DR had a monopoly on television in Denmark from the time it started transmitting in 1951, until the government opened up the market to commercial competitors in 1988. Sabine Matz, a television news reporter at DR who also previously worked at TV2, remembers the impact the new competition had. “DR was like this tired old elephant, just dragging its feet along,” says Matz. When TV2 launched, DR staff didn’t take it very seriously, but they should have, she says. “Very, very fast, TV2 had completely smashed DR. Because they did things faster, quicker, younger.”
In response to the new competition, DR had to reexamine and refresh its television programming; everyone’s standards were raised. What TV2 did for Danish television news, the ministry of culture is hoping Radio24syv will do for Danish radio news, too.
Ramskov, who was also head of DR’s television news department for several years, is diplomatic when he compares the offerings of his new network to DR. “We decided from the beginning that there was no need for doing another P1,” he says, referring to DR’s in-depth news and talk station, which consists mainly of one-hour-long, pre-recorded programs. “It is a rather traditional way of communicating with the audience…sort of a didactic way of educating people. Talk radio around the world is for grown-ups. But our aim was to make a younger sound.”
In order to make that younger sound, as well as to stretch a much smaller staff, Ramskov says Radio24syv actually takes its cue from American talk radio, with its longer blocks of live shows. Instead of having a different finely-edited program on every day and every hour, Radio24syv hosts come on every weekday at the same time, for one or two or three hours at a stretch. Some pre-produced shows will play at night and on the weekends, but the network features more panel discussions and call-in (and text-in, and comment-in) segments, which tend to make for more spontaneous, listener-involved conversations. Public radio listeners in the U.S. may think of the tone as more like The Brian Lehrer Show than the BBC Newshour.
Like any startup competing with an established and well-staffed news institution, Radio24syv’s relative size and newness can be an advantage. DR has hundreds of employees at the executive level; Radio24syv has five. “It’s a very small, lean organization—it’s very easy to make a decision here,” says Ramskov. “We don’t have a lot of meetings, we don’t have a lot of people to tell, we just do it.”
As a result, Radio24syv feels very fluid. It can switch to breaking-news coverage almost immediately, as it did when Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned during the new network’s second Saturday on air. Many of the programs are hosted by freelance production companies, so that a small staff will come in and take over the studio for an hour or two at a time, and then clear out. Some programs are also broadcast remotely: Globus USA, for instance, is a weekly show about U.S. current affairs, hosted by a Berlingske foreign correspondent stationed in D.C. and run out of a studio at American University.
Ramskov says he knows Radio24syv will have to work hard to prove itself; the unique challenge of a brand-new public service network is inherent in the unique opportunity. “This radio is a political construction,” he says. “This is not a public demand. If you did a survey, there would be no people asking for more radio.”
Public response to the network’s initial launch was mixed. For instance, in November, the Danish daily Politiken had four people of different ages listen to Radio24syv’s first week on air and react to what they heard. Most of them thought Radio24syv sounded fresher and younger than DR, but with less substance. They tended to think that the discussion programs seemed totally unplanned—programs which at their best could be surprising and engaging, and at their worst could be disorganized and boring. In February, three months after the launch, one Politiken columnist criticized the network for its poor sound quality and repeated on-air flubs by inexperienced hosts, while another praised it for its sense of humor.
Now, almost seven months after its launch, Radio24syv is still working to challenge the status quo. According to a media usage report published by DR’s audience research department at the end of 2011, Radio24syv’s weekly listenership in its first two months on air was higher than experts had expected—almost half a million listeners, in a country of only 5.5 million people—but still much lower than the audience for DR’s competing station, P1, and that figure has since declined to about 300,000.