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State broadcaster's end a blow to Greek identity

Thursday - 6/13/2013, 4:28am  ET

Supporters stand outside the Greek state television ERT headquarters in Athens, on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. State TV and radio signals were cut early Wednesday, hours after the government closed the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., ERT, and fired its 2,500 workers. Greece’s two largest labor unions called a 24-hour general strike for Thursday amid escalating protests against a decision to close state-run TV and radio that threw the country’s conservative-led government into political crisis nearly a year after taking office. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

DEREK GATOPOULOS
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- When Nazi troops marched into Greece's nearly deserted capital on April 27, 1941, radio announcer Costas Stavropoulos of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp. announced the grim news. He urged his countrymen and women not to listen to future Nazi radio transmissions and signed off with the Greek national anthem.

That moment in Greek broadcasting history is indelibly etched into the country's collective memory.

It was the only time the state broadcaster -- also known as ERT -- had ceased to operate from its birth three years earlier. That is, until Tuesday, when Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' government shut ERT down and fired its 2,500 employees to prove to Greece's international lenders that he was serious about cutting the country's bloated public sector. Its TV and radio signals went dead early Wednesday.

That decision might just bring down Samaras' conservative-led coalition government, which lambasted the broadcaster for its "incredible waste." Two of the coalition's three parties -- PASOK and Democratic Left -- still want to discuss the possibility of keeping ERT going.

The country's two largest labor unions called a 24-hour general strike for Thursday to protest the closure, and flights from Greece's airports were set to halt for two hours that day. Protesters gathered Wednesday outside the company's headquarters north of Athens for a second day as ERT's journalists defied the closure order and continued a live Internet broadcast.

Journalist unions also launched rolling 24-hour strikes, halting news programs on Greece's privately owned broadcasters, while the government's center-left coalition partners demanded that ERT's closure be reversed.

Like other state-run companies in debt-drowned Greece, ERT over its 75 years was exposed to the kind of notorious political patronage that the country is famous for. As successive governments meted out jobs in exchange for votes, Greece's swelling ranks of public employees helped push it to near-financial ruin and in need of tens of billions in aid starting in 2010 from its 16 eurozone partners.

Despite that, ERT has forged a deep connection with ordinary Greeks, becoming the country's voice at home and to the world, especially in the absence of private broadcasting, which only came about in 1989.

ERT started radio programming in the 1930s and television in the mid-1960s. Though it was widely regarded as reflecting government policy -- it had a channel run by the military during the 1967-74 dictatorship -- the broadcaster was also valued for showcasing regional and cultural content and for covering major sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics.

Over the years, ERT became a mainstay of Greek life. At times, it provided the only outlet for entertainment and information to an impoverished nation slowly emerging from a bloody civil war in the late 1940s. It was also the sole link to the homeland for millions of diaspora Greeks around the globe.

ERT's old news jingle -- the introduction to the traditional Greek song "O Tsopanakos" -- still remains instantly recognizable to millions.

"ERT has been woven into Greeks' own identity," says Christodoulos Yiallourides, a professor of social and political science at Athens' Panteion University. "What's happening is a mistake. Certainly you need to make reforms and changes, but not like this. You don't shut down ERT, you try and fix it."

ERT is largely state-funded, with every Greek household paying a fee through its electricity bills -- whether they have a TV set or not. There are also several private broadcasters now in Greece, including Mega, Antenna and Skai.

Even in Greek-speaking Cyprus, where ERT programming is transmitted as part of a bilateral agreement, people condemned the Greek government's decision. An official from the Cypriot state broadcaster CyBC railed against ERT's closure, recalling how a young diaspora Greek girl tearfully remembered her father asking the family for silence so he could listen to the news from ERT.

Yiallourides, who once worked as a political talk show producer on ERT radio, says the strong reaction to the broadcaster's closure may be coming from a sense that Greeks' own cultural identity is being assailed.

ERT consistently produced programming that promoted Greek history and culture, even as it drew plummeting ratings once private radio and television began operations. Yiallourides noted one successful music show on ERT radio was overseen by the late, venerated Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, who won an Academy award for his song "Never on Sunday" from the self-titled film.

He said despite the broadcasters' foibles and cost, ERT produced high quality programming that stands in stark contrast to the foreign-produced soap operas inundating private TV channels in Greece today.

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