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For Finland and beyond

Finland’s national public service broadcasting company YLE has gone through some major changes lately. The new tax might be argued about, but at the same time the company receives kudos for promoting Finnish music abroad.

By Andrew Mellor

One morning in March 2012, Finns awoke to their state broadcaster Yleisradio (YLE) suddenly looking a little different. The vast majority of the populace probably didn’t even notice, but YLE’s logo had morphed subtly yet surely into a different form. Gone were the stern, prison-like bars positioned either side of the three emboldened upper-case letters ‘YLE’. The letters themselves appeared rather different, too: a new, playful and modernist font now cast them in lower case, ‘yle’. The whole was newly framed in a neat turquoise square with rounded corners, giving off a sort of welcoming, gregarious pride.  

This might be a magazine about sounds rather than images, but the detail of YLE’s change in corporate identity speaks volumes. Last year the broadcaster went through the most significant development in its recent history: the introduction of a new state-levied tax to fund its operations. Now every adult in Finland contributes €22 a month towards the upkeep of the corporation, whether they own a television or not. YLE predicted that the new tax would mean “stronger ties with our audience and increased responsibility”. The new logo appears to emphasise that new engagement with the public without sacrificing any sense of authority.  

The winner: music  

If YLE’s new and umbilical financial relationship with every adult in Finland is sharpening up its commitment to public service,

one winner is music. The corporation is initiating a steep increase in access to live performances, particularly on its television and internet platforms. YLE’s annual report describes it in corporate terms as a “revised strategy”. Executive producer of YLE’s classical music department Miikka Maunula is more straightforward: “We have a whole team here, we have the equipment, we have the orchestra [RSO, the Radio Symphony Orchestra] and we have the Musiikkitalo (Helsinki Music Centre). Why spend all this money and have all these people if we are not able to make television broadcasts?”  

In a sense, it’s a coincidence of chronology. YLE has found itself with an owning share in the Musiikkitalo, Helsinki’s new state-of-the-art concert hall which boasts a wealth of inbuilt broadcasting equipment. At the same time its resident orchestra is about to welcome a conductor who told this magazine in 2011 (FMQ, 2/11) of the need to “use all means available” to ensure that great music isn’t isolated from society. It was obvious he had one eye on YLE’s potential reach beyond radio broadcasts. Including, of course, the internet.  

“Live media streams of concerts are the latest innovation we have had since the opening of the Musiikkitalo,” says Miikka Maunula. “All RSO concerts are broadcast with a live picture on Areena [YLE’s online television and catchup service] and for others like Helsinki Philharmonic, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra concerts and some performances by visiting orchestras, we will have not only radio broadcasts but live pictures too.” It’s partly about convenience. “When we played at Finlandia Hall, we always had to bring the television cameras with us from the broadcasting centre,” says Tuula Sarotie, intendant of the RSO. “Now we have cameras installed in the hall, so we may only need to bring one or two. It’s a lot cheaper and a lot easier.”  

But it’s also about aesthetics. The Musiikkitalo’s white stage, dark walls and playful angles work exceptionally well on screen. The coverage of the opening ceremony in 2011 was a masterclass in event broadcasting that hit precisely the right celebratory-yet-assured tone. Presenters arrived ‘live’ by tram, talked backstage, mingled in the foyers and were overlaid by colourful angled captions on-screen that neutralised any sense of pretentiousness and echoed the newly unveiled architecture. It felt like an extension of those very Finnish values communicated by YLE’s new logo.  

Presentation styles are providing the biggest challenge for classical music broadcasters worldwide, many of them faced with declining audiences. “The tone and style of our broadcasting has changed quite a lot in recent years, I think with the need that it won’t change any more,” says Miikka Maunula. “We’ve tried to widen the perspective about how people talk. We’re not missing out factual information, but we’re not concerning ourselves too much with opus numbers, dates and major and minor keys,” he explains. “One of my main tasks has also been to bring the atmosphere of the concert hall to the listeners, more like a sports event. We’re doing more interviews with conductors and soloists, and using more journalists backstage. These are unique things that Spotify doesn’t have.”  

Where’s the competition?  

The corporation’s flagship radio station YLE Radio 1 has a broad cultural remit that stretches far beyond classical music. During the day it can sound a little clunky and lacking in studio atmosphere, but the figures suggest that the channel isn’t doing much wrong: it has a seven per cent share of the domestic radio audience while the average in Europe for a non-commercial station playing classical music is around 2−3 per cent. “The audience is decreasing very slightly and we have started quite a big process to investigate how we can develop the channel so we are not losing the hardcore but are getting new listeners, too,” says Maunula. “From my perspective it’s mainly a brand issue: there are still people in this country who think, if they haven’t listened to it, that it’s a rather old and rather difficult channel.”  

In contrast to other European countries, the commercial radio rival in Finland poses no direct threat to YLE’s audience. Rondo Classic was established by the music magazine some years ago and is now in the hands of Chinese conglomerate GBMC. The station currently attracts less than one per cent of Finnish radio listeners, but it doesn’t yet broadcast to the whole country.  

Maunula sees that as a disadvantage: “I would like the commercial channel to cover the whole of Finland, so that there is always someone encouraging us to be even better.” It’s an optimistic sentiment, particularly as the rise of commercial channels elsewhere has arguably had the opposite effect on the quality and style of public service broadcasts of classical music.  

When YLE was founded in 1926, it was partly modelled on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s public service mission to “educate, inform and entertain”. But the BBC has experienced crises of both validity and identity recently which are sure to prove critical as its own funding model is examined in the near future. The major soul-searching that surrounded the YLE tax provided the Finnish broadcaster with a chance to examine what it really stood for. As well as those public service commitments mentioned, the company talked of five distinct ‘values’: ‘reliability, independence, diversity, Finnishness and respect for everyone’.  

But what exactly does ‘Finnishness’ in that context mean? “I think it’s about having an open society – about embracing people from different backgrounds,” says Maunula. “We are thinking every day, what is the role of our broadcasts for Finns? We are a small country with a small language area so it means that we have to figure out what the importance of our activities is to the people of this country. We have to create our own time’s Finnishness.”  

An audience beyond Finland  

YLE, though, isn’t just for Finns. The corporation is increasingly aware of its international potential and music is one big area of opportunity. As the YLE tax leaves your bank account, you may wish to consider those around the world who make no contribution to the corporation’s finances but enjoy its broadcasts nonetheless. An online link via Areena afforded hundreds of music fans and professionals the chance to witness the world premiere of Per Nørgård’s Eighth Symphony hours after it was performed in Helsinki.  

Us non-Finns didn’t pay for it – nor any of the fascinating new music that YLE itself commissions every year – but the broadcast serviced the corporation’s mission to promote Finnish culture: many of those who watched the performance on Areena from the UK commented on the quality of the Helsinki Philharmonic’s playing and their first sight of the Musiikkitalo. “Music is one of the big winners of this globalisation because it can easily travel to London or to Buenos Aires,” says Maunula. “RSO and other performances are an opportunity for us to increase not only the audience but also awareness of the things we are doing here.” And it works both ways: YLE’s membership of the European Broadcasting Union brings live music from around the world to the corporation’s domestic audiences.  

Of all YLE’s means of reaching listeners abroad, the Radio Symphony Orchestra is the most prominent and distinguished – travelling beyond Finland not just on the airwaves but on CD recordings and international tours. The ensemble was founded in 1927, the world’s seventh radio orchestra, born at the height of the West’s scramble to establish broadcasting ensembles for the cultural enrichment of the listening public.  

RSO in the new-media age  

Nearly a century later, the world has changed. Radio orchestras finally disappeared from North America when the Canadian

broadcaster CBC disbanded its last ensemble in 2008. Greater contractual flexibility means TV and radio stations can air concerts by any ensemble, so questions hanging over a radio orchestra’s distinction and relevance loom large. Have they ever been raised at YLE’s headquarters? “It was discussed when the company was still hesitating about whether or not to invest in the Musiikkitalo,” says Tuula Sarotie. “Many people felt the broadcasting company should not invest in a concert hall, and in that context the existence of the orchestra was discussed. But there was never a serious threat.”  

To underline its relevance and distinction, Sarotie points to the RSO’s service of the whole of Finland. “There are people who are interested in music all over this country, and it is our job to bring new things to them. We have analysed the mission of YLE and come to the conclusion that we need to offer different experiences. While the Helsinki Philharmonic concentrates a little more on Romantic repertoire, we try to be as versatile as possible – we have Baroque repertoire in every season, for example, and as a radio orchestra our task is also to promote Finnish music and Finnish culture.”  

Programming the orchestra’s activities to satisfy both its live Helsinki audience and its potentially endless media audience isn’t easy. “You have to be careful, but you can include all the elements that the broadcast needs and at the same time plan things so that each concert is an event for the people sitting in the hall,” says Sarotie. And again the Musiikkitalo has played its part – in everything from the orchestra’s increased tonal finesse to its rocketing ticket sales. “We used to have 1000 subscribers but now we have about 3000,” Sarotie explains. “It has to do with the central location of the building and also its sound.” It might have something to do with the orchestra’s form, too. “I’m convinced that the orchestra has never been as happy as now and has never played as well,” says Sarotie. Experiencing the RSO’s deliciously balanced sound – particularly its distinctively blended strings – it’s hard to disagree.  

Yet another new era will begin when Hannu Lintu takes the reins of the ensemble in September. According to colleagues, Lintu has seized upon the RSO’s position as a media orchestra and is determined to make the most of it. From the start of his tenure every RSO concert he conducts will be televised on culture channel Teema. YLE’s music department might well hope that Lintu’s presence will help them grow the online audience on Areena, too. Over 100,000 regularly tune in to the orchestra’s radio broadcasts, but the internet audience fluctuates between 2000 and 12,000. “It depends on the artist, but it is increasing,” says Sarotie. “It helps that our own musicians are doing the interviews and such… that we are trying to transmit the feeling of an event.”  

If anyone can help address that, Lintu can – a conductor who has the capacity to excite audiences as both a human being and a musician. That surely won’t go unnoticed by YLE’s bosses, who are often among the RSO’s audience. “Lauri Kivinen [CEO] comes now and then and often brings guests, and has also joined us on tour,” says Sarotie. “My boss Ville Vilén [Director of Creative Content] comes to more or less every concert – he follows what we are doing very closely, which is great. I get the feeling that all the people in the organisation are proud of the orchestra and its international success.” They can be proud, too, that their employers are doing so much to advance the performance of great music, for the enjoyment, entertainment and education of all in Finland – and beyond.

Yleisradio (YLE)

:: Founded in 1926
:: 99.9% state owned, supervised by a government-appointed
council
:: Classical music platforms: Radio (YLE Radio 1); Audio
streaming (YLE Klassinen); Culture television (YLE Teema).
:: Live broadcasts include concerts by the RSO, Helsinki Philharmonic
and others, alongside major operas and competitions
:: Radio Symphony Orchestra founded in 1927
:: Past Principal Conductors include Sakari Oramo, Jukka-Pekka
Saraste, Okko Kamu, Paavo Berglund and Toivo Haapanen

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor of Gramophone and founder-editor of Nordic culture website moosereport.net. He has been struggling to learn Finnish for six years.