veterans reflect on the past, present and future of radio at the UN |
To mark the occasion, the 1946 anniversary of the United Nations Radio Service, we reached out to two veteran broadcasters and journalists, who recently retired from UN News.
Elena Vapnitchnaia was head of our Russian unit, and Jérôme Longue, the former head of our French unit – both served for many years in UN radio and later in the integrated UN news section .
On this World Radio Day, we asked them to share some relevant memories of their work in radio and their views on the prospects and power of radio in general, to help counter the pandemic of misinformation, to the internet age.
An overview of history
Since the first official broadcast of United Nations Radio on February 13, 1946, programs have been broadcast in the organization’s five original official languages: English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish – later followed by Arabic.
By 1950, United Nations radio was broadcasting in 33 languages, and in 1980 United Nations peacekeeping missions began launching their own radio stations.
Our linguistic networks offered a daily 15-minute program of news, interviews and reports from the various teams working at the UN headquarters in New York.
UN Photo/Albert Fox
The first two decades of the century saw dramatic changes in the work of United Nations Radio: reels and cassettes gave way to digital media, and audio broadcasting was enriched and enhanced by multimedia features, linking text, audio, photo, video and other web-based graphics thanks to the explosion of social media.
United Nations radio services have been transformed into multi-dimensional news outlets that run their own websites.
Professionals with long experience in journalism, open to the world, always ready to help each other and share the necessary information, have always worked at UN Radio.
Today, they create digital content and tell multimedia stories and distribute these products, shows – and increasingly podcasts – through multiple platforms, including social media, not only in the six official languages of the UN, but also in Portuguese, Kiswahili and Hindi.
The language services of United Nations Radio have always worked side by side, in a newsroom, within the United Nations Secretariat building in New York. “In the office, our neighbors on one side were journalists from the Russian service, on the other we had our Portuguese colleagues. We could still hear them working, and over time we learned a few words in these languages: for example, “Dobroe utro” (“Hello!” in Russian) or “Obrigado” (“Thank you!” in Portuguese), recalls Jérôme Longue, former head of the French information service, who worked for 30 years for UN Radio and UN News.
Elena and Jerome think such multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism is useful when you’re in the news business.
“Professionals with vast experience in journalism, a broad vision, open to the world and always ready to help each other and share the necessary information, have always worked at UN Radio. I am happy to have been able to work in such a team”, underlines the former head of Russian service, Elena Vapnitchnaia.
“For example, with a woman from Kyrgyzstan who came to a conference on the occasion of the International Day of People with Down Syndrome. She was an activist and mother of a child with this syndrome, and she had also adopted a daughter with the same syndrome.
United Nations Radio and other news producers also often accompanied the Secretary-General on official trips and often witnessed major world events.
Radio remains the most popular means of communication. It is available when other means of communication do not work. A striking example of this is the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
“We participated in meetings with Colonel Gaddafi, with the presidents of Chad and Sudan, in the process of reintegration of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and also covered the signing of peace agreements, such as the one between Ethiopia and ‘Eritrea”, remembers Jérôme Longue.
And, of course, each year the opening of the General Assembly brings to New York the Heads of State and Government of the member countries of the UN.
For UN News staff, the high-level General Debate week offers a rich harvest of breaking news content and hard-to-get interviews with players on the world stage.
Many pundits, taking inspiration from the old hit of the 80s, “the video killed the radio star”, falsely predicted the end of radio. This has been proven wrong as millions of people around the world continue to rely heavily and primarily on radio as their primary source of information and education – whether through radio stations, internet platforms or podcasts on the smartphone.
Radio has morphed into its digital avatar, and it has not only retained loyal listeners, but also attracted newer and younger audiences.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider
“The idea that radio will die soon has been the subject of a lot of ink – since the moment television appeared, but I think radio has no intention of dying,” Jérôme told us.
“Furthermore, radio remains the most popular means of communication. It is available when other means of communication do not work. A striking example of this is the earthquake in Haiti in 2010,” he added.
During the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, BBC Radio and other traditional soundwave-based stations performed well, serving as essential lifelines for remote communities cut off from the capital, long before other media formats cannot be accessed.
He further adds that radio is the best way to make the voices of minorities and individual communities heard, as it does not require any investment in expensive equipment or the creation of a separate media stream online.
Elena believes that radio, unlike television or other media, creates a more intimate connection between the listener and the voices that come out on the radio.
Video grab from UN News
“Unlike television, we don’t normally listen to radio and podcasts with the whole family or in the company of friends. The radio is usually turned on in a car, or during a walk, or during exercise”. Perhaps that is why radio continues to be so influential, credible, enduring and always accessible.
Radio in the Age of Disinformation
The importance of radio as a reliable source of information has increased a lot in recent years, with the era of fake/fake news spreading rapidly, both on social networks and through other media.
“We must all fight against this scourge. And, of course, thanks to the audio interviews and live broadcasts from the spot, the radio, as a communication channel, provides more reliable and indisputable information,” says Jérôme.
Elena adds that UN News follows very strict journalistic standards: objectivity, neutrality, impartiality, accuracy and reliability.
These principles, along with the UN’s position of neutrality and fairness, as well as equality, have played an important role in the coverage of recent events, especially since the start of the pandemic, when false information and unverified have flooded social media and other news platforms. .
© UNICEF/Seyba Keita
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we did a lot of our productions based on WHO recommendations: these were not just dry numbers and statistics, but also, for example, recommendations for parents who were self-isolating with children on how to keep fit during quarantine; as well as the dissemination of information about early vaccines – especially reassuring information about how they were developed and thoroughly tested.
“We really hope that these publications and productions have helped to fight disinformation and have been useful to our listeners,” said the former head of the Russian information service. “So keep listening to UN News audio productions and broadcasts, via the airwaves, online platforms and podcasts!”