English Broadcasts on FM in Milano, Italy (1979-1989)
FM radio in Milan
Like most of the other radio listeners in Europe, the Italians listen almost exclusively to hi-fi (stereo) programs aired on the FM band, rather than Medium Wave (AM) or Shortwave. There are distinct advantages to receiving FM vs Mediumwave or Shortwave regarding audio fidelity. Mediumwave broadcasts at the time were manly available throughRAI’s, the national state-controlled radio network.
However, Mediumwave (also called AM radio in the USA) had a sort of revival in the late ’70s and ’80s due to a heavy mutual interference of the thousands of FM signals on the Italian peninsula. Together with Radio Data System (RDS) on FM, Mediumwave/AM was the only option to remain tuned to the same station when distances above 10-15 miles are travelled by car. Mediumwave, although lacking in fidelity, provides much wider coverage than FM due to the lack of co-channel interference, and it was often used for example to tune into the news service offered by RAI.
It must be noted that Italy has been pioneering private FM broadcasting since as early as 1975, when, in addition to the already established three national state-owned RAI channels (also on AM/Medium Wave) some small and aggressive FM stations went on air. Today thousands of FM stations and a few private national networks operate legally in the country. But back in the ’70s and ’80s reception conditions were quite critical, especially in large towns, because there were many, too many stations, often on top of each other.
At the time, driving around the greater Milano nearly one-hundred different stations could be found on the dial. Very often stations operated on the same channel from locations just a few miles apart; more often the separation was just 50 kHz (or less). This situation has been sometimes depicted as a “frequency jungle” by several foreign observers who compared this very competitive market to the cleaner situation in other countries. Clearly, for most stations coverage was a problem especially in large urban areas. But the case would have been solved later in the 1990s with a frequency allocation plan, stricter rules, and the elimination of a large number of stations that followed. After years since a law first attempted to regulate private broadcasting (1990), no frequency allocation plan has been approved yet.
The Legal Situation
Although legally established, all private FM and TV stations in Italy still lacked frequency and power coordination from the Italian Post and telecommunication (PTT) Ministry. The first Broadcasting Act which was approved in August 1990, after many aborted attempts to rule the Italian frequency spectrum, set a term of two years (expiring in August 1992) for the PTT Ministry to publish frequency allocation plans for both TV and radio stations in the country. The Ministry finally assigned formal licenses to only some of the existing operations. Several years later, however, we were still in the same situation as of 1990, as far as frequency occupancy and interference, especially in larger towns. The only form of “coordination” and elimination of interferences was put in place by larger networks who started buying off frequencies from the smaller broadcasters. In this way, they attempted to clear their frequencies and killing de-facto smaller stations which were the spirit of the so-called free radio scene that broke the Italian State monopoly in the ’70s. Today, only a few of the smaller stations survive, especially in rural areas, and recent proposals to rule once again the market by the Italian Government seem to favour the largest broadcasters vs the smallest, but often more important, local stations. When the switch to DAB is completed in a few years, it is foreseeable that any still existing smaller station in rural areas would completely disappear.
As for radio, the 1990 Broadcasting Act identified two types of license: commercial and non-commercial or community radio (very similar to the US concept of public radio). Both licenses were granted on a local or national coverage basis. All applications for a license had to be filled by October 20, 1990. After that date, the law stated that no new station could be built, nor other application accepted and, more importantly, no technical parameter of every station (e.g. antenna, frequency, transmitter power, etc.) could (officially) be changed. Only in April 1998, a provision was added by decree to slightly modify the technical characteristics of a transmitter, if, for example, another transmitter belonging to the same station was shut down in the same area.
In the 1990s, in the Milano city area alone, commercial radio stations were outnumbering non-commercial/community operations by more than a factor one to thirty. NEXUS-IBA got a formal license to operate IRRS-Globe Radio Milano on FM 88.85 MHz as a local community broadcaster in 1995, and an authorisation to operate an international Shortwave station from Milano, Italy, was also granted.
Milano is a very cosmopolitan city in Northern Italy. Its weekly specialised exhibitions at the local Fair attract many foreign visitors every year. Here live quite a large number of English speaking foreign residents (20,000+) as well as many Italians who speak this language fluently. All that together with the interest of several international broadcasting organisations, consular representatives in Milan, newspapers, listeners and friends helped us to create and maintain IRRS-Globe Radio Milan since 1979. IRRS-Globe Radio Milan was a unique adventure in broadcasting and the first English speaking station in Italy.
Back in 1979, the fact that most of the Italian radio listeners in large towns did not listen at all to international Shortwave, or Long Wave broadcasts, gave us the idea of starting a local English speaking FM station in Milano. No satellite radio or TV was yet available, and newspaper and magazines were almost all international media available in town at the time. Our FM English-speaking station started with very simple equipment, a lot of enthusiasm, and with just only a few Watts all the Milano city area was covered.
In 1979-1989 IRRS-Globe Radio Milan existed to provide NEXUS-IBA members and broadcasters a facility in what the National Geographic magazine defined as “Both a factory and a showcase for Italian products, a hub for the comings and goings of trade in Italy and much of western Europe, but also a city of fine food and subtle elegance and cultural wealth“. In the early beginnings when IRRS-Globe Radio Milan experienced little or no interference from other stations, there were listeners who tuned into our broadcasts from as far as 30-50 km away. At the beninng of the 1990’s, even with professional equipment and higher power, the heavy competition from commercial stations had undoubtedly reduced the station’s coverage to just about one third of the entire city area. This was a situation very common to other small stations in Milano, which did not improve when licenses were assigned in 1990.
Since its beginning, IRRS-Globe Radio Milan has been airing the best selection of English programming available on Shortwave. Over the years, programs from the BBC World Service, BBC English by Radio, Deutsche Welle, Radio Nederland, Radio Sweden, Swiss Radio International, HCJB, VOA, Radio Beijing, Family Radio, Radio Earth, UNESCO and United Nations Radio, as well as many other individuals and broadcasting organizations has been aired. They targeted our English-speaking listeners in Milano, often preceding what was later now being offered as VOA Europe or BBC World Service via satellite in many other European towns.
NEXUS-IBA is neither governmentally, nor privately funded. Although provisions exist in the NEXUS’ charter to accept financial donations from other bodies and institutions, all current operations are entirely financed by our members’ broadcasters. Moreover, no advertising is currently on air on any NEXUS-IBA station. All NEXUS-IBA personnel are professionals who have a full-time job elsewhere, and devote most of their spare time coordinating NEXUS-IBA activities as volunteers. The heavy use of state-of-the-art computer automation, digital broadcasting, and, only recently, the availability of satellite feeds, together with our hard work, has made it all possible until now.
1979-1998: Twenty years of FM broadcasting from Milano to the world
IRRS-Globe Radio Milan was shut down on Sept. 15, 1998. The decision came after NEXUS-IBA’s Executive Committee decided to focus the Association’s activities on the Internet, International broadcasting, Shortwave and education.
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