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Political debate is a French national pastime. Indeed, the average Parisian taxi ride means a running commentary not only from the radio but also from the driver on the rights and wrongs of what’s being said on the airwaves.

It’s 07.00 and a mellow jingle marks the beginning of Le 7/9, a two-hour current-affairs show that airs on the state-owned radio channel, France Inter. This is France’s most popular morning radio show, with almost four million listeners tuning in each weekday. The competition is fierce; in the same time slot, half a dozen or so other stations, both government and privately owned, broadcast their own highbrow, often culturally inclined, programmes. Le 7/9 hosts Léa Salamé and Nicolas Demorand begin with the headlines and a taste of what to expect in the upcoming show. On the menu at the time of Monocle’s visit: striking railway workers, striking Air France employees and a studio interview with Benoît Hamon, the man who led France’s Socialist party to crushing defeat in the 2017 presidential election. Classic stuff. Hamon is typical of the sorts of high-profile French politicians who regularly appear on Le 7/9.

Additional segments pepper the show, each one blending smoothly into the next; among them a sports summary, press review and business bulletin. With plenty of seats available, the presenters of these segments are not rushed out of the studio when they have finished and at certain stages in the show there are six people talking at once, debating or laughing at the same time. The result sounds like the sort of early-morning party you want to be invited to. The French public are agreeable to this: they are well informed and want not just one or two but numerous cerebral radio offerings. Sure, it’s France so there are state-run stations but that appetite for quality also makes a market.

We meet presenter Salamé as she drinks her third espresso of the morning during a short break. “I drink far too much coffee,” she says, her voice sounding considerably less earnest than when she’s on air. “Before the end of the show I will have had a fourth.” Salamé’s routine is gruelling: when she finishes at France Inter she heads across the River Seine to the television channel France 2, where she presents two weekly shows. Everyone in France is aware of – and has an opinion about – Salamé; her tough line of questioning has been known to generate more discussion than her interviewees’ responses. Sharing a quick joke with her co-host, she shows no sign of struggling under the weight of her schedule. “We get along really well in our team, it makes the show a pleasure to present,” she says, putting down her third empty cup.

Maison de la radio, a vast complex just across the river from the Eiffel Tower, houses France Inter and six other channels under the state’s Radio France umbrella. Three floors down in the same building, known as “the Round House” (it’s a rotund sort of place), a similar scene plays out in the control room of Franceinfo. This 24/7 rolling-news channel also offers a morning current-affairs show but with just one presenter, fewer recorded segments and a snappier tempo.

In terms of content, there is inevitably overlap between Franceinfo and France Inter; on this occasion both channels give in-depth coverage of the railway strikes. The convivial Franceinfo presenter, Bruce Toussaint, is discussing those strikes with the head of the French Communist party Pierre Laurent, who blames the industrial action on “government arrogance”. Toussaint stands his ground, interjecting and challenging Laurent with a voice that almost changes octave in the course of a single sentence. In 2016, Franceinfo launched a television channel and today it’s airing part of the morning radio show’s output. The two media share branding as well as a website that attracts about 20 million unique visitors each month.

We meet Franceinfo director Vincent Giret as he leaves the morning editorial conference. He begins by acknowledging the competition among the various channels: “Here in France, the morning is the time of day when you can reach the largest audience.” He points to the latest statistics which indicate that Franceinfo’s morning output has about two million listeners, each tuning in for one hour, on average. “One of our challenges is to get younger people interested in radio,” Giret says. Surveys suggest that the average age of radio listeners is rising – and this means that extra effort is needed by Giret’s digital teams to promote lively extracts from the shows on the Franceinfo website and on social media.

Each of the channels housed at Maison de la radio has its own colour scheme to characterise its branding and newsroom decor: France Inter is Red, Franceinfo is yellow. France Culture – another channel making inroads in the realm of morning current-affairs programming – has purple branding that seems to work well with its somewhat space-age electronic jingles.

With more than 500,000 daily listeners now tuning in to the 07.00 to 09.00 slot, France Culture maintains that its offering is unique. “We are not trying to compete with France Inter, Franceinfo or, indeed, any other channel,” says France Culture’s director Sandrine Treiner. “We have a totally different approach to the stories of the day.”

Instead of politicians, she explains, her team prioritises philosophers and experts. For the discussion about striking SNCF workers, the station has invited a railway historian, not someone from a union or the government, to speak on the topic. France Culture prides itself on examining stories and ideas in depth, even if that means covering fewer topics. The channel also stands out by offering an international, rather than domestic, press review each morning.

Across town in a small street behind the Champs-Élysées, radio host Patrick Cohen is presenting the morning edition at Europe 1. This radio station is owned by the Lagardère Group and was created during the post-war years when the French government had a full monopoly on radio broadcasting. Commercial stations who wanted to enter the market at that time were unable to operate on French soil and had to set up transmission towers beyond France’s borders. Europe 1’s transmitter was located in the German region of Überherrn. Other French stations broadcast from Luxembourg and Monaco. Although state control of the radio was relaxed during the 1980s, a few so-called radios périphériques from the post-war era – including RTL, RMC and Europe 1 – survive, and thrive, to this day.

Cohen’s producer watches from the control room as he fires questions at his guest – a woman from the Republican party in a bright-red trouser-suit. When the subject of Syria comes up in their fast-paced heated discussion, she criticises president Emmanuel Macron for flou artistique (“soft focus”) when it comes to defining a strategy towards the Syrian conflict. But then it’s time for a short commercial break, Europe 1’s cheery weather presenter takes their place and has only good news to deliver, which puts smiles back on everyone’s faces.

After the show has finished, Cohen invites MONOCLE into his office, where the multitude of books makes seating options limited. Visibly tired from his 03.30 start, he begins by explaining why he believes that more than two million people tune in to his show each day. “Yes, we spend quite a bit of time on politics but our goal is to cover lots of other topics and to have some fun as well,” he says. “The morning for the radio is like the evening for the television, this is when we have the biggest audience.”

In this competitive environment a dip in listenership is the cause of serious concern and Europe 1 has just announced that a new presenter will be taking Cohen’s place later in the year. In contrast, RTL (formerly Radio Luxembourg) is showing no signs of surrendering the top spot in the latest league table, with the largest number of listeners throughout the day. Presented by veteran journalist Yves Calvi, the morning show – rtl Matin – airs between 07.00 and 09.30. Calvi, who is in his fifties, cuts an avuncular figure and his reassuring tone coupled with the regular jingles give his two-and-a-half hours of morning output an air of serenity.

Newsroom director Jean-Philippe Baille shows us around RTL’s new HQ in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Accessibility is his mantra: “We want listeners to be informed but also to fully understand what they are hearing.” As an example of this, Baille refers to a popular segment of the RTL morning show called Trois Minutes pour Comprendre (“Three Minutes to Understand”), during which a topic (on this particular day it’s the SNCF strikes) is explained by a specialist in such a way that everyone can grasp the main issues. Calvi plays devil’s advocate by firing off counter-theories to ensure that the expert’s version of events is balanced.

Similarly enjoyable to listen to is Ça va Beaucoup Mieux (“That’s Much Better”) – it’s the sort of thing a patient might say to their doctor. During this slot the resident medical expert Michel Cymes, a qualified surgeon, discusses a given health issue. Today the patient (played by Calvi) complains of a variety of symptoms that Dr Cymes concludes – in a sage, comforting tone – is chronic hay fever. He recommends an over-the-counter treatment and suggests his “patient” tries washing his hair before going to bed. Hair, the doctor says, can accumulate allergens in the course of the day, prolonging hay-fever symptoms into the night. Fairly comprehensive, then.

It is difficult to think of another country that offers radio programming comparable to that of France in terms of range and quality. At peak time (08.00) each day, an estimated 14 million people tune in to these various state and privately owned radio channels; a sure sign that the French public is far from falling out of love with the radio. Not only do they love it but surveys suggest that, more than with any other medium, listeners trust what they hear. Good news for all those current-affairs programmers.


France’s agenda-setting radio stations:

RTL
On air since 1933
Previously called Radio Luxembourg
Ownership: M6 Group
Listenership: 6.7 million

France Inter
On air since 1947
Ownership: state
Listenership: 6.1 million

Franceinfo
On air since 1987
24/7 rolling-news channel
Ownership: state
Listenership: 4.5 million

RMC On air since 1943
Previously called Radio Monte-Carlo
Ownership: NextRadioTV Group
Listenership: 4.1 million

Europe 1
On air since 1955
Previously called Europe no 1
Ownership: Lagardère Group
Listenership: 3.7 million

France Culture
On air (under this name)
since 1963
Ownership: state
Listenership: 1.2 million

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