Radio France Internationale began in 1929 with the creation of the French national office of radio broadcasting. Two years later, in 1931, Radio France began broadcasting to French colonies in 20 languages under the name Poste Colonial. Its target audience was French expatriate colonizers and a few natives, termed évolués, who had been trained to speak French and engage in low-status labor, such as nursing, postal clerking, and the infantry, which whites were not allowed to perform in the colonies. In 1938, Poste Colonial was renamed Paris Mondial, and was then jettisoned during the pro-Nazi Vichy regime (1940–1944), resuming after liberation. In 1964 the French government created the ORTF (French Radio and Television Broadcasting). In 1974 Radio France became a separate entity from the ORTF. The following year, on January 6, 1975, Radio France Internationale (RFI) was created as a subsidiary of Radio France.
From 1987 RFI was independent from Radio France and broadcast news and public affairs programs around the world in 19 languages on shortwave frequencies 24 hours a day. In Paris, RFI could be heard on the FM band; the station could also be accessed in France via satellites and the Internet. From 1991 RFI could be heard on FM in 27 African countries. It was estimated that RFI had a global audience of 44 million listeners, roughly three-fifths of them in Africa. This number surpassed many African domestic radio services, including Africa No 1, a Panafricanist radio station broadcasting from Libreville, Gabon. The rest of RFI’s audience was spread out worldwide, with 24 percent in the Middle East, 9 percent in Latin America, 5.3 percent in Asia, 5 percent in the Pacific, 4.7 percent in Europe and 0.8 percent in Northern America (Vittin 1997). During the Francophonies, an annual worldwide event in which all the former French colonies celebrate their cultures, RFI usually worked in tandem with other powerful francophone radio services such as Radio Canada and Radio Suisse Romande in order to extend Francophonie worldwide.
In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, RFI had a workforce of 850, including 350 correspondents worldwide. RFI’s influence also extended beyond radio to other media such as newspapers. Journalists such as Philippe Leymarie and Stephen Smith, who wrote regularly for Le Monde Diplomatique, frequently broadcast on RFI. RFI also worked in tandem with the Francophone TV channel TV5 to expand French audiovisual presence globally, in order to compete with major players such as the BBC World Service, CNN International, and Qatar’s Al Jazeera. As of June 2005, roughly two million people were visiting RFI’s website each month.
In Africa, the popularity of international radio services such as RFI, the BBC World Service, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle was entirely due to the media monopoly in many African states, which turned local and national radio into a government mouthpiece. Within this context, African audiences saw international radio as providing “objective” news that seemed less biased and more complex than state propaganda. These international radio services managed to retain their influence even after the wind of democratization swept Africa in the early 1990s. According to Vittin (2002), RFI serves as the official voice of France because the service is entirely funded by the French government. This includes the French Foreign Ministry (a71 million in 2004) as well as the French Ministry of Communication (a53 million in 2004) (Roy 2004).
However, this funding raised controversies regarding agenda setting, French national interests, and the desire for objective news. Vittin (2002) argues that there are dangers when important news regarding the continent is framed by journalists in Paris or New York. News within that context becomes a tool to internationalize French or US perspectives about a particular African situation. As a result, descriptions may be packaged with national self-interest or lack analytical nuances. This management of information may also legitimate and validate some points of views at the expense of others, creating a disequilibrium in a particular public sphere. Within this context, Zanasoumo Roger Nouma claims that RFI’s implicit mission is cheerleading for French corporations and helping to implement their strategies on a global basis, and quotes RFI’s former chairman, Fouad Benhalla, as openly claiming that RFI’s mission is to offer an official French vision of world events (Nouma 1990, 65, 106).
- Nouma, Z. R. (1990). Radio France Internationale: Instrument de la présence française dans le monde, doctoral thesis, Lille University II.
- Roy, A. (2004). La Voix de la France. L’Humanité (August 21). At humanite.fr/journal, accessed September 26, 2007.
- Vittin, T. (1997). Les Radios internationales, acteurs de la vie politique en Afrique noire. In A.-J. Tudesq (ed.), Les médias, acteurs de la vie internationale. Paris: Éditions Apogée.
- Vittin, T. (2002). In T. Mattelart (ed.), La Mondialisation des médias contre la censure. Brussels: De Boeck, pp. 82–102.