It may not be the best known, but it is the world’s longest-running current affairs programme: “Voci del Grigioni italiano” (VGI) has just celebrated its 70th birthday.
The name means: Voices of Italian-speaking Graubünden. Graubünden, in southeastern Switzerland, has a small Italian-speaking population, living in four remote and widely-separated valleys, Mesolcina, Calanca, Bregaglia and Poschiavo.
Friday evening. You switch on the radio, turn up the volume, and the familiar sounds of “Voci del Grigioni Italiano” pervade your living-room.
The predecessor of VGI - or “Voci”, as it is affectionately known to its listeners - first crackled into life in the very early days of the Switzerland’s Italian-language broadcasting company (RSI), then known as Radio Monte Ceneri, which first went on air in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in 1933. It began transmitting a programme entitled “La nostra Mesolcina” (Our Mesolcina) the following year.
In 1939, the programme was renamed “Il Quarto d’ora del Grigioni Italiano” (Italian-speaking Graubünden’s Quarter Hour), then, towards the end of that year, it finally became “Voci del Grigioni Italiano”.
In its first two years, VGI underwent several changes. Not until 1941 did it adopt the format that has endured to this day: it is broadcast every Friday evening from 7.00 to 7.30 and covers topics and issues concerning the four Italian-speaking Graubünden valleys and the neighbouring Valtellina over the border in Italy.
A riposte to totalitarianism
VGI, like RSI itself, was born at a time when Switzerland was shut off north and south by totalitarian regimes.
“At the time, Mussolini did not hesitate to claim Italian-speaking Switzerland as a part of Fascist Italy. And for this reason Radio Monte Ceneri began broadcasting a number of special programmes,” historian Ivo Rogic, himself from Val Mesolcina, explained to swissinfo.ch.
In a message put out in 1938, the Swiss government defined radio as an instrument for the “spiritual defence” of the country.
“The intention was to educate and inform radio listeners and promote unity among Switzerland’s different language regions, countering Nazi and Fascist propaganda, which sought to divide the country,” said Rogic.
In those circumstances, the very concept of Italian-speaking Switzerland changed. The vast majority of Italian speakers live in Ticino, but VGI played an important role by including the minority in Graubünden, helping to ensure Swiss cohesion.
“From the very beginning, ‘Voci’ was concerned with maintaining and strengthening the bonds between the Italian-speaking valleys of Graubünden,” Rogic explained.
Val Poschiavo, Bregaglia, Mesolcina and Calanca are not geographically united, nor do they form a single political entity. They are isolated regions separated by mountains. It may not have removed the physical barriers, but VGI has brought them closer together, creating a shared identity via the airwaves.
“It is easy to imagine the power of radio as a new means of communication, overcoming the divisive effect of the mountains. ‘Voci’ ensured that the Italian-speaking valleys of Graubünden shared a sense of community in diversity, among themselves and in relation to the rest of the canton, to Ticino and to Switzerland as a whole,” said Rogic.
VGI is still important today as a news channel for the region. “The programme provides a public arena for airing topical issues and gives a voice to those active in the life of Italian-speaking Graubünden,” Rogic maintains.
“It speaks of home,” as listeners responding to an SSR SRG idée suisse survey put it in 1987. And recent ratings confirm the faithful attachment of local Italian speakers to their very own radio programme.
“On a Friday evening, roughly half of the RSI audience tunes in to ‘Voci’. And it is in the top ten programmes downloaded as a podcast. Even young people are very attached to it,” the current managing editor Alessandro Tini told swissinfo.ch with some satisfaction.
It is hardly surprising that VGI’s signature tune is the “national anthem” of Italian-speaking Graubünden: “Popoli ci affratella, l’italica favella” (Peoples, the Italian tongue makes us brothers).
Luca Beti, swissinfo.ch (Translated from Italian)
The Italian-speaking valleys
Italian speakers are a minority in canton Graubünden, where German is the most widely spoken language, followed by Romansch.
The Italian-speaking area covers a fifth of the total area of the canton.
It is made up of four valleys on the southern side of the Alps: Val Poschiavo, Bregaglia, Mesolcina and Calanca.
The total population of the valleys is about 14,000.
More than half of Graubünden’s Italian-speakers live outside the valleys for economic reasons.
The organisation Pro Grigioni Italiano, founded in 1918, defends the interests of Italian speakers in Graubünden and in Switzerland.
The programme was first broadcast in its current form on November 25 1941. The Guinness Book of Records started its count from this date.
Since the 1980s the programme has had a correspondent in the cantonal capital of Chur. Other contributions are supplied by correspondents in the canton’s Italian-speaking valleys and in the Valtellina in neighbouring Italy.
A poll conducted by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in 1987 showed that half the Italian-speaking population of Graubünden listened to the progamme regularly.