Our archives are not just archives and are not just for us.

Roberto Olla “Living Archives” EBU Diffusion Winter 2000/2001

Listen to the silence, let it ring on.

Joy Division, “Transmission”

If there is a lingering ‘taste’ to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)’s archives, it is not what historians would normally think of as an archival taste of paper, dust, or even mould, nor even the smell of magnetic tape, which used to be part of doing historical radio research.1 Instead, what I remember best is coffee of a higher quality than I am accustomed to in office spaces plus the buttery cookie assortment, available in industrial quantities next to the coffee machines for those in the EBU’s meeting rooms close to the basement room that held the archives. These flavours reflected the archive’s placement near the literal foundations of a working institution, yet somewhat out of sight and an afterthought to the organisation’s day-to-day deliberations. As visitors to the archive, we historians were welcomed into the institution as yet another class of international visitor to come through, and the availability of good coffee and cookies were a part of that role, and that welcome. In retrospect, that flavour is also a good index for the ambiguous position of the archive itself as both core and periphery of the institution.

The EBU is the federation of public service broadcasters in the European broadcasting area. It is best known publicly as the organiser of the Eurovision Song Contest but its activities stretch far beyond this into everything from contract law, to technical standards, and even to audiovisual archive preservation.2 Founded in 1950 and headquartered in Geneva, the organisation is the successor to a pre-Second World War institution, the International Broadcasting Union (IBU), which was founded in 1925. Upon the dissolution of the former, the EBU both adopted a similar structure and mode of working from its predecessor and also took over its archive. In 1946, the Eastern bloc founded a separate organisation, the Organisation Internationale de Radiodiffusion et Television (OIRT), with which the EBU formally unified on January 1, 1993.3 Some of the OIRT’s archive is now also housed in Geneva, while the rest remains in Prague, where the OIRT had been headquartered after 1950. Within its organisational archive, then, the EBU holds records of transnational broadcasting in Europe from the point of view of three different international broadcasting organisations (hereafter collectively ‘the organisations’), covering nearly a century.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, this historical archive hit a curious impasse: just as historians began increasingly to see it as a rich source for uncovering transnational histories of broadcasting in Europe, the organisation itself became increasingly unsure of the value of the papers taking up valuable space in its basement in Geneva.4 This tension is encapsulated in the fact that the publication of one of the first scholarly monographs based on material from the archive coincided more or less with the retirement of the organisation’s last fulltime archivist, Jean Cerantola, at the end of 1999.5 Perhaps more crucially, this will have also coincided with an increased digitisation of office communication and record-keeping. After this, the archive remained in the basement of the EBU in the care of the communication department, where its status became increasingly unclear. Particularly in the dawning digital age it was difficult to justify housing that bulk of paper in the expensive real estate of Geneva’s international Grand-Saconnex district. The archive was moved to an external storage facility in 2012 – which coincided ironically with the publication of Suzanne Lommers’ seminal monograph on the IBU based on its content.6 It remains there as of this writing, inaccessible to researchers, but occasionally accessed internally by the EBU itself.

For a historian of broadcasting it is very tempting to dwell on this most recent resounding and frustrating act of silencing, and the untold numbers of untold transnational stories of broadcasting it represents. Instead, however, I want to take it as an impulse to turn to the history of the archive itself with the questions its absence raises: why did it ever exist, how did its relationship to the organisations develop, and what were the internal and external functions of the records they held? Their silencing now invites us to ask when, where, and how the archival records were ever made to speak, and to whom? To remain in sonic metaphors, we might treat this silence as an echo that might help us sound out the relationship of the archive to the organisation, and the ways in which silence and silencing have been part of the structure of that relationship. I will argue here that considering the multiple ways in which this archive has been silent, and silenced, throughout its history allows us to better understand its nature and value, as well as that of the organisation to which it belongs.

Attending silence is of course not a new move in considering archives. Considerations of archives at least since Derrida have emphasised that, in their classical conceptualisation, silence is one of the defining features of archives. They are not meant to speak in and of themselves, but lie present but silent and guarded in ‘house arrest’ until called upon and animated, with the permission of the authority that holds them.7 Even prior to consignment, archival content, as well, is determined by what Eric Ketelaar has called ‘archivalization’: the ‘tacit’ narratives of what is worth preserving in the first place.8 As Ann Laura Stoler has argued in relation to colonial archives, keeping certain forms of information secret or silenced has been a key function in relation to the state, and as I will show here, privileging information for EBU members has been of similar importance for the EBU archives.9 Indeed, as we turn our attention to archives as subject rather than source, much of the work that goes into understanding them involves grasping the ways in which records enter the archive and how access is controlled. 10 As scholarship has since stressed, not all record- keeping and archival practices are alike, but have grown out of multiple traditions, forming an ‘archival multiverse’.11 In looking at European and US traditions, Terry Cook describes four successive paradigms to emerge successively in archival science, from records as evidence of past events, to archives serving memory, identity, and community.12 Cook highlights in particular the tension between archival work as evidence, devoted to the most direct possible witness to the past, and the archive as memory, where the archiving is seen also as serving an interpretive role in supporting memory processes.13

Capturing the specific practices of record-keeping and archiving of the EBU becomes all the more vital if we approach it as a radio archive – and I insist we must if we are to make sense of European radio’s past. Doing so makes another set of silences in the EBU archive become salient: it consists almost entirely of paper. It was never directly concerned with collecting or preserving sounds of, or for, radio, nor did it ever primarily exist for the documentation or production of radio sound. Josephine Dolan has long since warned against ‘collaps[ing] the distinction between the specificity of the sound archive and the more general terms of the radio archive’ to insist on the value of paper archives for radio research.14 Dolan argues that sound traces ‘cannot be isolated from the voices of the written policy statements about audition, selection criteria, scripts and performance standards that are anterior to the moment of transmission.’15 Indeed, the EBU archive holds deliberations on what kinds of radio were suited to ‘European’ consumption both before and after the Second World War.16 But such deliberations also go beyond the level of human performance into standards for cables and transmissions, and use of frequencies to avoid interference between stations, or most recently avoiding excess volume fluctuation between types of broadcast content.17 Beyond transmissions, it also contains deliberations on how to harmonise audience measurement for radio, both national and international.18 As such, considering the EBU archive leads us to question the extent to which a radio archive needs to be concerned with sound at all. Recently, Kristin Skoog and I have suggested that framing radio work first and foremost as ‘media history’ can often blind us to the ways such work was interlinked with other transnational movements and processes.19 Stepping away from a ‘media history’ frame also has implications specifically for how we approach the archive. First of all, it echoes calls for an expansion of what we consider ‘the radio archive’ to be, following (among other things) the US Radio Preservation Task Force’s warning to avoid ‘privileging sound recordings at the expense of contextualising paper documentation, and stress[ing] the need to consider non-broadcast forms of radio content.’20 Second, it invites us to consider the role of specific forms of archival knowledge in shaping what we know to be radio. In the case of the IBU, EBU, and OIRT, their place among the panoply of international organisations not only opens new frames on how we understand radio, but also offers new insights on the nature and power of archival documents and archival work in shaping radio.

Focusing on the silencing of the archive, then, involves thinking about the various processes and moments where records are gathered and bound off for privileged use within and by the institution. To link these processes to the content itself, I further focus here on the notion of the archive as witness. On a theoretical level, this is a useful term for thinking about the acts that go into making the archive, but also the purposes they are intended to serve. Witnessing has a particular link to the paradigm of records as evidence, where records ‘serve as trustworthy evidence of the facts, actions, and ideas of which they bear witness’.21 Exploring the work of witnessing involves following the attention of the institution toward specific events and knowledge. The more loaded term ‘witnessing’, as opposed to more seemingly neutral terms like ‘observing’ or ‘recording’, is intended to draw attention to the instrumentalisation of the records: in what arenas they were called upon to testify and for what purpose. As I will show here, defining, witnessing, and documenting developments in radio broadcasting across the continent and beyond were both central to the organisations’ general work and their archival practices. Following Stoler again, in examining these processes we begin to see the ‘archival grain,’ the categories and practices of knowledge in the archive.

Combining these concepts allows us to zero in on a number of processes intrinsic to both the organisations and the shape and function of the archive that emerged from them, and gives shape to my inquiry into its history. First, I will consider the EBU archive and its holdings in the light of the organisation’s structure and function as an explicitly and emphatically ‘apolitical’ body concerned with supporting public service broadcasting in a number of charged and potentially political fields. Second, in order to better grasp how the records were produced and placed within the organisations, I will examine more closely the work of archiving itself, to the extent that it can be reconstructed from the files. It examines which activities were witnessed and translated into the silent medium of paper, how and when they were consigned to the archive, and what and who went unwitnessed in the files. Finally, I will turn attention back to the roles and uses of the archive within the organisation, thinking backward from its present silence to evidence of previous roles.

Because the collection is currently beyond scholarly reach, this account builds on an archive of an archive: my notes, souvenirs, photocopies, digital photographs of documents and shelves from visits to the archive 2006-2010, as well as secondary works.22 The lack of a full-time archivist during this period meant that we did not have knowledge of some available finding aids (and indeed, only became aware of their existence after my last visit to the archive), so that it was largely up to researchers to locate relevant material by physically orienting within those parts of the collection that were open for research. While this proved a disadvantage for finding relevant material, it had some advantages for grasping the scope and nature of the collection as a whole. Contemplating the EBU archive from that vantage point – and once again, confronted with my own notes and sometimes blurry digital photos – we were confronted with what Mike Featherstone calls the ‘powerful counter-image of the archive: the archive as the repository of material which has only been loosely classified, material whose status is as yet indeterminate and stands between rubbish, junk and significance; material which has not been read and researched.’23 This also sums up the EBU’s own view of the archive at the point when it was put into external storage.24 While allowing us some insights into the nature of the EBU archive, this state of research naturally also contains the strong caveat that I cannot make any definitive statements particularly about absences in the collection, as these may have simply escaped my notice.

The Power of (Silent) Witness: An Archive of Practical Problems

To grasp the holdings of the archive, some consideration must be given to the nature of the organisations themselves. I will do this above all by comparing them with other, apparently similar organisations: national broadcasters, of which the organisations were composed, and intergovernmental organisations, which were key interlocutors for the IBU, OIRT and EBU. Besides highlighting the specific nature of the organisations, this also grants us some purchase on understanding the EBU archive as a radio archive.

The contrast with national broadcasting organisations is straightforward, but key. While they are composed of national broadcasters, the responsibility of the umbrella organisations was not directly to a listening (and later viewing) public, but to the member organisations. This was apparent from the very founding of the IBU in 1925. Apart from asserting the non-commercial nature of the organisation, Article 2 of the IBU’s initial statues lay out four aims:

  1. to establish a link between the various European broadcasting companies, whilst contemplating a future extension of this link to the organisations of other continents;
  2. to defend the interests of these companies;
  3. to centralise the study of all questions of general interest which have arisen and will arise from the rapid development of wireless telephony;
  4. to continue to carry out all plans or recommendations regarding broadcasting along lines favourable to broadcasting organisations. 25

While somewhat more broadly formulated, these aspects remain(ed) the core mission of the EBU and the OIRT, with the EBU laying greater emphasis on supporting members and developing broadcasting more generally than with centralised coordination and control, though this role has expanded somewhat with the growth of Eurovision as a central activity.26 Just as radio sound archives have primarily served the internal needs of radio production, so the documents collected in the EBU archive are collected foremost with service to the internal needs of the organisation and the members. The needs, demands, and influences of the members were not uniform, however. Indeed, Adrian Johns portrays the early years of the IBU from the British perspective as largely an extension of BBC power onto the continent, aimed at combatting commercial competitors that would broadcast to Britain (of which there were many, including Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy).27 Among other things, BBC controller Vice-Admiral Charles Carpendale was the IBU’s first president, and BBC programme director Arthur Burrows was the IBU’s first general secretary, who moved to Geneva to oversee day-to-day operations. Both were close allies of BBC director John Reith. This account notwithstanding, it was in fact a Swiss radio pioneer, Maurice Rambert, who organised the 1924 conference that led to the founding of the IBU in 1925, and whose Geneva roots played some part in its establishment there. Indeed, in spite of the great institutional influence and power of the larger nations, especially the United Kingdom via the BBC, the IBU and its successor organisations were also institutions where experts from smaller nations often held considerable sway.28 Taking these dynamics into consideration above all shows the limits of trying to understand the organisations as broadcasting institutions; while made up of broadcasting institutions, their activities and record-keeping are of a different order.

The EBU’s enduring location in Geneva allows us to view the organisations and their archives in a different frame: as international organisations. Visiting the EBU makes this comparison obvious: taking bus 5 from Geneva’s main train station to the EBU (stop ‘Le Pommier’), you will pass the EBU’s original location at the Rue de Varembé 1, across the street from the Palais des Nations and a few doors down from UN agencies International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with which the organisations work(ed) closely, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Further on, you will pass the International Labour Organization (ILO) and World Health Organization (WHO). In the archives of the ITU, but also in other organisations connected to the League of Nations and United Nations, you will find correspondence and documents of the IBU and EBU, just as you will find many documents generated by the ITU (notably maps) in the archives of the IBU and EBU technical sections.29 Amidst intergovernmental organisations, the IBU (and later EBU) stands out as a non-governmental organisation, indeed one of many that were founded close to the League of Nations, often composed of experts, particularly engineers and entrepreneurs. Such organisations, as Schot and Lagendijk have argued, developed a culture and practice of ‘technocratic internationalism’ in the interwar period that sought forms of technical harmonisation outside the realm of formal politics.30 They highlight such organisations’

working method for international cooperation which separated the technical from the political. (…) A common separation method was to ‘technify’ the discussion; in other words, to define certain issues as technical and non-political. These could then be discussed among engineers and other experts in order to determine the optimal solution.31

Fickers and Griset refer to this as the realm of ‘techno-diplomacy’, which combines both high levels of technical expertise with often informal channels and negotiations.32

In many ways, the IBU was part of this culture, and in succeeding it, the EBU took over many of its structures and traditions, though few, if any, of its personnel.33 While able to coordinate the efforts of their member broadcasters, the organisations operate(d) on an international level largely in an advisory role; as such, their power was, and remains, rooted not in any executive authority but in exclusive expertise and privileged knowledge. Already at its founding, members of the IBU decided that the organisation should not have strong executive authority.34 Perhaps one of the most telling signs of this status are the maps in the archives dating back to the 1920s and continuing to recent decades that mark the effective ‘territory’ of the organisation. This territory is not defined by national boundaries nor, by extension, the borders of the European Union, as is sometimes assumed, but the ‘European Broadcasting Area’ as designated by the ITU.35 Eligibility for membership in the EBU is similarly determined by a broadcaster’s being chartered or recognised by a nation that is a member of the ITU, a decision taken also to avoid internal political conflicts over membership.36 The OIRT, by contrast, did not have any regional boundaries at all.

EBU director Henrik Hahr wrote succinctly in a 1970 press release on the twentieth anniversary of the organisation, ‘The EBU deals on an international level with all the problems that confront broadcasters nationally.’37 Taking Hahr at his word, we can read the EBU archive fruitfully as an archive of broadcasting problems. This is inscribed in the institutional structure of the organisations, and, by extension, in the classification and placement of many of the archival documents in the EBU’s basement. These contain the minutes of meetings of the two major governing bodies of the organisation: an administrative council and an annual general assembly, where various problems are presented, discussed, and decisions made. Besides these main bodies, both the IBU and EBU are structured into departments that address specific aspects of broadcasting: besides programme exchange, the IBU also immediately formed technical and legal departments, which had counterparts in the EBU and OIRT.38 Notably, both these departments deal with largely silent aspects of broadcasting: the propagation and interference of electromagnetic waves, the ownership of intellectual property, and international regulations. These, in turn, were emphatically approached as practical, non-political issues. The first EBU president Ian Jacob stressed in retrospect that a core founding principle of the EBU was that

the Union should be a severely practical body and in no sense a political or propagandist organization. This principle ensured that Members (…) would know that they would get real value for their subscriptions and need only join if they were convinced that a European approach to their practical difficulties would be appropriate and helpful.39

This explicitly apolitical approach also enabled a low-level yet steady exchange between the EBU and OIRT. In keeping with a practice that considered technical issues as ‘non-political’, the first contacts between the two organisations was via the technical committees in 1957, followed by contacts between programme committees a short time later.40 The immediate problem to which the IBU was addressed at its founding in 1925 was the regulation and allocation of broadcasting frequencies, as transmitter strength grew more quickly than signal stability, and international interference became a major reception problem. This activity was central enough to the organisation that its own accounting of its twenty-year existence is structured around the various frequency agreements.41

This core technical activity was undertaken at a second centre, established in Brussels by the IBU’s engineering chief Raymond Braillard, which measured the strength and wavelength of broadcasting stations throughout Europe. Armed thus with both technological and diplomatic expertise, with Braillard the IBU became the foremost technical expert on the European airwaves, and the only authority competent to issue recommendations for – and monitor violations of – international agreements on use of the frequency spectrum.42 In fact, Braillard often offered technical solutions to stations operating in violation to help avoid actual diplomatic disputes,43 while at the same time allowing the IBU to agitate against stations like commercial Radio Luxembourg, as its successor the EBU did against offshore stations in the 1950s and 1960s.44 The technical centre and its documentation was thus a key part of the organisation’s attempted – or at least projected – political neutrality, which was carefully guarded, both in the tense years leading up to the Second World War, and in the Cold War that followed. During the Second World War, the centre actually became the most obvious sign of the IBU’s injured neutrality. In advance of the German invasion of Belgium, Braillard moved the centre’s equipment – and, the official IBU account notes, its archives – through France to Geneva, thinking it would be safe in neutral Switzerland.45 Ultimately, particularly with the influence of the Dutch IBU president Antoine Dubois, who was collaborating with German occupiers in his home country, it was sent back to Brussels and back into Nazi hands.46 This incident played no small role in the animosity that led to the IBU’s dissolution after the war. Some additional indication of the power of these measurements, and the vagaries of political neutrality is the fact that early OIR bulletins – also held in the EBU archive – have a section dedicated to Western violations of the 1948 Copenhagen frequency agreement.47

Approaching the archives of both the IBU and EBU as an archive of problems, one can also see a mode of work emerge within the organisation, in which monitoring and archiving play an important role. Like most international organisations, both the IBU and EBU worked frequently with questionnaires of the members, generating multiple reports on the state of various aspects of broadcasting across Europe, in terms of use and spread. A circular letter from 1932, penned by Arthur Burrows, illustrates the working style of questionnaire and report [see Fig. 2].48 This working style carried over into the EBU, as illustrated by a 1955 survey and report into ‘the present position and perspectives of VHF [FM] sound broadcasting in Europe’ developed by the technical committee.49 While compiling answers from the fifteen members that responded, the report also developed recommendations for use of FM not to create local services but for alleviating crowding on the medium wave band, and to develop new channels of national services.50 A recent description of the EBU’s media strategy group’s work indicates this basic process is still a core method of operation, with the final report and recommendations ‘only made available to EBU Members as part of the competitive advantage they obtain for their membership of the organisation.’51

While much of the work of creating and curating the archive has gone largely unpreserved (see below), it does contain the discussions that determined that the IBU archive would be largely silent, that is to say: why it does not house a sound library. Suzanne Lommers shows how early deliberations of establishing a central music archive in Geneva proved impractical due to import duties. In 1929 the administration took the decision, with the advice of the committee on rapprochement, that it would instead encourage national broadcasters to establish specific collections of records of available music for bilateral exchange, which the IBU would collect and publish.52 The first of these lists was circulated in 1938, and contained not only music, but also records of ‘events of great historical importance’ and sound effects.53 Developing such a clearing house system of virtual archiving has also been a recurring strategy when facing competition from commercial broadcasters or high costs of production for various genres with a limited following.54 Only with the advent of digital storage around the turn of the twenty-first century did the EBU itself store radio programmes centrally for member stations to download directly.

It is not possible in an article of this scope to give a full overview of all of the activities or materials held in the EBU collection, even just those related specifically to radio. Nevertheless, this small sketch and sample shows how the archive played a role in asserting the power of nominally powerless organisations on the international stage. In the archive, the broadcasting developments the organisations witnessed from members and global associates were translated and harmonised in the archive into practical technical questions, measurements, and statistics that emerged from the organisation in the form of maps, lists and reports. A core part of this work involved implicitly and explicitly silencing the political nature of many of the witnessed developments.

Turning Blind Eyes and Deaf Ears? The Silent Work of Archival Witnessing

As with many archives, one of the silences in the EBU archives is on its own formation and maintenance. Tracing the archival activity itself seems as much an archaeological endeavour, to be inferred from the documents and their organisation. Dating back into the 1920s, we see evidence of secretarial activity [see Fig. 1 and 2] recording the date of entry of correspondence into the institution, and the stamp ‘archives’ shows the further work of moving paper to the archive, but this movement itself is impossible to date: I can identify no clear variation between files from the 1930s and files from the 1990s. This designation thus may either have been made at the time, or as seems more likely, when the IBU archive was boxed up and ‘completed.’55 The stamps clearly indicate movement of documents within the organisation: in the case of correspondence, their entry into the paper bureaucracy of the organisation, and the stamp ‘archives’ signals their movement from the active files of the office to the out-of-sight and bounded-off space of the archive.

Figure 1 

Correspondence with the IBU office in Geneva, June 1931; note the stamp of incoming correspondence at lower left.

Figure 2 

Letter from IBU secretary Arthur Burrows, Sept 9, 1932, circulating a report compiled from a questionnaire. Note the stamp ‘Archives’ below the handwritten pencil notation of the box number and classification in the upper-right corner, which may not be contemporaneous with each other. Source: EBU Archives, Geneva, IBU archive, Box 74, Propagande de l’Union des members.

When considering the social lives of these papers, however, we can say that the great bulk of the papers in the archive were essentially born archival. From letters to member organisations to departmental reports, and especially meeting minutes from working groups to the governing bodies of the Administrative Council and General Assembly, each was assigned a number in series at the time they were produced, which rendered them findable for quotation and cross-referencing. Thus when reports of the various committees were discussed either in Administrative Council or General Assembly meetings, the minutes of those meetings usually only mentioned the document number. Conversely, correspondence and meetings of individual committees could also extract and quote specific decisions of the governing bodies and reports [see Fig. 3].

Figure 3 

Letter from A.M. Dean, Secretary of the EBU Sound Broadcasting Programme Committee, to member organisations, December 10, 1964 (reference 38.463). Source: EBU Archives, Geneva. EBU Radio Committee files, box RC4. Note numbered references to three other documents: a report of the Sound Broadcasting Programme Committee, a decision of the Administrative Council and a previous letter from the committee.

The numbers and stamps indicate the secretarial and archival work that went into producing, classifying, identifying, and referencing, but identifying the people who performed this administrative labour proves more difficult. My notes do not record personnel files for any of the organisations, so I am not able to say whether the generations of clerical workers who transcribed the files, typed the memos and took meeting minutes are knowable from the archive, beyond initials sometimes given in the upper-left corner of documents. In addition to secretarial work, the anonymous labour of countless translators is also visible – but largely uncredited – in the full range of meetings and reports produced in both French and English [see Fig. 4]. Small hints at the personnel comes in the IBU’s report of its wartime activities, noting that the entirety of the remarkably small office staff in Geneva were laid off September 14, 1939. It lists three men and nine women, whose mostly Francophone- or Germanic-sounding surnames do not allow us to draw any clear conclusions about their nationality in a Swiss office. Only one ‘Madame Riley’ makes a possible suggestion of her being international staff.56 Of these, four – all women – were subsequently rehired, two of them on a part-time basis. This does, however, make some suggestions about the gendered division of labour in much of the office, highlighting the fact that much of the archival work, at least in the early years, was most likely carried out by women.

Figure 4 

Files of the EBU Radio (Programme) Committee as the author found them in 2010. The two on the left are the end of the series of reports and meetings of the committee in English (labelled as such in French), which ran up to 1999, and then the parallel documents in French begin from the committee’s founding in 1965.

This probably gendered labour of file production is thrown into relief by another silence, which is the atmosphere of a ‘gentleman’s club’ that prevailed at a lot of meetings, for which there are numerous small hints, but very little, if any, visible in the papers. In the IBU, the BBC’s Isa Benzie (1902-1988), then Foreign Director, stood out as the only woman in a sea of men at IBU meetings.57 In part, this was also very much a feature of the implicitly and explicitly ‘gentlemanly’ nature of the organisation that Lommers highlights.58 The lone box of photographs (58) in the IBU collection contains some hints of IBU gatherings, very often at various Swiss resorts [see Fig. 5 and 6]. There are further anecdotal hints that such cordial, if not jovial, atmospheres tended to prevail in at least early EBU meetings as well; indeed the first EBU President, Ian Jacob, claimed his initial resistance to founding a television programme exchange was a suspicion ‘with some justification’ that delegates were simple looking for ‘another annual jolly.’59 Indeed, scholars have repeatedly stressed the importance of informal networks in the work of international communication regulation.60 The paper files beyond the photographs invite us to consider what other staff witnessed and were involved in these events, where precisely they were included and what their roles were in selecting meeting commentary for summary and preservation in the meetings.

Figure 5 

A souvenir from a gathering with American broadcasters from NBC and CBS, presumably 1939, which highlights the friendly rivalry, the role of the IBU as ‘neutral’ arbiter, as well as the gendered social culture of the gathering. Source: EBU archives, Geneva, IBU archive, box 58 photographs.

Figure 6 

Raymond Braillard (centre) with Chief Engineer of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), O.B. Hanson (left), and another broadcasting expert in between meetings at Ouchy, 1941. Source: EBU archives, Geneva, Archives of the International Broadcasting Union, box 58 photographs.

The Witness Within – Uses of the Archive

While the housing of the archive as I encountered it, first in a dark, seldom-visited basement room and now in an anonymous storage facility, attests to its more recent (lack of) use, its temporal reach offers testament to its past value. Documents dating back into the 1920s show that the collection has moved with the institution, from the IBU at 13 Cours des Bastions, across the lake to the first EBU headquarters in the Rue de Varembé 1 in 1950 and then presumably into the basement of the current headquarters at L’Ancienne-Route 17A when the EBU moved there in 1978. As noted, the archive of the technical centre was considered important enough to rescue from Brussels during the war, and was presumably moved again when the technical centre moved to Geneva in 1993.

When I visited the EBU, the files of the legal department were strictly off limits for outside researchers, presumably as they could contain internal legal opinions, as were the files of the strategy group, which also would have contained information for members only.61 It seems likely that the legal department made more use of its files than other departments: its members did come occasionally to the archives during my visits. For the legal department, the archive seemed to still serve what Cook calls the ‘evidence’ paradigm, offering precise records of past legal analysis, opinion, and precedent. The archive seemed to serve two core purposes then. First, quite simply, it was a repository of older papers from the various departments, each of which was more or less in charge of their own archiving.62 Second, faintly mirroring the core purpose of most broadcasting archives, it served an important function in media production – here a process of memory. In this case it was not audiovisual production, but the communication department’s production of anniversary booklets, largely at five-year intervals, many of which were once again stored in the basement, along with the organisation’s annual holiday greeting cards.

A historical hint of the former importance and use of the archive is found in the small book that the IBU produced in 1945, noting particularly that the war afforded the opportunity to reorganise the archive and library, and indeed use its documents to produce various publications (including the book itself):

In 1942 its information service, comprising the archives and library, were reorganised and grouped together into a “Broadcasting Documentary Centre” (Centre de documentations radiophonique). This new arrangement allows of considerable development. The service consists in collecting and in making translations of all material from any part of the world which has to do with broadcasting. This material has to do with laws and decrees, statistics, miscellaneous matter concerned with the composition of programmes, with school broadcasting with recordings, authors’ rights, jurisprudence, etc. In addition to the articles published on these subjects in the Monthly Bulletin and research undertaken at the request of members[,] the Office issues annual graphs on the number of receiving sets in Europe and on radio density throughout the world. It has also issued a catalogue of its library and one of the legislative documents and in 1944 it edited a memorandum on “Broadcasting and the Manufacture of Records” 63

At a time of lean income and staff, they even hired a Mr Bournet and a Miss Monge to oversee the work. The library contained not only the IBU’s own publications, of which there was a monthly bulletin, and a growing amount of reports on various aspects of broadcasting, but also a library in numerous languages consisting of grey literature and books about broadcasting. These, too, were transferred to the EBU at its founding with the archive. Booklets for the twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversary of the EBU suggest that the library contained books reviewed in the EBU Review, and sometimes compiled into its own publications on specific topics such as children’s programming or broadcasting in society.64 In 2008, shortly before it was removed, the EBU library had some 4,000 volumes dating back into the 1920s, and on into the end of the twentieth century.65 It is not clear when these volumes fell into disuse, and indeed, what, if any use was made of these services by any of the member organisations.

An Uplifting Conclusion?

I began this exploration with the frustrating silencing of the EBU archive for historical research, and the lingering taste of its ambiguous position within the organisation. Reflecting on the archive from the point of view of an academic historian, what Wolfgang Ernst has argued of archives more generally has emerged here:

The archive is not the place of collective memories in a given society but rather the place of classifying, sorting (out) and storing data resulting from administrative acts, representing a kind of cybernetic feed-back option of data back to present procedures. Archived data are not meant for historical or cultural but for organizational memory (such as the state, business or media); real archives link authority to a data storage apparatus.66

As we have seen here, the work of the archive has been like that of the organisations themselves: in this case as a repository of expertise that strategically re-emerges as harmonised practical knowledge and weight of authority. Like archives of individual public service broadcasters, this archive was mostly not kept with memory in mind, but unlike them, the EBU’s primary orientation is not toward a public in any broad sense, but toward its member institutions. If we want to understand the most recent silencing of the archive, we need to grasp it in this light: what does it mean that this data storage apparatus has been separated from the organisation?

With the archive now removed from the EBU’s basement, to understand this final silencing, we need to step outside it, figuratively speaking, and witness it from the rest of the organisation itself. So let us now close the door, let the light on the electronic lock turn red again, walk down a short hall – perhaps grabbing one last cookie from by the coffee machine on the way – get into the lift, and take it to the top floor, where it will open on to the EBU’s glassed-in rooftop canteen. This is where we researchers took lunch breaks alongside EBU staff and other visitors. The conversations here in many ways echoed the voices we would ‘hear’ in the files in the basement. French and English murmur and mix in a wide variety of accents; when we were actually made privy to the discussions, as we occasionally were, they too bore a strong resemblance to the discussions we had been reading in the archive.67 One engineer explained his work to us by unfurling a current ITU map of the television network in the European broadcasting region, from a base map identical to the ones we’d seen in the cellar. All attest to enduring efforts to make sense of what a public service approach to broadcasting and media is in the current age. But these processes of memory seem to have not run via the archive.

It seems it is not the organisational culture and set of practices that have changed radically, but the nature of data storage and retrieval. The fate of the EBU archive partly reflects the passing of the paper-based office environment where, in the increasingly digital flow of information, paper documents slip out of sight and mind of the organisation. The archives had become a location of paper that was no longer in circulation – and that people wanted out of their offices – but which could not be thrown away. It is somewhat ironic that preserving broadcasting archives for posterity is a topic which the EBU has also taken up with enthusiasm.68 It is not hypocritical, however, in light of the organisation’s orientation toward their members. It is also noteworthy that the EBU’s boldest efforts toward its opening archives toward public memory are related to its own most public-facing activity, the Eurovision Song Contest. 69 The bold assertion Suzanne Lommers and I made years ago that the EBU archives are ‘the other public service’ seems difficult to maintain without a deeper reflection on the problems of what a transnational public actually means in this context.70 Recent years have indeed seen a push to include broadcasting archives in the public service remit of broadcasters, with online platforms such as EUScreen, the BBC Genome, and ARD Retro offering unprecedented access to broadcasting heritage.71 As I have shown here, as much as public service broadcasters are based on openness, the power and effectiveness of the international broadcasting organisations also relied on multiple silences, as part of a service provided to members to help them manoeuvre in the increasingly uncertain environment.