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Why Finland Broadcasts UMK In Ten Different Languages Written by on February 9, 2024

With Finnish Eurovision selection UMK 2024 broadcasting in a record ten languages, Ben Robertson speaks to producer Anssi Autio to learn how and why the Finnish broadcaster commits such time and energy into their multilingual broadcasting at the Song Contest. 

Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu has grown in popularity tremendously in recent years. The 2019 edition saw just one artist perform three different potential Eurovision songs, and 358,000 viewers tuned in. Following on from that we see a great rise in viewing figures, which jumped to 885,000 in 2020 followed by an epic 1.7 million in 20211.9 million in 2022 and now a record breaking 2.1 million for the 2023 edition.

As the show has grown in popularity so too has the show’s broadcast reach. Since the inception of UMK in 2012 it has always been broadcast with Finnish and Swedish language commentary. Finland is a multilingual nation and both Finnish and Swedish are official languages of the nation, with some territories on the nation’s western coast, as well the autonomous Åland Islands, majority Swedish speaking.

Today the show has grown from being broadcast on just the two official languages of the Finnish nation, to being broadcast on ten: Finnish, Swedish, English, Northern Sami, Inari Sami, Finninsh Sign Language, Finnish-Swedish Sign Language, Russian and Ukrainian.

We speak to UMK Executive Producer Anssi Autio to learn more about this journey to language inclusivity took place.

From Two To Ten

When UMK began as a new National Final format in 2012, it was in an era where the community following the Song Contest was starting to grow online, and grow internationally. Anssi said that his team “realised quite early that there was an international audience”, and as such the decision came to broadcast in English.

The other languages were added one at a time depending on where the team from Yle saw an important gap in the market to fill. In Finland around 1.7% of the population, nearly 100,00 people, are Russian speakers, and thus this was the next language that was offered via UMK’s broadcasting. The two Sami languages, Northern Sami, with around 20,000 speakers of which 2,000 living in Finland, and Inari Sami of just around 400 speakers, were soon after that also in line for the commentary positions at UMK.

Approximately 45,000 Ukrainians came to Finland on the outbreak of their nation’s invasion by Russia, and in 2023 Ukrainian was added as a broadcast language by Yle. The same year saw the introduction of Finnish sign language to the broadcasting, which has an estimated 4,000-5,000 speakers.

Now for the 2024 edition we have our tenth language, Finnish-Swedish sign language, which in terms of speakers is the smallest language yet. This is a heavily endangered language which was taught out of the Porvoo school of the deaf, which started in the 19th century as the first education facility for deaf children in Finland. Since that time much progress has been made in the teaching of Finnish sign language, and this school closed in 1993. It is the native language of an estimated 90 people, of which almost all of them went to this school, which means it is expected that without intervention this number will dwindle further as time progresses. Finnish-Swedish sign language is now classified as critically endangered.

Recruiting commentators in this wide spectrum of different languages is a much less difficult undertaking for Yle than one may expect. For the reach it has, Anssi explains that the production is considered “quite cheap”, with the main costs being setting up the space to commentate from and the separate web streams. This is because Yle does not need to source external people to run this commentary, with the commentators coming mainly from the news output that the broadcaster has in these different languages.

For example Levan Tvaltvadze has been a journalist for Yle’s Russian language news output for twenty years, as well as being a songwriter and member of the Staroe Kino rock band. Jaakko Oleander-Turja, who will be in charge of the English language commentary, is the web and social media manager for Yle’s UMK production.

“We make the first proposition to ask if they [teams from the different languages at Yle] are willing to do the commentary,” continues Anssi. “And usually those people are Eurovision fans and they want to useful to do their part of the show, so it’s quite easy to ask people to do favours like that.”

Indeed we could even extend this number of languages from ten to twelve, thanks to other external sources that raise this language quota. TenTV from Spain broadcasting the show with a Spanish language commentary team that will be in Tampere for the UMK final, as will Estonian TV3, with Eurovision alum Robin Juhkental on their commentary team.

The Benefits Of Broadcasting Multilingually

The cost might be low, but is there any benefit for a broadcaster in putting on such a diverse spread of different languages on top of the core broadcast? The core reason Yle believe this is so important is because they aim for all viewers to “be able to participate in UMK”, with Anssi highlighting its “democratic values” in choosing Finland’s representative. However UMK is arguably taking that democracy further than any other Yle broadcast, while there are efforts made to produce content for Finland’s Independence Day Concert, or coverage for Finland’s upcoming Presidential election, the minority language coverage does not include simultaneous live streams into anywhere close to this plethora of languages.

Anssi believes that the numbers of viewers on the English language web stream that Yle produces is in the tens of thousands of viewers each year. However one notable statistic is that, despite the English language commentary being primarily aimed at an international audience, the largest viewership each year comes from within Finland itself. The English language stream isn’t just making the show more accessible to those beyond Finland’s borders, but also to those who have moved to the nation from abroad and haven’t got their head around the Finnish language’s 15 grammatical cases. To that point previous editions of UMK even included slow, or easy Finnish, to help those with extra needs to follow the show’s ebbs and flows.

One can not underestimate the importance of Sami representation, a group that has significantly found their culture shunted from society in history. Anssi notes that, while we have seen a growth of Finnish language songs being both submitted and ultimately presented at UMK, there has been growing interest from Sami artists to take part in the competition, with the last time there was Sami representation in UMK being back in 2015 with Solju’s ‘Hold Your Colours’. According to Anssi there was a song in one of the Sami languages that “got really close” to being selected for the final seven this year.

A further opportunity provided by the production of content in minority languages is that it fosters direct dialogue between the broadcaster and the community of speakers. To this respect Anssi names in particular in particular the engagement of sign language into UMK, where he says that “the entire community is embracing” the collaboration which “makes it easy” to work alongside them. It has been a two-way relationship, with the group suggesting ideas to further integrate and develop the sign language provision through UMK.

This dialogue is part of the reason that the Finnish Swedish sign language has made its entrance into this arena, and the team producing the sign languages for these shows has grown to a team of three, as well as the artist Signmark, 2nd place in Finland’s Eurovision selection in 2009, who assists with the translation of both songs and script into sign format.

In addition Anssi was clear in demonstrating that there is a further benefit, particularly in these geopolitical times, to the fact that the Yle broadcast for UMK (and indeed for the Eurovision Song Contest) has a strand in Russian. Given that Russia and Belarus are no longer taking part in the Eurovision Song Contest, Yle’s Russian language stream could be a way of making the show accessible even in those territories.

“Why not! We do not hate the Russian people,” replies Anssi, when I comment that Russian fans may choose to watch the Yle broadcast for that reason. And should Russian fans, increasingly alienated from the rest of Europe, engage through Eurovision through the lens of an Yle filter, then that could have incredible power for how Europe is perceived by Russian speakers. Marko Krapu, the producer responsible for Yle’s special news output, notes how a significant number of Russian speakers living in Finland “are still under the influence of the Russian state media”, which increases the risk of exposure to misinformation. Eurovision can be one way to build those bridges.

Where Can This Go Further?

The production of different language commentaries is a big public service broadcast remit that UMK fulfills. However Anssi is clear to point out that there are arguably more languages that the broadcaster could expand this service to. In particular he names both Arabic and Somali, languages that together have around 100,000 speakers in Finland, as possible areas for expansion. However in the current model the challenge is to find somebody within Yle working in these languages who would be passionate enough to produce commentary on UMK.

There is also the possible interest in wanting to expand such coverage over to other types of programming. However Yle’s output isn’t particularly entertainment focused, and thus other avenues are currently limited. That is one reason why the production of UMK makes such a bold statement in producing such a wide spread of language content today.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a forum where language and identity come together. Yle’s success with commentary provision is very easily something that more broadcasters around Europe should take note of. When trying to generate a show like this to be successful, one has to start with the grassroots, with the fans who are the core interest group who will shout loudest about its existence. Yle’s cheap solution here could, arguably should, be one that other broadcasters around the continent take note of and replicate.

That way we can promote how the Eurovision Song Contest truly is the most inclusive piece of entertainment on the planet.

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About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson has attended 23 National Finals in the world of Eurovision. With that experience behind him he writes for ESC Insight with his analysis and opinions about anything and everything Eurovision Song Contest that is worth telling.

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