Monday 20 November 2017

RTE isn't the only public service broadcaster in town

Other broadcasters who provide essential public service content throughout the country should be allowed to share in the licence fee

'The broadcasting world has changed considerably since RTE was first set up and the reality is that it's no longer the only show in town broadcasting public service content' Photo: Getty Images
'The broadcasting world has changed considerably since RTE was first set up and the reality is that it's no longer the only show in town broadcasting public service content' Photo: Getty Images

John McGee

A Government junior minister is standing outside Leinster House, grinning from ear to ear. Several different microphones are visible, each of them jockeying for pole position, as close to the minister as possible. Each of the microphones bears the name of a radio or TV station. Invariably, there's one from RTE, one from Newstalk, another from TV3 and one from FM104.

Occasionally, you see a logo for a local radio station that broadcasts outside your media comfort zone and you wonder why they have made the trip to the Big Smoke. Then it dawns on you that the grinning junior minister represents the constituency in which the local radio station is based. Then you remind yourself that all politics is local.

It is a scene familiar to TV news viewers every night. Pretty much the same questions and almost certainly the same answers. The only difference is that one of the journalists asking the questions gets his or her salary paid by the taxpayer. The rest of them draw a salary from a private company, or a commercial broadcaster, as they are referred to - sometimes with a degree of unconcealed disdain - by many within the industry.

In the good old days, it was a lot simpler. There was less choice and only one licensed radio or TV station to tune in to. I recall (with great fondness) the endless hours spent listening to and watching RTE radio and TV on many dank and dark Sunday afternoons in Monaghan in the late 1970s.

Weekends were often defined by football or hurling matches on RTE radio or TV every Sunday or short stories on Sunday evenings.

Being the rebels that we were, we would tune into pirate radio station Radio Caroline to hear the latest tracks from Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple or Mike Oldfield.

The only Sky back then was of the 'lampless' variety as referred to by Patrick Kavanagh in his poem November Night.

Thankfully, the media landscape has changed beyond recognition since then. With much greater choice, it is also a lot more complex and cluttered. But its role in society is just as important as it ever was.

Even the good citizens of Monaghan and, dare I say, Cavan, have their own local radio station in the form of Northern Sound, which churns out a wealth of local news, features and entertainment programming that is both relevant and important to its listeners.

In other words, Northern Sound and the many other local stations around the country provide an important public service to the communities they serve. And they do so without any recourse to a licence fee subvention, a household media charge or whatever name the minister of the day wants to call it.

What really hasn't changed at all in the intervening years, however, is our understanding and definition of public service broadcasting and what it actually means in the highly fragmented media landscape of 2016 - or, indeed, what this might look like in 20 years' time.

It's a discussion that many other countries have been turning over for several years and while anything media-related has the potential to become a political hot potato, it is the needs and requirements of society that should come first.

While there has always been some debate simmering away amongst different industry stakeholders in the background (as well as half-baked promises put forward by different Government ministers over the past 10 years), the reality is that we seem to be stuck in a virtual time warp, where there's lots of talk, promises and reviews, but very little action.

As the only de facto public service broadcaster in Ireland, RTE has, I believe, done an excellent job down through the years in delivering a service which, to paraphrase the words of Lord Reith - the BBC's first chairman - "informs, educates and entertains".

However, the broadcasting world has changed considerably since RTE was first set up and the reality is that it's no longer the only show in town broadcasting public service content.

While I believe that its role as a public service broadcaster should at all times be maintained and protected, other broadcasters that meet certain public service requirements should also be allowed share the platform and the licence fee.

Changes to the existing regime will obviously require new legislation. More importantly the existing stakeholders (some of whom appear to be dragging their heels) will have to buy in to the fact that any new broadcasting regime that that emerges will be good for the industry, good for society and has the potential to create jobs in a sector which has suffered more than its fair share of attrition in recent years.

So, Minister Naughten, if you are reading this, you will know very well the important role local radio has on communities in counties like Galway, Roscommon, Monaghan and beyond and you now have the opportunity to make a mark where your predecessors have singularly failed.

Sunday Indo Business

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