Thirty-one years ago, Basque public radio-television (EITB) decided to establish a radio station for a young audience and to become a voice for the Basque scene
It’s March 1990, 31 years ago. A young man turns on the radio and dials to a new station, a station where Aitormena, a recent hit by the Basque rock band Hertzainak, and Paradise City by Guns N’ Roses, pure American hard rock, are both played. A decade after the Basque Country opened its public radio-television station (EITB), thanks to the powers granted to the Basque Government by the Statute of Autonomy, EITB made the decision to launch a new station that would be a real success over the next 31 years, both for young listeners, for the whole Basque musical mainstream, giving momentum to emerging bands, placing them at the same level of importance as international groups. In 1990 the station, Euskadi Gaztea (the Young Basque Country), was first heard under the direction of journalist Edurne Ormazabal, currently General Director of Tabakalera, the International Centre for Contemporary Culture located in Donostia. As of March 21, 1990, nothing would be the same.
The birth of this radio station must be thought of as one more step in a cultural crescendo that the country experienced from the 60s onwards, during the final stages of Francoism and in a young democracy. Until the mid-1980s, grouped together by what has been known as Nueva Canción Vasca (New Basque Song), a new slot of musicians that embraced different styles by adding to trends that already had a presence in other countries. Within the legendary group Ez Dok Amairu, Mikel Laboa transformed protest songs into experimentation and Benito Lertxundi leaned more toward the folk music of New Yorker Pete Seeger. Others such as Ruper Ordorika represented the maturation of the term singer-songwriter, while groups like Itoiz, in other musical styles, opted for symphonic rock. The culmination of all of this would come in the 80s with the punk music and Basque radical rock of Barricada, Kortatu, or Potato. All of them and others, excluded from the generalist radio stations of Spain, would only find space on the free radio stations of the Basque Country. They needed an amplifier that would take them off the margins and place them in the mainstream. Euskadi Gaztea was this voice in every home.
“The most important objective was to strengthen the use of the Basque language and to offer Basque culture, especially music, a way of promotion,” says Ormazabal, who made the leap to this station from Katu Kale, one of the first and few programs that Basque television dedicated to talking about music. In a conversation with Basque Tribune, the journalist stressed that, in its beginnings, as was the case with Euskadi Irratia and Radio Euskadi (the Basque and Spanish radio stations of EITB), this frequency dedicated to young people was designed to meet different language criteria. Euskadi Gaztea was a radio station in Basque presented from Donostia and designed for the provinces of Gipuzkoa and Nafarroa, which had a Spanish counterpart that was broadcasted from the headquarters of Bilbao for the territories of Bizkaia and Araba. While both stations shared programming in terms of music selection, they were two different working groups.
Among the journalists who became involved in the Basque team, was Marijo Oria (Euskadi Gaztea was a station where a large number of broadcasters were developed), a young journalist who joined this part of the project where she remains on board three decades later. But now, she holds a position of greater responsibility. She is the Music Content Manager of Gaztea, as this station is now known, coordinated by Xabier Doncel after the latest changes in the direction of EiTB. “We managed to attract people by combining music like Hertzainak with more pop music from other places. People liked that,” Oria says looking back. “At first we played records,” Ormazabal laughed as he spoke of the inevitable passage of time which, of course, also affected the way we created content. Euskadi Gaztea developed beyond this format, and diversified its programming and began offering other content, such as humor in its morning programs. “We’ve changed along with everyone else,” Oria stressed.
The challenges facing Ormazabal’s team were not exactly simple. By the end of the 1980s, in Spain, Los 40 Principales began, a powerful broadcaster belonging to the Prisa Group (it became the most listened to with millions of listeners before long) which had evolved from being a successful ranking program at Cadena SER until it had its own frequency. However, there was no place in those dials for music in Basque (nor for niche bands) and the need for air time to promote this was a critical issue. “The Spanish version didn’t make much sense and the move was immediately made to keep the station exclusively in Basque,” says Ormazabal, who recalls that the programming that aired from Bilbao ceased in 1994. In this sense, during these three decades Euskadi Gaztea made an “important contribution” on the path toward “linguistic standardization”.
Top Gaztea and Maketa Lehiaketa
“I think there were several keys to success: that it was an only-Basque language radio station, that Basque music be taken from the Gaztetxes (typically, houses occupied and self-managed by youth assemblies) and from free radio stations to play it on a station that was more mainstream and mix this music with music from other parts of the world,” says the current Head of Music Content of Gaztea. Their goal is that neither radio nor of course, Basque music, become a kind of “ghetto”. “Our music was worth hearing on the same level as others,” Oria said.
While it’s true that during its very first beats this station put Basque artists who already had a certain career at the center of conversation, in a very short time Euskadi Gaztea was committed to promoting new talent. Thus, during its second year of work came the Maketa Lehiaketa (turning 30 this year), a demo contest that was an “authentic platform of promotion” for artists who, in many cases, have gone on to enjoy a successful trajectory with remarkable international tours. Zea Mays (winner in 1997), El Columpio Asesino (2000) and Belako (2012) are good examples of this. In addition, starting in 1996, Maketa Lehiaketa also launched the Audience Award, an award that one year later was won by Berri Txarrak, the most international group that the Basque Country has ever had and which has toured in places like the United States, Nicaragua or Japan and which decided to take a break in 2019. “In a very short time, this award became a reference for Basque labels,” says Ormazábal in reference to the country’s record labels who used this competition as a starting point.
In addition to the Maketa Lehiaketa another of the flagships of this project has been Top Gaztea, a ranking by popular votes of the listeners’ favorite songs. It was the first program to be created to try to distance itself from the “radio-formula” model. When it began, it was three hours long, occupying much of Saturday morning programming with interviews and calls from listeners.
At the beginning of this decade for the first timeGaztea managed to surpass los 40 Principals in the number of listeners in the Basque Country. In the opinion of the researcher of the Public University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) Ion Andoni del Amo Castro, who in 2019 published What’s Playing on Gaztea Irratia, Origin, evolution and social influence of the Basque public music radio station, “the friendliness” and the use of the Basque language are what create the “differential offering” with respect to other broadcasters, “managing to attract a mass of young Basque speakers between 16 and 20 years old, and even those who are not, as it is a simple formula that can also be followed without knowing the language well.” “The main challenge,” Ormazábal adds, “was precisely that: to be competitive, to get a faithful audience group that would increase on the basis of a quality product.” According to the latest audience data offered in December 2020, 70,000 people tune in to this frequency from Monday to Friday. Looks like they’ve reached their goal.