Since Greece’s government abruptly pulled the plug on state broadcaster ERT, the sprawling TV complex has turned into a unique experiment in self-rule where staff are working for free but with more passion than ever.
Under pressure from its international creditors to cut costs and reform the public sector, Greece’s fragile government shut down ERT and made its 2,700 employees redundant overnight.
Many will not return when a slimmed-down version of the broadcaster, which the government agreed to, following a public outcry, eventually goes back on air.
But in the meantime, employees are going it alone and reveling in the spirit of independence and solidarity filling the studios and busy corridors of ERT’s headquarters in suburban Athens.
“There is continuous flow from the entire team here, and an emotional contribution from all,” Fanis Papathanassiou, an ERT foreign affairs journalist and anchorman said.
“Not just journalists but producers, editors, assistants, technicians, makeup staff: everyone is here, helping to put this product on the air,” he told AFP.
News bulletins are on at an unchanged pace of five times daily and the intervening hours are filled with guest interviews, documentaries and support concerts by a variety of artists
The building is clean - cleaner than before, staff note - the control room is bustling and staff take turns at the entrance to guard what the government calls an unlawful “occupation” of public property.
“We call this operational self-management,” Papathanassiou countered.
A committee of journalists oversees day-to-day business, from assigning shifts, to preparing newscasts and inviting talk show guests.
Rogue ERT broadcasts have continued with support from the European Broadcasting Union despite a digital blackout on ERT’s frequencies by the government.
“For the past 18 days, we have shown what public radio and television is all about,” said Chryssa Roumeliotis, a political journalist and news presenter.
On June 11, police were dispatched to Mount Hymettus above Athens to silence ERT’s signal after the government enacted an emergency law to shut down the company.
The conservative-led government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said it was the only way to reform ERT after successive efforts had been thwarted by the company’s powerful union.
“We could not even relocate a technician between ERT buildings,” said government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou, himself a former ERT staffer.
The government said ERT had been wastefully run and filled with political appointees for far too long, costing the cash-strapped state 300 million euros a year for paltry viewer ratings.
ERT staff retort that Samaras’ own party had managed the latest wave of wasteful spending, including a planned lifestyle show with a celebrity chef on a 5,000-euro salary.
“ERT is not comparable to a private station,” said Vasilis Alexopoulos, the custodian of ERT’s cavernous archives vault, which houses film, news footage and photographs dating to 1908.
“The purpose of private stations is to turn a profit. ERT’s purpose is... to offer something different. Which private station can afford to play classical music on a 24-hour basis?” he argued.
Ironically, the shutdown is working wonders for the broadcaster’s popularity with ERT’s Internet feed attracting around four million viewers a day in Greece only.
“A friend in the US told me, ERT had to shut down for us to appreciate what it did,” Alexopoulos said.
Roumeliotis said there has been an outpouring of public support since the broadcaster’s demise was announced.
“We’ve had people helping us cover events with their own cameras... (others) sent us boxes of snacks, people we don’t even know,” she said.
The ERT crisis nearly toppled Samaras’ government. The PM’s smallest coalition partner bolted and the government was left with a three-seat majority in parliament.
It has now appointed a minister with a special mandate to end the deadlock and restore public broadcasts, following an order from Greece’s top administrative court.
ERT has been called a “sacred cow” and “sinful” but it can still inspire intense loyalty among staff.
“We are running this department as if nothing has changed, and with even more fervor,” makeup artist Nikomache Vafiadi said after preparing two news presenters to go on air.
“ERT is perennially the best medium. The most free. The most objective, if there is objectivity in journalism,” added news editor Angelike Angelopoulou, a 15-year veteran at the company.
Asked whether she wanted to return under new management, Angelopoulou smiled sadly.
“I want to die here. This is where I want to die.”