Broadcasting in Belgium developed according to the political and ideological divisions in Belgian society. Although the pioneering station Radio Belgique was a neutral station, most early stations in the 1920s were directly linked to ideological interest groups, such that almost every political party had its own private station. In 1930, the national public service broadcasting institution INR-NIR was set up, fully funded by the government. After World War Two, it was granted a public monopoly, while all private, ideological stations were incorporated within the structure of the national broadcaster (d’Haenens, Antoine & Saeys, 2007). Finally in 1977, the process of splitting up the nationwide INR-NIR into two divisions resulted in a permanent separation of the two public service institutions: RTBF (Wallonia) and BRTN (Flanders). The public radio monopoly was first challenged by pirate stations from ships in the North Sea in the late 1960s: Most had commercial ambitions and were providing popular music, which was in stark contrast to the rather old-fashioned programmes of public radio stations at that moment.
Both language communities legalised ‘free’ radio in 1981 and 1982 respectively, but they reacted quite differently to these evolutions and soon developed diverging policy frameworks. In order to preserve the public service broadcaster, Flemish policymakers tried to limit the impact of free radio by preventing them to form networks, which adversely impacted the economic sustainability of these stations and drove many of them into bankruptcy. Moreover, the public service broadcaster was decentralised, in an attempt to increase control of the local market. This protectionist policy at the Flemish level is best illustrated by the relatively late opening of the national commercial market, which developed only by 2002. Flemish policy starkly contrasts with audiovisual policies in the southern part of the country, where the monopoly of RTBF was officially broken up in 1991 when national commercial radio was introduced. The protectionism of Flemish policymakers in favour of BRTN and the rather market-based approach encouraging commercial radio is reflected in today’s radio market structure of the respective communities (Evens & Paulussen, 2012).
In Flanders, the market is dominated by public service broadcaster VRT (formerly BRTN), which accounts for 63.3 percent of the listening market. Radio 2 is the indisputable market leader with a share of 28.1 percent; Studio Brussel (alternative and rock, 13 percent) and MNM (popular music, 10.4 percent) are other popular VRT brands. Commercial broadcaster Medialaan operates Q music (13.4 percent) and JOE fm (7.8 percent); the third national commercial channel Nostalgie has a market share of 5.8 percent. It can be concluded that the public service broadcaster VRT (with five stations) holds a dominant position in the radio market, whereas the national commercial market (with three stations) has been struggling to develop. It is noteworthy to mention that all commercial radio stations are still owned by Flemish news publishers, illustrating the high level of media cross-ownership (Medialaan, the performant commercial broadcaster for television and radio isowned by De Persgroep).
In Wallonia, the radio market is much more fragmented than in Flanders. It is characterised by a larger and stronger presence of commercial radio stations; Radio Contact is the market leader (16 percent) with Bel-RTL as runner-up (14.5 percent). In terms of audience share, five RTBF stations hold a 34.3 percent market share, with VivaCité (14.3 percent) and Classic 21 (8.7 percent) as most successful brands. In contrast to Flanders, the market for commercial radio is much more established, partly because commercial radio stations were awarded with frequency allotments optimally covering the economic poles of the region. Most radio stations are owned by foreign media groups, most notably from France (Groupe NRJ) and Luxemburg (Groupe RTL/Bertelsmann), leaving almost no commercial radio station in the hands of domestic media organisations.