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" show that a minority can be in the majority": an interview with Xavier Ess, chief editor of the Belgian radio show Bang Bang

Grassroots media in Europe
LGBT and queer issues
Pop culture
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50° 51' 1.224" N, 4° 21' 6.156" E

Xavier, could you please introduce yourself and give us a short description of your radio show Bang Bang?
I'm 50 years old now and I work for the public radio RTBF (Radio-télévision belge de la Communauté française is the public service broadcaster for the French speaking part of Belgium). I've always been busy with television and radio, I'm a journalist basically, a cultural journalist not a news journalist. Bang Bang gets broadcasted by a FM station, music and news that's the model of Pure FM and its audience is supposed to be between 18 to 40, and mainly educated people. So the radio started on the 1st April 2005, it's a new radio and the director of the radio asked me to make a radio show. In fact his idea was that every evening there should be a radio show concerning social tribes, for example Hip Hop people, and one of those urban tribes was gay and lesbian people. The initial idea of the show was to pick up things in the gay and lesbian culture and to see which influences this minority culture has on mainstream culture; in music, fashion and so on. So it was not focused on sexuality but on culture. We started that program and after a few months, maybe one year with the feedback we got by mails, we could expect that heterosexual people listen to the radio show as well and not only gay people. I guess we have 50% straight people listening to it, and then maybe 30% lesbians and 20% gay guys. And I was very pleased with that because I didn't want to make a community radio show. So the under title of Bang Bang is "Gender issues magazine", mainly we speak about gay and lesbian people but it is not focused on that, it's on gender issues. So we speak a lot about transsexuality, intersexuality and so on. That's the evolution of the show.

So what I find interesting about your show is that it gets broadcasted by a public service broadcaster and that it was the director of the radio station who came to you and asked you to make a queer, gender issues program. Because usually queer or feminist radio shows are broadcasted by free radios or community radios.
In fact that's really because the director of Pure FM is an old friend of mine, we did our studies together, and he knew about me and he had that idea to make a gay and lesbian cultural radio show. So he knew that it was possible and he asked me to do it. It's just a question of opportunity. And concerning the CEOs of the RTBF, when he came with that program idea, the CEOs asked: "Well, those people, are they gay or lesbian?" And we have the rule not to say our sexual orientation, you can talk about gender issues and you don't have to be gay or lesbian or whatever. And so the director said: "Oh well, here on Pure FM everybody must be bisexual at least! If you're not bisexual you can't have a job on Pure FM". And one of those guys asked - very interested - : "Oh is it real?" [laughing] So that's not a problem in fact.

And how did you come to feminism or to queer activism? How did it come that you got interested in those issues, so in gender issues and in feminist and queer issues?
That's part of my personal history. So in the late 70s, early 80s I was an activist in a gay group called GLH – Groupe de Libération Homosexuelle [Gay and Lesbian Liberation Group]. So at that time we had really a connection with all social struggles, so we were doing things with feminist groups in Brussels. It was another time than today, there was that idea that all minorities had to fight together to change society. That's my starting point in gay activism and then I went on being interested in gender issues and theory and so on.

And have there been or are there any examples of feminist or queer-lesbian-gay media that inspired you in your work? So for example when you started with Bang Bang, did you know a media or a radio show of which you said "Yes I want to do something like that"?
No not really, except that I made a lot of gay and lesbian shows on the free radio. During the late 80s and 90s I made three different radio shows. And we learned it by ourselves, and of course it was a really free station, so for example we made news about outside cruising; every week we said: “Oh in that part of the city, in that park, take care because last week there were cops staying there”, etc. etc. I can't do this of course on the national radio [laughing]. And basically written by ourselves, yes, and I listened to other free radio shows.

But coming back to Bang Bang: so you’ve already talked a little bit about the formation process, so that it was kind of a wish of the radio station to have such a program. Could you also tell us something about the initial idea or the motivation for you and your colleagues to do such a show, the philosophy behind it or the content you want to provide?
The first difficulty was to avoid making something heavy, dramatic and… quite boring, you know, with the gay rights issue every week. I like that kind of issues and my colleagues say: "Oh yes you Xavier you're the specialist for gay suffering in Africa, in Asia and all over the world!" And actually, I’m doing the international news in Bang Bang. Fortunately in the team there is that guy, Sébastien Ministru, who is a journalist for a very popular print magazine. And he is also a theatre writer, he writes comedies about gays, and with that guy I was sure that the show could be in a way “light”; so not “light” but also humoristic.
What works very well with the show is that we talk about serious topics but we can also laugh about ourselves and it is not about “Gay people and lesbian people are wonderful and straight people don't understand anything”. It's something else. Maybe it's not so clear right now, but in 2005 you could say that gay people and lesbian people, well at that time gay people, were trendsetters. That's a little bit of a cliché but I think at that time it was real, maybe it's not so real now. (…) So it's not a militant radio show, an activist program but it was just interesting to show that a minority can be in the majority. And then queer theory came, and we have also a very important collaboration with Marie-Hélène Bourcier in Paris, she is a sociologist and also a queer activist and a queer writer. And with her we have, two times a month, a very specific topic on queer issues, on queer theory, on feminism, history of feminism and so on. She is very precious to the program because she knows everything and she is very personal in judgements about what happens now in the queer sphere and even if maybe most of our listeners don't understand really what she talks about - because if you don’t know Michel Foucault for instance, maybe you can't understand everything in queer theory - that’s not important for me. I think it is important that you can listen to somebody who tells you that you can think in another way, that there is another way to look at gender issues, pornography, post-porn, pro-sex feminism and so on.

So you have rather a mixture of more theoretical parts, more humoristic parts, music, news, interviews I guess?
Yes that's it. So we are about nine people now in the team, in the Bang Bang team. And everyone has his/her own specificity, there is a guy talking about theatre, dance and contemporary dance, two guys who talk about music of course. But for example with music we use to interview artists that we like and we know there is a gay or lesbian sensibility; we don't care if they really are gay or lesbian. For example two weeks ago it was really interesting because a journalist, she is a lesbian and she was convinced that the group The Posies, a 90s group, four guys with beards and … - so how do you say that?... so really not gay, but she was convinced that they were gay, so she asked for the interview and then she made the interview and the guys were so happy not about not to be gay but so happy that a journalist came to them to talk about something else than music. In fact those people they like Queen, they like Morrissey, and so on. And it was really interesting because they come from Seattle and they could talk about Seattle in the 90s and that was the only group that was not Grunge at that time. So they could talk about being a guy... so in French we say a garçon sensible, so a “guy with sensibility”. So if we like a band and say: “Oh they are guys with sensibility”, that's enough to go to them and speak about that with them: “What do you think about being a man today? What is male friendship for you?” and so on. It is not about: “Are you straight or gay?” And that’s it what is interesting for straight people when they are listening to the show, because they can say: “Oh yes it talks to me, what am I as a man in Belgium today? Do I have real male friends? Do I speak to them about myself?” and so on. I'm very proud of not doing a community radio show.

So and you said that when you started Bang Bang back in 2005 gays and lesbians were trendsetters, and that you have the feeling this isn't as much today. So did something change also in your show, have there been any bigger programmatic changes since it started?
Yes absolutely. First of all from 2005 until today I think the lesbian community grew up and there is now a visibility of lesbians, not only in Belgium but also in papers, there is a lesbian press right now. For years we asked why there are so many gay magazines and not a lesbian press. And now there is one, not in French ok, but in English there is a real lesbian press. (...) So there is really an empowerment in lesbian movement right now and I'm very pleased with that because I think gay people are not very interested in activism at the moment. In the gay community everybody speaks about marriage and the right to have children, some lesbians do that too, and I think it's really in the agenda all over the world, but there are so many other topics to talk about, like homophobia in schools, here in Belgium nothing is done right now in schools towards gender diversity. And so in Bang Bang we followed that lesbian empowerment, that's for sure, and we talk also about fluid gender, intersex and we made a lot of things with transsexual people, intersex people and queer people who are considered as transgender, they have a fluid gender, genre fluide in French. For me personally I think that’s really interesting, the way to make society more aware of the freedom you have with your gender, I don't think that the gay community and gay topics right now are very interested in that.

And the people involved in the production of the show: who are they? Concerning their age, their social background, their professional background, education, socio-cultural background etc.?
Well there are three professional journalists, who are writing in magazines and newspapers, so in the printed press. And one girl is very involved in cinema, we have a queer film festival in Brussels called Pink Screens and she is very involved in that and also in new technologies. Particularly the gender issues in cyberspace. She makes the geek part of the show; she tries to find web series, transsexual web series or feminist web series, or video games with gender bendings, things like that. She is not a professional journalist but she does it very well. And there is a straight guy, he makes the chronicles about comics and he is a filmmaker in fact but he likes comics and he is very interested in that. He reads a lot of comics and for us he can find comics with lesbian subjects and things like that. There is an evolution because since a few years you can see that French comic editors, they all have comics with stories with gay or lesbian people. It's strange because these are not alternative comics but really mainstream comics, and that's a good thing. But I can't read everything and I don't know everything, so it is very important to have somebody like that. So mainly for those people, it's based on passion, personal passion for comics, for the web. So we cast a lot of people, so in the team people are coming and going.

And which skills do you think are important for producing your radio show? Journalistic skills,...
Yes of course journalistic skills, and also specifically radio skills. The radio show is broadcasted on Sunday evening, and you can think that: Oh, it's Sunday evening and it's the end of the weekend and maybe people don't want to listen to people speaking. Because that's really unique on Pure FM that we are the only talk show, and it's 8 p.m. on Sunday evening .Two hours of speech, even if there is also music of course. So people listening to Bang Bang they choose to listen to it, even if there is somebody listening to it by chance. So the skills are to make a balance between “heavy” topics, for which you need attention to listen to it and for which you need some knowledge by yourself about feminist theory or queer theory to understand, and "mainstream" topics, for example if you talk about a movie (…). And we have also very very light chronicles, the French title is "Mieux vaut entendre ça que d’être sourde" which means: “it's better to listen to that than to be deaf”, and it’s about very light things in fact, for example the guy speaks about sex toys and we make a show like: “Oh we try it out for you, live!” So I think the main skill is to find a balance between those different topics. And we have also testimonies of people, that's really important, people talking about themselves, about their experiences, about their coming out, about the first time they understood that they are quite different concerning their sexual orientation. It is very important for me to have real people talking.

And do you see any challenges in producing your media, so are there any obstacles to which you are confronted? So problems which you faced during the last years which in the beginning you didn't see?
No... Of course in the beginning we were quite afraid of bad reaction from the audience; there actually were some insults by mail, but only a few. In fact, we are very free to do what we want and we have no problems with that, on the contrary: for example the minister for Diversity and Social Equality, at the Parliament there was a question for her: “What do you do to show gender diversity in public media?” Of course she referred to Bang Bang and said: “Hey we have something really unique in Europe.” Also for Pure FM being a music and news radio, it is very important to have something like Bang Bang which is a talk show with first of all an informational goal, but also an educational goal. That's very important for the director of Pure FM to have a show like this because when people are saying : “Pure FM is just music and costs a lot of money and the audience rate is not so high” he can say: “No, it is not only music but it is also Bang Bang”, for example. So I can't feel any difficulties, neither from the audience nor from the institution, on the contrary.

And do you also cooperate with other feminist or queer media, or other organisations?
We were in a close relationship with an activist group called Genres Pluriels, a group of transgender, transsexual and intersexual people. We collaborated for two years with them. And right now we make something with two HIV associations, one is called Ex Aequo, it's an association for the prevention of HIV among gay people, and the other one is called Plate-Forme Prévention SIDA, and that's the main public association for HIV prevention. Every three weeks we make a chronicle about health, because I think it is very important to do that. And I try to have testimonies because I think it is very important that people can listen for example to HIV positive men or women who talk about their everyday life. Because in Belgium, like everywhere in Europe, people think that you take a pill every morning and that's it, if you are HIV positive, you're positive and it's not a problem. And of course that's not reality, you have very hard side effects, etc. and so I think it is important for us to be part of prevention for younger people listening to the radio who don't know about the history of HIV.

So and you said that you came from a more activist context: do you see Bang Bang also as a kind of political or consciousness raising project, or activist project? Although it is in a rather highly institutionalised context within Pure FM? So do you see it as an alternative project?
Yes for me it is. Because I think saying to people every week, and until now we have made more than 200 shows, so every week we tell people: “You can be yourself and you can choose what kind of sexuality you want to have, or gender” and so on. So the discourse is in fact political. And we give the opportunity to activists to talk on the national radio ....

So to give them a kind of platform?
Yes that's it. Also I think it is very important for me to speak in the name of common people. For example when transsexual activists right now demand that your gender should not be on your ID-card, many of the people listening to the show don't understand that, they find it really weird or really extremist. And as a journalist I can say: “Oh I don't understand. Why do you want that? Why is it so important?” and so on. The skill is not to exclude people, so avoid to say: "We the Bang Bang team, we are so far from common people. We understand everything and everyone has read Judith Butler” which is not true. So it is very important to think about and to speak in the place of common people. Because gender issues, of course they are political topics and it is very essential I think... not to be “objective” of course, it's not about that, but to think about people who are in a different way of thinking about it, for example very much traditional, because it is not that they want to be traditional but that they didn’t ever think about it. If you don't ask a man, I mean a straight guy: “Hey, did you ever think about what it means to be straight? Did you choose to be straight?” Of course they never ask that kind of question, but that's what we do in Bang Bang and in this way I think it is quite a political show, yes.

And how would you describe the feminist or the queer self-understanding of your media, so of Bang Bang? On your website I found the description Bang Bang is: « le magazine queer consacré aux cultures gay et lesbienne et aux sexualités minoritaires » [“the queer magazine with an emphasis on gay and lesbian cultures and sexual minorities”]. But you already mentioned that you also have feminist topics, so in how far can Bang Bang be called a feminist project?
I think we are the new, the last generation of feminists. Personally I'm very interested in pro-sex feminism, so those things like post-porn, feminist porn and things like that. We are very attentive to these kinds of topics. There is an activist group in France, in the North of France, called Urban Porn, they are activists and make really nice actions, and that's it: that's the way we follow things in feminism, but in historical feminism? Personally I would like to have more topics about that because I think it is very important, for example to show that queer theory is coming from feminist theory. So there is a lack in the show concerning the historical part of feminism. And you can be a lesbian without being a feminist, the two girls, three – Marie-Hélène also - they are feminist. But in fact in the show we speak more about differences within the gay and lesbian community, the positions and discussions in the community and things like that and not mainly about feminism, for example concerning salary differences, etc.

So I think I have asked all my questions but do you want to add something what I didn’t ask but which you think is important?
Yes maybe something about the music. That's really one of the main fields where gay and lesbian people are still trendsetters. So on Pure FM there are two chief programmers and the whole week the whole musical program is made by those two people. But in Bang Bang we can do everything we want, we are really free also for the music. And they help us to broadcast new artists, new tendencies and so on. And that's also part of the success of the show. Some people, I suppose straight people mainly, who first are not interested in gender issues, they listen to the show to discover new bands and new tendencies in music and that's the way also to interest them for the talking parts of the show. So that's important, I mean, it's also a way to attract people by being really selective in music.

So to interest people trough popular culture also for issues which are behind it, or hidden?
Yes exactly, also because those artists, they catch gay and lesbian or gender tendencies, mainly in the video clip. Everybody right now writes: “Look at the Lady Gaga phenomenon”. And it's really common now to play with gender stereotypes, very fashioned and very up to date to do that. And so it's interesting for us to say: “Hey, listen and look at this, do you understand what's happening there?” And you can do it through the music too. That's it.

Xavier Ess
Stefanie Grünangerl
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