6.17.13 inside ERT

 

Greece without a national public broadcaster

 

Black screens, closed school, the workers are writing History

 

Benjamin Moe

 

I push through close shoulders using my notebook to get past the crowds of protesters that have gathered here in front of the ERT headquarters. The sound of an orchestra tuning itself crackles over megaphones and speakers spread across the grounds. People are trying to get closer to the displays that have been set up at the entrance.

Late Tuesday night on June 11th screens went black across Greece as police shut down broadcasting at the national radio and television station, ERT. With the satellites under constant police supervision the 2,700 employees decided to continue programming, setting up projectors outside the station and leaking livestreams to blogs. A sprawling sign was stretched over the network’s headquarters outside the center of Athens which wrote in big block letters: “ERT is open and will stay open”.

I make my way into the lobby, slipping around a line of employees that have linked their hands across the entrance, forming a human wall. Inside people are trying to get past the security gates to see the concert in person. Two days after the shutdown, ERT’s national orchestras and cameratas organized a night of music to protest the government’s decision. These groups make up a well-renowned and vital part of Greece’s classical music scene and along with the network itself, are in danger of being disbanded. Thousands of Athenians have gathered to watch the concert being streamed live from Studio C inside ERT.

 Approaching a security guard with a notebook and pen in hand I tell her that I am writing a piece on the shutdown for the LA Weekly. I’d like to go to Studio C to take some notes. She takes me over to the main reception desk and a badged lady asks me for my reporter credentials. I tell her that I have forgotten mine, but offer my American student identification and driver’s license. Looking up at the guard she exchanges a few words that I can’t hear over the bustle of the lobby and then gestures to the gates. The guard swipes me in and her complexion grows softer. She tells me her name is Maria. Her son is studying aeronautics at UPenn. She doesn’t seem like a security guard and it turns out she isn’t. 

After ERT was closed, most of the employees continued to work, occupying new positions and working rotating shifts. Maria was the chief secretary to the head of ERT. Emails and letters starting rushing in a few days before the closure suggesting what was to come, but she couldn’t say a thing. We walk into a smoky hallway filled with musicians talking and drinking instant coffee. Maria tells me she has been working 16-hour shifts since Tuesday night, alternating between being a production assistant and a security guard. Roles and positions have dissolved in the past few days, everyone doing what they can to help. 

We make our way past a heavy soundproof door that has now been propped open and enter Studio C where the orchestra has just begun to play. A group of 30 or so employees sit in chairs along the back wall, some with their kids, others with friends. Most of them have their phones out and I see that they are all uploading pictures and videos to blogs. They are amplifying the effect of the performance, using whatever channels they can to voice this concert of protest. A little girl with a pacifier in her mouth rocks back and forth on the conductor’s stand as they play. Her mother stands back entranced by the music. It feels like I’m at my little brother’s school recital until I turn my head and see the rows of monitors showing the vast numbers of protesters watching outside. The air is thick with this mixture of political gravity and informal performance. 

The room ‘s climate in many ways describes the entire crisis over ERT for me. On the one hand, there is the breakdown of normal procedures and the introduction of a more animated and personal environment while on the other hand there is a pressure for the station to be more effective than ever, showing how important its voice is to the national wellbeing of Greece. Instead of becoming increasingly rigid and bureaucratized, ERT has loosened up, allowing for everyone’s voice to be heard, for anyone to help the cause. 

A lady whose son has been loudly asking me about reportage and if I knew that Bob Dylan was a Jew excuses him and tells me that the orchestra is playing Hadzidakis. She mentions that the last three songs have also been Greek composers. Lined on the wall and atop cello cases, picket signs are being propped up with the faces of Greek cultural icons like Maria Càlas, Mikis Theodorakis, and Melina Merkouri. Their faces stare down adding a certain weightiness to this already symbolic space. Instead of political slogans, portraits fill these signs, faces peering down on the orchestra that literally prop up a certain vision of Greekness that the ERT employees seem to be fighting for. The Greek music playing loudly across the grounds, combined with these larger than life sized portraits standing above the orchestra, create a sense of national pride and belonging that is based around an imagined shared cultural heritage. This protest is trying to show that not only will this cultural heritage be lost with the shutdown of ERT but also any sense of national pride and belonging. The ERT employees have made the station represent a particular idea of Greekness in order to make people believe that its closure is endangering Greekness itself. 

I look up from my notebook and turn back to see if Maria is still waiting for me. She has been sitting in the hallway leading to the studio and is listening to the music. I raise my hand up and tell her I need five more minutes. The orchestra finishes playing and starts filing out in front on me. It’s gotten incredibly hot in here and everyone has started fanning themselves with political flyers. A heavily made up woman who looks like a news anchor has been pacing around looking down at a sheet. She steps up to the microphone. Samaras - the Prime Minister of Greece - has just given a speech on the fate of ERT and she would like to read the transcript. A row of violins and violas that make up the first camerata are waiting in a row to take their chairs. The woman asks us if we’d like to continue the concert or read the speech. I turn to the thousands of protesters on the wall who are watching her speak. The employees in the studio murmur amongst each other and tell her that they’d like to finish the show. 

Before the closure orders would have come from the top and been strictly adhered to, the time slots for programming decided days in advance. Now these decisions are being made on the spot, giving room for a spontaneity that is very telling. The woman folds Samaras’ speech and slides it into her pocket as the camerata raises their bows and begins to play.

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