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Interview with Ulrich Wilhelm, Director General of Bayerischer Rundfunk

02 December 2020
Interview with Ulrich Wilhelm, Director General of Bayerischer Rundfunk

Ulrich Wilhelm, Director General of Germany’s Bayerischer Rundfunk, talks to Vanessa O’Connor, EBU Member Relations for Germanophone Members.
 
How has the pandemic altered German society and your organisation of Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR)?

Not only has the current unprecedented situation changed the reality for our employees in ways no one could have imagined, the corona pandemic is a state of emergency for the entire society, for audiences and the media landscape. Looking at BR’s market position in particular, the coronavirus has substantially altered media usage since March as restrictions to people’s mobility and a high demand for good journalism across all genres have brought more people to television, radio and online. Our audience has valued our independent coverage throughout this crisis.

BR’s average daily reach has been up by more than 30% on average and by over 20% with young viewers. Digital reach on br.de has strongly increased by almost 100% in views of our news and current affairs offerings. Our BR24 news and current affairs platform has also seen a sharp increase, of almost 500%. BR has been there for everyone over the last months, demonstrating the value that we provide to citizens day in and day out.

How has the crisis impacted decision-making processes and setting priorities at BR? What are the implications for your staff?

Our top priority has been and still is safety first. We set up a Corona Task Force consisting of our Senior Management along with our company physician. On a daily basis it assesses essential questions ranging from job security, health protection, home office and IT support to salary issues and makes sure that all relevant decisions are communicated to staff. During times of uncertainty, it is essential not to underestimate what transparency means to colleagues.

Leadership communication has taken on a new dimension since the crisis escalated. How has it changed your day-to-day management of BR?

The crisis has challenged senior management, including myself. Our role is on the one hand to listen and on the other hand to provide directives, and last not least, be empathetic and approachable. I try to catch up with people’s concerns while at the same time being as clear as possible about where our core goals lie and should lie. Over the last months I have addressed BR staff through a number of covid-related video messages. The core message has been that I care about them while getting across that we have a truly rewarding task to serve our society and our audience.

How has the pandemic changed BR?

Being a systemically relevant institution here in Bavaria, BR’s responsibility not only lies in ensuring programming across all platforms seven days a week, but also in acting as a powerful and reliable partner for the creative sector. With this in mind, we have created new formats such as BR KulturBühne (BR cultural stage) which brings diverse aspects of culture and genres to people’s homes while at the same time providing a digital stage to artists and cultural professionals across Bavaria. 

The cultural sector has been hit over the last months by high numbers of freelancers suffering from the sudden closure of theatres, performance venues and museums. We believe that a strong and healthy creative sector plays a critical role in helping our organisation deliver our remit now and also when the pandemic is over. BR is therefore committed to maintaining a strong partnership with independent producers during the disruption caused by the Corona pandemic.

What have been the key learnings for you to take forward?

Like other PSM organizations across Europe, we see that BR ranks amongst the most trusted media and information sources and this is driving high ratings. In addition to offering daily advice and practical help for our audience, we responded during the crisis with home schooling offerings and, last but not least, high quality entertainment. In view of the record ratings in linear and non-linear we are proud that we have managed to create a virtual audio and visual meeting place fuelled by the need to cope with the crisis simultaneously and together. We can build on this community aspect and take forward the vision of PSM as an open digital platform and meeting place.

The current situation also demonstrates that our decisive strengths lie in our contribution to society over and above our legally enshrined remit. Being a non-commercial, value-based organization, BR’s mission lies in serving society as a whole with high-quality, independent and non-commercial programming which reflects every aspect of life in order to ultimately contribute to a better life for the citizens we serve. Therein lies a clear and non-debatable distinction vis-à-vis our commercially-oriented competitors. As natural as the not-for-profit nature of PSM may seem, the value-driven approach of our organizations allows for special programming which is not primarily or always driven by ratings. The current situation shows that by offering factually and scientifically rooted information while reflecting diverse views and helping to cope with the daily challenges brought by COVID-19, PSM add palpable value to society as well as to our audience.

As you complete 10 years at the helm of BR, where do you see the biggest challenge emerging from the pandemic? 

The current coronavirus crisis has had a significant effect on our digital reach. At the same time, we see that globally, the true beneficiaries are the already big and dominant digital platform players. The US-based FAANG platforms have had huge increases in market shares in the last months. So in effect, COVID-19 has confirmed and reinforced a not entirely new trend: digital technology is increasingly penetrating every area of our lives, while Europe is largely dependent on non-European platform operators. I argue that Europe is losing its influence over the digital public sphere at a time when this sphere has taken on a central role in the continent’s economic and social life. As well as diminishing Europe’s economic competitiveness and thus the prosperity of European society, this poses a serious threat to people’s individual freedom and privacy and to Europe’s democratic values. 

In this sense, acatech, Germany’s National Academy of Science and Engineering has recently published an analysis on how to create a “European Public Sphere” (EPS). I have edited the study along with the former CEO of SAP and Chairman of the acatech Board of Trustees, Prof. Dr. Henning Kagermann. The document has been put forward by a project group of experts from business and science. Its focus and strategic target go far beyond the media and/or PSM sphere.

In brief, we argue that Europe can provide a remedy by creating a digital ecosystem that observes European values such as transparency, openness and privacy protection, even in its technical design. Such a “European Public Sphere” could create a digital public sphere offering fair terms of access and use and it could ultimately strengthen the public debate and safeguard the plurality that forms a key part of Europe’s identity. 

A PSM priority would lie in seeking ways to become less dependent on dominant platforms while at the same time actively supporting initiatives such as EBU’s European Public Media Space that bundles forces in order to create appealing European alternatives. The creation of a European Public Sphere would mainly need input and support from technology providers, cultural and educational institutions, civil society initiatives, and last but not least from public service and private media.

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