Ecoutez-vous! Free radio in a border region between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany

Vitus Sproten University of Luxembourg

“Ecoutez-vous” (eng. Listen to yourself) was the emblematic slogan of Radio des Travailleurs Liégeois (eng. Radio of the workers of Liège), a radio station created in the context of the workers’ movement in 1979 in the Belgian city of Liège. The aim of the radio station was to give a voice to the workers of the region suffering from the decline of the heavy industry.[1] The radio station thus wanted to give a new medium to a “silent” social class in terms of radiocommunication. However, as the quote below illustrates, this development wasn’t limited to the workers[2] and Radio des Travailleurs Liégeois stands paradigmatically for an emerging and completely transformed radio landscape in Western Europe in the early 1980s.

L’état a bien sa propre radio, les capitalistes et tous les marchands de savon ont aussi les leurs, alors, pourquoi nous, travailleurs, ne pourrions nous pas disposer, en toute autonomie, d’un moyen de communication moderne.[3]

(eng. The state, the capitalists and every factory owner has its own radio station, so, why can’t we, workers, have our own independent modern means of communication?)

A major part of the PhD thesis “Pop cultural Exchange in the Meuse-Rhine Region” will deal with the question of how this emerging free radio landscape during the late 1970s and the early 1980s helped to renegotiate the importance of pop culture, especially music, in media. To do so, the project will focus on a border region between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.[4]

To analyse the interaction of media and the transnational character of the region, the concept of ‘entangled media histories’ is introduced in the study which “(…) refer not only to interrelations with respect to transborder or transnational, but also to transmedial or intermedial phenomena in media history – looking at the whole process of media communication, if possible.”[5]

Pop music in this context has to be seen as a mirror of ongoing societal debates. In fact the radio stations that emerged everywhere in the border region gave the sound to numerous societal movements like the above-mentioned workers’ movement, the environmental movement or the peace movement. The free radio stations played music from different national and cultural contexts during the programs, the discussions, the talk shows or entertainment shows that they broadcast. The aim of the project is to decrypt the music programs of these radio stations and to ask how they can be integrated in a broader analytical scheme and to analyse what a specific sound tells us about ongoing societal debates. This analysis of the media landscape will be integrated in a matrix on the intersection of societal, cultural, economic, generational and political debates. [6]

The history of free radio stations is thus from a double perspective important for a ‘media history from the margins’:

On the one hand free radio stations changed the way radios addressed their audiences and how audiences were implemented in the making of radio programs. From this perspective the topic is strongly related to the question of how marginal groups used the new means of communication in the 1980s to make themselves heard. Request programs or amateur music journalists changed to a large extend the landscape of music programs.

On the other hand, the project will focus on a marginal region. We know the history of media and the history of popular culture on the European and the national level quite well. We have for most of the bigger European public broadcaster monographs explaining the history of the respective institutions. Most of these monographs dedicate smaller parts to the role that they have played for culture and popular culture.

On the same level we try to understand how pop cultural exchange has been influenced on the European and the transnational level by media. Bigger commercial broadcasters like RTL or Europe No 1 or networks like the European Broadcasting Union have found a certain attention in this context.

But it is not only the transnational and European level that needs further research. Europe consists essentially of linguistic, cultural, regional or national border regions. During the 1990s when the European Union had 15 member states, 10-15% of its population lived in national border regions.

Up until now the historiography of media has barley paid attention to the interaction of media in border regions or the fact that people in these regions can access media from different national and cultural contexts.

In fact we can see similar evolutions in every part of the region. While workers in Belgium were for example winged by trade unions to make their own radio programs and to play their own music (in the case of Radio des Travailleurs Liègeois), this wasn’t the case in the Netherlands. In the area of South-Limburg that also suffered from the decline of the heavy industry, workers who lost their jobs took their mostly individual initiatives to broadcast their own programs and play the music that they liked.

Most of the time initiators of free radio stations had the feeling that public broadcasters neither listened to their concerns or payed attention to aspects of everyday life of the population nor did these public broadcasters played the music that people would like to listen to.

The ecological movement (Radio ça bouge dans les sous-bois, Radio Amis de la Terre Vielsalm,…), students (Radio Sart Tilman), multilingual radios for intercultural understanding, citizen radios (Radio Freies Aachen, Radio Distel,…) and countless small initiatives played music in the radio for one neighborhood or street. These people used radio stations as a new way to express themselves and discuss the things they wanted to discuss.

In that sense the underlying key pillars of the emerging free radio landscape in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany are very similar: people had societal and political concerns, wanted to be heard and were looking for means of communication.

Several examples illustrate how free radio stations in this border region interacted and influenced pop cultural exchange:

  • The Belgian legislation allowed people from the late 1970s onwards to have their own radio stations. In the Netherlands and Germany free radio stations stayed prohibited until the 1990s. Subsequently the Belgian legislation attracted people from the neighboring regions who created their programs with the music that they liked in Belgium and transmitted it to their countries.
  • The Dutch public broadcasters were quite progressive in the 1960s and 1970s when it comes to Anglo-Saxon pop music while other European broadcasters remained conservative. What seemed modern during the 1960s didn’t meet the taste of the listeners in the 1980s anymore. In this decennia radio pirates in the Netherlands created their pirate radio stations to hear more Dutch-speaking and local music, and – surprisingly – German-speaking music.
  • We can see in all three countries that the mainstream media reacted to the evolving radio landscape. Newspaper publishers invested their capital in the emerging radio stations. Public broadcasters built up their own channels with more ‘peps’ or tried to intensify the contact with the ‘marginal regions’ on their borders.

Free radios and community radios lost nevertheless their importance during the 1980s. Factors that can explain this evolution are the large interest of commercial radio stations in the market and the fact that in Germany and the Netherlands bigger regional private and commercial radio stations were legalised during the 1990s.

The region in the focus of the analysis was nevertheless not an isolated case. The French-German border, the Austrian-German border, the North-Ireland-Ireland border or the Dutch-Belgian border were very active when it comes to the emergence of free radio stations. One of these contact zones where different media landscapes and political debates meet will be analysed in the context of the PhD project “Pop cultural exchange in the Meuse-Rhine region”.


[1] For example: Radio des Travailleurs Liégeois, Chertal (Cockerill), Des ouvriers de l’aciérie racontent, expliquent et répliquent, émission diffusée en septembre 1980 ; Radio des Travailleurs Liégeois, La S.A. des Usines à Cuivre et à Zinc de Liège, émission réalisée en Mars 1980 ; Radio des Travailleurs Liégeois, La stratégie du cuivre dans le monde, mars 1980.

[2] Ingrid Hayes, Les voix de la crise. Radio Lorraine cœur d’acier 1979-1980. Paris 2018.

[3] Ralum (ed.), Livre de la Radio des Travailleurs Liégeois. Louveigne, s.d. quoted from: Jacques Morael, Radios libres, la crise ! Mémoire présenté en vue de l’obtention du grade de Licencie en Information et Arts de Diffusion à l’Université de Liège, 1982.

[4] The so called ‘Meuse-Rhine Euregion’: The Province de Liège  (Belgium, French and German speaking), the Area of Zuid-Limburg / Southern Limburg (The Netherlands, Dutch speaking) and the District of Aachen (Germany, German speaking) including the city of Liège, Maastricht and Aachen.

[5] Cronqvist, M. & Hilgert, C. (2017): Entangled Media Histories, Media History, 23:1, pp. 130-141, DOI: 10.1080/13688804.2016.1270745

[6] Andreas Fickers/ Dietmar Hüser, Populärkultur transnational. Europa in den langen 1960er Jahren. Unpublished DFG/FNR research proposal. Luxembourg, Saarbrücken 2017.

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