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SRI reflects on 70 years of history

Paul Chaudet, Swiss cabinet minister from 1955 to 1966, answers questions from an SRI journalist (SRI archive/H. Schlegel)

Swiss Radio International, now operating as swissinfo, is celebrating its 70th anniversary. This special dossier tells its story – from short wave to internet.

The anniversary is tinged with sadness, as the continued existence of the organisation hangs in the balance.

"This is Switzerland calling: 70 years in the service of information", published in four languages, was produced to mark this special milestone.

The broadcaster came into being in 1935 with the advent of shortwave radio. The new technology enabled a Swiss voice to be transmitted over great distances, reaching the entire world. It became possible to reach the Swiss population of 200,000 compatriots abroad using radio.

But the audience was wider than that... During the second turbulent half of the 20th century Swiss Radio International (SRI) reached beyond the Swiss diaspora. The station offered another view of the world to anyone with the curiosity to tune in.

Memories

There are photographs of General Guisan in the Bern studios of the Swiss Shortwave Service and of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the SRI microphone. Nelson Mandela is photographed by a journalist visiting South Africa. Then there are the everyday scenes of SRI employees at work.

The voice of Swiss president Rudolf Minger is heard during the first shortwave broadcast on August 1, 1935. The voices of the writers Thomas Mann, Blaise Cendrars and Friedrich Dürrenmatt have also been recorded for posterity.

Louis Armstrong is interviewed in the bathroom of his Bern hotel and the members of Deep Purple tell the story of how they wrote Smoke on the Water at Montreux.

We look back at television ads and the genesis of the SRI jingle. A compendium of French out-takes produced in 1995 provides the laughs while a group of journalists and technicians are captured in the middle of a jam session in a studio.

In five chapters - "From short wave to hypertext", "The Swiss voice in the world", "Culture and music", "Highlights from the archives" and "Image gallery" - the dossier tells the story of swissinfo/SRI.

We bring you the memories of those who shaped the history of Swiss Radio International, reliving their time in this Swiss Tower of Babel. It is a place where many languages are heard in the corridors; from French, German, Italian, English, to Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and, more recently, Chinese and Japanese.

From short wave to the web

This dossier tells the story of international radio, which became an extension of Switzerland. During the war years, SRI assumed the heavy responsibility of being the only free media service in continental Europe.

Benefiting from the Swiss reputation of neutrality, SRI later represented a strong voice in the context of Cold War Europe. As Switzerland did not have a colonial past, SRI was also widely listened to and appreciated by diverse audiences in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Alongside the shortwave service, SRI developed a "transcriptions service", programmes produced on cassette, then on CD, and broadcast by radio stations throughout the world. In the same way, television stations broadcast Swiss World, also produced by swissinfo/SRI.

The radio service and later the website provided a wealth of information on elections and referendums delivered directly to Swiss living abroad, many of whom are also registered to vote.

With the 1990s came satellite and the internet. Swiss Radio International became a multimedia platform, developing its website. As its identity changed, it changed its name to swissinfo.

The final shortwave programmes were broadcast in October 2004. The move away from radio in favour of the web has been variously regarded as courageous and as reckless.

An uncertain future

There were 200,000 Swiss abroad in 1935. Today, according to the latest figures, the Swiss community abroad comprises more than 623,000 people.

Although the target audience has grown, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) announced the radical restructuring of swissinfo in March 2005 with the loss of 70 to 80 jobs out of 120. This followed the axing of 26 jobs in 2004.

Despite the disappointment and objections voiced by the Swiss abroad and in political circles, the SBC has not altered its course, as confirmed in its publication Portrait, from August 2005.

"Soon, the TV and radio websites of the SBC will fulfil the mandate of spreading information abroad and swissinfo/SRI will supply special dossiers for the Swiss living abroad to complement the content along with an English-language service (...) The decision still has to be endorsed by the Federal authorities," the publication states.

This SBC is sticking to its project although parliament has yet to give it the go-ahead. Many politicians have voiced their support for swissinfo/SRI's work. The biggest hurdle for the service's survival remains how it should be financed.

"This is Switzerland calling: 70 years in the service of information" has been compiled as a way of reflecting on the important anniversary. The near future will tell us whether this special dossier is the end of the story or just the beginning of a new chapter.

Until then, those loyal to Swiss Radio International and swissinfo will be able to immerse themselves in the 70-year history of a media service which has thrived and still thrives thanks to its coverage of current events at home and abroad.

"Swiss Radio International, at the heart of Europe, to the rhythm of the world", the message once broadcast on short wave still has resonance today.

swissinfo, Bernard Léchot

Key facts

1935: Creation of the Swiss Shortwave Service to broadcast programmes abroad
1939: The first shortwave transmitter in Schwarzenburg is launched
1972: The Sottens transmitter in Vaud is inaugurated
1978: The Swiss shortwave service is renamed Swiss Radio International
1999: swissinfo.org is launched
2004: Closure of Sottens and the end of the shortwave era

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In brief

During the Cold War, with its radio programmes broadcast on short wave in eight languages, Swiss Radio International reached a global audience of between 5 and 10 million people.

Last year, following the decline of short wave, SRI stopped broadcasting radio programmes.

Today, swissinfo/SRI operates uniquely as a multimedia platform on the internet.

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