Europe - on air : interwar projects for radio broadcasting

S.B. Lommers

Research output: ThesisPhd Thesis 1 (Research TU/e / Graduation TU/e)

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In the eyes of the ruling international elites, the Great War had been driven by a rising nationalism that left Europe’s civilization in shambles. The elites argued that a new modernism, combined with a world that was increasingly technologically interconnected, was to blame for the ruins, anguish, and hatred that dominated peoples’ minds after 1918. These intellectual elites tried to rebuild Europe’s civilization and create awareness beyond national boundaries. In this context, broadcasting experts in Europe built the first radio broadcasting infrastructures inside and beyond their borders. This book examines if, how, and why the promoters of broadcasting linked their activities in the interwar period to projects that aimed to unite Europe. The book describes five cross-border issues that the emerging transnational community of broadcasting experts worked to resolve. These issues concerned the institutionalization of broadcasting; the construction of networks; the interactions between broadcasting systems such as Radio Moscow, Radio Nations, Vatican Radio, and Radio Luxembourg; the role of broadcasting within a broader international context of warfare and peace building; and international programming efforts. The book is mainly based on research in the archives of international organizations such as the International Broadcasting Union, the League of Nations, and the International Telegraph Union. These organizations could all be seen as European system builders. They functioned as arenas in which various actors simultaneously negotiated the futures of both transnational broadcasting and Europe. Chapter 2 examines the "birth of an idea." Broadcasting was originally a private activity whereby states usually granted concessions to companies that would then operate (and sometimes construct) the stations. Several of the operational and construction problems mentioned above could not be resolved without a certain amount of international collaboration. However, international organizations such as the League of Nations and the International Telegraph Union (ITU) did not face such problems. They argued that the rapidly developing technology outpaced legislative action. As a result, ten European broadcasting organizations established the International Broadcasting Union (IBU) in 1925. The IBU’s institutional structure followed the European tradition of combining a technical approach with the ideals of international peace and rapprochement. A wave of nationalizing broadcasting in Europe challenged this structure. Eventually, shared European traditions, combined with the central role of a small core group of experts in the IBU, ensured minimal state interference. The IBU was able to continue to seek cross-border collaboration and became the key player for interwar broadcasting in Europe. Chapter 3 deals with the pressing problem of network construction. Radio signals traveled through the air freely, which caused interference with signals across borders and major inefficiencies in the network. The IBU, at first alone, but later in collaboration with national PTT administrations, the League of Nations’ Communication and Transit Committee, the ITU and its consultative committee for long-distance telephony, drafted plans to allocate frequencies in Europe. These activities secured efficient national wireless broadcasting. Furthermore, the gradually growing transnational community of broadcasting experts complemented these wireless systems with an interconnected European relay network for broadcasting via wire and cable. This network, coupled to the national wireless networks, facilitated the exchange of music and broadcasting of international programs throughout Europe. The construction processes were contested along the way. Throughout the 1930s, the development of short waves challenged the recently established European frequency allocation standards. Attempts to standardize these short waves resulted in an unplanned global regionalization of broadcasting. Chapter 4 challenges the IBU and ITU network efforts by focusing on their interaction with other structures, such as Radio Moscow, Radio Nations, Vatican Radio, and Radio Luxembourg. These stations, with the exception of Radio Moscow, were expanding at a time when the IBU and ITU efforts were well on their way to becoming the European standard. The ideas of the new stations’ promoters, which were mostly globally-oriented, did not necessarily coincide with the IBU’s vision of a Europe with national wireless broadcasting systems. Fine-tuning these standards with the structure of Radio Moscow, for instance, would redefine the eastern boundaries of the European network. Furthermore, the structure of Radio Nations and Radio Luxembourg threatened the very idea of a Europe made up of nation states. These systems favored a pan-national approach to the organization and network construction of broadcasting. International fine-tuning of these different systems in Europe could usually only take place via "technified" discussions that bridged ideological and political differences. Chapter 5 looks more closely at the role of broadcasting in the context of war and peace. Illicit propaganda broadcasting created serious problems on a continent with as many states as Europe and in an era of rapidly changing international relations. Any attempt to solve this problem depended on how well international relations were progressing. In a reluctant international atmosphere, the IBU initially took a gentleman’s approach, requesting that its members broadcast in a civilized way without offending people in other countries. When international relations improved in the late 1920s, the League recognized the idea of positive propaganda. The subsequent close collaboration between the League and the IBU endorsed an international mindset based on European values of civilization and Enlightenment. The collaboration came to a halt when the rise in harsh nationalism caused international relations to deteriorate in the 1930s, thereby disrupting a well-oiled European broadcasting system. Nazi Germany forced the IBU to cease any activity related to power politics. The IBU officially dropped out of propaganda regulation, but a core of IBU experts continued to individually facilitate the League on this matter. Solutions came too late – a new world war broke out in 1939. Chapter 6 explores international programming. Programs and music touched the heart of culture and had a direct impact on feelings of belonging and identity. Any effort to standardize transnational cultural broadcasting policy, build international programs, and compile a musical repertoire suitable for broadcasting became an intricate matter. IBU experts and intellectual elites, both within and outside the League of Nations, disagreed substantially on what constituted a "high quality," "high culture," or "suitable" program. Consequently, many programming issues remained unresolved in 1939. Over the years, the various promoters of broadcasting expressed different concepts of the kind of unity that international programs should convey to listeners. They related programming more directly to the creation of European unity than their other broadcasting activities. Ultimately, their programs communicated a European culture that reflected a universal idea of national diversity. The promoters contributed a relatively safe, generally accepted, high-quality, and high-art image of European culture to Europe’s cultural heritage in the interwar years. They balanced the local and national diversity of Europe with the international unity of Europe. Europe – On Air concludes that interwar promoters of broadcasting did indeed connect their activities to projects for European unification. To most of these promoters, broadcasting was a matter of practical internationalism. In the First instance, this meant resolving practical problems from a technical standpoint. The promoters formed a cross-organizational and flexible transnational expert community that could adapt to the problems at hand. Diffuse personal networks offered a way out when official routes failed. Secondly, practical internationalism meant that the promoters’ ultimate goal was to contribute to the internationalist ideals of peace and rapprochement worldwide. With the exception of Radio Luxembourg, systems such as Radio Moscow, Radio Nations and Vatican Radio had global aims, albeit for different reasons. As always, Europe was shimmering somewhere in the background, whether entering into construction efforts and interests for a practical in-between solution, as a geographical space, as a tradition of commerce and organization, or as an explicit goal for cultural unification and civilization. Opinions vary regarding the success or failure of these interwar efforts. On one hand, the promoters of broadcasting created suitable international institutions, material networks, a great variety of "international" programs, and managed to let their vision trickle down into European program guides. On the other hand, increasing tension during the 1930s and the outbreak of the Second World War hindered the implementation and effective employment of their efforts. Many issues remained unresolved. Europe – On Air argues that the efforts of these promoters were not in vain. They have managed to create a European space, a community, and a kind of European regulatory culture for broadcasting. Equally important, their efforts have found a new start in post-Second World War organizations like the European Broadcasting Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. In this way, interwar projects have influenced the broadcasting agenda right through to today.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences
  • Schot, Johan, Promotor
  • van der Vleuten, Erik B.A., Copromotor
Award date23 May 2012
Place of PublicationEindhoven
Print ISBNs978-90-8964-435-0
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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