When I was a teenager in England in the early 1960s, rock music was a rare and highly prized commodity. We could only hear our music at special times and places: the juke box in a coffee bar, at the occasional fair ground and a twice week on BBC radio and every night from 7pm in appalling quality that faded and distorted from Radio Luxemburg.

Despite these restrictions, or maybe because of them, through the ‘Swinging Sixties’ popular music blossomed. The Beatles released their first records into a market where you could only hear them during an hour or two at the weekend on BBC radio or wait until darkness fell and tune into 208 meters to hear ‘Lucky Luxemburg’ where only the first 2 minutes of records were played to fit their sponsored show format and the Beatles’ record label, Parlophone, was rarely featured. The alternative was to go out and buy the singles, which, despite costing the equivalent two hours’ average wage at the time, people did.

Soon the opportunities for listening to music increased with the arrival of pirate radio stations. By 1967 the BBC was feeling the pinch of competition and the socialist government of Harold Wilson closed down the pirates with new laws and allowed the BBC to reorganize their services into a system of numbers, familiar to DRS listeners too - except that BBC Radio 1 is the rock music channel and BBC Radio 3 is the classical station.

Swiss radio, like most of the rest of European broadcasting, was in the hands of the government too and only pioneers or pirates broke this monopoly. In England it was Radio Caroline transmitting from a ship offshore. Switzerland’s pirate Roger Schawinski did the same from the Italian mountains. European governments were and still are wary of allowing the media in the hands of individuals. With some justification, where broadcasting laws are liberal, in Italy, the result has been a near private monopoly run by the head of the government, Silvio Berlusconi.

Today in Switzerland we live in a radio heaven, only dreamed of by the music-hungry teenagers of the sixties: high-quality FM stereo reception of dozens of stations transmitting 24 hours a day 365 days a year. Not only can listeners in areas like Zürich receive these stations direct from air on any FM receiver, be it in the car, by Walkman or hi-fi system, but with the cable system dozens more stations are available too. Radio paradise? Well, it would be if there was something worth listening to!

Why does every radio station squander their hard-won franchise, by sounding as near as possible like every other station? A bland mix of current hits and recent hits, the occasional ‘oldie’, local news, phone-ins, competitions, traffic reports and the temperature of the DJ’s coffee is the near universal fare of every station. Thanks to cable radio, we have more choice, but at the same time we can hear that the same grey formula is being thrust upon listeners in Basel, Bern and Luzern as well. Fortunately a modern receiver with an LCD tells us the name of the station we are tuned to, because we would not recognize them from the sounds they play.

If the current top 40 hits do not appeal to you, there are few, if any, commercial stations that you will want to listen to. If you like classical music, this is only possible to hear on the radio in the morning and other limited times, then only on DRS 2. As for jazz, funk, blues and folk, again non-commercial SRG has taken the lead with stations offering more specialist tastes with Swiss Jazz, Swiss Pop and Swiss Classic, using a simple, uncluttered format without chat or DJs. Unfortunately one needs a cable or Internet connect to listen. Other specialist genres like Caribbean and Swiss folk have all been relegated to the backwaters of cable and have no commercial viability due to lack of audience.

Commercial radio stations live or die by the amount of advertising revenue they can raise. The more listeners, the more the stations can charge advertisers. As a result, stations go for the largest audience possible. The result is ‘lowest common denominator’ radio: out to please large audiences, but giving full satisfaction to nobody, they have become ‘Jacks or all trades – but masters of none’. Instead of more choice, we have no choice.

The commercial station that grasps the nettle and drops the bland and specialises will find there are rewards. Perhaps help is required from the government to relax or change the licence requirements to allow broadcasters scope to develop more specialised radio formats.

The American rock musician Bruce Spingsteen summed up the state of satellite television in American with his song “57 Channels and Nothing on”. Sadly it could also easily apply to today’s Swiss commercial radio.