I would like to begin by thanking the IBI for organising this two day broadcasting conference and for inviting me to speak. The agenda shows us the range of distinguished participants in this conference. Moreover, the extent of the list of participants also shows us the extent to which the radio landscape has changed landscape in this country in the last 30 years.
We all know and value the fact that radio has been our constant companion and teacher, maestro and mentor, educator and accomplice. Its reach is enormous and it’s presence extends into every facet of our working and private lives. From childhood, while our parents listened to the match on transistor radios perched on cars in fields or at the beach on a typical wet Irish summer’s day to jogging with a tiny radio on our phone attached to our ears by lightweight headphones, radio has been with us. Radio engages its listeners with the world around them, it accompanies them in a way that television simply cannot. Radio remains a constant, it remains pervasive and accessible.
With radio you are free, free to move, to do things, to drop in and out of the conversation as you go through your day. You can work, drive, exercise – all while listening to the radio. You can’t do that with the television. Because of that freedom, radio is also somewhat insulated from the more dramatic changes happening elsewhere in the media world.
Given the huge changes and challenges elsewhere in telecommunications and media, this is a critical distinction.
Moreover, the increased use of text messaging, tweets and Facebook on radio means that listeners are given opportunity to be heard – to become part of the debate. Radio suddenly becomes inclusive and interactive, voices are heard and opinions are shared whether that is on a local, national or international matter. I see this convergence of technologies as a real opportunity for radio. As we all know, this interface between technologies is not without its difficulties – but it opens up some dramatic opportunities for audience participation.
Internet streaming of broadcasts and the on-line archiving of content adds to the global and “time independent” reach of the medium – adding further to its value and influence.
Radio in this country has grown and expanded to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse audience. Gone are the days of a broadcasting landscape entirely dominated by RTÉ. Instead, we have an active, robust and diverse sector, with strong national players complemented by local and regional stations well embedded in the life of their communities. For this I congratulate the IBI and its members.
Local radio, in particular, has proved to be a hugely important development. Local radio gives a voice and enhances social dialogue for people of all ages. Local radio is participatory; it provides a forum for local communities; it enhances a local community; its gives confidence to people and indeed is an expression of the community in which the station is broadcast.
Radio is also of intrinsic and indigenous value to our country. Its value is inherently social and cultural. It can shape our Irish identity is a rapidly changing world. This is a changing world that radio continues to inform us about and engage with. Irish audiences have responded well to this wealth of choice, with listenership remaining strong across the country.
However there is no doubt that we are all living in difficult times, internationally, nationally and locally. I fully understand the concerns of a broadcasting sector that has seen a significant reduction in advertising revenue on the back of the very significant decline in economic activity generally. It is estimated that in the case of radio, the market has declined by in the region of 30-35% from 2008 to the end of June 2011. I am aware of a number of commercial radio stations currently experiencing financial difficulties - however I would note that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s recent consultation document on their Licensing Plan states that “while the recession had undoubtedly impacted on the profitability of services, it had not in its view unduly affected their underlying viability” and that “it believes that the vast majority of services scheduled for relicensing are not experiencing viability issues”.
I am aware that the funding of the public service broadcasters has been subject to criticism by private sector broadcasters and, in particular, that there has been criticism of the dual public and commercial funding model as applied to public service broadcasters in Ireland. That is entirely understandable in the context of the difficult times we all find ourselves in.
It is worth keeping in mind at all times though that the commercial broadcast sector in Ireland is just that – commercial. Broadcasters sought and accepted licences on clear and explicit terms, and they accepted commercial risk on foot of this.
It is also worth noting that public, community and independent commercial broadcasters can all access funding from the Broadcasting Funding Scheme, the purpose of which is to encourage the inclusion of additional programming on Irish culture, heritage and experience, adult literacy and global issues impacting on the State and countries other than the State. The Scheme is open to independent producers and all ‘free to air’ broadcasters and is funded by way of 7% of net licence fee receipts, which is paid to the BAI in respect of this Scheme, an amount that was increased from 5% to 7% under the Broadcasting Act 2009. The BAI continues to find ways of working with the commercial radio sector to encourage participation in the Scheme, so that funding of this nature can be accessed by them.
Indeed, only last week the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland signed contracts with a number of producers that have been awarded production funding to make TV or radio programmes through Sound & Vision II. Sound and Vision funded programmes will appear on Radio Kerry, local radio station for Carlow and Kilkenny, KCLR and West Dublin Access Radio. Further funding, as part of this Scheme, will be rolled out throughout the year.
As you are aware, there is also a commitment in the Programme for Government to ‘review the funding of public and independent broadcasters to ensure a healthy broadcasting environment in Ireland’.
This is of course a matter of Government policy. A key aspect of this question is that the funding of broadcasting is merely one half of the coin; on the flipside lie the regulatory and compliance system that would necessarily be associated with any such funding. There are key questions that need to be asked and thoroughly investigated before consideration of this matter can be completed. Some of these key questions include compliance with EU State Aid rules, the interface with the licensing system, and the functional efficiency of a necessarily intricate and burdensome regulatory system
The BAI is due to begin a review under Section 124(9) of the Broadcasting Act 2009 of the adequacy or otherwise of the public funding provided to the public service broadcasters. In this context, I have recently asked the BAI to consider as part of this review the potential impacts to these broadcasters if television licence receipts were further distributed to the independent broadcasting sector.
Furthermore, the BAI is obliged under the 2009 Act to review the operation, effectiveness and impact of the Broadcasting Funding Scheme in 2012. It is expected that this review process will include a period of consultation with all relevant parties. The final report which will be submitted to me will contain specific recommendations for improving the operation of the scheme. In terms of any changes to the Scheme, it needs to be understood that many of the specific rules surrounding the Scheme have been put in place to as a result of the State Aid clearance process that was required to be undergone with the European Commission.
I would ask that you encourage your members to fully participate in any such consultation to ensure that their concerns are fully considered and effective conclusions and recommendations are drawn in this process.
In conclusion ladies and gentlemen, I am reminded of an interview Professor Chris Morash (Chairperson of BAI Compliance Committee) gave in 2010. In the interview he noted that during the recession of the 1980’s media in Ireland expanded rather than contracted. Indeed this was also seen in print media with the development of InDublin and Magill for example. During this difficult economic time when technological convergence continues a pace, I see it as an opportunity for broadcasters to ask themselves if there is a third way and in doing so remain viable, attractive to listeners and continue to enhance a medium that has a longstanding history in this country and an almost visceral connection to its people. Though these are difficult times we must remember that radio is as popular as it is adaptive.