BRUSSELS — “This is a wonderful moment in radio history. We’re opening up the digital page, offering new possibilities, more creativity, new jobs and a new dynamic for a medium that looks back on a century. It’s a great time for radio, for Bel RTL and the start of 25 years (and many more) to come.” That’s how Eric Adelbrecht, RTL Belgium general manager for radio, summarized Bel RTL’s 25th anniversary on Sept. 2.
Eric Adelbrecht is general manager for RTL Belgium Radio.
On that very same date, 25 years ago in 1991, Bel RTL surprised the French-speaking Belgian community with a new approach. The station was born out of the commercial RFM radio network (owned by Groupe Rossel) when RTL daughter TVi and Rossel set up a joint venture to launch the country’s first commercial general interest radio network.
“At the time, it took quite some courage to launch a new radio station and Bel RTL had to start from scratch, competing against public broadcaster RTBF, the already popular Radio Contact, as well as new players on the market, such as Radio Nostalgie,” remembered Adelbrecht. “But the combination of high-quality programs and professional staff turned out very positive — Bel RTL rapidly boosted its audience reach to become the leading station in Wallonia.”
Adelbrecht applauded his predecessor and the first Bel RTL General Manager Francis Goffin (currently director general of RTBF Radios) for preparing and launching the project. “From day one there was synergy with RTL television, the power of radio shows like ‘Les Grosses Têtes,’ keen marketing and an experienced ad sales house … Bel RTL had it all — the ‘Wow’ effect.”
In June 2006, Radio Contact joined the RTL radio group. The 1980-founded commercial radio network targeted younger audiences, offering a hits format. The symbiosis of Bel RTL, eyeing the +35 age group, and the perfectly complementary Radio Contact was (and still is) essential in RTL’s internal strategy. “We know exactly what audience we’re making radio for,” said Adelbrecht, who actually started his radio career as a presenter at Radio Contact.
After more than a decade of leading the French Belgian radio landscape, Bel RTL was being challenged by its competitors. Adelbrecht admitted that the station’s second episode was “a little bit more complicated. We had to reinvent Bel RTL, find a new model, which wasn’t evident at the time.”
Bel RTL’s On-Air Studio
Bel RTL, until then the undisputed number one station in Belgium with a solid market share of around 20 percent, saw its audience melting away and began experiencing difficult times.
“But in less than three years we found a new dynamic, introduced new formats and gave new meaning to the ‘radio généraliste’ [full-service general interest radio] Bel RTL is. We simply had to challenge ourselves in a changing world, with new radio consumption and an audience that’s expecting more from radio than just broadcasts. We asked the question: How could we seduce our listeners?” continued Adelbrecht.
Part of the strategic plan to bring Bel RTL back to the forefront was the introduction of new technologies. “Bearing the adage ‘Bel RTL, anywhere, anytime,’ we decided to steer away from the pure ‘audio’ path radio had been following as one of the last analog media in these digital times,” he said.
“In 1999, we added TV images to Bel RTL’s morning drive bracket, and honestly, the fact that today, we have been able to win back our audience, is a direct result of being both active and attractive on TV, podcast, streaming and other platforms. It’s this dynamic, developed a decade ago, that has now proved to be a winning strategy, followed by public and commercial broadcasters nationwide. They had to follow because this is key in the future of radio.”
Bel RTL also pioneered its active presence on social media. Until a few months ago, this task was taken on by the existing editorial and production staff. “But we realized that this type of communication required a dedicated team, putting together specific content, adding extra value like video, pictures and comments to what we bring on radio,” said Adelbrecht.
“Let’s face it, 30 years ago, listeners sent postcards to their radio station, then came the telephone and text messages. Today it’s all about social media. Thanks to investing in a social media task force at Bel RTL, already today we note a positive evolution on our Facebook pages, Twitter and Instagram. I believe this is one of the cornerstones of our future strategy.”
Thierry Piette is Bel RTL’s technical and IT director.
At press time, the station’s social media team consisted of five staffers and a digital manager, but Adelbrecht predicted that, in the short term, two more people would come onboard.
With the current broadcast licenses coming due in July 2017, the future of radio in the south of Belgium is somewhat hazy. It’s the government’s prerogative to publish the procedures and tenders to apply for FM frequencies, to be allocated by November next year.
“But today there’s apparently no sign of a consensus within the government. The administration hasn’t come to a conclusion on the matter so I expect the current licences will be prolonged for at least six months,” Adelbrecht predicted. “But the good news is that a new frequency plan will safeguard the continuation of our activities for the next nine years.”
Adelbrecht was quite skeptical about the Belgian French community government’s plans to simultaneously reallocate FM frequencies and introduce DAB+ and pleaded for an extended transition period.
“We must make sure our audience wants to shift to DAB+, that the automotive sector joins in and that consumers have the equipment. Once DAB+ has been introduced and 75 percent of the audience tunes in, FM-shutdown is feasible. It’s crucial that we maintain both our market share and the power of radio as a medium,” he advocated.
Thierry Piette, Bel RTL’s echnical and IT director witnessed the station’s launch in 1991 as responsible for RTL Belgium’s technical and information services.
Serge Jonckers hosts “Club Music” on Saturdays between noon and 1 p.m.
Looking back 25 years, Piette highlighted some of Bel RTL’s technical milestones. “First of all, Bel RTL was put together as a series of franchise stations — it was our mission to forge them into one network offering a single program, broadcast live and on all transmitters from day one,” he remembered.
“Alongside this technical masterpiece, we had to create a radio with a strong news department. Bel RTL was the first private radio station with a professional news team. In addition, we gathered information from our various newsrooms and used it for our regional news-bulletins for the Liège, Namur, Charleroi and Brussels area.”
The strategic combination of radio (Bel RTL) and TV (RTL Télévision) was another Bel RTL strength, with the mutual use of audio sources on both platforms. “A good radio ‘phoner’ was perfectly fit for use on TV and, without any extra studio work, a television interview could immediately be inserted in a radio program, without anyone leaving his desk,” continued Piette.
“This synergy, offering content and digital transfer for radio and TV is handled by an internally-developed software together with media asset management software — a tool allowing cross-media use of all this content. Over the years, RTL has compiled a true treasure archive — the TV archives have been digitized since 1984. And through the media asset software, we can also interchange content with RTL France.”
Although all of the advertising aired on Bel RTL’s airwaves was digitally produced by Belgium-based OPNS, Piette was in charge of digitizing the overall production process, preparing it for digital signal distribution. “We built our digital production, music scheduling and archiving system based around Netia’s Radio-Assist range of digital audio products and we have grown organically alongside Netia ever since. The result is the Air-DDO broadcast software.”
One of Piette’s prime objectives was to optimize Bel RTL’s coverage and broadcast quality. A team of four engineers installed new transmitters, new antenna’s and did research on new antenna-sites.
“In the early days, our air broadcast chain was completely analog, with terrestrial lines from [telecom provider] Belgacom carrying the signal to the respective transmitters,” he said. “In 2003 we started using Belgacom’s digital data system with Systembase X21 codecs. In 2008 we switched to the Proximus Explore network, using VDSL connections with APT IP codecs, which drastically cut our transmission costs.”
Simultaneously with the transition to the Explore network, Bel RTL also put in place a backup satellite connection, making its broadcast chain fully redundant.
The RTL House in Brussels is the home of the station’s broadcast architecture: all programming content, including advertising, is transmitted from the station’s main machine room to the 27 FM frequencies, with Rohde & Schwarz, RVR and Itelco transmitters, in the south of Belgium.
“The big advantage of the Bel RTL’s ‘full-service’ format is that we have maximum flexibility when it comes to local programs,” said Piette.
“For instance, during elections, we can either choose to produce the content in our central studio or, let’s say, in our regional office in a certain region. It’s quite an unusual practice for a small country like Belgium, I daresay.” Bel RTL’s signal also runs on the VOO cable network, via satellite and on the Proximus TV ADSL service.
Today, Bel RTL is using three studios for on-air broadcasts and production. Built around two Studer On-Air 3000 consoles, the Bel RTL radio configuration consists of the Netia Radio-Assist production and music scheduling software, and the OPNS tool for promotional clips.
With its in-house developed “Intranet Radio” tool, Bel RTL offers a powerful tool allowing staffers to upload and centralize content for use during programs. From traffic information, weather bulletins to presenter names — the system gathers metadata for all external audio sources.
“Producers, journalists and broadcast managers have access to the Intranet Radio — they ‘harvest’ these metadata from our ERP network and add them to the program info. The tool is also used for drawing up the program roster or assigning presenter details to the program information,” said Piette.
Already in 1999, Bel RTL pioneered its morning drive radio show “Bel RTL Matin” on RTL-Tvi’s TV channels, implementing the first TV images alongside its radio broadcasts. Next came a first version of visual radio in 2008 with sister station, Radio Contact.
“The big challenge was to add images without changing the technical side of radio, and to maintain the medium’s flexibility. We were the first to make sure that the radio engineer need not worry about TV and could concentrate on radio. But the first steps were difficult,” admitted Piette.
“Three years ago, we completely reshaped our technical infrastructure, with professional TV equipment. We have put in place an automated Multicam Radio visual radio system (the software was developed in-house), compatible with the Netia Radio-Assist Air DDO software. Today, with ‘Bel RTL Radiovision,’ we have a 100 percent fail-proof and fully automated system for the broadcast of music clips, graphics and ‘companion ads’ where we display company logos during radio promotions.”
Bel RTL is, through the Radio H holding company (grouping the activities of Radio Contact and Bel RTL), a subsidiary of RTL Belgium. The station employs 90 staff members who work in the RTL House headquarters and regional centers. Advertising is handled by sales house, IP
The most recent ratings (CIM, August 2016) show a market share of 14.29 percent, accounting for an average of 590,000 listeners, for Bel RTL, that is preceeded only by group-member Radio Contact.
Marc Maes reports on the industry for Radio World from Antwerp, Belgium.