FM radio waves are stopped at the border
By Doreen Carvajal Published: June 3, 2007
International Herald Tribune
PARIS: When the music died one gloomy morning in April, residents of Brighton, England, who had been happily listening to illegally transmitted French radio for almost 10 years, were first stunned and then angered.
There was defiant talk of anchoring a clandestine FM transmitter on a boat off the coast of Brighton to bring back France Inter Paris, or FIP, which broadcasts a quirky blend of jazz, pop and rock, Dizzy Gillespie and Jimmy Hendrix. Someone started surreptitiously putting up posters along local streets. “Missing FIP,” the poster said. “Can you help?”
A wistful Web site quickly appeared online with ardent testimonials to the advertising-free station.
“It’s just one of those cool stations,” said David Mounfield, a loyal listener and organizer of the ongoing British rebellion who does not speak French. “There wasn’t much talking except a sexy female French voice, and it wasn’t some inane English DJ yammering on in Britain, where it’s all done by demographics and key markets to push and sell music.”
The British listeners managed to tune in to the French radio for about 10 years through the aid of a radio engineer who set up illegal FM transmitters in well-placed houses.
In April, the British media regulator, Ofcom, silenced the station by confiscating the transmitters.
In the European Union, the borders for traditional radio stations remain firmly barricaded despite local demand for choice.
The walls remain high in France, too, where in May the government regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, or CSA, rejected three English-language channels, including the BBC, which sought precious FM frequencies on the crowded band in Paris. There are no English-language FM radio stations in the capital although there are FM stations broadcasting in Armenian, Portuguese, Yiddish, Russian and Serbo-Croatian, among other languages.
But the French regulator granted one open frequency in Paris to Tropique, a Creole-language station, because it argued that it reached a French Antilles audience similar to that of an outgoing station, Média Tropical. Critics remain skeptical of that logic. They note that the French international broadcaster RFI has not been allowed to offer radio programming in Britain.
“The back story is indeed a sort of tit for tat, but both countries are guilty of obtaining FM coverage in other countries and then refusing access to either Paris or London,” said Jonathan Marks, a radio consultant in the Netherlands. “Kenya is arguing with the BBC about why they can’t get access on FM to Kenyans in the U.K. when the BBC has FM outlets in Nairobi.”
The barriers between countries have long existed, with national regulators, rather than the European Union, presiding over the airwaves. But rapidly evolving forms of new media will soon start offering ways to circumvent international barriers, particularly with many radio stations now accessible over the Internet.
“If you’re an expat living in Paris, the best way to hear foreign radio in your kitchen is to install a Wi-Fi network at home and use one of the Wi-Fi radios now appearing in U.K. retail outlets,” Marks said. He added that, as fixed-fee Internet service becomes more popular for portable telephones, “the alternative to FM for niche channels will be in the palm of your hand.”
For now, though, that is small comfort for the British pining for their French radio or for the three English-language applicants that sought FM frequencies in Paris. One of them was Paris Live, which has broadcast on cable and satellite and was founded by Ian de Renzie Duncan, an Australian lawyer.
“It says to me that they have no respect for the million English-speaking people who have houses in France. Or they just don’t care,” Duncan said.
He said the impact on his own fledging business has been devastating, since he had counted on access to the more profitable FM band.
“I spent a half million euros and five years of my life working on this. And my family life is completely destroyed,” Duncan said. “But I’m going to fight this with an appeal.”
That rebellious spirit is also shared in Brighton, where on Thursday about 150 people gathered for a fund-raiser in the Hope Pub to savor music played regularly on the French radio station FIP. The aim was to finance a campaign to bring FIP back.
Mounfield, the listener who helped organize the “Vive le FIP” night, said regular listeners were weighing alternatives. He said they could take the more cumbersome legal approach, seeking a special community license to rebroadcast FIP in Britain. Or they could take a defiant approach by setting up a transmitter system timed to start broadcasting on Bastille Day.