I recently heard Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” three times in a single week, in two different Swiss supermarkets and one department store. I’ve also, both when shopping and in a car, heard the light lilting piano of Bruce Hornsby and the Range more than once in a week for the first time since what may have been the late 1980s.
Both of these remarkable audio anachronisms were thanks to Radio Swiss Pop, which is the most ubiquitous source of background music in the Swiss retail market; it’s also available on satellite radio and on the FM airwaves. You hear it in the store, by which I mean in nearly any store, most of the time. This is perhaps obviously not because the tattooed and pierced cashiers at my local Denner enjoy the mild strains of American vintage AOR, although maybe some of them are ironic fans of cheesy listening.
The secret to Radio Swiss Pop’s significant success (the station officially boasts some 800,000 listeners across Switzerland tuning in for an average of about half an hour every day) is that it’s less a traditional radio station and more a perpetual playlist; no hosts, no news reports, and no advertising. Just song after song after song, punctuated with the odd station identification message, in a measured baritone, currently “RADIO SWISS POP. MUSIC. PURE.” This is rendered in an unidentifiable, perhaps pan-Helvetic, accent, with the RADIO in a European rather than Anglophone style (RAHdio, not RAYdio), and the rest of the gibberish syntax in something vaguely like English but obviously spoken by a European. The lack of talking makes it perfect for inoffensive background noise in a retail situation, and perhaps helps to explain the station’s generous listenership estimates: there are easily eight hundred thousand people in Switzerland going to the grocery store every day, and half an hour is about the right amount of time for a regular shopping trip.
Radio Swiss Pop is a slightly odd name for the station, both because many of the tunes are less pop songs than soft rock, light rock, adult oriented rock, dad rock, or yacht rock songs, with a side of R&B and disco, and because less of the RSP catalog than you might expect is actually Swiss. Officially, Radio Swiss Pop says they play an average of 50% Swiss material, which already seems low to me for a station with SWISS in its name, but in my frequent incidental, and recent intentional, listens, I hear a lot more American and other Anglophone content than I would have expected.
As I wrote this sentence, I was listening to Frankie Valli’s “Grease.” It was followed by a quick song in French by a 60-year-old multilingual Swiss singer-songwriter from Paul Klee’s birthplace in Canton Bern. But less than three minutes after that was “What If” by Kate Winslet, who I did not even know was a singer. But she’s not bad! Maybe a little aggressively earnest and emotional, and singers can surely point out the flaws in her technique, but she hits the notes without obvious AutoTune. She does, however, demonstrate an overarching corniness that perfectly encapsulates my Radio Swiss Pop MUSIC. PURE. experience, apart from my being out on my veranda rather than looking for a spatula in the housewares section.
A majority of the Swiss and other non-Anglosphere European artists featured on RSP even sing in pleasant, if often slightly silly, Germanic or Frenchy English. German-accented radio-ready light blues rock. Country-tinged gentle arena anthems by a Flemish woman who sounds a bit like solo Belinda Carlisle (she was followed by execrable American bro Jason Mraz, a paragon of the douchebag acoustic-guitarist-singer-songwriter phenomenon of the early aughts; he was followed by the far more estimable Jimmy Cliff, albeit Jimmy Cliff inexplicably performing “Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King, and then by the goofy but respectable-in-their-own-dumb-arena-prog-rock way Styx). A German woman offering a stiff-English approximation of a limp Heart. A Danish boy band with excellent English that sounds a little like an even milder Maroon 5. The polished pop-country-in-English-with-an-undeniable-Schwiitzertüütsch-accent tunes of Eastern Switzerland’s Canton Appenzell Ausserrhoden’s sister act Enderlin Chicks. The Enderlin Chicks, who also sing in Swiss German and German, are presumably named after the formerly-known-as-Dixie Chicks, but Enderlin is not a toponym but their surname. Lucky and Martina Enderlin’s songs feature paeans to raising kids and moving out to the country when they get enough money, which seems at least a little weird given that they come from a small village in a rich canton with a total population of 55,000; as noted in the previous entry, Switzerland mostly IS the country, and mostly HAS enough money.
Enderlin Chicks aside, It’s not easy to believe that anybody listens to Radio Swiss Pop at home/in the car/at work (for those who don’t work in supermarkets) on purpose. But more conventional Swiss radio airwaves suggest that many of RSP’s themes and motifs resonate widely.
I have made a fairly serious effort over the last year and change to sample many of Switzerland’s radio stations, to boost my German comprehension, to get closer to Swiss cultures, and perhaps above all because I wash a lot of dishes and have a smart speaker with Internet radio next to the sink. I’ve listened to broadcasters from across all of Switzerland’s language communities, as well as some from neighboring countries whose broadcasts get picked up within Switzerland on rental car radios. I’ve checked out major players like national broadcaster SRF (Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, or Swiss Radio and Television), which is mostly talk and thus my most strenuous German lesson, more local broadcasters, which mostly remind me of the profound limitations of my Swiss German comprehension, a few community-based stations, and some college stations, which mostly remind me that I don’t like electronic dance music very much.
The best Swiss radio station I’ve come across so far is Kanal K, which describes itself (as paraphrased by Google Translate) as, “the music, community and training radio in the Aargau/Solothurn area.” It operates out of the town of Aarau, capital of the confusingly near-identically named canton of Aargau,** between Basel and Zürich at a distance of a little less than sixty kilometers to our southeast. We discovered it on a rental car radio when we were most of the way back from a trip to (extremely beautiful) Lake Thun in Canton Bern, and lost it to static after about three tunnels. Kanal K’s limited reach is understandable and eminently forgivable, as compared to Radio Swiss Pop’s boastful eight-tenths-of-a-million daily listeners, Kanal K is proud to reach some 35,000 people. If they’re all local, that’s actually a really impressive number, as Kanal K’s home city of Aarau has a population of only about 21,000.
When we listened to Kanal K briefly in the car, we heard two really weird, really interesting English-language indie rock songs, one by some Brits, one by some Germans, before the station fuzzed out. When I finally found it again on my smart speaker by the sink, one weekend not long after that, I was initially a little perplexed but nevertheless delighted to learn that Sunday evenings are oldies Tamil film music nights. This is in keeping with Kanal K’s community-based nature, and with its very good-guy-Swiss commitment to delivering content in fifteen languages (I’ve only heard Tamil, English, French, Swiss German, and German so far, but I’ll keep listening).
I’ve also been enjoying Romansh-language radio from Switzerland’s far Southeast, delivered by RTR (Radiotelevisiun Svizra Rumantscha, the diminutive Romansh-medium branch of the public broadcasting system). I like RTR both because I admire Romansh’s gumption, as a language with fewer than fifty thousand native speakers that somehow maintains at least five living written dialects, and has insisted upon being acknowledged as a national language, and because the language itself is fascinating. It’s a massive oversimplification, but to my untrained ear it sounds a bit like a regional Italian dialect spoken with a German accent, just as Alsatian, spoken just to Basel’s west in France, sounds a lot like Swiss German spoken by a native speaker of French. When the RTR news comes on, I can typically catch a lot of words, but not always the important ones, so the gist may escape me; the written language has lots of easy-to-recognize Latin roots but is definitely harder for me to read than the other Romance languages I don’t really know. But it’s printed on the banknotes, and don’t you forget it.
Romansh radio also seems to beat Radio Swiss Pop in terms of volume of local content; I can only assume that just about every Romansh-language recording artist eventually makes it on to radio and/or television. After all, RTR’s television department has to generate ninety minutes of programming every single week, and the radio hours are even more numerous. They also broadcast songs and news in both German and Bündnerdeutsch, the Swiss German dialect in which most Romansh speakers are bilingual, as well as some French and Italian content.
The artists that get airplay on RTR are fairly diverse. I recently discovered the delightful early 1980s new-wave/post-punk track “Eisbär,” (“Polar Bear,”) by Canton Bern’s Grauzone, on an RTR morning program. It’s in Hochdeutsch, and minimalist enough for me to understand it: the singer wishes he were a polar bear in the cold polar ice, and polar bears must not cry.
Among more local performers, a big recent hit was “Home” by an artist who bills himself as Calandaboi, either after a peak in the Glarus Alps in the Romansh homeland of Canton Graubünden, or perhaps after a popular local beer with the same namesake. It features vocals in English from a Swiss-German-speaking, English-singing singer-songwriter named Olivia Virgolin, and sounds a little like Radiohead in a quietly introspective moment being fronted by a deeper-voiced, much less Scottish, more intelligible Elisabeth Fraser. It’s a little cheesy, but I still kind of like it.
Calandaboi is very Swiss, in that he was born in Canton Graubünden to a Hungarian father and a German mother, and grew up speaking Swiss German, German, and Romansh. And although he says that he’s always trying to write songs in Romansh, he mostly records in English.
Among Romansh-language singers, you get, among other things, a lot of pop country, and a lot of artists that sound surprisingly like Bruce Hornsby.
*When I first started thinking about this blog post, I figured I had to either come up with a catchy title or a good Wall of Voodoo (“Mexican Radio”) pun. This would of course require rhyming a foodstuff with a Swiss location, à la “Tijuana: Barbecued Iguana.” But after scratching my head for a bit, the best I could come up with was “Wish I was in…Gruyères, eating barbecued…Gruyère?” which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and the cheese would just melt all over the grill. But I give myself extra points for coming up with such a close rhyme without technically repeating the same word twice.
**Both Aargau and Aarau are named after the Aare River, which waters the canton of Aargau along with several others. I choose to believe that the Aare, in turn, was named by a bear.