Interview with Milen Mitev, Director General of Bulgarian National Radio

Milen Mitev, Director General of Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), discusses developments of public service radio with Radka Betcheva, EBU Head of Member Relations Central & Eastern Europe.

You took the helm of BNR in August 2021 and embarked on digital transformation as a priority, including undertaking an EBU Digital transformation review. What are the biggest challenges in this process?

BNR faces two types of challenges. Those where we cannot influence the outcome, like funding, the pandemic, geopolitical pressure, and those where we can actively influence the outcome. We monitor the first type of challenge and inform people how events influence us as public service media so that people understand the impact on our organization.

On challenges we can influence, it is, for example, in our hands to create a dynamic working environment. I want BNR to be a modern and safe place of work. Journalists and media professionals should be allowed to make mistakes while feeling safe. If people are afraid of making a mistake, they will be reluctant to push for new ideas and new formats, so ideas and creativity should be welcomed. Mistakes should be discussed and analyzed rather than making people feel bad about getting it wrong. Of course, we draw a line if someone says something on air that is blatantly wrong or unprofessional – that’s a different issue.

How does BNR defend its editorial independence?

We have set up internal processes in such a way that management cannot directly influence content. Content is created by the journalists and editors of each programme. If a controversial topic arises, it is discussed by the editorial council, making it difficult for anyone to make a unilateral decision. As for outside influence, it is my job and the job of the management board to resist any form of pressure. Fortunately, since I have been in office I haven't had to deal with any cases of inappropriate interference.

Does your audience trust BNR?

According to the Reuters Institute, BNR is the most trusted media in Bulgaria, and BNT is very close behind us. We do everything we can to keep this high level of trust, providing journalists with enough freedom to choose their topics, the guests they invite and the way they structure their shows to bring the best value to audiences.

War in Europe, political turmoil, and Covid are dividing societies. What are some of the lessons for public service media so far?

Our societies are increasingly divided. Covid has shown this, and the war is deepening it. There is a widening gap between different opinions and more people take a radical stance on highly controversial topics. I think that it is our job as public service media to show different points of view and foster an informed debate. I believe that the only way to diminish the gap is to get people talking to one another. So many people today consume news online or through social media, which means it is filtered through algorithms. It also means that people mainly read what they like and what reinforces their own opinions. Public service media have a big role to play in fostering democratic dialogue between people with different opinions. At the same time, we should promote cohesion, seeking out the points that unite us rather than divide us. This is more important now than ever before.

What are the programmes you believe public service media should focus on today?

As public service media, we cannot focus on one thing or a group of things. We need to be everywhere, reflecting the pulse of society, not only with information, but also providing quality analysis on major topics. This might sound like a lack of focus, but I can reframe it like this: our focus is not on specific content, but on providing quality across all topics we address. Our aim is quality news, shows, music. It is not easy to measure quality in public service media. That’s why I believe measuring trust is the best way to know if we deliver high quality. As long as audiences trust us we are on the right track.

How do you ensure that your content is relevant?

We actively engage with our listeners, soliciting feedback through as many different channels as possible. One, of course, is traditional audience measurement. We also engage through social media and through our website, where we have much more direct contact with the audience. And of course, we still have radio shows with direct audience participation.

How do you attract young audiences?

We try to provide content that young people want in the ways that are the most accessible to them. For example, we offer popular radio shows as podcasts or provide news both in audio and text so that younger audiences can select their preferred format. Fewer young people listen to linear radio, and I don't think we'll be able to attract them to linear radio. What we do instead is to reach them via every possible platform without compromising our content.

How do you see the future of radio if younger audiences are moving away from linear?

I see the future of radio as radio plus. The plus stands for additional media services that supplement radio which is the core. For example, we can add text, pictures, videos to audio materials. Since public service media have to be close to the audience wherever the audience is, we need to use different platforms and technology to better serve this audience. We can start by building on what we already have. For example, we have six music ensembles, and we should make their concerts more visible. It used to be very expensive to create a live video from a concert, but now this is cheaper, allowing us to have more video material from our concerts and produce more music, both in audio and video formats and distribute it to the public via linear channels’ social platforms and VOD services.

Some public service media are unsure about keeping music ensembles. What do you think?

I see music ensembles as a big benefit because part of our mission is to promote culture. Having music ensembles is a fantastic way to do this because they record music, give concerts and familiarize audiences with Bulgarian, European and world music. BNR has more than 200 musicians, and in order to ensure their future we should optimize their use. We should ensure their role and work are properly addressed in the media law. They are an important part of our country’s cultural scene that are not currently being utilized to their full potential.

What is your view of the EU’s proposed Media Freedom Act and its impact in Bulgaria and across Europe?

I think that the most important message from this proposal is that the European Commission understands the importance of independent public service media. I believe there are areas where the Media Freedom Act could be beneficial for Bulgaria and for our region as a whole. Protection of editorial independence and safeguards for independent functioning of public service media, including adequate and stable financing, are very important. We have struggled with these challenges for quite a long time. The Media Freedom Act could support us to ensure the safeguards we need to be truly independent and safe in doing our work. There are, of course, a lot of questions like whether safeguards are effective enough or whether there is a risk of overregulation and how to guarantee independence from the European Commission. But I guess there is still time to discuss and clarify the proposal. BNR and BNT are currently holding discussions with the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture on their draft opinion on the EFMA.

Is the real question about sovereignty and a risk of losing it in certain areas?

The current atmosphere in Europe is challenging for such an act. A lot of countries fear that too much of their sovereignty is being taken away by the EU and this could sway the debate in a very different direction. I would prefer to look at the Media Freedom Act from the perspective of a media expert. There is a need for much greater solidarity between EBU members. The MFA is badly needed in countries aspiring to become members of the European Union and in countries still struggling for democracy. In Central and Eastern Europe we have countries that are part of the EU, countries that are not part of the EU, and countries that aspire to become a part of the EU, which makes the whole region very diverse. I think that any important piece of European legislation, such as the Media Freedom Act, will undoubtedly influence legislation in countries that are not yet part of the EU because they usually align their own legal systems with the EU. So, the influence of this act could also go beyond EU borders.

Do you see BNR as a possible example or catalyst for better cooperation between neighbours?  

Many of our colleagues in the region are struggling with the same problems as us. Some of them are doing very well at overcoming the challenges. We can learn a lot from each other and give each other courage to continue. It’s very important to keep close connections. Sometimes just sharing thoughts on a topic or some useful experience can be very helpful. That is why I believe we need to strengthen our connections with neighbours and with public media in the region. BNR does everything we can to facilitate partnerships. We try to do it in all the languages that our neighbouring countries speak. I'm happy to announce that recently we launched a website in Romanian and will also start podcasts in Romanian. We now offer content in all the languages of our neighbouring countries, which can be helpful to learn more about Bulgaria.

Europe now faces the common challenge of economic pressure following Covid, the war in Ukraine, inflation and increased costs. How is BNR meeting these challenges?

We try to optimize our expenses, without compromising our services, especially in times when we need development and development requires even more financial resources. For example, in 2022 we have been building our presence on the web and social media, which means that now we need camera operators to generate online video content. We also need to invest in new talent, not just to replace the people we already have, but also to add new skills. We need people with new skills to help us perform better online. And I'm afraid that with inflation, this could take more time that we would like.

Do you think the environment is favourable for changes to the legal framework on public service media in Bulgaria?

I think there is a general consensus in society for many of the developments that BNR has been talking about over the last decade. But there is political instability, with four parliamentary elections in just over a year. In order to rethink the legal framework for media, we need a stable government because this is something which will really affect every member of society. And it's important that we do it right.

Do you believe amendments are needed to the funding system of PSM in Bulgaria to guarantee stable, independent, predictable and appropriate funding?

We are still funded by a methodology that takes only our linear programming into account. Over the years we have added non-linear services, social media and music ensembles. We also have an enormous archive that we are now in the process of digitizing. These are all large expenses. If they are accounted for in the law, it would be much easier for us to operate.

What would be the safeguards that would ensure that this would be independent funding?

We need our mission to be clearly defined in the law and the funding should be determined on the basis of this mission. Once all our activities are described well, it will be much easier to calculate what financing we need to perform our duties. If the public mission is described well enough and funding is tied to the mission, then there is a good framework.

You recently took part in the EBU Executive Programme and the Cadenabbia Leadership Summit. What are your key learnings from these EBU events?

There are so many things that it's difficult to pinpoint just some of them. I would say two of the key learnings are:

  • Don’t spend time and energy on things you can't control
  • What makes content great is the ability to touch fundamental emotional needs of the people

Another thing I liked very much is that the future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed, meaning that more often than not, when you want to take your organization a step forward, there is someone who has already taken steps in this direction. You just need to know where to look. It may be someone outside of your field of business, or someone outside the media sector, but there is something that has already been implemented that you want for your organization. It is a very good way of thinking. And you just need to broaden your horizon and look elsewhere. It's more important to think not as a manager, but as a leader. And for me, that's what I'm striving to do every day.

What is the role of the EBU in these critical times?

The EBU can help in many areas, including lobbying and knowledge-sharing. One of the most important things is facilitating discussions. We already talked about how important it is to keep a close connection with peers in the media. I think that the EBU is an excellent forum for discussions to take place. I think the new initiative “A Day With” to visit a Member on-site and meet with their leadership team is absolutely on the right track. It provides the opportunity for leaders from different regions to exchange experience and share best practice in a trusted environment.

How would you describe your strategic efforts and goals in one word?

I guess it would be two words: stronger together. I really believe in teamwork and I believe a team is always stronger than a single person however talented that person may be. So, I prefer a working environment where people can discuss with colleagues what’s on their minds and get ideas that improve their own ideas. The importance of management here is that we as managers need to make sure this environment exists, that people are empowered and that they're comfortable talking to management because this is vital for trust and progress.

Contact detail

Radka Betcheva
Head of Member Relations Central and Eastern Europe

+41 22 717 2006