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End of an era at swissinfo

This week marks the end of an era as more than 60 years of English broadcasts by swissinfo/Swiss Radio International (SRI) draw to a close.

This content was published on April 8, 2004 - 08:34

To mark the occasion, swissinfo is replaying some rare archive footage of famous interviewees from the past – including jazz legend, Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong was one of the biggest names from the world of music to be heard on SRI.

An abridged version of his 1955 interview can be heard by clicking on the link above. Also available are excerpts from conversations with star of stage and screen, Yul Brynner, and the celebrated Swiss writer, Max Frisch.

All three interviews form part of an extensive archive of audio material collected over the seven decades that SRI has been on the air.

Neutral voice

The Swiss Shortwave Service – as SRI was known when the first programmes were transmitted in 1935 – was aimed at Swiss living elsewhere in Europe looking to keep abreast of news and current affairs back home.

Broadcasts in English began six years later in 1941.

During the Second World War the station developed its long-standing identity as a neutral voice during periods of international conflict.

“The 1930s was a time of a turmoil in Europe…and during the Second World War we were broadcasting as the voice of neutral Switzerland,” said the director of SRI, Nicolas Lombard.

“Given the size of our operation, the value people placed on our programmes was quite remarkable.”

Unbiased coverage

SRI’s neutrality also came to the fore during the Cold War, when shortwave listeners around the world tuned in for unbiased coverage of global events.

“During that time it was a question of getting information out of free societies into closed societies behind the Iron Curtain,” said Lombard.

“We were a very small country within Europe, but were standing up for neutrality…and were considered to be an important voice.”

Though politics and current affairs have always been the focus of SRI broadcasts, cultural and entertainment programmes were also a regular feature of the schedules.

Jazz Panorama ran for 25 years, while the station’s “A Penny - a Song” programme helped raise funds for charitable projects around the world.

End of Cold War

As the Berlin Wall fell at the end of the 1980s, SRI executives were left wondering how they could adapt the station’s neutral mandate to a new era of global entente.

“All of a sudden the reason for much of what we were doing had gone,” recalled Lombard, “so we had to ask ourselves what we were going to do from here.”

During the 1990s SRI began the process of transforming itself from shortwave broadcaster of international news to multimedia internet outlet providing news and current affairs from and about Switzerland.

“We recognised that there was no point in trying to be international and competing with organisations such as the BBC. So, from then on we began focusing on the concept of ‘Swissness’,” said Lombard.

“We knew that we could excel and be the market leader when it came to informing the world about Switzerland.”

Lombard was appointed director of swissinfo/SRI in 1999 and it was his task to steer the company into the internet age of the 21st century.

“I feel very sorry that we are stopping radio… but on the other hand, I’m proud of how far we’ve come and we have to look to the future,” he said.

Today swissinfo - which is part of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation - maintains a website in nine languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese.

swissinfo

In brief

SRI started broadcasting in 1935 with a programme aimed at Swiss living elsewhere in Europe. Programmes in English began in 1941.

During the Second World War and throughout the Cold War the station developed a name for itself as a neutral voice of news and current affairs.

In 1999 swissinfo/SRI started to develop an online multimedia platform, www.swissinfo.org.

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