By John Walsh
I’ve been to Barcelona on many occasions down the years but rarely for longer than a few days at a time and usually with too much work on my hands to allow any proper radio listening. This time I’m here for long enough to experience the radio scene with the help of my portable Roberts Classic 996, an excellent little receiver although it doesn’t have a digital display. Barcelona has about 1.5 million inhabitants, is a bilingual city (Catalan/Spanish) and has large immigrant populations, particularly from Latin America. There is a vibrant and diverse cultural scene and growing support for independence from Spain has enlivened politics considerably in recent years. All of these elements combine to make radio here particularly interesting. For the record, I speak Spanish and understand a good deal of Catalan, both of which are necessary to appreciate radio in this part of Europe.
The Radio Maps website lists 65 FM and 12 MW stations for Barcelona and almost all appear to be on air at the moment, although it is possible that some of the ‘missing’ ones are micro-stations that can’t be received on a normal radio in my part of the city. As is to be expected, the national public chain Radio Nacional de España and three of the main commercial chains, Cadena SER, Cadena COPE and Onda Cero have a strong presence on FM. In stark contrast with RTÉ, Radio Nacional and its affiliate Radio 5 Todo Noticias (a rolling news station similar to BBC 5 Live and Newstalk) has an extensive nationwide network of MW transmitters, many of which can be heard in Ireland at night. The Barcelona transmitter of Radio Nacional is a real work horse, pumping out 600 kW on 738 kHz, an iconic frequency for fans of the original Radio Nova in Dublin! Several of the commercial national chains also broadcast on AM, both in Catalan and Spanish, so in Barcelona at least the allegedly moribund medium wave band is alive and kicking. In fact coming from Ireland it’s quite a shock to hear crystal clear, high-powered medium wave signals again and it’s a reminder of the capabilities of the band. By the way, the Algerian high-powered station on 252 kHz long wave is as strong here as RTÉ long wave is in Galway.
Back on FM, like most cities in the world there are the usual suspects churning out the same diet of relentless pop, the only difference here being that the links are in Catalan or Spanish. In a time of growing tensions between Barcelona and Madrid over independence the general Catalan speech station, Catalunya Ràdio, provides a necessary counterbalance to the unionist slant of the national Spanish chains although several of these also provide services in Catalan. There are also several stations aimed at the city’s large Latin American population, noticeable for the Cuban, Mexican or Argentinian accents advertising local businesses and services for immigrants: Radio La Kalle appears to be run by Peruvians, Radio Andina is for Bolivians and Radio Rumba features the popular music of the same name, originally from Cuba. It’s not clear if all of these are licensed and some have a distinctive pirate feel. There are also several Christian stations such as the confusingly entitled Radio Solidaria (I was expecting something else entirely), a station featuring tarot cards (Éxito Radio), a station aimed at teaching English to locals (Vaughan Radio) and local microstations broadcasting in Catalan to different districts of the city such as Ràdio Gràcia, Sants 3 Ràdio and Ràdio Ciutat Vella.
My favourites are the ‘free’ radio stations offering radical programmes in Spanish and Catalan and featuring eclectic music including plenty of punk and other styles never heard on commercial radio. They call themselves radios libres and many have been on air for more than 20 years without licences. Some are reporting harassment by the authorities at the moment, suggesting that a crackdown is underway. The best example is the excellent Contrabanda FM which boasts both highly original content and a fantastic name with more than a whiff of pirate about it. All told it is a very diverse mix and Barcelona serves up some excellent radio listening.