Maria Rørbye Rønn, Director General of Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), talks to Marie-Soleil Levéry, EBU Member Relations for the Nordic Members.
In 2018, the former Danish government and its supporting parties decided on a 20% cut to DR’s budget. As a consequence of this, we made the decision to chart a new strategy, to be clear about our ambitions and motivate DR staff about the future.
This means that when the pandemic broke out, DR had already been through a long and demanding process of implementing significant savings as well as implementing a new strategy. I think that prepared us for this new crisis mode and for making decisions that were difficult but necessary.
The fact we had developed a new and very clear and precise strategy made it easier for us to make choices and prioritize during the pandemic. Once you are in a crisis, like the one we were in with our budget reduction, you become more precise and conscious of what is needed, and what is nice to have. Priorities become clearer.
A lot has changed but I would like to highlight two changes that are very important for us as public service media (PSM).
First, the extremely important role PSM plays in Danish society is now more evident to everyone than it has been for many years. Every Dane is aware of his or her need for trustworthy information. And in a crisis like this pandemic, you can tell that people seek PSM for trustworthy information. It is also clear that people look for more: when you are in lockdown, isolated at home you need other kinds of content to stimulate you. In Denmark it is part of our culture to sing when we are at larger gatherings and when celebrating Christmas, weddings, birthdays etc. So, we quickly developed a new programme called “Community Song” which is broadcast during a primetime slot on Friday nights. And now, many people in Denmark gather on Friday nights to sing and feel that we are singing together, even though we are apart. This programme has become symbolic of how PSM is bringing people together.
The second trend to highlight is the acceleration of digital transformation. Even though Denmark is already one of the most digital societies in the world, the pandemic has accelerated this trend even more. Today we have a public sector that is all digital. All children and students in public schools, no matter their age, have received virtual teaching in Denmark. We also see that media is quickly becoming more and more digital. Even though this is a challenge, it is extremely important to see this as an opportunity to grasp and to be able to change with it.
I clearly remember the night in the beginning of March when our Prime Minister went on television in a press conference telling us that within the next 30 hours, the country would be locked down. Immediately after, DR’s management team held an extraordinary crisis meeting. We made a lot of difficult decisions in a very short timeframe and kept talking regularly the following weeks, deciding who should work from home, who needed to come to the premises and prioritizing between our productions.
The morning after the Prime Minister's speech, we asked all employees to come to DR and take the equipment they needed so that they were able to produce, edit and publish from their homes. We learned a lot and have seen a new dimension in how we are able to work and publish our content. I would say that DR employees are extremely good at adapting to change. We have been under a lot of pressure and have made a lot of changes in the past. So, they are excellent at adjusting and this is very inspiring.
We were “trained” to be in a crisis. When you are forced to change, you try to turn the situation into a strategic advantage. You cannot constantly be in a crisis and only discuss budget cuts, what programmes to close and let people go. You need to try to change the situation. In our savings and development plan, we decided to close more linear offers than we were forced to, making it possible to allocate resources for digital transformation.
On many occasions, I wondered whether we were doing too much at once. Now I can only say you can never do too much; you can only do too little. That is an important takeaway for me: try to transform any situation into something useful for looking ahead.
A key lesson is that the discussion around the size of our budget is political, at least in Denmark. It had nothing to do with the quality of our programming, nor with our ability to transform and adapt our offers to the new digital media habits, or with management. It was high politics. This needed to be communicated to our employees, because the government’s decision had nothing to do with their work and our value. I needed to protect their dignity from this debate. And it turned out that the minute we made our savings and development plan public, DR was back in offensive mode, our employees were proud of the content they produced, and weren’t getting affected by the political noise or losing confidence or courage. They have shown what PSM is and the debate around DR’s budget has stopped.
What was also decisive was our clear communication about what the consequences of further reductions would be. The combination of our clear communication and the awareness brought by the pandemic made DR’s role very evident in Danish society. And at some point, I sensed there was no need to argue anymore, because everybody understood what PSM really is. They felt it yesterday, they feel it today, and I know they will feel it tomorrow. This was much stronger than arguing any further!
Big tech is the biggest challenge for DR, as I see it. The role and power that tech companies have, the power to control who has access to Danish content, who is a part of which community and how people gather in echo chambers – that is the most important challenge we are all facing. And I think it is extremely important that all of us see the necessity of regulating the tech giants.
The regulation that is being discussed at EU-level is key and we need to work at a national level too, pointing out risks and challenges, and dialoguing with politicians in order to get the focus on big tech. Fortunately, DR has a good relationship with other media in Denmark and together we can set a common agenda – this is the most important issue of all for the coming years.