VRT celebrates 100 years of radio
The Flemish public broadcaster looks back on its humble beginnings with special broadcasts, an open door day and an interactive exhibition
“Like travelling through time”
In 1930, the Nationaal Instituut voor Radio-omroep (National Institute for Radio Broadcasting) was founded in Brussels. Radio pioneers launched the first-ever news broadcast Het gesproken dagblad (The Spoken Newspaper), so listeners – by then there were many more – could not only read about current affairs but also listen to the news while sitting in their living rooms.
In 1937, the institute broke into Dutch- and French-speaking divisions, the precursors to today’s VRT and RTBF. A year later, they moved into their brand new building, now known as Flagey.
Today, 4.2 million people in Belgium listen to the radio every day, but in 1914, this was the very pinnacle of innovation – the very first broadcast media. And while digital products, apps and online platforms change by the day, radio has stayed relatively the same for 100 years. That’s remarkable in and of itself.
An exhibition in Leuven to mark the centenary, R100+: beleef 100 jaar radio (R100: Live 100 Years of Radio), takes visitors through radio history to the radio of the future. If you would like to sit on a throne and listen to the first radio broadcast, like Queen Elisabeth of Belgium did 100 years ago, discover the first sportscasters or find out what visual radio is, then this is the place to be.
You get the chance to present your own radio show (pictured), interview some of your favourite artists or create a jingle. The interactive exhibition is a brilliant opportunity to truly experience the magic of radio.
Paul De Wyngaert, production manager of VRT radio, feels nostalgic when he sees the exhibition. “I remember my introduction to radio as a child,” he says, while gazing at the many versions of radios perched in the exhibition, above my head. “We used to have one just like that,” he tells me, pointing at an antique Siera radio.
As a child, I was amazed to hear children singing on the radio
“As a child I was amazed to hear children singing on the radio; I didn’t understand how there could be children hidden inside my radio. I also wanted to go inside the radio set and have other people hear me – and I did, in a way. I had the chance to work as a radio announcer, which was always a dream of mine, so I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.”
R100+ is targeted at all age groups, so indeed children can discover where the technology they so take for granted began. “People over 40 will probably recognise a lot of objects, sound clips and images in this exhibition from their childhood years,” says De Wyngaert. “You can see things here that are in the collective memory of a lot of Flemish people. Younger people can learn about radio history and find out what it was like for their parents and grandparents to listen to the radio. It’s also fun to go behind the scenes, to take a look inside a studio from 1938, for example, or to find out what the backstage area looks like where artists would get ready before a show.”
Also wandering about this special preview of R100+ is Guy De Pré, whose Radio 2 show De Pré Historie was recently awarded the title of Best Radio Show in Flanders by listeners. “My favourite items in this exhibition are the radio mixer, headphones, microphone and computer that give visitors a chance to create their own radio show,” he says. “I think that’s fantastic for someone who’s never done that before.”
Walter Baele, comedian and radio host at Radio 2, walks into the exhibition with a big smile on his face: “I remember listening to the local football game on the transistor radio as a kid. This exhibition brings back memories for me. There are so many cool items here; it’s like travelling through time.”
Despite the inroads of television and the internet, radio is just as relevant now as it was in 1914, claims De Wyngaert. “Radio is a wonderful medium,” he says. “It’s a lot more unpretentious than television, with more simple technology. Radio is also constantly reinventing itself and evolving. When television was introduced to the Flemish people in 1953, the transistor radio was also invented, so people could listen to the radio almost everywhere, wherever they went. We are not afraid of the internet because I don’t think it’s going to make radio obsolete. I think the radio will always be playing in the background.”
Here to stay
Radio 1 personality Jan Hautekiet agrees. “People can listen to it in the car, at home, at work, via their smartphone, via their tablet or laptop, etc. No matter where you go, radio is always present, yet unobtrusive.”
People are always going to listen to the radio. That’s something that will never change
Radio is also one of the best ways to introduce new music to audiences, says Hautekiet. “It is much more than just a way to stay informed about what’s going on in the world. From the start, there was music. At first it was only classical music, but since the 1950s, it was a great way to introduce pop music to teens.”
According to De Pré, if radio stations continue to use social media and other digital platforms to interact with their listeners, the future of radio looks very bright.
One of the big reasons why radio is still so successful, he continues, is that there is a radio station for every age category and musical taste. In Flanders, “for classical music there is Klara, young people who like hit music will tune in to Q-Music or MNM,” he says. “When they prefer alternative music, they will listen to Studio Brussel. For people who like 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s music, or songs in Dutch, there is Radio 2. If you’d like to hear more than just the news but also get background information, then you will listen to Radio 1.”
And crucially, he continues, you can get radio online. “People can listen to Flemish radio stations via the internet, so even if there is no radio around, they don’t have to miss a thing,” says De Pré. Unlike with the internet, though, “everyone grew up with radio, and you can listen to it anywhere. People are always going to listen to the radio. That’s something that will never change.”
In fact, he says, doomsayers in the 1950s pronounced the end of radio when television came along. “But it wasn’t. When the internet was invented, some people had that same concern, but radio is still here, and it always will be.”
100 jaar radio: special events
The exhibition R100+: beleef 100 jaar radio is only open to groups and is staged in Leuven’s Radiohuis, from where Radio 2 Flemish Brabant is broadcast, until the end of the year.
On 29 March, Radio 2, Flanders’ most popular radio station, will open its doors to visitors at their sites in Kortrijk and Ghent. Next Tuesday, 1 April, Studio Brussel will take over the Radiohuis in Leuven for its 31-year anniversary. A special broadcast on radio itself takes place from 19.00 to 22.00.
MNM, meanwhile, will broadcast twice from the Radiohuis. On Wednesday, 2 April, it hosts the show Generation M and on Thursday, 22 May, it broadcasts UrbaNice, both from 21.00 to midnight.
New book: Radio For Life
VRT has released a book for its centenary in radio. Radio For Life: Wonderlijke verhalen over 100 jaar radio (Radio for Life: Amazing Stories Covering 100 Years of Radio) reveals the highlights of Flanders’ radio history.
VRT journalist Ng Sauw Tjhoi searched through the Flemish public broadcaster's archive for months, discovering funny anecdotes, forgotten radio moments and lots of interesting facts.
The book includes items about legendary radio programmes such as the comedic news show De rechtvaardige rechters (The Righteous Judges, Radio 1), which eventually moved to television, and the radio drama Het koekoeksnest (The Cuckoo’s Nest, Radio 2). It also covers historical titbits like how certain pop songs were banned by radio stations.
Ng Sauw has worked behind the scenes for the Radio 1 shows Voor de dag, De Ochtend, Vandaag and Joos. He currently teaches students about radio at both the Erasmus University College and the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He has twice won a radio prize awarded by Belfius bank.
the BRT transforms into VRT
annual government subsidy per Fleming in euros
combined hours of TV programming in 2012