BREAKING NEWS - WE ARE 20!!
Twenty years ago a tiny radio station with big ambitions went live on the Geneva airwaves. WRG made its debut on June 25 1996 and our very own Mark Butcher was part of that pioneering launch...
“Thank you for listening for 20 years – and more recently for joining the WRS digital community. It may be hard to believe when you look at my youthful face that WRS has been in our lives for 20 years! I know that I’ve been very lucky. The truth is that WRS is embedded in my life. Most frequently asked question? What time do you get up? 4am is the short answer - and it’s an honour!” - Mark Butcher
But it has to be said that Mark’s wasn’t actually the first voice on Geneva’s brand new English-language broad-caster... Canadian journalist Ann Crossey - arriving at WRG with little more than a guide book and a box of cassette tapes - was the first to go LIVE. But although she was new in town the Guardian-trained journalist was ready for the challenge, which was backed by Bern-based Swiss Radio International. Leaving Toronto as a student and conquering London’s tough Fleet St in the 1980s had given her a sense of adventure and a keen eye for news:
We basically hit the ground running. SRI decided to support English-language broadcasting in Geneva and put together a small launch team. I distinctly remember having pretty limited French and no knowledge of the city. But you learn fast when you’re straight into the studio, writing news bulletins, interviewing, talking to people and – probably the most important aspect – listening to the audience.
As well as being the first voice on WRG, Ann pioneered a successful daily phone-in show.
People called in to comment on all sorts of subjects – from diplomatic immunity to English as a Swiss national language. It was interesting and exciting, but also slightly unnerving as we were live on air. There was no delay button, no way to filter the calls. But I knew my listeners and I knew I could trust them!
With a 6.30am Breakfast Show (Mark was on the relatively cushy DriveTime slot!), Ann was in the studio by 4.30am, gathering news from a Reuters wire feed as well as scanning a bank of TV screens.
This was pre-Internet/pre-digital and the tools of the trade were turntables, cassettes, a tape splicer and a roll of sticky tape.
It was absolutely hectic - slapping cassette tapes in for jingles and recordings, researching an interview from piles of paperwork, checking Reuters and the Swiss news feeds in French and German.
In September 1998 Ann’s professionalism was tested to the limits, with reports that Swissair flight 111 from New York to Geneva was missing. Live on air Ann announced the terrible news as it came in from Reuters – the aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the loss of all 229 passengers and crew. As Geneva airport struggled to cope with the media pressure it was all hands on deck at WRG fielding a flood of emergency calls from distressed families and friends.
It was incredibly traumatic and I remember very clearly checking the messages again and again, hoping there’d been a mistake. Then suddenly the news was breaking around the world. We also knew it was a hugely important flight to many of our listeners and when we finally received a passenger list that was probably the saddest moment. But I do believe that WRG fulfilled an incredible role that day, in fact the one that it was designed for. Helping so many people make sense of what had happened brought us closer to the community.
Ann was widely praised for her news coverage and empathy that day – but she could also think on her feet when high profile guests were completely disarming! For example, she interviewed the Dalai Lama several times.
He would laugh and smile constantly, finding so much amusement in being interviewed. I also spoke to Linda McCartney about an exhibition of her artwork in Fribourg and she was lovely — very friendly and not at all starry! Sadly it was the last media interview that she did before she died.
After a stint on DriveTime (“I loved it – a chance to get my life back!”) Ann eventually left WRG in 2002 to join the media team at the International Committee of the Red Cross. But she remains a keen WRS listener and misses the buzz of live radio.
I met the most amazing people who were passing through Geneva and I met locals and listeners with incredible stories. Often it was seat-of-the-pants stuff but it was always fascinating.
*Mark actually took a break from 2000 to 2002, joining a Swiss start-up working with the Ibiza summer club scene. Well, someone had to do it...
Here’s to the next 20!
Wish you were here!
Why not wish WRS a Happy Birthday this summer with a postcard from your travels? Or send it from home if you’re on a Staycation ... And after we’ve read all your cards they’ll go straight into a grand draw to win a fantastic trip for two to London with SWISS! Packing in a hurry? Print this ‘postcard’ straight from this page and pop it in the post to us.