Independent radio stations find niche in audience


Radio Katanga in Aalst is one of few locally run radio stations remaining in Flanders, due to high costs, lack of available frequencies and the dominance of state and commercial broadcasters

Flanders on air

“On air” reads a sign at the bottom of the staircase that leads to the studio of Radio Katanga, Aalst’s only independent radio station. Nevertheless, silence isn’t necessary. At this time of day the studio operates fully automatically, explains Stijn Vanderheyden, the station’s producer and music editor.

“During the holiday season, the schedule looks a little different, but normally we start the day with a morning programme that I and my colleague Ralph present, featuring news from the region,” he says. “In the evening, we send more specific programmes out. One of our most popular shows is The Finest Hour, with music from the war years and stories from those times about Aalst and its surroundings.”

Radio Katanga began in 1982 out of dissatisfaction with the bigger channels, which the founders thought were all airing the same music. Now, it is the only remaining radio station of its kind in Aalst. “I don’t know how many independent radio stations you know of, but it won’t be a high number,” Vanderheyden says, laughing. 

Truly local

“Establishing a new channel is simply impossible now,” Vanderheyden continues. “The costs are high, and getting a licence to use the airwaves is virtually impossible. It was different in the early years: A transmitter, a mixer and two turntables, and you had a radio station. Radio Katanga could be heard on the frequency of Aalst’s fire brigade. Today if you tried something like that, you’d have the police at your door, and all your equipment would be confiscated.”

I don’t know how many independent radio stations you know of, but it won’t be a high number

- Stijn Vanderheyden

Radio Katanga is truly a local station, says Vanderheyden (pictured above). “We broadcast here in Aalst and the surrounding communities, and we really focus on the region. We present news, inviting the mayor or other local figures to the studio, and report on major events like the Carnival in Aalst and the elections.”

A broadcast licence is not forever, though. In 2016, the available frequencies will be redistributed, something Radio Katanga is already working on. “The government’s plan is to shrink the radio landscape,” he says. “There are too many candidates for the available frequencies, and chains that add little value are no longer desirable. The media ministry now wants to focus on community radios with a strong local angle. So basically we’re OK with Radio Katanga.”

Independent radio has a rich history in Flanders. The first Dutch-language station to go on air was Radio Antwerp in 1926. The founder, Georges De Caluwé, was an early radio enthusiastic and built the equipment needed to broadcast himself.

Radio Antwerp’s transmitter was placed on top of a church in Edegem, which was why the station later changed its name to Radio ’t Kerkske (The Church Radio).

After the Second World War, the national radio station founded by the government was given a monopoly on broadcasting in Belgium. Needless to say, this didn’t please many radio enthusiasts, and the veteran De Caluwé challenged the police and the government. After his radio equipment was confiscated one too many times, he issued a public ultimatum: Either radio remained free, or he would start to broadcast from a ship off the Belgian coast.

His threat was not taken seriously, but in 1962 he set off. De Caluwé, at the time 73, bought a ship from the French navy, named it Uilenspiegel and started to broadcast again. Radio Antwerp moved from the roof of a church to the sea off Knokke-Heist.

It set a precedent for many more offshore radios to come: Radio Veronica, Radio Noordzee, Radio Mi-Amigo... All of them sent their signals to the mainland from the North Sea and gave the name “pirate radio” a whole new meaning.

Meanwhile, on dry land, illegal independent radio also flourished. The stations filled the gap that the BRT (the forerunner of the VRT) left open, with modern programming and music. It was an exciting time in Flanders’ history of radio. The government tried to shut down the stations and traced their transmitters, but the stations got round this by inventing transportable transmitters, secret studios and fake apparatus to mislead the inspectors.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the number of independent radio stations reached a peak, to the extent that they occasionally disturbed each other’s frequencies. Cases have been reported where local stations even sabotaged their rivals’ transmitters.

Accepting defeat, the government provided some frequencies for independent stations and regulated broadcasting. However, a lot of local stations did not survive this regulation, due to the high cost of a permit to broadcast and all the administration that came with it. 

The voice on the other side

Another passionate radio man is Herman Boel. He is involved in shortwave radio – a different story altogether –  and maintains a website about radio in Flanders. “Over the last few decades, independent radio in Flanders has been disappearing. Those that exist are those that have survived; creating a new independent radio station is not an option anymore. You can on the internet, of course, but that’s different.” 

More and more stations are opting out of the chains and playing to their strengths

- Herman Boel

There are several reasons for this, Boel continues, “but the most important is the frequency. There are virtually no more free places, partly because the VRT stations occupy a lot of space on the airwaves.

According to Boel, the arrival of corporate-run radio has had a negative effect on the radio landscape. Before there were national commercial stations, there were chains that took over local channels. The chains supplied them with pre-recorded programmes to broadcast in return for a fee and technical assistance. It was easy money, but the local aspect was often lost.

“There are those that still have a local angle, which is required in principle, but most are simply merged into the uniformity that big radio chains offer,” he says. “But now you can see a reverse movement. More and more stations are opting out of the chains and playing to their strengths.”

And the future of independent radio? “It’s hard to say,” Boel muses. “Local stations can be successful if they focus on a specific audience. Radio Minerva in Antwerp, for example, focuses on older people and is very popular. But radio will always exist. People need this voice on the other side.”

Photo by Toon Lambrechts