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Seventy Years of Broadcasting in Belgium

By Richard E. Wood

This article was originally published in the August 1984 edition of FRENDX, now The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association. It appears here with permission of NASWA.


March 28, 1984, was a day that went without fanfare in Belgium. But some Belgians conscious of their 20th-century history paused and took stock since that day marked the 70th anniversary of broadcasting in their ethnically divided, officially trilingual country.

Though its existence as an independent country dates back only to 1830, a fairly recent date by West European standards, Belgium has been a pioneer in many fields of modernization and technology. Many scholars of the history of science and technology say that Belgium was second only to Great Britain in launching the industrial revolution.

There is no philosophical or terminological agreement on what constitutes a "broadcasting station", or a "broadcasting corporation" of the European type. So, it is difficult to answer the question as to whether the broadcast originating at Kaeken Palace, Brussels, on March 28 1914 was or was not the first transmission by a radio broadcasting station in Europe, or the beginning of the phenomenon of national, state-chartered broadcasting corporations typified by Britain's BBC. But March 28, 1914, was the strikingly early date of a broadcast concert from the park-ringed royal residence of Laeken. It began with some Morse Cede signals, and then the spoken words of announcer Joseph Long�: "Un, deux, trois, quatre .... d�x. Allo, allo. Poste radiot�legraphique et radiotel�phonique, pres de Bruxelles. Messieurs les amateurs de t�l�graphie sans fil, nous allons vous faire entendre un concert d�di� � Sa Majest� la Reine Elisabeth... " The first selection was the aria from "Tosca" sung by a vocalist whose name is unintelligible in the primitive recording which survives.

The success of this first broadcast was such that it was decided to transmit a concert each Saturday evening, still from the royal palace. The broadcasts could be heard over 65-km radius in the flat Brabant countryside. But 1914 was a fateful year. "Gallant little Belgium" was the first victim of the German war machine, and as the forces of Kaiser Wilhelm reached the gates of Brussels, King Leopold ordered that the transmitter be blown up. Belgium was raped and ravaged, trench warfare raged in the fields of Flanders, and its postwar recovery, with generous American aid, was slow. Finally, on November 24, 1923, Brussels came back on the air, under the name of Radio-Belgique, an initiative of the private Socilte Belge de Radiollectricit� (SBR), the first Belgian company to manufacture radio sets. The first station was nothing fancy, just a single story house en Rue Stassart near the Porte de Namur. The first broadcast consisted only of live music. 1924 saw a daily fifteen-minute "radio-journal" or newscast, and the station went commercial, selling time to political and religlous organizations. Rad�o-Belg�que was a French-only station. Its leading personality was Th�o Fleischmann, known as "the father of broadeast journalism in Belgium." In the mid-1930's, he did live reports from such events as the funerals of King Albert and of the tragic young Queen Astrid, whose death in an automobile accident plunged not only Belgium, but much of Europe, into an agony of mourning and social despair comparable only to the reaction thirty years later to the assassination John F. Kennedy.

As is obvious from the language choice of the first Belgian broadcasters, Belgium was at that time dominated by its French speakers, even though Flemings have always been a numerical majority in the ethnically troubled country. In 1928, a group of Flemish listeners tried to unite into a Vlazmse Radio Verenig�ng (Flemish Radio Association), but the project failed. Like their Dutch-speaking cousins to the north, the Flemings were divided along religious and party lines. Thus, the Catholics had their Katholieke Ylaamse Radio Omroep (KVRO), the Socialists had their own Socialistische Radio Omroep voor Vlaanderen (pronounced Sarov in a perhaps-not-coincidentally Russian-sounding acronym), the Liberals their Liberale Radio Omroep (Libradio) and the Flemish Nationalists their Vlaamse Nationale Radio Vereniging (Flemish National Radio Association). All these were private bodies dependent on contributions and advertising. The Flemings were divided and provincial -- the VRV was headquartered in Antwerp; where as the French-speakers were united and firmly based in Brussels.


The Belgian government viewed with concern the rise of broadcasting and the ups and downs of private, sectional broadcasting organizations. When Radio-Belgique ran into financial difficulties in 1930, the Brussels administration acted. By a large majority, parliament voted to establish the INR (Institut Nat�onal Belge de Radiodiffusion), also known as NIR after its Duteh-language initials. It was charged with the production of radio broadeasts, including newscasts, which must be totally impartial --perhaps an impossible task in an ethnically, linguistically and politically divided country. The country's newspapers did not look kindly on this new competition, funded by public revenues.

How was impartiality to be achieved? There were to be two sections, French and Flemish, but only one administrative council. The latter was to be made up of three Catholics, three Liberals and three Socialists, and these nine posts also had to be div�ded as follows three Flemings, three Walloons and the three Bruxellois. This is a perfect illustration of the pol�tical balancing acts at which Belgium is a past master. Especially at that time, Flemings tended to be Catholics and Walloons tended to be Socialists. It was not always easy to find someone who fit the necessary ethnic and political requirements and also had the time and talents to serve on the Council.

The INR-NIR had a total of 68 employees in its initial stages, not counting the players and conductors of its in-house orchestras. Its first program was broadcast on February 1, 1931, from 5 to 10 P.m. The different sectional associations were not abolished--the Institute had to relinquish twelve of its 35 weekly hours on the air to them. The associations continued to appeal for private contributions. Just before World War II, the INR moved into its new buildings on Eug�ne Flagey Square in Ixelles, South Brussels, remaining there till the' mid-1960s.

As war broke out, local transmitters in Belgium had their l�censes canceled, and the INR itself ceased transmission. In 1942, the government in exile in London announced the creation of the Office de Radiodiffusion Nationale Belge (ONRB, or BNRO in Dutch), broadcasting to Belgium via the BBC. At the same time, a station which was destined to become world-famous went on the air from Leopoldville, capital of the Belgian Congo, transmitting on shortwaves back to the occupied mother country and to Belgian exiles, and using the call letters OTC. They cont�nued on the air until the eve of the independence of the Congo, so that Belgium was in the unique position of being represented worldwide in broadcasting by a station in its major colony, rather than in the mother country. Shortwave transmissions direct1y from Belg�um began only when the loss of the Congo, now Zaire, was on the horizon.

By contrast with, for example, the Voice of America, but sim�larly to the major missions of the shortwave stations in Canada, Switzerland, Norway and several other Western countries, the principal task of Belgian shortwave broadcasting is to serve Belgian citizens abroad. These fall into a number of groups: sailors, development personnel working chiefly in Africa, especially in the former Belgian possessions of Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda, missionar�es and religious personnel (overwhelmingly Roman Catholic) and to a lesser extent Belgian emigrants and settlers in such countries as the U.S., Canada and Australia. There are also Belgian businessmen overseas, representing such Belgian-based firms as AgfaGevaert. Paradoxically, since Brussels �s frequently called "the capital of Europe", and more European political organizations are headquartered there than in any other European city, the emphasis is on broadcasting to the non-European, overseas world. This is, of course, a historic phenomenon resulting from the early OTC years. However, coverage of at least the peripheral European countries is increasing, first, with Spain and Portugal, where many Belgians go on vacation or settle for retirement, but more recently, with the carrying of broadcasts in English on 1503 kHz med�um wave, intended mainly for the British Isles, in parallel with shortwave.

After World War II, the INR-NIR returned, but the private, commercial broadcasting associations d�d not have their licenses renewed. Broadcast�ng became a state monopoly, and the people lost their favorite commercial programs. Some variety was provided by the establishment of a second network in the two main national languages, but theirs was a regional task to develop the culture of the different provinces. The task of RTB-2 and BRT-2 is changing nowadays, however. when these State run networks are faced with enormous competit�on from a plethora of Free Radios which have sprung up since the late 1970s. RTB-2 and BRT-2 are being forced to appeal to younger audiences; they are turning into pop music channels. The post WWII years saw enormous growth in the INR-NIR, including schools broadcasting, and local broadcasts for the third official language group, German speakers who live in the eastern cantons of the province of Liege. The Germen speakers, being part of the Walloon province of Liege, are the responsibility of the French network, which is now the MF, not the Flemish BRT (although German and Dutch are, of course, linguistically much closer than German and French). Incidentally, you can hear the daily German newscast from the RTBF relayed on shortwave at 1130-1145 UTC on 17675 kHz. With fifteen minutes daily in German on shortwave, RTBF must be the smallest German-speaking station currently on shortwaves.

In 1960, as Flemings and Francophones moved further apart, the old INR-NIR was split into Rad�o-T�l�vision Belge (RTB, which in 1972 became RTBF, emphasizing its Frenchness) and the Belgische Radio en Televisie (BRT), two separate broadcasting boards each with their own autonomous admin�strative council and management. The Belgian government no longer retained any powers to interference in the internal affairs of the two broadcasters. there is no official censorship. Officially, the BRT and RTBF journal�sts are nonpartisan and strive to be objective. But there have been many complaints of partisansh�p, and in response to this, the two stations have gone right back to the system of the 1930s --once again, they provide air slots to political parties, trade unions, employers' groups and other bodies, to use as they see f�t.

In the mid-1970s, 'Tree Radios" galore took to the air. Anyone with money to build a transmitter started broadcasting, and in a tiny country, further div�ded by two language borders, chaos reigned. The government stepped in and regulated the free radios, requiring, not precisely a license, but a formal application before taking the air, and it also regulates their power and coverage area. Also, the free radios are not permitted to carry advertising-this is about the only difference from the early days of broadcasting in Belgium. All in all, we can say that there is nothing new under the Belgian sun; in seventy years, broadcasting in Belgium has come full circle.

REFERENCE: Marc Platel, "Soixante-dix ans de radiodiffusion en Belgique", Septentrion Revue de Culure N�arlandaise, 13-1 (avril 1984), 74-78.


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