Business Irish

Monday 14 October 2019

Not out to 'get' RTE – just looking for fairness

Independent radio can't cut back any further without hacking into the marrow, says the IBI chief, as he calls for a debate on the role of the state broadcaster, writes Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan

FOR one of the key figures on the media landscape, John Purcell cuts a remarkably relaxed figure.

As chairman of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, he is the public face of an industry that employs some 1,600 people in numerous radio stations across the country.

In the radio business since 1991, Mr Purcell is now chief executive of the Carlow-Kilkenny broadcaster KCLR.

Through his career, the 47-year-old has seen numerous ups and downs for independent radio stations – and right now is one of the downs for the sector over all.

The theme of the IBI's annual conference this week was 'Futureshock' and how the sector can deal with the changes on the media landscape.

Mr Purcell is clear on what the problem is right now.

"The biggest difficulty for the industry right now is the unpredictability of it," he says.

"There is no visibility on how the market will be in the future and that has a seriously undermining effect on peoples' confidence.

"Staff working for independent broadcasters have taken serious pain in terms of cuts and changes to work practices and so on, but you go through that to come out the other side intact.

"The big concern is if we're in this new reality and are not going to see light at the end of the tunnel.

"So far, broadcasters have cut as deep as they can without cutting into the marrow, as it were, and I would hate to see companies having to do that to survive."

Like many media outlets, independent radio stations have been hit hard by the downturn, as advertising revenue plummets but operating costs remain more or less constant.

There is an elephant in the room when it comes to funding for independent broadcasters, however.

The sector is essentially all radio stations outside RTE – and it is the state broadcaster that, perhaps inadvertently, has been the issue for the industry.

Whether it is the TV business, where the likes of TV3 have been vocal critics of the current funding scheme and remit for RTE, or Mr Purcell and the IBI, the issues with RTE are clear.

Licence fee

It is funded by the licence fee but also has a full commercial remit, allowing it to take advertising that could be better served in the private sector.

"All media are in a state of challenge and every one is looking for sustainable funding models and so on," says Mr Purcell.

"In a sense, though, we need to make use of the crisis at the moment and take the opportunity to redraw the funding architecture so that RTE can be sustained, but not necessarily at the expense of the independent sector.

"This isn't a zero-sum game. We are not saying for one second that RTE needs to drop the licence fee entirely or not be allowed take on any advertising whatsoever – far from it.

"The structure of funding needs to be looked at. There has been a lot of debate about making sure independent broadcasters get some of the licence fee, but the reality is the 'Sound and Vision Scheme' has allocated 7pc of it to independent producers already.

"Now, in reality a lot of that 7pc ends up back in RTE because a lot of the funding under that scheme tends to be in realms that are not used in mainstream media, but it has effectively settled the principle of whether or not independent broadcasters should have access to the licence fee.

"The situation is that 70pc of radio listeners now tune in to independent radio. You can't argue with the facts but there needs to be a rebalancing on the funding side.

Independent sector

"We're not expecting 70pc of the licence fee to go to the independent sector, but we believe it's time for re-evaluation and that the funding from the licence fee or broadcasting charge should be re-examined to serve the audience better."

When it comes to what constitutes public-service broadcasting, Mr Purcell is clear in his own mind as to what is required.

"There are things that local and independent radio do better than RTE, but then at the same time there are things that RTE does that we, as a sector, could never hope to match.

"If you look at things like the queen's visit and other national events like that, they demonstrate RTE's great strength and reach as a national broadcaster.

"At the same time, there are local issues that probably shouldn't be on RTE's radar but can be picked up by an independent broadcaster.

"The problem we have at the moment is that RTE's mandate allows it to relentlessly pursue audiences at the expense of everyone else.

"There are statistics that show that out of European state broadcasters, RTE has one of the highest proportions of American soaps on its content.

"Should RTE be concerned about chasing things like the Champions League while it is closing its London bureau?"

Public service

Mr Purcell continued: "I'm not sure that should be the case for a public-service broadcaster, especially when what happens in Britain still has such a huge effect on the Irish economy and people."

The ongoing controversy over what RTE pays its stars – even after taking pay cuts – has also served to highlight the disparity between the state broadcaster and the independent sector.

The issue has also caused immense damage to the state broadcaster, Mr Purcell believes.

"(RTE director-general) Noel Curran has done great work in terms of reshaping their cost base, but people look at the hundreds of thousands of euro being handed out to their top talent and it does make people wonder about what they are paying for.

"The reality is there is an antipathy creeping into public perceptions about the station which is dangerous for the sector overall.

"Take the launch of the RTE Jr TV station a few weeks ago. RTE managed to fund that out of its existing finances – which shows what can be done when people concentrate on costs – but it was disappointing to see the indifference publicly when it began.

New station

"When 2FM launched 30-odd years ago, the country practically stopped but I'm not sure how many people noticed the state broadcaster launching a new station last month.

"It's concerning and the working out of an appropriate funding model for RTE and the independent sector can be beneficial to all concerned."

Mr Purcell added: "As a sector, we're not out to 'get' RTE, we just want a level playing field for all concerned."

Irish Independent

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