The BBC's Czech service announced the end of the station's current affairs broadcasts on Friday. Newscasts are to continue until the end of January when the Czech service, which has been on the air for 66 years, will fall silent. Earlier this year the BBC World Service announced sweeping changes to its programming, axing ten of its language services, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, in order to redirect funds to the Arab world. The news has come as an unpleasant surprise to many devoted listeners, and worse still, there are now fears that the BBC's World Service in English may have to go off the air as well.
The BBC has a licence to broadcast on FM until 2012, but that licence was granted on condition that the station would broadcast some programmes in Czech. Vaclav Zak, a member of the radio and television council, confirmed earlier today that the future of the BBC in the Czech Republic is uncertain:
"Czech law is very explicit and it is highly improbable that the Czech Radio and TV council could grant a change of licence. So I think there will have to be new negotiations and we will have to find a solution somehow. There are several possibilities, one is to move the BBC broadcasts into the digital network which would make it available to listeners only on digital technology. The BBC may also ask for a licence in Prague only because that is where the bulk of its listeners are. But the chances of retaining its present frequencies are slim."
Is there interest in retaining the BBC world service in English?
"Yes, the BBC would like to retain its license, minus the Czech broadcasts, but as I said the chances of that are slim."
What did the BBC bring to the Czech media scene?
"I think that it took on the role of a public broadcaster. It was an excellent source of impartial and accurate information and many Czechs used to tune in to the BBC regularly. There were several occasions when I was at a reception at a foreign embassy and everyone present discussed the issues brought up in the BBC's morning broadcast. So it had tens of thousands of listeners. I would say that opinion leaders used to listen to the BBC."
So how will its demise affect the Czech media scene?
"It all depends on how things develop. If Czech Radio were to show an active interest it could employ BBC journalists and create its own news station on that high standard. For instance, Czech Radio 6 currently broadcasts only six hours a day. With BBC staff they could create a 24 hour station and it would be an excellent solution to the problem."
What do you feel were the BBC's main strengths?
"First of all, they relied on a network of three and a half thousand correspondents all over the world. There is nothing comparable here. No Czech media - or any other media I would say - is able to match that. So they brought accurate and precise information from around the world and this was a new quality on the Czech media scene."
When do you expect a decision on the future of BBC English language broadcasts in the Czech Republic?
"It will take several months. They will have to ask for a change of license, the council will discuss it and this can take several months. I don't think it will be very soon."
And, in the meantime, will Czechs be able to listen to the BBC in English?
"Yes, they will."
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