GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The announcement on the World Radio Switzerland web site Thursday afternoon is brief and to the point:
“The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) has decided to transfer WRS into private ownership.
“A number of interested parties have reportedly already expressed an interest in picking up the service.
“The SBC board of directors decided on Wednesday that the future of WRS is outside of the public service.
“A company specializing in mergers and acquisitions will contact a range of private and institutional investors in Switzerland and abroad.
“It aims to have a project in place by the end of this year, ready for implementation in 2013 or 2014.”
The official statement gives hope to those who feared the station would be shut down, one of the options SBC (known as SSR in French) had earlier mentioned, but it leaves open several questions, while a suitable buyer is found.
One group that has publicly mentioned its interest is Radio Frontier, one of whose owners is former WRS host Mark Butcher. Radio Frontier currently broadcasts via cable and online; it does not have an FM license. Others have not expressed their interest publicly. SBC says in a statement that the buyer could be private or institutional.
“If potential buyers confirm their interest in WRS, and if the supervisory authority is prepared to put the WRS FM frequency out to tender, investors will be able to submit an application for a local commercial radio licence for broadcast area 2 (the Lake Geneva region). The new operator will not be entitled to a share of the licence fee. Continued broadcast via DAB+ is assured. If no buyer can be found by the end of October 2012, the Board of Directors will decide in its December meeting on the action to be taken.The situation is more complex than simply selling to an interested party.”
Frequency would need to be opened to tender
The situation is more complex than simply finding a buyer.
Swiss radio licenses for FM bands are no longer being issued, since Switzerland, like most of Europe, is planning to get rid of FM in favour of DAB radio, and the deadline that has been set is 2015. However, with the population not moving massively to adopt DAB, skeptics question the deadline and in the meantime, any FM license that comes up for grabs is likely to be hotly contested.
Whether or not the DAB license currently used by WRS could be taken over by another non-SSR/SRG station is unclear. In 2008 Ofcom, the federal telecommunications office, noted that “The SRG also has the right to provide two stations on the second DAB platform. Last week, the Federal Council granted the SRG the licence for DRS-NEWS and World Radio Switzerland (WRS).”
Competition for limited licenses is stiff
Eighteen candidates applied for 8 DAB licenses when they were attributed.
SSR/SRG radio stations account for 18 of the 71 radio stations with FM and/or DAB licenses throughout Switzerland. The rest are private, mostly regional radio stations and in addition there are a small number who do not have licenses, such as Radio Frontier.
A spokesperson for Ofcom, the supervisory authority, recently told GenevaLunch the decision about tendering the frequency, which is needed to broadcast on air, is not actually up to it, but rather to the Federal Council. The council could well decide to open the frequency to applicants, but given the difficulty of obtaining one, competition could be fierce.
English could be a diversity strong suit
The good news is that commercial radio is doing better financially than it was in the recent past, according to a government report, and the likelihood of finding a suitable buyer is perhaps higher than in 2007, when the station changed from WRG, a local commercial operation, to Swiss-wide WRS owned by public broadcasting.
And in remarks about the new, partial revision of the Swiss Radio and TV Act, Ofcom noted in May 2012 that “the issue of media concentration continues to play an important role: if several comparable applications are made, the station that best enhances media diversity shall receive the license.”
Given the paucity of English radio in Switzerland, a commercial English station might have a strong card to play.