From Iceland — Ending Exclusion: Iceland’s Public Broadcaster Increasing English Service

Ending Exclusion: Iceland’s Public Broadcaster Increasing English Service

Published October 19, 2018

Ending Exclusion: Iceland’s Public Broadcaster Increasing English Service
Photo by
Art Bicnick

RÚV is Iceland’s public broadcasting service. Its mission is to inform, educate and entertain everyone. It operates several radio stations and one television channel, all of which are also online. Broadcasting was seen as a public good, thus RÚV had a legal monopoly until 1986. It remains one of the most used public broadcasters in the world; 95% of residents consume it at least once a week.

RÚV is home to many culturally important programming, including the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which usually claims well over 90% of the viewing audience on the night is airs. It often has the rights to broadcast national sports teams and the long-running and beloved New Year’s eve satire show, Áramótaskaup. Its Kastljós investigative news program ended Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s tenure as Prime Minister in 2016 in cooperation with Reykjavík Media. He used to work for the broadcaster, but became very critical of it once he was in government, promptly cutting its budget. In a fine example of the Áramótaskaup, that decision was made into a parody of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” music video. But does the “public” in “public broadcasting” include immigrants, too?

Who is “the public”?

The company has hired a full-time employee dedicated to increasing and improving services in English. This important task falls on the dedicated shoulders of Alexander Elliot. He is officially the only member of staff dedicated to this effort, but he has support throughout the company. “I have the support of everybody in the building and have already called on more than a few of them for help, advice, ideas and so forth,“ he explains.

Since Alexander joined the broadcaster, the previously sporadic and infrequent English-language service has become a daily online reality. The recent episode of Kveikur, a television exposé of abuses of immigrant labour, was subtitled in English and Polish. Immigrants now make up around ten percent of the population and many have not learned the local language. While nearly all Icelanders speak English fluently, immigrants often feel excluded from important parts of society, like news and pop culture. It is hoped that providing more news and entertainment will make immigrants feel like a part of the community. Alexander noted that “RÚV okkar allra” (Everyone’s RÚV) is more than just a slogan, it is central to RÚV”. He also believes including immigrants in more and important parts of culture will have other positive effects, as “the new service will hopefully play a future role in helping people learn Icelandic as well.“

Alexander’s role is to help RÚV perform its crucial statutory duty, “to provide everyone with at least something they enjoy or find value in. It was an obvious gap, knowing how many people don’t speak Icelandic, to have services only available in Icelandic”.

The news comes first

Alexander’s position is very new and his work is just beginning. Right now his job is to get the news up every weekday. He told the Grapevine that he tries to produce original content every week.

“It’s all very new still,” he says. “It started with just news stories, but is developing into more audio and video as well. Translations of the news into English are already being done well by Grapevine and a handful of other good sources, so I see the national broadcaster’s role as being more in the radio and television side.” That compliment comes as a big relief to the staff writers at the Grapevine.

“’RÚV okkar allra’ (Everyone’s RÚV) is more than just a slogan, it is central to RÚV.”

The project has gotten off to a modest start, consisting mostly of the few daily online news articles, but Alexander teased the possibility of audio and video programs.

“There could be scope for some broadcasting,” he says. “A daily news bulletin on the radio is one thing we have discussed as a possibility. In fact, RÚV used to do exactly that every day but it stopped about a decade ago.”

There was a daily morning news bulletin on RÁS 1, but it was cancelled due to a lack of staff who felt comfortable reading the news in English. That was also the time of the financial crisis, so budget cuts might have killed it anyway.

New horizons

The project’s modest scope is only the beginning, though. “I hope to grow this (original programming) as the project evolves,” he says, adding his hope to extend the service to entertainment, which is a majority of RÚV’s daily programming.

When asked about future prospects of the project, Alexander is optimistic.

“RÚV’s goals will change, evolve and remain ambitious in the very long term,” he says. “Translating news into English was the first milestone, creating the first original radio programme in English (available online) was another, subtitling a really important news programme about the abuse of foreign workers into both English and Polish was another. I hope there will be many more of these little milestones, and who knows where it will lead to. That’s what’s so exciting about my job!“

Don’t forget Poland

Poles are by far the largest group of immigrants, making up about 40% of all residents of foreign origin. Not all Poles speak English, which puts them at particular risk of isolation and exploitation. Alexander was emphatic when asked about this, “Polish is next on the list“.

Many immigrants are not yet aware of this new service, but like public broadcasting the world over, money is tight. When questioned about advertising, Alexander was blunt. The company wanted to spread the word “as widely as possible, as cheaply as possible” is the honest answer. We wanted to get a decent amount of content up before we started promoting the service. Now we are at that point, yes, we are looking at things like radio ads and social media. And let’s not forget the power of word-of-mouth among the international community here in Iceland.”

You heard the man, tell your friends!

All of RÚV‘s growing English-language content can be found at

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