Media on the Eve of Doomsday: Bulgarian Radio in 2011

12 март 2012, Автор: Georgi Savchev
Публикувана в 2011 Media Monitoring Report

In 2011, the key events for Bulgarian radio happened more often outside it, or at least outside its programmes. This old broadcast media was more visible and important in its constituent parts – technology, audio message, a particular radio set, listeners’ habits. Bulgarian radio was ‘disassembled’. For the avid listener 2011 was a traumatic year, above all because Radio Deutsche Welle (DW) went off the air, but for the occasional listener it was an intriguing year full of untypical events.

Nineteenth-Century Tremors

In January, political life in Bulgaria hinted at a strange ‘rehabilitation’ of the old media: the tremors around the tapes of discrediting conversations between senior government officials (including the prime minister and Customs Agency chief Vanyo Tanov), released by the Galeria weekly and the RZS party (in what would come to be known as ‘Tanovgate’), were caused by purely audio messages. The doubts as to the authenticity of the tapes were also in the area of ‘classical’ media manoeuvres – editing, assembling dialogue, the theatre of voices. YouTube, a twenty-first century media, had to host voices from the telephone, a nineteenth-century media.

Television as well as the new media were for a short while helpless in the face of lines like: ‘Hi there. That guy, [controversial businessman Mihail Mihov, aka] Misho Birata [The Beer], called me again now.’ ‘Fine. [Prime Minister] Boyko [Borisov] sure will be upset. He said that I should sort it out. So I’ll sort it out.’ ‘They’re disgusting… They’re disgusting, they’re wiretapping me, I don’t give a damn.’ Almost like in an old-fashioned confession talk show.

Grey Radio

Two months later, a particular radio set played a key role in an emergency. On 23 March, 28-year-old Stefan Stefanov took hostages in a bank in Sliven. There was no television in the room, and the hostage-taker shot and broke the computers. The internet connection was down. The media from which the 28-year-old man learned about the public reception of his acts was a grey radio set.

On the day after the attack (24 March), Prime Minister Borisov named also a particular radio station: ‘As the kidnapper is listening to Radio Focus, because he’s afraid that if he gives himself up he’ll get shot, if he hears me now [I want him to know that] I’ve given express orders – if he gives himself up as required by law, he won’t even get a slap in the face, so to speak.’

What did listeners hear during the extreme 40 hours before the hostage-taker was arrested? The Bulgarian National Radio’s Horizont programme service proved the most resilient, reporting the breaking news story throughout the night (bTV, Nova Television and Darik Radio gave up in the early hours of 24 March and referred all users who were still awake to their websites). Yuliana Stoyanova, anchor of the programme Neshto poveche (Something More), made a very important point when she said that ‘just as the police officers, so too the media are learning in stride how to cover such an event’ after the naïve statement of Valentin Petrov, former chief secretary of the interior ministry: ‘in such a situation the police are usually subjected above all to media pressure.’

On the evening of 24 March, after the hostages were released, Radio Focus began to ask ‘bolder’ questions. The anchor of Tova e Balgaria (This Is Bulgaria) asked Diana Mladenova, President of the Management Board of Investbank, and Sofia Municipality security expert Ivan Boyadzhiev what would they say to the 28-year-old hostage-taker. And whereas the question was not particularly appropriate in the concrete situation and (above all) media outlet, Ivan Boyadzhiev’s answer was ‘impressive’: ‘…But look, he’s not giving himself up. And I find this very interesting – he’s threatening to kill himself. If he wanted to kill himself he should have done so by now. It’s obvious he’s only threatening to kill himself so that he can secure some more privileges for himself in the future…’ Such statements were to be heard on the radio while the hostage-taker remained the last person in the bank and (former) police officers were advising journalists that they should mind their words.

Farewell to the Patriarchs

Yet even though it was ‘rehabilitated’ in untypical cases such as the ‘hostage drama’ and ‘Tanovgate’, the anthropology of listening still went through several crises, the biggest one being the Bulgarian listener’s parting with Radio Deutsche Welle. On 1 July DW stopped broadcasting on FM in Sofia: the reason for the premature termination of its radio broadcasting license was ‘DW’s new global strategy, according to which the focus of the world media is shifting to other prospective formats – television, online and mobile media products’ (Minutes of Proceedings No. 29, CEM Regular Meeting, 7 June 2011).

Radio Deutsche Welle’s departure from Sofia’s FM frequencies cannot but alarm the avid listener: if you take away the framework of the classical media, especially when the media outlet in question is a prestigious radio station such as DW, the risk of virtual marginalization is very high. That is also why the assurances that there would be fragmentary compensatory spaces – television and radio formats for Bulgarian partners, a news portal, aggressive promotion on Facebook – do not sound reassuring. The traumatic stories of the partings of Radio Free Europe, the BBC and RFI with the Bulgarian public provoke further worrying analogies.

In the different periods of their existence the so-called ‘foreign radio stations’ offered important, and identifiable for the public, alternative visions: about a free world (during the ‘Cold War’), about pluralism and democracy (in the 1990s), and about professional journalism (in the last years of their life on air). If DW survives online in a Bulgarian context, it will again offer the Bulgarian public a competitive vision – as a guide to professional journalism on the internet. But Bulgarian radio publicity will be the loser in all possible scenarios of future development.

Television on the Radio

The crises in the old media are also revealed by the invention of a format that is not typical of Bulgarian broadcast media: television on the radio. In 2011 bTV and Bulgaria On Air integrated a significant part of their TV content into radio stations of their own. The ‘tabloid’ Contemporary Hit Radio PRO.FM was replaced by bTV Radio, and ‘Bulgaria’s party radio’ (for electronic music) Alfa by Bulgaria On Air, ‘which is closely connected’ to the television station of the same name. Unlike January’s audio precedent involving the discrediting tapes in which technology provoked (even if for a short while) further ‘warming’ (after Marshall McLuhan) of radio as a medium, the case of ‘television on the radio’ involves the opposite process: through the ease of technology, the medium is turning from cold to ice-cold. And one of the key components of radio programmes – powerful, personal journalism – belongs almost entirely to the visual media.

On the Eve of Doomsday

In 2011 we also witnessed a very amusing case which was again provoked by archaic media practices. Short-wave radio carried an ominous warning in Bulgarian: ‘Judgement Day is May 21, 2011.’

In the USA, Family Radio’s Doomsday prophecy attracted millions of dollars in donations. The 2011 end-times prediction made by Harold Camping, one of the founders of this Christian radio network based in Oakland, California, found followers across the world by way of the network’s programmes in 48 languages. Family Radio’s Doomsday prophecy did not cause a scare in Bulgaria as very few people know about the network’s Bulgarian-language broadcasts. So how does the lure work? Family Radio is as if made for a mid- 1950s radio set placed in the living room of a big family. It does not rely on dynamic programmes but on long-forgotten genres such as teaching programmes. There is very little music.

The media frenzy and heightened attention of international news agencies and popular new sites towards Family Radio’s Doomsday prophecy proved that flirting with classical media works. At the global and local levels, radio is not only not losing its power, it is being used by accidental heroes as a generator of desperate eccentricities. And the hopes for the end of the world will continue to be aired on the radio in 2012, too.

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