Broadcasting Swissness

Looking at the letters from the listeners of Swiss Radio International can help us to understand the effects media has in how the image of a nation is constructed.

Est. reading time: 4 minutes

“Your short wave programs, ‘Around and About in Switzerland’, and others, … are so delightful to listen to that I want to express to you my sincere appreciation for same”, wrote a radio listener from Big Bar (USA) to Swiss Radio International in 1958. He describes the place where he lives as a rather isolated community, situated in a “truly Alpine setting” in the Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California. “Your Swiss music, which was especially enjoyable tonight, is so greatly enjoyed and appreciated by the people of this community that they congregate in my yard, out under the trees, in the balmy evening air of spring to listen to your broadcast, as the music, in particular, is a welcome change from the usual Rock’n Roll and the like, which is abhorred and shunned by most intelligent people.”

[1]

Thousands of radio listeners from all over the world sent letters to Swiss Radio International, the Swiss shortwave radio channel based in Berne from 1936 until the 2004. The audience ranged from Swiss expatriates into second-generation descendants to travellers, but also a lot of people who were generally interested in international radio, listened to news from Switzerland or simply enjoyed the music programme of SRI. Many of these letters were collected and are still to be found in the archives of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

Zurich Boy`s Choir vs. Louis Armstrong

As the letter shows, the male writer associates Switzerland with Swiss music, and obviously music of a more conservative style. Indeed did SRI play a lot of folk music, which has been very popular not only in the alpine country [2]. In various letters, listeners asked the producers to play even more folk music. And the producers complied, even though they did not always seem to approve. A newspaper article in the swiss Thurgauer Zeitung from August 1968 shows the contrasting wishes of the listeners on the one hand and the aims of the radio makers to transport a modern and realistic idea of Switzerland on the other [3].


The author of the newspaper article wrote that “the widespread folkloristic images [6] that are common in the same way among the Swiss abroad as well as among foreign listeners” were getting in the way of the programme-makers again and again. In the same article a swiss listener who lives abroad is quoted as follows: “I would be very grateful if you could send me the programme journal and the construction plan for building an antenna, because I am also one of those, who turn on the radio-button almost every night with unbroken will and optimism, hoping to eventually catch familiar music or language [7]

Perceiving is participating

The examples give a glimpse that listening to radio is not only a state of being of individuals. It’s a social act and a form of communication. “Perceiving is participating” was one of the conclusions of R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer, writer and music educator already in 1977, the golden age of the radio. That means that not only radio-programming but also listening to radio is a creative act.

 



The letters and newspaper articles with reactions from the SRI-listeners do not only show the huge popularity of the radio station, but are also written references of how music, voice and noises contribute to the formation of a certain image of a nation in the world – and of how radio listeners received and perceived Swissness.

 

* With thanks to the archive of swissinfo.ch, a branch of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. For further neatly edited information about the history of Swiss Radio International look at and listen here.

** All embedded multimedia from http://www.swissinfo.ch/flash/special/70_years_swissinfo/index.html.

[1] “Lueget vo Bergen und Tal”, a famous folk song which inspired the SRI jingle. (composed by Ferdinand Fürchtegott Huber in 1823. Here sung by the Zurich Boy’s Choir in 1997, Arr. André Scheurer for SRI.)

[2] “Ländler – Waltz – Scottish – Polka”. Documentary on the wealth of Swiss folk music. Broadcasted on SRI, July 5th 1975.

[3] “Jazz Panorama”, interview with Louis Armstrong. Broadcasted on SRI in 1955. A curious detail: Louis Armstrong gave the interview in the bathroom of his hotel in Bern.

[4] Inauguration of the new building for the SRI studio in 1962.

[5] Swiss Folk Varia Folkgroup 1979.

[6] Alphorn player in the Bernese Alps with the Jungfrau behind him.

[7] SRI jingle Europe. In the course of his history, the original folkore theme (see [1]) has known all kinds of orchestration, from jazz to rock, not to mention various electronic versions.

[8] A Swiss Shortwave Service listener in Canada 1949.

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I am a cultural anthropologist based in Basel, doing research in the reception history of Swiss Radio International during the 20th century.


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