Andon Baltakov, Director General of Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), talks to Radka Betcheva, EBU Head of Member Relations for Central & Eastern Europe.
My utmost priority was to restore stability as the new Director General of an institution that has 1300 employees, operates 11 radio channels and six music ensembles and offers programming in 10 languages across digital platforms. When I first entered the BNR building in Sofia and the locations where we have studios in Bulgaria, I was taken aback by expressions of fear. I was an unknown leader and people were uncertain what would happen to them and what would happen to their organization. For me, the first thing was to let them know that I am here for them and that I will lead BNR for them to succeed.
Why was eradicating disquiet so important to me? Because when there is a fear there is no creativity. Creativity in all its forms and freedom are of utmost importance to me. BNR has such a potential as a journalistic organization and as a cultural pillar for Bulgaria, and not only for Bulgaria. For example, our music ensembles contribute greatly to European culture.
Changing the culture of any organization, whether mature or developing, takes time. I believe that the team is moving in the right direction to make BNR a more open organization.
The second, bigger aspect was the deficit that I inherited. I was presented with a budget deficit of 5.5 million leva (EUR 2.7 million). This was difficult to surmount but thanks to strict financial discipline I think we have managed to survive and end last year in pretty good financial health.
All this was happening against the backdrop of COVID. New production techniques were introduced, yet no staff member was laid off and no salary was cut. On the contrary – we initiated new programming and developed our digital presence. I am very happy that the team got along with me and supported me despite unorthodox moves and changes.
I use three key words for my strategic concept: stability, innovation, and progress. If I have managed to achieve some stability in BNR in my first year, the second year will be about innovation. Innovation in programming, innovation in technology, innovation in the way people access and receive our content. This is really exciting.
Innovation should happen in multiple ways. First and foremost, we have started innovating with programming and scheduling of newscasts, starting with the jingles. Programmes now sound much more modern and carry a message of transparency and significance, which BNR as a brand should communicate.
We brought back a pretty classical structure to newscasts and we have opened much more to international and world news and views.
In terms of current affairs programmes, we have introduced an unconventional talk show that airs on Saturdays and Sundays after lunchtime. It is called “Politically incorrect” and runs on our main news channel. This is a typical show, with one guest in the first hour and listener participation in the second hour by phone or through social networks. The programme offers non-conventional analysis and comments, like an opinion page or an op-ed in the print media. The introduction of non-conventional views and comments on certain topics have turned downtime hours on Saturdays and Sundays into a popular time slot in just three months, appreciated by the public and decision makers. The programme is mirrored on our digital platforms and we experiment with it. We let the show start already on Wednesdays or Thursdays when the producers and anchors begin to engage the audience with the topic to be discussed over the weekend. They solicit questions and opinions from listeners.
In addition, we have invested a lot in podcasts and now have a growing library on a range of topics. Journalists are excited to produce them and producers appreciate the freedom to exploit a topic from every single aspect without the constraints of 3-4 minute segments. Of course, we follow the discipline of the radio reportage, but you can explore a topic in much more detail.
We have also invested in investigative journalism and are now seeing the fruits of this development. It is expensive and it is a responsibility for journalists not to make a mistake. We have done a number of investigations, both online and on air and we’ll monitor what impact they have. For example, we exposed that disinfectants bought by the Ministry of Health for the elections did not contain the right ingredients. It turned out there is no state agency that controls the ingredients that go into disinfectants in Bulgaria. With this type of reporting we want to be constructive and do positive journalism for society. As a public service media we want to show shortcomings of what people in power are doing in order to improve society.
We produce content in English, Russian, German and Turkish. We are trying to innovate now with our Turkish programmes that reflect 10 % of our population. We provide three hours of daily programming in Turkish and have a Turkish webpage which is the third or fourth most visited content online. We work closely with regional radio stations in the areas where people speak mainly Turkish.
Having worked in a start-up, I am not afraid of failure. I welcome it as part of the learning journey. Of course, it has to be managed in a much more measured way for public service media (PSM) who cannot afford to take the risks that commercial media or start-ups can. But I welcome challenges as a leader, and I welcome people trying things because this is the only way to learn. You can read thousands of pages of theory, or listen to podcasts done by others, but unless you really engage, nothing will progress. That’s why I welcome initiatives. Go try it and if it works and if it has legs – it will walk. Of course, I give one to three months to see what the reaction of the audience is. If it is not good, we will wrap it up and start something new. So far, we have not sunset any projects, because we have just started, but I am monitoring everything, reading the reports and following the feedback on the new techniques we have introduced. I recognise it is a cultural shift and I don’t want to unsettle people. Everything should happen in an evolutionary way and staff need to feel on board. Not the other way around.
The biggest obstacle is financial. Otherwise, people want to learn, regardless of their age. They see from their kids or from their grandkids how digital natives consume content. Audiences don’t make an appointment for a programme on radio or TV. They want the programme to follow them. And we have to enable this.
The question is do we have the funds to do what we should as an organization serving the public interest? Every innovation is run on a shoestring budget which gives little scope for experimenting. We have been fighting with the state for a much better budget since last year.
First, there is a need for a genuine political will for the PSM environment to change. We can discuss day and night the need to change PSM governance and funding, but unless there is a strong political will, nothing will happen. We saw this last year. Experts worked on the Act and politicians said publicly they supported change, but nothing happened. I think that suddenly people realized it may be scary for PSM to be free in their own perception of democracy and control. And this is where political education has to happen. Politicians need to understand that free media is not for them. Free media is for everybody and PSM exists to serve everybody. A change has to happen to political understanding that government, state and society are three different things.
However, I am not a pessimist. I am a realist. I believe there are people in Bulgaria who want genuine PSM that is independent from government intervention, independent from political intervention and from economic interests. I hope that with a stable parliament, hopefully in July or August, there will be a clear sign on new legislation.
The deeper I get into running BNR the more I understand that the old Law with new amendments will not work. Bulgaria needs a completely overhauled Radio and TV Media Act. We need to define clearly what the PSM remit is: why we receive funds, who is managing them, how they can be used, what our commercial activities can be, what governance structure we need. It should also be clear that there is a different relationship between the budget of national Radio and TV and the state budget. There are a lot of questions, which I do not think the old Law will solve with some patches.
For me, preserving the independence of BNR is of paramount importance. Politicians always want to be presented in the best possible light and they don’t want media to mess around with something that is not pretty or even ugly. But there is a reason why media is called the fourth pillar of democracy. We need to be independent like the other three powers – executive, legislative and judiciary. Media is a watchdog for the other three and should be independent. Of course, there are always pressures, but it falls on the media itself and the organization itself to protect its own independence. That’s why strong legislation is required to protect the independence of the fourth pillar. Without us as a watchdog, there is no democracy.
Social media now provide a channel for politicians to communicate directly. However, many of them don’t realize that they’re actually creating echo chambers of like-minded people and can be surprised by election results: They’ve lost connection with society and missed why people are so unhappy.
The other area I discuss with BNR staff is the responsibility of journalists. Freedom of speech is a right for us, but it is also a responsibility. We have enormous power to send a message to the whole of society, and as such, we have to be sure that what we do is unquestionable and that we are driven by the mission to tell the truth. We should be always questioning ourselves: are we following ethical rules? Are we practicing our profession the way we should be? Are we working for or against society? Have we properly defined social interest? It is important to be protected, but it is our own responsibility to be professional and to meet the highest standards. And this is how we build credibility with our audience: by establishing high standards that are not necessarily followed by bloggers and outside commentators.
It has been an opportunity for everybody and for me as a leader to reinvent ourselves. We became stronger as a team and people became better team players. Not being in the same room as your editor or music producer brought up a different cultural air in production. The quality and quantity of productions increased and we kickstarted programmes. We also reached into archives in new ways. We have reinvented the whole listening experience.
It was not shocking for me to have managers in different places and to talk to them over Teams or Skype. I used to lead many dispersed teams when I was in the USA. But it was new to BNR people. It required a lot of patience and a lot of professional support.
For me as a leader what was most important was to preserve the health of the staff. We have been very strict and conservative in our anti-COVID measures and I think that policy paid off. We were one of the few organizations in Bulgaria to have masks when there were no masks in Europe and were able to quickly secure masks, disinfectants and gloves.
I was monitoring what was happening in neighbouring countries and was sure the crisis would hit Bulgaria sooner than later. I issued our own emergency measures on 11 March, two days before the state of emergency was announced in Bulgaria. It was a question of speed and timing. It was challenging at the beginning as we only had 300 licenses for Microsoft Teams. We negotiated more licenses and are negotiating larger numbers because people are now much more used to using collaborative platforms.
BNR facilities were closed to external visitors until May this year. Our musicians (more than 200 people) had a very short period for performance on stage in September and October last year and then we shut down all activities. In January and February this year we negotiated a voluntary vaccination programme for BNR employees with the local authorities and the government. Now, as we have offered everything as a protection, we are opening the organization and in June the whole organization was back to work at full capacity.
Nobody can do what we do as a radio organization in terms of unbiased reporting, news from every corner of the country and across Europe. Commercial media cannot provide what PSM is providing and serve the public interest.
And it is not just that. We also produce content that very few commercial media are interested in. Whether it is drama or music, we preserve our cultural heritage. Our people try to discover or uncover musical heritage that still exists and still has not been recorded. I have worked for many commercial organizations that will refuse these types of goals because there is no financial return.
No and I believe that PSM have done themselves a disservice by not explaining to their audience what they do and why they do it. People have started to talk about PSM only recently in Bulgaria. They still use the term “state TV” or “state Radio”. I say to my friends that we are not a state radio. But they respond – you are getting money from the state budget. Yes, we get money from the state budget, but the government is just the steward of the income they collect from taxpayers and they are obligated to provide a share of this to PSM. The government and parliament that approves the budget are just a pass through. I do not report to any minister or the PM. It is difficult to comprehend how clearly defined that line is, particularly in a post-communist country.
First of all, voice and listening will always be there and with AI getting into this space, audio is entering a new golden age. Because you could be doing something and telling Alexa – Alexa play me the news or Alexa what is going on in the Parliament – and Alexa will say the BNR reported that there is another quarrel in the parliament. If you want to listen to the report, the report will be played. So, we must be ready for on-demand. You wake up and go to your car at 8am but you wanted to listen to your favourite show that started at 6am. And you should be given that option to re-programme your own radio programme and your radio listening. I think that streaming and on-demand will increase. Urban people are going back to nature and moving to the outskirts. Driving time will be longer, as it is in the USA now. The only thing you can do in the car while driving is listen to the radio, podcasts, audiobooks. The same when you are on the train and you do not want to watch on a small screen. You put your headphones on and are in a different universe.
I think that radio is ready for these new times. However, for us to be able to meet these demands we need to be ahead of the curve. And to be ahead we need adequate funding! It may sound like science fiction, but you open your fridge, you see your milk and your fridge will tell you that your milk is expiring. The fridge, which is connected to the Internet, has read the label with the indication of the expiry date and will tell you that there was a news report about milk. These are things which we are going to experience in society. I think that the connected universe will become much closer. I do believe that radio should be ready for this moment and opportunity.