People sometimes ask me whether – after many years at the BBC – I am enjoying the new job in Geneva. The answer is yes, it is immensely rewarding relating to and supporting the work of 73 EBU members in 56 countries, but in addition – these days – I find myself adding that our work, the work of our Members is more important than ever. To function effectively as human beings, we need to have reliable information about our world, our environment. The radio channels broadcast by our Members are among some of the most trusted sources we have.
In my first months at the EBU, I had a discussion with a rather disaffected ex-BBC colleague, who has now left the BBC; he was surprised at my move to Geneva – he said that the days of broadcasting were finished, and that social media was going to be the real source of information for everyone - telling genuine local stories, close to communities - and painting me as living on another planet. I’m too kind to quote the article in which he expressed these opinions or his name. But I wonder whether three years later, he still maintains that utopian position. How times have changed, and in only three years.
Speaking about the importance of radio, from the perspective of someone within the industry, feels rather self-referential. Of course, I argue that radio is important – a belief probably shared most of the people attending this conference. Very few people study something which they regard as unimportant!
I argue that we need radio in a fundamental way, a radio which meets basic societal needs, as a service, not a product – and in increasingly polarized societies, we need this more than ever. As I was preparing this, I remembered a slide I sometimes use quickly at the beginning of a presentation to show that this is important, and we are dealing with real people’s lives and wellbeing – though I’ll go into more detail, I’ll briefly share this with you now.
This slide came about when I was being provocative about the definition of radio in 2030 – what would people call radio, Spotify, supermarket music? For me, the slide shows the essence of radio, distinguishing it from streaming services, underpinned by a sense of time and place. I’m going to try and articulate what - for me - is the key question around public media, media itself: how can we discuss with one another, how can we disagree effectively and constructively, if we have no shared, no trusted store of information on which to base our arguments? How can we relate to each other unless we have some shared space, some common experience? That’s our informational level playing field, the agreed basis of information which makes discussion possible, makes it possible to relate to one another – adult to adult in mature conversation.
We cannot be totally dispassionate in making the case for radio, since we have probably all witnessed how radio enriches lives, providing a window on the wider world, connecting us to our communities, warning us of danger, and – even in the developed world – telling us where to collect fresh water during an emergency. Perhaps, it has also fulfilled this role for us – what interested you and me to engage with radio in the first place?
In my role at the EBU, most of my focus is on our Members – Reykjavik to Baku, Helsinki to Cairo – though we maintain also relations with our associates around the world including Australia. However, this time last year, I spoke at the RadioDays Africa and this cast the arguments we advance around radio and its societal role into even sharper relief, encountering their strong community radio sector, and indeed a strong sense of community underpins African radio. Realizing that radio provides basic information, into remote villages with a low literacy level, giving people basic information they need for their lives – that was inspiring. When I was at the BBC, I remember meeting the DG of the national broadcaster for The Gambia, and ignorantly asking him whether he was a public service organization – more public service that you, he replied, we tell people how to access clean water.
Charities such as Lifeline Energy have harnessed the extraordinary power of the medium, manufacturing and distributing solar-powered and wind-up media players and radios for classroom and community listening, emphasizing this vital role. Their answers to the question ‘Why Radio is Important?’, explaining their work, are more widely relevant – I believe – even though, of course, technologies are changing.
Radio has an enormous reach, radio is democratic, radio is trusted, radio is life-saving, radio is portable, radio does not run out of data.
These are inspiring qualities, written to explain and encourage support of an African project, but actually they resonate strongly anywhere. We must be careful that the move from broadcast to IP is not simply driven by the urban elite, who imagine that wifi and 4G are everywhere, and completely dependable. My weekly travels and the difficulty sometimes getting emails show this is not the case. We’ve done some calculations on the amount of data necessary to distribute European radio – there are a lot of zeros!
In Europe too, our EBU research shows that – despite a slight decline - radio is widely consumed, forming the backdrop to many people’s lives. Clearly, we cannot be complacent, and listening varies from one territory to another, but it is important to engage the new generation with radio on new platforms, reflecting their taste – we spend a lot of time on this area with Members. For you academics and for us, it would be good to get closer to measuring accurately online and on-demand consumption.
And when I say ‘backdrop to their lives’, I mean this because uniquely in the media world, radio is remaining stubbornly live, keeping people in contact, informing them what is happening around them, helping them live in the moment.
I would maintain that the Public Media radio world functions best as part of a thriving media ecology, public and commercial; this is an effective way of ensuring plurality and maximum investment into the sector – moving around the industry can refresh skills, give new impetus for innovation and collaboration. Indeed, we at the EBU and our Members engage with the independent media sector, working collaboratively over issues such as DAB, shared apps, the present of radio in automobiles. I spent Monday in Brussels with the European commercial radio body. In all of these sectors, ensuring the position of radio in society is more important than immediate competition regarding ratings.
At the same time, public radio has a special role and special responsibilities. It’s an ideas jungle out there, and with oligarch-owned radio services, stations which sensationalize to attract listeners, I maintain that we need reliable radio with declared public values more than ever. With ever more strident views being expressed in society, including opinions which would have unacceptable even a few years ago, having a shared information source – answerable only to the public – is vital. In this context, it is interesting to see where the public service broadcasting ranks alongside other news providers in different markets.
Clearly, PSM ranks high for broadcasting, television and radio, though some countries have yet to make their online impact equal to their broadcast impact. Clearly, the market conditions and history are different for each of these territories. For instance, some organizations particularly in the East find that they are actually implementing public service editorial policies, but struggling to ensure the public understand this, when the brands have been previously associated with state media for many years. When it comes to trust, apart from some outliers, it is encouraging to see that many public service organisations score highly for trust. In some cases, where there are separate organisations, it is possible to see a higher ranking for radio trust than television trust, and is valid for Sweden and Bulgaria, for instance. Is there something about the unadulterated human voice, the direct communication which builds this. This connection with audiences gives us the possibility of creating the impartial, widely accessible level playing field for information.
Let’s leave media aside for the moment, and address the more fundamental question is what type of societies we wish to build and encourage – a question which was well articulated recently in the debates leading up to the referendum on the licence fee in Switzerland. Speaking with Manon Romario on Tuesday who ran the Swiss campaign…. Not what media do we want, but what society do we want. James Purnell from the BBC, at a recent conference, drew attention to the fact that the BBC was the only website in the UK which could stand alongside American tech giants, in seventh place in the UK web ratings after google and amazon. Some EBU Members are in the same position, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, but this is difficult to compare rationally across the EBU because of language splits in say Belgium and Switzerland, or regionalized broadcasting in Germany. Commercial media are not so much in evidence, meaning that google, amazon, youtube, Instagram, facebook, twitter, and innumerable porn providers are heading the rankings. Essentially, populations around the globe are being drawn to the enchanted world of the tech giants.
This does strongly raise the question of who mediates our information, who shapes our taste. Personally, I have all the toys from an Apple watch to an entire family of different smart devices at home, but I would be seriously worried about an entire media universe created by US tech giants. Radio needs to be national, local and community, and invest in putting down real roots, listening to local voices. Our Dutch Member has invested in a bus which every day drives to a different community to listen to the voices which are frequently not heard, and the bright yellow bus symbolizes this commitment in an iconic manner. This will not happen without local roots.
This takes time, investment, commitment and local engagement, and - ultimately – if citizens feel their opinions are heard, we may see different societal outcomes. We only need to reference Trump and Brexit to see popular movements among sectors of society whose voices have been marginalized. Introducing a series of Brexit essays in the Socio-Economic Review, we read: "In many ways foreshadowing the US presidential election of Donald Trump, Brexit brought to the surface and gave a public voice to socio-economic divisions that were deeply embedded, sometimes illogical, but until now had either been ignored or hushed out of ‘respectable’ public debate".
We need to do even better. If we refer to the EBU Values, shared by our Members, we see that Universality – being available and representing everyone – stands besides Diversity, ensuring that society is represented in all its granularity. All this is underpinned by another EBU Value, Independence. The paradox is that exactly at this moment, when bringing societies together seems more important than ever, public media is being undermined in many territories. This can take many forms, including direct political pressure, such as the dismissal of the Montenegrin DG a few weeks ago. In response to this, the EBU made the following statement:
"The EBU believes constant changes in the governance and management of public service media create an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and instability and encourage a culture of self-censorship, which endangers the ability of public service media (PSM) to fulfil its remit to society."
Elsewhere, financial pressure is being placed on public media – the remit remains the same, but the funds needed effectively to exercise this responsibility are being reduced or questioned. Media research in the UK is very detailed, and the BBC tracks trust, and it is quite clear that in Britain – where there is relatively a high level of distrust in public institutions – the BBC is clearly in the lead in this area.This perhaps should function as a cautionary note in taking hasty action to weaken PSM. As the Swiss recently decided, what can actually hold the country together.
For if we do weaken PSM to the point that it does not have the resources to do a thoroughly professional job, then naturally trust has to attach to something else: two alternatives present themselves, the market and the network. I am not against either, but are they realistic alternatives? Unrestrained markets naturally aim for efficiency and maximizing gains, and commercial radio has not tended to invest in high-quality journalism which takes time and money, and is not an efficient or cost-effective way of filling airtime. Neither is there the funding and spirit of risk-taking to launch new artists, invest in culture, and serve more niche interests. The US demonstrates what happens when media is dependent on commercial interests and donors; there is little appetite for launching youth channels, though one friend did manage this, The Current from MPR. Young people are not a rich seam for advertisers, they don’t have enough money. Referring now to the network, supported of course by tech giants, here we have the law of the jungle, as we have seen, and all types of interests from political groups to influence elections, to what happened when someone announced – with photoshop pictures - on Twitter during my recent visit to Georgia that the previous president had returned from exile. Mischief, trying to provoke instability, or just having fun? In any case, the report was unfounded, but still dangerous. Or the picture which made the news in Italy when presented as migrants in Libya queueing to board boats, when it was actually a Pink Floyd concert in Venice.
Our world does not have a shortage of media; indeed, it is impossible to consume everything that is interesting. How different from relatively recent times, when as radio schedulers we could rely on people staying for the next programme, even if the current one was not exactly to their taste. Things have moved on. The issue here, expressed eloquently by Emily Bell, is that there is a danger that societies do not have a sufficient shared understanding for effective democratic participation – public media, both investing in journalism and attempting to shape it, so as to reach everyone has always played this role. To quote Emily:
"Traditionally, the impact of public media has been much more around who does it reach, what parts of the population are reading it, or viewing it, or listening to it. What are they getting from it? There’s a huge mission for those companies to reach those sections of society with accurate facts that people can make sensible decisions on. (…)"
She fears that the world we know is in danger because ad funding has collapsed, while journalism and investigation remain as expensive as ever – getting the right person on the ground. At the same time, platforms are less transparent than before – what interests lie behind what we are being told? Who can we trust? How can we triangulate our view of the world? Form opinions?
Emily Bell believes that ‘public service media has got the most important role to play that it’s had at any point since the end of the second World War’. For this, specifically, radio can harness a number of advantages. Sending journalists around the world, investing in distinctiveness, is necessarily high cost, but within the EBU News Exchange, we can somewhat alleviate that problem through sharing between trusted partners to some extent. But the fact remains, journalism is expensive, good investigative journalism, foreign coverage - these need investment and a commitment from the society.
At the BBC, I once said that FiveLive, with its combination of sport and news, had a unique capacity to attract a non-news demographic and was therefore at the heart of British democracy – I still believe that.
If lack of trust spreads, like an epidemic, then the problem becomes magnified. Without trust, we don’t have society at its most basic level – would you accept my credit card? At the risk of sounding naïve, I sometimes advance an argument for the continuation of terrestrial broadcast which is around being able to recognize where the product originates – I buy toothpaste in the supermarket, the brand is clear; I open it, the seal is still intact; I feel confident to use it. This is a reliable delivery method with a clear quality control – whatever forms radio transmission take in the future, we need to know which ‘factory’ our media has come from, and whether the delivery process has been interfered with. And for radio this is particularly important, as a foundation of society – radio is by far the most trusted medium, and we need to be grateful and build on that positive perception.
As societies, radio is definitely our best chance, our best basis going forward. I sometimes wonder why radio is received so positively, when tv and online can come from the same organizations, and this has probably to do with the medium itself: a radio channel is a community of listeners, the sense of identification to the channel is strong, you know the voices - television, by contrast, is an aggregation of individual programmes, and channel scheduling is secondary. Radio is also immediate. It bestows a sense of time and place – a sense of connection. Perhaps there is something innate about the human response to another voice, and the feeling that we are not being either manipulated or cajoled by smart visual images, however compelling this might be on occasion. The variance in radio and television online listening shows this, in the vast preference is for live as far as radio is concerned.
For that reason, radio has a vital role to play. Reuters has reported on the role of PSM, and shown a consistent picture, namely that public media "…tend to broadcast more news and current affairs programmes at peak times, and proportionally more hard news. In many cases, this creates media environments where citizens have better opportunities to become informed. … Increased exposure to public service media news and generally increased political knowledge may increase individual propensity to vote, with national voter turnout rates higher in countries with public service-oriented media systems."
At the EBU, we have a workstrand devoted to defining the role of PSM in society, contribution to society. If we look at the Contribution to Society Model, we have concentrated on the blue spheres, but clearly life is more than being a political animal. As humans, we need culture and the arts which define who we are, introduce us to the world of ideas, and to who we are as a society. To thrive, we also need to be entertained, and hopefully to have our minds opened to new music, new art, different sports, new places, new cultures and cuisines which we have not previously valued or investigated. We were born to explore, and public media supports that journey. Without going through every sphere, technology adoption is also relevant in this context, encouraging adoption of devices by older demographics because specific services are available, helping their sense of agency in later life.
Aside from journalism, there are elements which make the radio schedule, but could not be justified in economic terms…. radio drama like last night putting up a mirror to our lives and helping us understand the lives of others, compelling documentaries enriching our experience, programmes in minority languages for social inclusion, music production bringing the best to everyone irrespective of mobility, funds and geography, giving space and time to encourage emerging talent. This costs money.
However, in other ways radio is comparatively low cost. To get closer to their communities, Swedish Radio has been working to simplify broadcast technology, and putting an outside broadcast into a rucksack – transmitting live so effectively from Washington in an early Trump demonstration – but also getting closer to people across the country; the initial motivation came from local radio, as did their studio in an iPad. Because it is cheap, and requires less infrastructure, services can be flexible, and launch easily new channels in minority languages, for instance, as our Georgian colleagues are currently doing. In Albania, for instance, our member broadcasts in Greek, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romany and Vlach. This is clearly not commercial.
As the EBU, we balance the insistence on drawing close to communities with understanding each other across national boundaries, opening a wider horizon to the public. Radio waves have never stopped at frontiers, as the first Director of Austrian Radio, removed by the Nazis, realised: "Radio does not recognize national boundaries and often makes use of a language trusted by peoples of all tongues—music—is called upon to cooperate in the work of international understanding and contribute to the coming together of nations."
This is a vision of bringing people together through radio, perhaps nowadays as necessary as ever. And it’s not just news, with our EBU Music Exchange of 3000 concerts each year, we have developed this international spirit, as well as providing occasion for networking and learning, undertaking research and advocacy for public media.
What are the challenges, and how can we address them?
I have talked more content than platforms, but clearly the advent of the smart speaker is great for radio listening, though there is an issue around findability and prominence, particularly when there is no screen. How can any brand establish itself, and establish itself in a crowded world? Particularly when it is possible just to say ‘Alexa, play some jazz?’. Yes, it will be nice music, but we do not have the breadth of explanation, taking you on a journey, exploring new musical styles with a trusted guide. These services are wonderful, but they are not radio – they are not rooted in location or time. And for some while, they will only be available in a limited number of languages – an issue, and a challenge we are across with our EBU Members.
This also raises the question of third-party distribution, and who do we trust as intermediaries, in a world charmed by technology into forgetting that services on which our wellbeing depend need to be universal, free at the point of use and totally stable during a crisis, without risk of data overload. IP cannot provide this at the moment at least.
Having set out the aspirations, clearly public media needs the funds to fulfill its mission. Public media funding is seed-money for supporting cultural diversity, ensuring that we are not funneled into an English-speaking environment of mass culture. If budget cuts mean that the service is less attractive than rivals, less appealing to audiences, and the broadcaster retreats into its studios, reading agency news and playing commercial tracks, then the distinctiveness is lost. And the same applies to entertainment, which can draw people into the public media experience; broadcasting public radio just for the well-educated middle classes is an American phenomenon, and – wonderful thought much of the programming is – would represent a fundamental impoverishment in Europe.
In my opening remarks for Radio Days 2017, I asked ‘what is radio?’. Surely, these days, not a type of box in the living room with a dial. No, whatever the delivery platform, we are talking about something embedded in a location and happening in real time, even if podcasts are also possible. I imagine everyone here will identify with that, after all, we have all made the effort to be here; it’s the same motivation that brings us here, a sense that these are opinions of the moment, meeting the community, not just sitting reading pdfs on JSTOR afterwards or watching online.
The promise of the internet as a level playing field available to everyone has been damaged; it is more mediated than ever, through several enormous corporations. While it is theoretically possible, the crowded nature of the space, and gravitational pulls towards GAFA or FAANG have eroded the original vision. Only public media has the position in society, the weight and ubiquity, as well as the declared dedication to public benefit, to counter that. The early internet sounded democratic and participatory, giving everyone a space and a voice, public media can and must reclaim that space, the space of operating solely in the interests of the public. It should realize its high ambition to provide a forum based around inform, educate and entertain – and increasingly, and – let’s not forget the Dutch bus - in our fragmented societies, connect. However, for this, it needs the investment and freedom to pursue these objectives, and play its role as part of a varied media ecology.
Ultimately, this is not about the type of media we want, but about the type of society we wish to live in. That society can only be achieved with a level playing field of information and access, rooted in global, national, regional and community awareness and presented in the public interest.