The End of a Paradise

In tactical media circles the Amsterdam media landscape has long been treated as a Utopian model because of her free radios, open tv-channels and digital public spaces. The last few years this media paradise is under threat. How did this come about? And is it still possible to reverse this development? This is the theme of the Amsterdam Media Debate. Nina Meilof (The Digital City - DDS), Andreas Baader and Josephine (Radio Patapoe), Frank (Radio de Vrije Keyser) and media-activists Patrice Riemens, Geert Lovink and Menno Grootveld prepared the grounds for the discussion.
The aim of the Amsterdam Media Debate during The Next 5 Minutes is to explain to the international participants that big changes are underway here. They may perhaps learn something from our experiences, but we would also like to try and find out what the differences are with other big cities and with other countries. What are these big changes and how is the situation at the present moment?

Geert: "It is no disaster if certain initiatives die, as long as there are others to replace them. That is the natural course of things. We should not worry about that. What we should worry about is that politicians are making huge infringements at a certain moment and that they are squeezing developments structurally by selling FM-channels and the Amsterdam cable network to the highest bidder. That requires a reaction from us and we cannot simply complain about these things. I think it is safe to say that the free media-initiatives that have been around have enjoyed a big amount of freedom, which may have caused a certain laziness. That is a not uncommon phenomenon if so many of your goals have been realized.''

Nina: "The biggest problem is that the cable company has been sold, that they have to make a profit and that the open channels and the so-called 'basic package' (of programming) is under pressure. They are suggesting a weird kind of scarcity, which I question very much. I think there could be far more channels on the cable network without too many additional costs. To put it more bluntly: we should demand 40 channels in the basic package tomorrow (now there are only 26). We should also try to formulate more precisely what we want with the 10% of the capacity on the network which is reserved for local broadcasting (public acces radio and television, etc.). I think there should be room for a few Internet-channels alongside the traditional open channels, which are governed by SALTO (the Amsterdam Foundation for Local Television). This could be done by the Digital City, as a kind of public broadcasting service on the net."

Josephine: "A year ago the radio stations (Radio 100, Patapoe and the Vrije Keyser) started to talk about the necessity of claiming room in the ether for our 'cultural heritage', for the culture we represent, because we found ourselves in a blind alley since a lot of FM-frequencies were just being sold. Emotionally I am torn between the longing for recognition of the values that we represent and the desire to remain 'underground' because of the freedom it offers you. But at the same time I find it a bit dangerous broadcast illegally."

Frank: "As a result of recent phenomena it will become virtually impossible to do so anyway. This kind of radio- and television work has traditionally been done by volunteers, but they are rapidly becoming extinct. On the other hand we have to reckon with the technical developments. For the radio it means that the FM as we know it will be phased down and eventually disappear completely. In return we will get Digital Audio Broadcasting and if everybody buys the new receiver for his or her car and connects the radio at home to the cable, there is no point in FM-broadcasting anymore, since nobody will be able to receive your programme."


Menno: "So two aspects are important: the technological developments on the one hand, and the inability or the unwillingness of the political institutions to coordinate things properly on the other. Politically spoken I think that the decline of the local media in Amsterdam since the early '80's is part of a bigger effort to push everything that's got anything to do with counter-culture to the margins, quite literally. This policy seems to be a major success, since all the big squats where good things happened in the past - in the sphere of music, visual arts and theatre - have disappeared. The same process can be discerned in the field of local media. My own roots go back to the pirate era at the start of the '80's. I still consider the total freedom of that time as the ideal model for local media distribution. It will probably never come back, but at least you can use it as a point of reference."

Nina: "But the open channels of SALTO offer you basically the same opportunities, and if you are smart, you can get some money on top of it.''

Menno: "This is the classic game of divide and rule: first you prohibit something, then you wait a while and then you basically put up the same scheme a few years later, but this time nicely regulated. And yes, you can throw in some money as well. But in the meanwhile we are dealing with an institution which says it is entitled to refuse anything that it does not like. That is not even allowed by the Constitution, which explicitly forbids preventive censorship. But the most important thing is of course that they can play all of these small organisations against each other, with the excuse that there is a limited amount of space."

Josephine: "That problem is also surfacing with the radio again. There is almost no empty frequency anymore, because they are all sold."

Patrice: "But that is no coincidence. It is a political programme: all power to the marketplace. They are also talking nonsense if they say that they have warm feelings for local media and public broadcasting. Just see what is going on and then you will get the picture."

Nina: "When the cable network of Amsterdam was being sold, a provision was included in the contract which stated that 10% of the capacity should be reserved for local broadcasting. That is unique in the world. It still gives us the possibility to really do something with that. But we are failing to produce a clear plan of attack."

Menno: "What you are actually doing then is to fall back upon that10% as the most optimal outcome. And after that you can go and have a fight with all the others who belong to the so-called 'public domain' about what you are going to do with that 10%, a situation which will only lead to mutual destruction. And in the meantime you have given the other 90% away."


After some discussion the question arrises if, instead of defending this 10%, it might be a better idea to fight the enemy with his own weapons by becoming commercial ourselves.

Josephine: "Then you will have to deal with all kinds of rules, which make this almost impossible financially, like the obligation to have your transmitter checked every year by a technician of the formerly state-owned National Broadcasting Company. You cannot escape this kind of 'service', which is very expensive and totally artificial."

Menno: "I think that something strange is going on here. You could say that privatization is inevitable. But if you are privatizing, you should at least make sure that there is competition as well. In the case of the selling of the cable network this was not properly arranged for, so A2000 is still a monopolist. In the case of the maintenance checks of these transmitters the same problem occurs: you can only go to one place to have it done. Actually you even HAVE to go there by law. Something is very wrong here, so we should perhaps focus on that first."

Nina: "This means that you basically accept the commercialisation of all these stations and frequencies, but that you attack the monopolies."

Josephine: "I don't think that you can say it is either this or that. You can say: OK, we can live with some kind of market-model, but then it has to be subjected to certain demands and there have to be rules that are acceptable to us."

Menno: "I don't think either that we should go for total commercialisation and that we should forsake this 10% for local broadcasting. Let it stay, as long as the contract mentions it and nobody really seems to care. But don't be fooled by it. Don't think that that is the only sphere within which we can operate, but try to get out of there by looking for creative solutions for the reconquest of the territory that we have lost."

A new chapter

Geert: "We are talking too much about questions of management. Personally I would like to stress the necessity of a new kind of media culture and I think that we need a new and other form of imagination to be able to create one. We cannot restrict ourselves to the defense of what we have or to the claiming of new territories. That is not enough. We need to come with something else. We have to locate the undermining, creative and subversive forces that are operating in Amsterdam right now, and we have to find out how they express themselves. Where do they find their 'channels'? I think that a lot of alternative and autonomous culture has simply disappeared, and that part of it has retreated upon an island. But a lot of people just kept on going. A lot of initiatives exist for ten, fifteen years now, which means a big amount of continuity."

Frank: "A society is made up of people and they need time to build something. If they don't get that time anymore as a result of the obligation to have a regular job, the end is reached very soon." Nina: "There is a new trend now to have a regular job, but no more than four days a week, so you will still have enough time for this kind of things. I see that happening around me. But all these young people do not go to SALTO anymore. Radio and television are no longer their media. Maybe they think more of the web."

Geert: "What exactly can we say about that? Are there tactical interventions in the new economy of the net as far as bandwidth is concerned? I want to know that as well. There is a new medium now. How can we occupy that territory, temporary or not?"

Nina: "Frequently people come to the Digital City and XS4ALL to do 'streaming audio'.

Menno: "But how realistic is this? XS4ALL has been bought up by KPN Telecom (the former Dutch state-owned monopolist for telecommunication services). They can do their thing for another three years and then it is over. And what is left of the Digital Cit, three years from now?"

Nina: "The Digital City is still unsubsidized, but keeps clinging to her idealistic goals. That process could be strengthened if a lot of local media would come to us and say: we absolutely need the net, we want to have an extra server and a lot of harddisk-space, on which we can put a good archive and an independent search-engine. You can draw up such a program in no time and the Digital City is absolutely prepared to listen to that. I would love the idea of formulating such a package with people who have enough knowledge to do so, to see if it could work out."

Geert: "I also have the feeling that that chapter really has to start still, and that in Amsterdam we have to deal with the law of slowing down after a rapid start. We are in trouble now, because a lot has happened in the past five years. We are in a phase of consolidation, in which also the power relationships above us are changing fundamentally. We have to focus ourselves again on these developments and hopefully this will lead to new initiatives."