A Window to the World: How the radio led Iceland into nationhood
It’s Christmas Eve in Iceland. Snow is gently falling. The tree is up, the table set, and the family gathers together. But there’s one event which truly marks the arrival of Christmas in households across the country: the ringing of church bells on the radio.
“Right before the bells ring at 6.00pm, there’s always a moment of silence,” Haukur Ingvarsson tells me, with a gleam in his eye. “It’s almost as if the ghost of Christmas floats into the living room.” Haukur is an author and literary scholar who spent many years as a host and programmer at Iceland’s national radio, RÚV.
While in other countries, radio may have been relegated to gyms and elevators, in Iceland it still enjoys a privileged place in people’s homes and their hearts. When you look at its history, it’s easy to see why – radio gave Iceland’s small, dispersed population a way to connect to each other and to the world, playing a crucial role in the country’s development as a nation in the 20th century.
Connection and education
When a new technology known as radio broadcasting was reported on in Icelandic papers early in the 20th century, local scholars quickly saw what it could mean for the country. While its practical uses, such as broadcasting weather forecasts to fishermen at sea, were quickly recognised, it was also seen as a medium that could make the highest education accessible to all Icelanders – no matter how remote their homes.
With the arrival of radio, those who rarely received news from beyond their doorstep could suddenly listen to orchestral music in their living room or learn about the latest discoveries in science. A sheep farmer in the Westfjords and a merchant in Reykjavík now had access to the same entertainment and education, and perhaps for the first time, felt like part of a single nation. Guðmundur Finnbogason, a prominent scholar at the time, touted the radio as “the world’s best home improvement device. It makes the whole country one debate chamber, concert hall, church, university.”
Language and culture
Though radio was a brand-new technology, in Iceland it was seen as a continuation of an ancient tradition known as the baðstofa. “The baðstofa was a warm place where people came together in the evenings to do some kind of handiwork,” Haukur tells me. “And it often was the case that whoever knew how to read well, would read for the others while they were working.” Now the whole country was a single baðstofa, and the farm’s best reader replaced by learned scholars, and musicians trained in Europe’s conservatories.
From the radio’s first days in Iceland, university professors were contracted to lecture on their area of expertise, and emphasis was placed on making the information accessible to all Icelanders. “One thing the radio did was it taught people about new concepts and taught them new words for these concepts,” Haukur says. “In that way, it had a lot of influence in disseminating new words.”
Not only did the radio ensure news could travel quickly around Iceland, it was the first media source that aimed to be politically neutral. In early 20th-century Iceland, all newspapers were backed by political parties. Yet when Parliament first laid down some guidelines for the establishment of a national radio service, politicians of all stripes agreed the medium should be impartial. The radio thus became a platform for discussing social issues instead of pushing political views.
Reaching for the moon
The establishment of a national television station in 1966 did not upset radio’s role in Icelandic society. This was partially because Icelandic television did not have the technology to broadcast live until 1971. “The radio continued to be immediate,” Haukur says. “It could be live. It could report on events right away. Television was always a step behind.”
Indeed, until 1983, the Icelandic television station took a month-long summer vacation in July, and until 1987, it broadcast only six days a week (when programming on Thursdays was finally introduced). Though an older medium, radio was cutting edge in comparison. “In 1969, there were special notices published in the papers explaining that Icelanders didn’t have the technology to broadcast live television, so they couldn’t show the moon landing. And the TV station was also on summer break, so the recordings weren’t even broadcast until the TV started up again. But there was a really fantastic and ambitious radio broadcast of the moon landing.”
From 1930 to 1983, RÚV operated a single channel. After much demand from the public, a second channel was launched in 1983. RÚV only recently launched its third channel, RÚV núll (RÚV Zero) with programming largely targeted to a young audience.
Sunna Axels and Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir host a feminist talk show on the channel called Smá pláss (A Little Space). They invite specialists to discuss various topics related to feminism in an informal setting. The two say radio has many advantages as a medium for difficult subjects like abuse and discrimination. “Having it on the radio, there’s a lot less pressure,” says Sunna. “You can focus on what you’re saying instead of how you look or your body language. Sometimes I even forget we’re recording, especially when talking about personal experiences.”
“Since we’re talking about sensitive and personal topics, I think it’s a lot more comfortable when our faces aren’t immediately attached to them. Because we’re sharing so much, we can be a little bit behind the curtain,” Elín adds.
A common thread
Icelanders are now more plugged in than ever, and many consume more media from abroad than from their home country, including when it comes to podcasts and radio. This means the national radio has more competition than ever. While keeping listeners interested will require continued effort, for the moment RÚV still serves as a unifying thread among Icelanders.
“I think there’s a certain kind of togetherness in the radio,” Elín reflects. “Because it’s accessible no matter where you are. It’s something you can have in common with anyone else in Iceland no matter where they are or where they’re from. It’s a part of some kind of basic national spirit. Like on Christmas Eve. My mom always puts on Channel 1 to hear the bells ring in Christmas.”
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Iceland Review is the longest running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.