Iceland faces massive reduction of classical, jazz and world music broadcasting

Martin Cullingford2nd Dec 2013
Reykjavik, Iceland. Are Reykjavik listeners about to face massive cuts in classical music broadcasting?

Iceland’s state broadcaster Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV) announced the departure of 60 staff on Thursday – 20 per cent of its already-trimmed workforce – and unveiled severe cuts to programming which some insiders believe could see an end to broadcasts of classical music and jazz. Just under half of the corporation’s music staff were told they no longer had jobs last week and some were told to leave immediately. The move follows an ISK 500m (just over £2.5m) cut in RÚV’s funding package which will also see a reduction in the length and frequency of news broadcasts and the wholesale dropping of some programming strands. 

Iceland’s cultural radio station Rás 1, which before Thursday accounted for just 7 per cent of the broadcaster’s total budget across two radio stations and a television channel, has been particularly badly hit. The future of RÚV’s classical output looks bleak. Already off the air are the station’s baroque music show, its only jazz and world music shows, and the two shows which featured new music writing and contemporary music performance. Thursday night broadcasts of Iceland Symphony Orchestra concerts look precarious; the long-time presenter was made redundant last week, as was RÚV’s only remaining ‘tonmeister’ for producing broadcasts and recordings. 

RÚV music staff have written a letter of protest – which is gaining high-profile signatories – in which they claim job cuts are unnecessary and misguided. The letter states the cuts ‘reveal priorities that even go against the legal requirements of RÚV, which oblige the corporation to “fulfil the cultural needs” of the Icelandic nation’, adding: ‘We encourage the governing board of RÚV, the Icelandic parliament and the minister of culture to take action immediately.’ On a Facebook page set up to air concern about the cuts, some staff say they fear the station will be axed altogether. The Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto has used his own Facebook page to mobilise Nordic colleagues in defiance of the move, calling for the establishment of an internet radio station for classical, contemporary and alternative music in Iceland. The country’s second radio station Rás 2, which gave an early platform to artists including Björk and Sigur Rós, also faces a dramatic reduction in programming. 

Other prominent musicians have expressed anger and sadness at the developments. ‘I grew up listening to Rás 1 – it was a significant factor in my musical upbringing and introduced me to many great works, performers and ideas’, the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson said on Sunday, speaking exclusively to Gramophone. ‘To this day, it has remained a source of inspiration and discovery for me. It has offered ambitious, original and cutting-edge programming on music and the arts. It seems now that this has come to an end. I think it is incredibly sad and unfair to the Icelandic people.’

Iceland’s Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson expressed his sympathy with those who had lost their jobs but stated that RÚV is ‘a public limited company in which costs need to be rationalised’ like any other government department. RÚV’s Director General Páll Magnússon said the station would continue to provide ‘the best service possible’. He also claimed that while operating costs had been subject to severe restraints in the last five years, programming costs had remained untouched until now. 

When contacted by Gramophone, RUV was unable to specify details of its ongoing music provision other than referring to the press release issued on Thursday which states that 'these cuts will inevitably affect RUV's programming severely'. The corporation could not confirm that classical music is safe on Rás 1.

Andrew Mellor

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014