Experimental radio broadcasts began in Latvia in the early 1920s, but Latvijas Radio (Radio Latvia) was established only in 1925. It was the 19th radio station in Europe to start broadcasting and initially it had 331 subscribers. During its first six months, Radio Latvia transmitted only for two hours a day, in the evenings. Gradually it increased its airtime while also expanding the range of genres. Original news reports appeared and Radio Latvia also had an educational function. The content was cosmopolitan, because musical recordings were widely available and the radio station was seen as a window to the world – a station which did not have to popularise domestic culture. On 1 May 1940, the radio station had 156,568 subscribers. During the Nazi and Soviet occupations and annexation, Radio Latvia became a propaganda tool.
The “golden era” for Radio Latvia, as far as many people are concerned, was the drive for Latvia’s independence (Atmoda) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the days of January 1991, when people erected barricades to protect key government buildings, the radio played a seminal role in helping to organise and manage non-violent resistance. People were glued to their radio sets for several days in a row.
Once the independence of Latvia was restored, private radio channels began to emerge. Radio Sigulda was the first private music radio station, first broadcasting in May 1991. Larger audiences were found in 1993 when Radio SWH was established.
In 2014 there were 69 radio stations in Latvia 2014. There are seven major players in the radio market: public service radio Radio Latvia and the private undertakings Mediju Grupa Super FM, Radio SWH, Radio Skonto, Star FM, MIX Media Group and the Silver Group.
The top three radio stations in autumn 2016 were Radio Latvia 2 (20.7 percent share), Radio Skonto (12.3 percent) and Radio Latvia 1 (7.9 percent) followed by Radio SWH, Eiropas Hitu Radio (EHR), Star FM and the rest. There are popular radio stations in Latvia’s regions, including Radio TEV, Ef-Ei, Alise+. On the whole and especially in Riga, the Latvian radio station market is highly fragmented and saturated. Characteristic too is the overlap of radio station audiences – people tend to switch from one station to another. The format chosen by radio stations is fairly homogeneous – mixed-type programming focused on entertainment, popular music, news reports and brief discussions. This is probably because of the need to attract as broad an audience as possible in order to maximise advertising revenue.
Radio’s share of the Latvian media advertising market in 2015 was 12 percent. Compared with 2014, this represented a fall of 5 percent because there were no Latvian or European parliamentary election campaigns attracting more listeners.
Towards the end of 2014 amendments to the Law on Electronic Media (LEM) were adopted that obliged radio stations whose licenses envisaged at least 50 percent of transmission time in the Latvian language to go over to 100 percent transmission in Latvian from 1 January 2016. This became a hot topic in 2015. After a major conflict within the radio industry and in order to prevent threats to the security of the information space and not subject the Russian language radio market to unpredictable fluctuations, parliament decided to allow radio stations whose licences envisaged 50/50 airtime in Latvian and foreign languages to choose the language of transmission from 2016. Other amendments to the LEM came into force on 1 January 2016 including the obligation of radio stations to fill at least 90 percent of weekly airtime with their own content. The aim was to promote domestically produced content and to restrict surreptitious retransmission that has the potential of disseminating propaganda.
During the 1990s there were changes in terms of people’s radio consumption patterns. In 1994 the average listener spent three hours with the radio on, while in 2016, the duration was up to 4.5 hours. Listening to the radio happens mostly at home, in the car or at work. People began to use the radio for background music. Back in the mid-1990s, the largest audiences were attracted at noon and during the afternoon. Nowadays people listen more to the radio during the working week than at weekends, especially during weekdays from 08.00 till 13.00. According to Kantar TNS, in autumn 2016, 81 percent of the Latvian population had listened to the radio at least once a week but 62 percent had listened at least once a day, just as many as in 2009.
There are several Internet sites which list national, regional and Internet-based radio stations among them Eradio.lv and Visiradio.lv. These services, like the websites of individual stations, are also used by Latvians who are living and working abroad to listen to live broadcasts.
Public service broadcasts on six stations: LR1 broadcasts general content and positions itself as the information leader. LR2 plays Latvian popular music 24 hours a day while LR3 is a classical music station and LR4 is aimed at national minority audiences and broadcasts mainly in Russian. Radio Pieci.lv is a youth orientated multimedia platform whereas LR6 (Radio Naba) offers listeners alternative music and other content.
In 2014 a three-person board was elected to run Radio Latvia instead of the usual single director general. In an open letter, the staff of Latvijas Radio expressed their opinion that the best chairman had not been chosen in competition. Although at the time the board had expressed its support for a unified public service media (a merger of Radio Latvia and Latvia's Television), at the political level this idea has been put on hold for now.
In the media sector the arrival of radio Pieci.lv and its operation is still controversial. In 2013 the Saeima (parliament) allocated almost €1.9m to the new radio station Pieci.lv for the period 2014-2017. The station’s development concept envisaged a target audience of young people between the ages of 15 and 30 and planned to achieve a reach of at least 100,000 listeners. Other media actors regularly point out that the newly established station has not reached its objective and call for an evaluation of the usefulness of the subsidy. For example, at the end of 2016, an initiative had reached Saeima committees to withdraw the €130,000 subsidy to radio Pieci.lv from the 2017 budget and award it to other stations. In the end, financing for the formation of a commercial radio platform for popular Latvian music was awarded from contingency resources.
For three years now, before Christmas radio Pieci.lv organises the charity marathon “Dod pieci!” (Give me five!) where the station plays songs requested by listeners in return for a donation of at least €5. Every year a particular social problem is targeted – the welfare of lonely senior citizens, rehabilitation of cancer sufferers and so on. This charity event has become very popular and attracts large public participation. For example, in 2016 listeners donated the sum of €190,910.45.
Radio in general is becoming more and more multimedia in character; There are free mobile applications allowing one to listen to the radio without a radio receiver.
In light of the current geopolitical situation and the Russian annexation of Crimea, in recent years reception of the public service media in the eastern border areas has been improved. In 2016 Radio Latvia opened its Latgale multimedia studio in Rēzekne. Its task is to provide a flow of regional information to all the Radio Latvia stations and to create content for the public service media portal LSM.lv. Saeima allocated 155 000 euros for the operations of the Rēzekne studio. The justification for the studio was that neighbouring country TV channels are freely available in Latgale and the inhabitants are subject to biased information and interpretations of national, international, social and other processes. That is why it is necessary to provide inhabitants living in the border regions with reliable and trustworthy information about current events in Latvia and the world at large. How effective the studio operations have been will be known after a year.
There has been a convergence in media outlets in terms of radio and TV formats. Latvijas Radio and Radio SWH offer a webcam view of one of its broadcasting studios. A radio station in the Latgale region that broadcast in the Latgalian language or dialect found itself in financial difficulties a few years ago. It introduced some religious programming into its format, and it has actually been able to stay on air only because of the new shareholder which owns 99 percent of its shares – the Rēzekne and Aglona diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the most important events in the radio environment in 2010 was the opening of a new radio station, Open Radio 101, which was established by former employees of Radio SWH and also offered an Internet-based webcam view of its studio. In 2013 some of the staff left the station to become the core of Latvian Radio’s Radio 5. Open Radio 101 continued to broadcast for a time with other radio personalities but eventually closed. Its financial problems began after the crash of its creditors Latvijas Krājbanka.
On 15 December 2016, the Latvian State Radio and Television Centre (LSRTC) and Radio Latvia officially began testing digital radio broadcasting in Riga. In summer 2017 LSRTC plans to provide the initial calculations of the costs of introducing digital audio broadcasting (DAB+) and transmission throughout the territory of Latvia.