On AIR

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

As far as walks to work go, it was pretty inspiring: exiting the train station to see the Acropolis in the predawn darkness, like a faint chalk outline on a blackboard, before heading along the cobbled street that runs past the ancient Kerameikos cemetery, where Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration in 431 BC.

After that early morning blast of history, arriving at the headquarters of Athens International Radio (AIR) 104.4 FM at the old gasworks in Gazi often felt like an anti-climax. But I came across much that was inspiring during the year I spent at AIR, where a small and determined team countered limited resources and bureaucratic obstacles with humor and hard work to produce programs that were at times as rough as a lump of quartz but often as refined as the quartz movement of a quality timepiece.

AIR was established by the City of Athens ahead of the 2004 Olympics to provide visitors with information and entertainment in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Its success gave it a lease on life beyond the confines of the Games and a steady stream of languages were added to the programming schedule, reaching a total of 16, from Urdu to Tagalog, this year. No longer just a point of reference for tourists, the station had become a vital source of news for the patchwork of foreigners for whom Athens is home, not just a stop on their vacation. AIR was also the local broadcaster for Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, China Radio International and the BBC World Service – the best that world radio has to offer.

But all this stopped on September 16 when a prosecutor unexpectedly shut down AIR’s transmitter. Two weeks on, the station is still only available via the Internet as the legal wrangle continues. It remains unclear what prompted the prosecutor’s action but at the heart of the problem lies the fact that AIR was only granted a temporary license in 2004, which it continued to use to broadcast over the next six years.

It may seem perfectly natural that a station without a proper license should be shut down but things are not that straightforward in the world of Greek radio. The first commercial radio licenses were issued in the late 1980s and over the next decade governments handed out permits with complete abandon, creating such bedlam on the airwaves that you needed the dexterity of a safe cracker to tune your dial to the station of your choice. In 1999, the then PASOK government, and its Media Minister Dimitris Reppas (now the transport minister), decided it would corral the rapidly rising number of stations by refusing to issue any more licenses. But the stations that already had permits were allowed to continue broadcasting until the creation of an evaluation procedure to decide whether they could remain on air. Eleven years later, that procedure still does not exist.

In fact, there have been only two attempts to place any kind of limitations on broadcasters. The first was in the runup to Athens International Airport opening in March 2001, when authorities wanted to keep the airwaves free from interference. Stations in Attica were issued with licenses that would have to be renewed every four years. Since then, no review has taken place and the radio stations are operating with the same licenses. The previous New Democracy government drew up a so-called “frequency map” detailing which frequencies could be used. Its initiative was passed into law but the legislation has never been applied.

The end result of this sorry tale is that Greece now has more than 900 commercial, municipal, church and student radio stations operating in a quasi-legal status. That’s an inordinate number for a country of some 11 million people: in the UK, which has a population roughly six times as large, there is less than half that number of stations. Athens has twice as many commercial stations (41), as London. Even the Hania Prefecture on Crete, home to about 150,000 people, has more stations (30) than London. The island of Chios, with just over 50,000 permanent residents, has a little way to go to catch up: it has just 17 stations – one for every 3,000 residents.

Rather than an example of Greece’s refreshing liberty and polyphony, these ridiculous numbers hide something more sinister. The failure since the late 1980s to regulate this industry is a symptom of Greece’s patron-client relationship. Governments did not want to close down stations or refuse licenses for fear of losing influential friends, while radio served as a useful pulpit for politicians to spread their word. Then, there is the issue raised this week by Athens mayoral candidate Giorgos Kaminis, who accused Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis of employing big-name journalists at the city’s municipal radio station, Athina 984, in order to guarantee their acquiescence. Kaklamanis denies this is the case but if it’s not happening in Athens, then it surely is in other parts of the country, where municipal stations are an easy way to put family and friends on the local government payroll.

So, in the midst of this feeding frenzy, AIR – a station that is run on a shoestring budget and has maintained a dignified independence on national and local political issues – seems like an unworthy scapegoat. With the city’s population becoming more diverse and when there are already so many stations that do little else but play Lady Gaga’s latest hit seven times a day, surely we can find room for a station that updates myriad nationalities about events. At a time when racial disunity and ethnic disharmony are increasing threats in the Greek capital, there must be a place on the city’s airwaves for a station that is both in the community and of the community.

In the UK, authorities realized at the start of the last decade that strict licensing laws meant some communities felt their voices were not being heard. The response was the Community Radio licensing system, under which applicants must demonstrate that their proposed nonprofit station will meet the needs of a specific, underserved section of the population. The area in which the stations can broadcast is limited and they are not allowed to raise more than 50 percent of their operating costs from one source, nor can they compete for advertising with commercial stations.

The scheme has proved a successful way of empowering communities and filling the void that the national broadcaster, the BBC, and commercial stations could not. It’s time that Greece looked at a similar scheme as part of a wider effort to regulate its airwaves, especially if it means that stations like AIR are allowed to provide their listeners with a vital public service and even occasional moments of inspiration.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 1, 2010.

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