Radio: The world listens

WRN's flood relief and Polish food
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
On the second floor of a modest building next to a primary school in Vauxhall there is an extraordinary room. It is large and chilly and it hums quietly; its walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with electronic machinery - dials, LED displays and flashing monitors. Nobody appears to operate the machines - they look a little dusty - yet from here radio programmes are beamed out across continents. This is the World Radio Network's re-broadcasting centre.

Tonight in South Africa, thanks to WRN, at 10pm listeners to FM radio will hear programmes from the Netherlands: the audience will jump by 16 per cent. Fourteen countries broadcast this way so far, and the number is rising. WRN takes programmes from major public service broadcasters and transmits them via cable and satellite across Europe, North America, the Pacific, Australia, Africa and the Middle East. There are three 24- hour services - one in English, one in German and a multilingual network. The mix is eclectic: you could catch a lesson in Polish cookery, a business review from New Zealand or tourist information from the Caribbean. This can lead to some surprisingly useful exchanges: a recent Dutch programme about flood-water control in a dangerously flat landscape was of urgent interest in Bangladesh.

Much of the output is news. WRN doesn't make programmes, but there are still editorial problems. There's nothing wrong with an international news exchange. But when you study the schedules and see Probe, from Adventist World Radio, you begin to worry. Radio Free Iraq has made approaches, but it has been rejected. What, you wonder, will happen if Israel subscribes: will the Palestinians feel obliged to provide international radio opposition? There may be more such conflicts if WRN continues to grow.

It does already re-broadcast Voice of America, a station which has been banging the drum for the Stateside view of the world for decades and which has now absorbed Radio Free Europe. This is an odd story. Radio Free Europe's main purpose was to put itself out of business by bringing down the iron curtain, which has of course happened, yet the station has not died: it has, instead, moved right into its original target area. It is now broadcast from Prague and has turned itself into a domestic service in Czech, with an American flavour.

The spread of digital radio will eventually make large new areas of the world's radio life available to everyone, though there's a problem to be cleared up for people who live near the south coast of Britain. The frequency chosen for English digital radio is already in use in France. Tuning in too close to Normandy would cause the instant malfunctioning - believe it or not - of electronically-operated garage doors.

WRN is funded largely by its subscribers, but there is an extra, money- spinning side-line. From the quietly throbbing room in Vauxhall, a cable snakes away to the west carrying three 24-hour commercial stations - the French pop channel NRJ, Virgin Radio and Classic FM. This trio gets to San Francisco, is bounced across the Pacific via satellite to Japan, where a million and a half subscribers pay $30 per month to listen to the likes of Henry Kelly and Chris Evans.

This shouldn't really surprise anyone. There is already a grand variety of radio stations in Japan: one, mysteriously, is called the Alibi Channel; another provides continuous sounds of the sea-shore; a third is specifically and usefully dedicated to keeping dogs company while their owners are out. Radio, clearly, still has its uses.