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BRUSSELS — Fédération RadioZ, representing some 30 independent radio stations in the South of Belgium and Brussels, has called for help following the regional government’s decision in 2020 to cut the budgetary support to finance the transition to DAB+ for local radio stations.
Today, the independent radio landscape in Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles area accounts for some 80 radio stations and 12% of the audience, serving cities and villages throughout the country.
Operating with a strong local root, these broadcasters, very often operated by volunteers, have a direct link with the local audience and entrepreneurs, offering information and socio-cultural content, while serving as a breeding ground for upcoming radio staffers and journalists.
When the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles’ government decided to position DAB+ as the new radio platform, it decided to invest €912,000 in the technical infrastructure, facilitating the transition toward DAB+ for local independent stations. This followed an earlier commitment to public broadcaster RTBF and private radio networks of €5.4 million “DAB+ support.”
For Philippe Sala, Fédération RadioZ spokesperson and member of independent station BXFM claims, this amount is not enough. “The investment cost for the basic DAB+ infrastructure and transmission is, in many cases, too high for smaller independent radio stations and this budget is insufficient to cover recurring operation costs for DAB+.” (The “Z” refers to Zorro, defender of the weak.)
Due to COVID-19, the investment had to be postponed and during this time a new government took office, consequently slashing the original budget of €912,000 by 50%.
“This is poised to become a major problem for the independent radio sector,” continued Sala. “Some stations indeed received a license to broadcast only on DAB+. Moreover, we deplore the disparity between commercial networks and RTBF, which is celebrating its first year on DAB+. Meanwhile the independent radio stations are still waiting for financial support to start broadcasting on DAB+.”
Sala added that, in addition, a number of independent radios are no longer subsidized by the Fonds d’Aide à la Création Radiophonique (FACR). “This fund, launched in 1994, is alimented by the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, plus a percentage of the advertising income of the RTBF and private networks.
The mission of the fund is to support different radio projects and community stations. We are now seeing (part of the) funds being used to help RTBF and other major networks promote their DAB+ channels,” he pointed out.
RadioZ also pleads for a revision of the current radio decree, stating that local radio stations, clustered in DAB+ multiplex-zones from three to 17 stations, must set up a non-profit organization per cluster, deciding unanimously on the choice of the DAB+ service provider. “One station can exercise its right of veto and block the whole process,” explained Sala, “We hope the government will review this obligation.”
Sala hopes that newly elected media minister Bénédicte Linard will understand the issues facing local independent broadcasters.
“Independent radio stations work with thousands of volunteers and serve an audience of more than 350,000 — this deserves some respect. We request that the financial support for the transition, installation and recurrent cost of DAB+ is reconsidered,” he said.
“It’s our goal to support all independent radio stations in the DAB+ transition process. We have rescheduled a budget for this purpose in 2021,” said Florence Colard, press officer at Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles Media Minister Bénédicte Linard’s Cabinet.
“At the end of January, the government approved a new decree on audiovisual media — this decree includes indeed a relaxation of the rule stating that all stations in one multiplex should unanimously agree on the choice of the provider. We hope this will speed up the procedure.”
Colard added that, last year, 16 independent stations on three multiplexes applied for a financing of their DAB+ broadcast infrastructure. “This accounted for some €250,000 for 2020. The government decided to set aside €500,000 for 2021, allowing the transition to DAB+ for all other independent radio stations involved.”
Meanwhile, on March 4, a first multiplex kicks off for the Hainaut West region and cities like Kortrijk, Mons as well as Lille and Roubaix in France. The multiplex includes five local independent stations, among them is Néo Radio. On the occasion of its DAB+ launch the station offered Pure DAB+ receiver sets in a competition.
Ten other stations will get access to DAB+ in the Liège region in April and before summer a multiplex for the West-Brabant area will offer room for three more independent stations. Nine other multiplexes are still waiting to launch.