“RAI, Radio televisione italiana, starts its regular television broadcasting service today.” This was the first announcement broadcast live from the new studios of the Production Center in Corso Sempione in Milan, at 11:00am on January 3, 1954. At the time, television was black and white, and the quality of the signal was not particularly thrilling. There was a television tax of around 18,000 lire, the equivalent of about 240 euro today. RAI’s success was immediate, however, and within four years the number of subscribers was well over one million.
In reality, RAI’s history began 20 years earlier in Rome, with the first radio broadcasts by the URI (Unione radiofonica italiana), a private company that changed its name to EIAR (Ente italiano audizioni radiofoniche) in 1927, following adjustments in the corporate capital that saw the participation of Guglielmo Marconi himself. Frequent upheaval within the company altered the established structures to the point that, following a crisis that threatened its failure, the EIAR received no aid from the IRI (Istituto per la ricostruzione industriale, created by Mussolini in order to restart the economy after the Great Depression). Both the EIAR and the IRI survived the fall of the fascist regime, and after the liberation of Rome in 1944, the EIAR took on its current name, RAI, which at the time stood for Radio Audizioni Italia.
A popular referendum in 1995 led to the repeal of the law that gave the State exclusive possession of stock in the company. However, the intended privatization never materialized. Even today, the company is controlled by the Ministry of Treasury, with a small quota of shares held by the SIAE (Società Italiana degli Autori ed Editori). Anyone whose home or business contains devices capable of receiving television transmissions must pay a tax (called a canone) to the State. With regard to RAI’s governance, the 2004 Gasparri law calls for seven administrative councilors to be elected by a Parliamentary Vigilance Commission, and two to be appointed by the Treasury, namely the CEO and the President, who must nevertheless obtain a vote of approval of at least 2/3 of the members of the Commission.
In front of RAI headquarters in Rome towers a large bronze statue by Francesco Messina. It is a dying horse, symbol of ancient human communications succumbing to new technologies. In a less triumphant reality, RAI’s image was damaged for years by the stigma of allotment. The company was accused of submitting to political control, being incapable of guaranteeing independent information, lacking pluralism, and censuring professionals who were unpopular with those in power, as well as filling key positions with people chosen by the political parties. In the years of the First Republic, this power was exercised primarily by the Democrazia Cristiana (on RAI 1) and the Partito Socialista (on RAI 2), while RAI 3 was the “territory” of the Partito Comunista Italiano. But allotment, though its boundaries were not as clearly defined by the different channels, continued even in more recent times, as demonstrated by the “earthquake” that shook the heights of the company on Viale Mazzini every time Italy returned to the polls. The division of powers and offices also weighed down the management of the company, rendered inefficient by continuous wastefulness and an elephantine internal structure.
Privatization never occurred, but a strong message was given on June 8, 2012, when the government led by Mario Monti appointed Anna Maria Tarantola, assistant director of the Banca d’Italia, President of RAI. The Monti government’s choice for CEO was Luigi Gubitosi, former managing director of Wind, and country manager as well as executive in charge of Bank of America’s corporate investment banking for Italy. The new leaders were called in by the government technocrats in order to implement a drastic spending review within the company, with staffing cuts and the reorganization of its headquarters abroad, in order to balance the public television budget by 2015 (provided, of course, that the new government doesn’t decide to make its own appointments). In the meantime, what remains of the “old” RAI is the canone, a television tax whose proceeds contribute funding the state broadcaster, which is regarded by some as a competitive privilege that entails a significant expense on the part of taxpayers.