW, had a strict split between talks and features and those hired to play music. But what started as a very centralised organisation, gradually became more of a cluster of production units, better suited to the needs of listeners. The station started employed more international investigative journalists and presenters rather than translators.
You can explain the early popularity of Eddy Startz who was basically taking you on a global voyage by playing music from various countries and sharing a anecdotes and a few standard phrases in other languages. Happy Station was never designed as a request programme. But other programmes that appeared on Radio Nederland were also a good example of understand audience needs.
“Ship of the week” was a mixture of family requests and cabaret which can from the old KRO studios in Hilversum. The Radio Netherlands studios in a converted villa on the Bothalaan were not big enough.
The need for Relay Stations
The reach of the station gradually improved, thanks to higher powered transmitters. In 1949 they opened the new shortwave station at Lopik near Utrecht. It had 4 100 kW transmitters. But when Director General L.F. Tijmstra went on a world tour to promote it, they discovered that even though they called themselves the Dutch world broadcasting system, just having powerful transmitters in Europe gave no guarantee of good reception in other parts of the world. In South Africa, Tijmstra was dismayed that he couldn’t hear his own station. Other stations like the BBC and DW were starting to set up relay stations.
When Tijmstra discovered German engineers doing propagation studies in Curacao, he put pressure on The Hague to give them more money to expand the coverage of the station. They first hired airtime on Trans World Radio who’d built a station in Bonaire. Then in 1969 they opened their own relay facilities in Bonaire.
Tijmstra then went on a world tour with the Mayor of Amsterdam to select a spot for the second relay station they needed to improve reception in Africa and Asia. Ethiopia and Perth Australia were in the shortlist, but in the end a site on Madagascar proved to be the best choice. Even though Radio Netherlands no longer exists as a radio station, the for RNW Madagascar relay station still plays an important role today in broadcasting to central and Eastern Africa as well as the Middle East.
Pioneers in Stereo recording
In the 1960’s you start to see the first signs that programme changes were needed. Television in many European countries and North America was starting to build huge audiences. And local FM radio stations sprang up playing music which sounded a lot better than crackly shortwave. Parts of the dial also had annoying sounds of jamming. It certainly was less of an attractive medium for young people. In 1961, Radio Netherlands moved into new studios in Hilversum. With the growth of stereo FM, Radio Netherlands discovered that another way of getting their programmes heard was to send programmes to local and national radio networks in other countries. Radio Netherlands started to record in stereo after a deal they did with Philips. And when that wore out, they became the proud owner of a Neve desk. In later years, Radio Netherlands and the AVRO became the recording partners for the Concertgebouw.
What does the Audience Want?
Shortwave radio stations had no scientific way of understanding who was listening. Yes, they got a lot of letters coming in, especially when Sony dumped a popular shortwave radio on the Japanese market in 1973. But there wasn’t much comment on the programming. Most international stations encouraged listeners to send in reception reports in exchange for a colourful postcard.
In 1975, Radio Nederland set up an audience research department, which could tap into some of the panel data being compiled by the BBC and Radio Free Europe. There was bad news. They concluded that audiences to some programmes were very small indeed. They didn’t know why the audience 80-minute transmissions were too long and that the amount of music and entertainment programmes should be reduced drastically.
So the programme departments started to recruit presenters who had strong interviewing skills and were interested in more investigated types of journalism. Pete Myers, a popular presenter on BBC’s Good Morning Africa was given carte blanche to create a new series of programmes called The Afroscene together with Stanley Nyachwa, Veronica Wilson, and John Hammond, one of Ghana’s most popular newreaders. It led to programmes that were less scripted, sounded more engaging, and started tapping in to new audiences. There was more investigative journalism often touching taboo subjects, like AIDS. And with the gradual fall of dictatorships in Latin America and the Caribbean, several of the journalists from that region had spent time in prison for what they had written.
By the end of 1980’s, Radio Netherlands, as it was now called, was producing some world class documentaries for its day, and on budgets which were a fraction of those of the BBC or Deutsche Welle.
The problem with many presenters is they get stuck in their own routine and once the fun becomes tedious, they either leave or believe their own publicity.
There was plenty going on in the world. The crumbling of the Iron Curtain. An attempted coup in Moscow, invasions in the Baltic states, and the first gulf war.
Let’s switch to 1992, the satellite business was expanding. And radio stations started hiring unused broadcast satellite capacity which had many advantages. It was cheaper, but also radio stations within the satellite footprint could benefit by putting up their own satellite dish. Radio Netherlands Latin American service took the lead in this, working with a network of public-minded stations across Latin America to develop new types of collaboration. Radio Netherlands Caribbean service in Dutch did the same thing.
Audiences were again changing. Satellite TV was replacing AM radio in the Middle East. Whilst in so-called Francophone Africa we saw the start of independent local FM stations. Soulé Issiaka led the reorganisation of the Radio Netherlands French service, cancelling the shortwave broadcasts but setting up a local production and training centre in Cotonou, Benin. They made some excellent science programmes, programmes for women, round-table discussions and distributed the programmes on CD. If you visit radio stations in West Africa you’ll still find those CD’s. I would say that Radio Netherlands pioneered a new type of collaborative international broadcasting, which was led by discussion of important social issues rather than an attempt to promote European culture to other countries in the world.
And let’s not forget the pioneering role Radio Netherlands played in times of natural disasters, Like the Indonesian Tsunami in 2004, helping stations in Banda Aceh with a complete temporary FM radio station in a shipping container.
Pioneering Listener Feedback
Back to that problem of understanding the audience needs. Radio Netherlands got plenty of letters, but it said nothing about the size of the regular audience or what people wanted to hear. And from important targets areas like the African continent, there were very few letters. We put that down to the cost of international postage — and likewise if they were not playing requests, why would you write to a radio station.
Happy Station’s Tom Meyer had done occasional live phone in shows in 1979. We installed an answering machine in the English department 1982, and got very excited when a worldwide network of bulletin boards called the FIDO net started up in 1986 and we started getting emails. In 1991, I opened a personal e-mail account with MCI-Mail and encouraged Media Network listeners to write to us. From the start we incorporated this feedback into our programmes, also inviting people to share observations. That made for some incredible programmes during the Russian invasion of Lithuania for instance. And we added a simple website in 1994. Gradually adding features and an audio archive of programmes, anticipating that all the different time zones made it difficult to understand transmission schedules.
No-one listens to international broadcasting unless — the government forbids it or people can access information not available locally.
What the Internet did better
When broadband Internet and mobile phones arrive in any country, it impacts the way people use media.
The Internet is radio’s memory — presenting the archive that broadcasters never built. Especially those journalists working in current affairs are only interested in now. Yesterday has no value.
It allows broadcasters to move from a push model — blasting in to another country with no effective way of telling people they are there, to an access model where people get access to information they need at a time of their choosing.
Shortwave still makes sense to a handful of fragile states where the Internet infrastructure is slow or blocked and where satellite TV has not yet penetrated. That’s another important chapter in Radio Netherlands ongoing history as a radio organisation. The Madagascar shortwave relay station. For everywhere else, interactive formats are what people want.
Easy access. Tuning a fiddly shortwave radio has always been difficult for most of us. Reception quality was often less than ideal complete with fading and crackling from thunderstorms. Today radio is an app on an iPad, and with the rise in interests in podcasting, audio on demand is reality. Just ask Alexa or Google Home for the “latest BBC news”.
What value does the Radio Netherlands archive still have?
As programme director in the 1990’s I was often asked what the value was of maintaining an archive. In 1996, I calculated we were putting productions into the archive that had cost around €9 million to make. For a start, it is a collection that provides access to Dutch culture, science and politics in several foreign languages.
But it also contains material you won’t find anywhere else. Recordings with exiled South African writers during the apartheid era. We gave a copy of 60 hours of Afrikaans language material to the South African Broadcasting Corporation in 2000. In depth round-table-discussions with influential people who were shaping societies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Thousands of concert recordings, especially jazz and Concertgebouw. Complete recordings of Poetry International. The records that were sent out to radio stations command a high price on eBay, even though they were never intended to be sold. I believe they have a huge cultural value.
The programmes in the fifties contain reportages explaining how the Netherlands was using the Marshall aid money to rebuild the nation. But outside broadcasts were difficult and expensive until recorders become cheaper and cassettes and DAT tapes replaced reel-to-reel. But look at the thousands of documentaries and reports we made in all parts of the world — Eastern Europe, the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the fall of Pinochet, the changing role of women in Latin American society. Many of those documentaries were sent to radio networks in Australia, the US, Latin America.
Close down as a radio station in 2012
I left Radio Netherlands in December 2003. International broadcasting was already going through a long slow fade and it was clear to me that shortwave would be eclipsed by other media. Audio on the Internet provided a much more reliable signal for those who had the bandwidth. Shortwave still remains important as a medium of last resort (think Sudan, Northern Nigeria, Somalia) but these were not the target areas of Radio Netherlands.
I went back for the last broadcast from the English service on June 29th 2012. The Dutch language service signed off with fireworks on May 11th. The language services disappeared with far less fanfare. I personally believe that the cultural value of what the station did is both misunderstood and undervalued by Dutch society. That’s partly because most radio stations are very poor at telling their own stories. They always assume there will be a tomorrow. International broadcasting is especially vulnerable because they have little domestic visibility. The financing of Radio Netherlands was also constructed in such a way that the domestic public broadcasting services had every incentive to hasten its disappearance. Before all the money raised through licence fees and advertising was given to the NPO for distribution to the other public broadcasters, there were two deductions — Radio Netherlands and the Radio Orchestras. Both suffered from this construction.
My preferred future for the Radio Netherlands archives
In December 2018, several former members of Radio Netherlands English department put up a great collection of over 450 documentaries and specials produced by the Dutch external service broadcaster. Have a look. It is a hobby project (i.e. self financed) but I think it is an important initiative. There are some wonderful and important investigative documentaries in the period 1980–2012.
In 2019, The Netherlands Sound and Vision Archive will celebrate 100 years of Dutch radio. I know a lot of important work has been done to document the story of early days of Dutch radio, including the official start of international broadcasting in 1927 from Eindhoven.
But there is a huge danger that the story of Radio Netherlands stops in the early 1960’s with the opening of the “new” building on the Witte Kruislaan. A famous promotional film was made to celebrate the official opening in 1961 and that film continued to haunt Radio Netherlands for decades afterwards. It was put in the domestic TV archives and clips brought out at any point that the government was considering the Radio Netherlands budget request. I made a parody montage of the film in 2000 because it was evident that the whole thing was staged and, with hindsight, made a mockery of what we were doing in the 80’s and 90’s.
I made some of my own B-roll material in 2002 although attempts to get this into archives has so far failed.
Will the last two decades be remembered?
Most of the historians I have spoken to fail to notice that from 1975 onwards, Radio Netherlands transformed from mainly a music and entertainment station into a production house of topical news and investigative features. Colleagues are now sorting through what hasn’t been thrown out to build collections to complement the Media Network archive which I curate on a volunteer basis. As Radio Netherlands programme director at the time, I sincerely hope programmes in other languages that RN broadcast will be properly curated and public access given to these collections as well.
I am hopeful of a deal with the internet archive to make sure this valuable material is not lost and remains accessible. The problem remains that national archives always think from a national perspective. So the first filter that’s applied when people try to decide what to keep, is based on whether the item was about the Netherlands.
I believe The Netherlands can learn from what the BBC and the British Sound Archive are doing with The Listening Project.
Capturing the nation in conversation in partnership with the British Library.www.bbc.co.uk
In a world of fake news and autocratic leaders, this collection provides important insights into Dutch society and values in languages that many others can understand. It is far from complete. But I believe it is a fabulous resource for future generations. I wonder if others agree?