Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 20 February 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Funding the Broadcasting Sector: Discussion with Independent Broadcasters of Ireland
The purpose of the meeting is to meet representatives of Independent Broadcasters of Ireland to discuss the creation of a fair broadcasting sector that serves the whole community and how public moneys can best be spent to achieve this. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. John Purcell, chairman and CEO of KCLR, Mr. Tim Collins, CEO of Ocean FM, and Ms Lisa Ní Choisdealbha of Independent Broadcasters of Ireland.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise the officials that the opening statements they have submitted will be published on the committee's website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Purcell to make his opening statement.
Mr. John Purcell:
I thank the committee for the invitation. The Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, IBI, represents 34 radio stations of all natures throughout the country. The stations broadcast to a listenership of 2.5 million people daily. We are very aware of the importance of the radio sector to Irish life. We have concerns about fairness in the sector and its regulation and funding. We want to see changes made in the public interest. I thank the members for having us today.
Let me begin by discussing radio in general. Radio was first introduced in Ireland in the mid-1920s with the launch of 2RN by President Douglas Hyde. At that stage, Ireland was a different country, and the thinking and model were different. The economy was very different. Ireland is a different place but, in many ways, the position of the State broadcaster remains the same in terms of its having a monopoly in many areas.
Since the late 1980s, with the 1988 Act, independent radio came into being. Many stations have been in existence for 24 years. Some, such as mine, are of more recent vintage. KCLR, which I operate, is in operation for just nine years. There are 34 different radio stations around the country. It is a very broad church, ranging from youth stations and full service stations to national stations. Many members will be familiar with these stations and will be regular contributors to them. On the economic side, it should be remembered that our radio stations are significant employers. We employ approximately 1,500 people in the sector and operate in every county.
People often ask about listenership in general and how it is measured. An independent survey, the JNLR, is undertaken in co-operation with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the independent stations, RTE and the advertising authority. The research shows that 2.5 million listeners tune in to independent radio every day. One can compare this with RTE radio, which includes Radio 1, 2fm, Lyric FM and Raidió na Gaeltachta. Some 1.2 million people tune in to these every day. The survey shows that seven of every ten minutes spent listening to radio in Ireland are spent listening to our members, the 34 independent stations. The document we have submitted shows a breakdown by franchise area of the market shares of our members vis-à-vis RTE. In every franchise area in the country, the combined independent market share far outstrips the combined market share of RTE.
People wonder why independent radio is so successful. In many ways, we are the most successful independent sector in Europe. We believe this is because of our keen focus and awareness of what our audience wants. It is also because of the very high priority accorded to public service broadcasting by our members. We are pleased that the public service role of independent stations has been widely acknowledged by successive Ministers, including the current one.
We provide a wide range of coverage that is not available anywhere else. This includes the coverage of local elections, local GAA matches and specialist programmes. My station has an education programme. This, to the best of my knowledge, is not done by the national broadcaster. We have business and farm programmes and we are out and about at events. I refer to coverage and programming that would not be and is not provided by anybody else.
We are concerned about the future. I do not intend to go into considerable detail on the overall media landscape, nor do I need to elaborate on the difficulties that the newspaper industry is experiencing. Owing to the stress the newspaper industry is experiencing, many people are finding that the amount and extent of local coverage is decreasing in many areas.
In television, for example, the market is fragmenting considerably. While RTE enjoys a considerable share of the Irish television market, a significant amount of its coverage is actually foreign programming. Television is very challenging and it is difficult for RTE to compete with the myriad of foreign channels. We recognise that and believe RTE must be supported to survive in that environment. The Internet enjoys free access but pay walls will become an increasing feature of it as content migrates online and people seek to generate revenue.
Radio maintains its considerable popularity in the Irish market. Approximately 87% of people tune in to radio at some stage every day. In Ireland, radio provides and broadcasts approximately 100% Irish content.
The success of radio is because of the unique relationship that has existed. It is on many different platforms and universally accessible. However, nothing can be taken for granted. The radio sector needs to be nourished and encouraged so it can continue to provide the coverage it provides at present. The local radio network, in particular, and independent radio, in general, make a great contribution to the cultural identity of the country and the individual identities of the communities they serve.
This needs to be fostered and nourished.
As I mentioned, economically we are in very difficult times, and a look at the advertising revenue for most of our members will show that between 2008 and 2011 revenue dropped by around 40%. That is on average, but in some cases it has dropped by even more. At best, 2012 has been a flat year. Conditions, due not only to the economic downturn but to general fragmentation, continue to be exceedingly difficult. RTE, while also experiencing a huge drop in its commercial revenue, is cushioned somewhat because of the continuation of the licence fee. I will take a quick look at the model of how radio in this country is funded. RTE receives money from the licence fee. It also operates commercially and receives a huge amount of commercial revenue. It benefits from a large amount of funding from Sound and Vision, the fund established by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to do special programmes, projects and content sharing. The independent broadcasters of Ireland rely almost entirely on commercial revenue. We receive some Sound and Vision funding but this is almost negligible, a point to which I will return.
I stress that in raising the issue of the fairness of the broadcasting environment in Ireland, we want a win-win situation. We do not want to be safeguarded, nourished or protected at the expense of RTE. We firmly believe, and are pleased to go on the record as saying, this country requires a properly resourced RTE, but equally it requires a properly resourced independent broadcasting sector which is viable and sustainable, because if this does not happen, the cultural identity and the service we provide could be undermined.
We have a good relationship with RTE but I will address in some detail where we believe there is unfairness in regard to the broadcasting landscape. RTE is dual-funded inasmuch as it receives licence fee revenue and commercial revenue, which it has to earn. In the context of the model of dual funding in Europe, RTE is towards the extreme level, but the trend in Europe is in the opposite direction, with a trend towards decreasing the 50-50 mixture of commercial funding and licensed funding.
Section 108 of the Act obliges RTE to exploit commercial opportunities and maximise its revenue. We believe this damages RTE and makes it lack a clear focus entirely on public service. We believe RTE operates in an inefficient manner. Its salaries are way above those of the industry and the cost for the delivery of the service it provides is way out of line with what our members can deliver. For example, Newstalk, the national talk radio station, operates on a budget which is roughly one fifth that of RTE Radio 1.
There are two systems of regulation. We are regulated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, as is RTE, but there are large areas of its operations where it appears to us that RTE can operate without recourse to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. In regard to the funding of the regulator, the independent sector funds the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland entirely from its commercial review. We believe the funding of the regulator through RTE is subsidised by the licence fee.
I mentioned earlier the Sound and Vision scheme, which accepted the principle that funding from the licence fee should be made available to independent broadcasters. Many independent broadcasters seek to access this funding. However, there are many shortcomings in this funding inasmuch as it is restricted to pre-recorded programming of a specialist nature. Some 80% of the funds allocated to the Sound and Vision fund, which is intended to foster independent broadcasting, find their way back to RTE, and we note with some concern comments by the director general of RTE that it intends to increase its focus on sourcing funds from the Sound and Vision scheme. This is not in line with what we believe the fund was established to provide.
We need to fundamentally rethink the role of State-owned broadcasters. They should focus on services that are needed in society which would not be provided otherwise. Among state broadcasters in Europe, RTE is towards the highest end of purchasers of non-Irish or American drama content, for example. RTE should concentrate on public service broadcasting which meets the programming, cultural and broadcasting needs that cannot be provided in a commercial setting, and it should be supported and properly funded in that regard. There is a need for debate and a radical overhaul of how public service broadcasting is funded so that a healthy broadcasting sector, both in RTE and in the independent sector, is created.
We are looking for a fair and balanced broadcasting sector that can serve the entire community. I hope I have given some indication of where we believe it is unfair. The State broadcaster needs to operate within a clearly defined mandate. Unfortunately, the Act obliges RTE to chase ratings and maximise its commercial operations and this puts undue pressure and an unfair mandate on RTE when it should be entirely focused on public service broadcasting.
We too are providers of public service broadcasting and we seek fair treatment so that we can continue to have a healthy independent sector into the future, providing news, current affairs and sport to our 2.5 million listeners and providing an alternative voice to the State broadcaster, an alternative view to a Dublin-centric national broadcaster and localised coverage reflecting life throughout the country. There are four main areas in how this can be achieved: first, the creation of a public service fund which would support public service broadcasting on independent stations; second, revenue from the uplift from the new public broadcasting charge, which we welcome; third, defining and limiting the commercial mandate of RTE; and fourth, in the interests of equality and fairness, funding the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland through the public broadcasting charge. I thank members for their attention and look forward to their questions.
I welcome the delegation and thank it for the presentation. There is not a community in the country that is not extremely well served by the independent broadcasters or the local radio stations. Some excellent work is being done across the spectrum, from the social and economic side to the current affairs side. It has targeted a market, and if we were to analyse the listenership we would find such programming reflects the lives and concerns of people in urban and rural communities and the information they look for. Some 1,500 people are employed by the network and many of the local radio stations, to which I have spoken, are finding it extremely difficult to provide what is needed by the public and to generate revenue. The first thing people in that sector will ask is where the licence fee is going and how will the balance be struck.
It is important to state that society has to ensure that Independent Broadcasters of Ireland is there for the long haul and is supported in every way. It is now 24 years since the infrastructure was put in place to allow it develop. What is needed at this stage is a fundamental review. I note what has been said in respect of RTE and changing the terms of reference almost from a commercial to a State broadcaster. Inefficiencies were also mentioned. There is nobody in this committee or in society at large who is not screaming at the huge salaries paid by RTE while those at the lower end are losing their jobs.
If we were starting with a blank sheet and deciding on the best way forward for the 1,500 employees at the 34 stations, where should our energies be targeted to ensure that whatever proposals the committee recommends there is fair play for Independent Broadcasters of Ireland and survival for the stations. If any one of the stations was in difficulty in any part of the country there would be a huge outcry given the number of people, young and old, who are tuning in on different segments. As the witnesses pointed out, some of the programmes are targeting specific sectors of society. That must be encouraged. If there are one or two areas we should look at in depth to ensure the organisation continues to provide the excellent service being provided and continues to employ 1,500 people, perhaps the witnesses would elaborate on where we should go.
Mr. John Purcell:
Before I pass over to my colleagues, in general it is recognised by Ministers that we provide a huge amount of public service broadcasting. I suppose a recognition that public service broadcasting, in all its guises, whether on the State-owned broadcaster or through our independent members, is supported and the creation of a fund whereby public money could be used for public service broadcasting in a manner that is cost-effective, accountable, value for money, and provides a good service to the listeners. I hand over to my colleagues to elaborate.
Mr. Tim Collins:
The point we should like to emphasis, and which Mr. Purcell has referred to, is that we do not see this as being an either-or situation. We believe that RTE needs to be properly funded. We believe there is a major opportunity in the forthcoming legislation, which has been promised in the programme for Government, to introduce a household broadcasting charge, which we support, because of the evolution of the way people are viewing content. They are viewing it less on televisions and more on laptops and hand-held devices and so on. In the context of introducing the new charge, it is estimated that there will be an uplift in collection of about €30 million from lower collection costs and from less evasion. Rather than simply allowing that to disappear into the maw in RTE, there is an opportunity to use that to create a separate fund to support public service broadcasting and independent stations. What we would like the committee to do is to use its good offices to try to persuade the Government to move the legislation forward. We have had a positive interaction with the Minister who recognises there is probably no legal impediment to setting up such a fund. I think we are at the stage where he recognises there is an issue of fairness that could well be addressed in the context of setting up a fund such as that. We are making progress. If can move that on and get the legislation on the table that would be helpful.
I welcome the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland delegation. Many of us have met them in recent years and realise the need for change, as in many other areas, and RTE probably recognises the need for change also. We all acknowledge that the face of Ireland has changed in the past 25 years in the area of broadcasting, particularly in local radio stations. Coming from Mayo, Midwest Radio is one of the top three local radio stations for the past 25 years. It is impossible to imagine an Ireland without local radio. It is about supporting that service and removing the obstacles that are impeding it, without impacting on the national broadcaster and the need to co-exist. I note the word "positivity" is used on three or four occasions in regard to what the organisation does. In other words, it reflects the good things that are happening in local areas whereas sometimes there is a suggestion, with which we would all agree, that at times if one listens to the national broadcaster throughout a full day one would almost be depressed because of the moaning and groaning. Sometimes coverage is given to extreme and negative issues. That is an area that RTE needs to address and we have told it that on a number of occasions. However, it must be recognised that RTE is going through a difficult phase at present.
The witnesses said they do not wish to impact on the national broadcaster and that there is a need for a publicly funded RTE as well as a publicly funded independent radio. Are they suggesting in regard to the new broadcasting charge that there is a very large broadcasting charge that can fund both? I would appreciate their comments on that issue. I acknowledge the huge salaries paid to a small percentage of broadcasters in RTE but that is an issue that RTE has to address. It was stated that revenues have dropped by 40%. One of the positive elements of local radio is that it employs 1,500 people. Has that impacted on employment? How many have had to be let go as a result of that reduction in revenue? Can a figure be put on it? While we criticise the huge salaries in RTE is there an issue of low wages in local radio stations for some of the 1,500? Is that an issue that needs to be addressed from within the local radio stations? I was aghast at the figures mentioned for Sound and Vision where I understand 80% goes back to RTE. I was aware it was entitled to pitch for it but I did not realise that 80% went back to RTE.
I do not propose to deal with particular benefits because every Deputy, Senator, man and woman knows the particular benefits of independent broadcasting. Ocean FM, in the area I represent, has a market share of almost 77% compared to RTE's 23%. That is because a good local service is being provided there.
People always say this all started in 1988, but it did not. It started prior to 1988, with the pirates. They got on because they wanted their music and their voices heard and felt the national broadcaster was not providing that service. What 1988 saw was the provision of a legal basis and regulation for local radio and independent broadcasting. There is no doubt that over the next decades, broadcasting and the media generally will change completely. Ireland must position itself in such a way that people can get access to relevant, interesting news, views and music and that we continue to meet demand. A station with 77% market share is clearly meeting demand.
I am grateful for the presentation, but if I were the director general of RTE, I would find it difficult to accept the idea that RTE should stop chasing ratings. I suspect that if the ratings were to fall dramatically, the question of relevance would very quickly arise. The committee should try to tease out the issue. There is a public service element in RTE's activities and in the activities of independent broadcasters. We need to examine that in the context of the available funds. I am not sure, if I were director general of RTE, that I would agree with the suggestion that RTE should have no commercial revenue. Was that-----
Perhaps I misheard that. We should consider the public service role of RTE and local media and whether the available funding should be apportioned to support such communications. I am not sure if it is done in any other jurisdiction but I would like to find out. We are talking about fairness and equity. I take the point about the inflated salaries in RTE, but that is a separate issue. Perhaps we should be comparing salaries in all State organisations with those in comparable organisations elsewhere. The solution is to ensure that independent media and broadcasting continues and thrives where possible. We cannot let down 77% of the market.
Independent broadcasters are commercial operators, which means they would have to be up-front with us about whether they are getting into high-risk territory or doing fine. We need that kind of openness and transparency. As a committee, we must examine the apportionment of the public service broadcasting requirement and support it, whether in the State or independent sectors.
Mr. John Purcell:
To respond to Deputy John O'Mahony on the broadcasting charge, we do not think it would be necessary to increase the cost of the television licence to individual consumers. In fact, we think it would be possible to reduce the cost. If the charge was universally applicable to reflect the change in technology, there would be an increase in revenue. Collecting the fee is currently very expensive. We reckon it is in the region of €1 million per month, or 8% of the overall licence fee revenue. Savings could be made there. If the broadcasting charge is enforced properly, it will generate more money.
There have been job losses in the sector. While I do not have specific figures, I have personally made people redundant and cut salary levels across the board. Salaries are reasonable and while we would like them to be higher, the market does not bear that at the moment. We operate entirely on a commercial basis. To respond to Deputy Michael Colreavy, we do not suggest that RTE should not have commercial revenue, but at the moment it has an unfettered commercial mandate.
Mr. Tim Collins:
I have two points on Deputy Michael Colreavy's comments. I agree with the Deputy that it is necessary in certain circumstances for RTE to chase ratings. The very successful series "Love/Hate" was huge and RTE got great ratings from it. RTE looks for ratings also through broadcasting and funding Champions League soccer, "Grey's Anatomy" and a lot of other imported content. Our point is that it might perhaps serve the public interest in a television market that is rapidly fragmenting if RTE were to concentrate on content from and about Ireland. There are many people in RTE who would agree with that view.
I agree with Deputy Colreavy that it is impractical in a country the size of Ireland for RTE not to be dual-funded. While we recognise that it needs commercial revenue, RTE is operating with a massive competitive advantage, which should be constrained in some way. The first constraint should be that no new service or activity should be permitted for RTE unless it passes a test showing that it is in the public interest and does not unfairly compete with broadcasters already providing that service in the market. We need a debate on what we want our national broadcaster to do in the public interest. Perhaps programmes such as "Wagons' Den" are not a priority, whereas good drama and programmes such as "Prime Time" are. There are many things RTE does not do, such as educational programming, that it should be doing and would do if it had a different focus. We think all of that is achievable within a properly funded system.
Mr. Tim Collins:
It does. We are highly regulated. We submit accounts annually to the BAI and are regularly monitored by that body. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland looks at everything from corporate governance within a station to financial performance. Due to the fact that we pay a levy to the BAI, we provide it with a massive amount of data on our revenue across a range of sources. The data is there and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has access to it.
It is very important that we acknowledge the role of independent broadcasters. We are not talking just about local radio but also about the independent television sector, which is an important service. I want to discuss inspections and complaints. My understanding is that the BAI can enter a broadcaster's premises and look at tapes and afterwards levy a fine. Maybe I am wrong. Does the same apply to RTE? Is there a level playing field when it comes to interfacing with the BAI?
In other words does the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland apply the same level of rigidity to RTE as to the IBI's members or do they feel that they are treated unfairly compared with the State broadcaster? There is no doubt that when I drive from Limerick to Dublin and listen to the way in which different morning programmes are conducted, there is a huge variance between the national broadcasters and the local ones. Following Deputy O'Mahony's comment about the amount of negativity, there is a lot of it and I wonder how that is managed, how is balance brought in while at the same time fact is reported?
I need just 30 seconds. I welcome the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland delegation today. The statistics it provides are most revealing about the huge impact of local radio in this country over the past 24 years. There is great involvement between communities and local presenters as indicated by the huge response I hear on Kerry Radio where there is a great deal of interaction and communication with people texting in about the content of the programmes throughout the day. That demonstrates the connection between the communities and the radio stations across the whole spectrum - public affairs, sports and culture. The IBI gives a fair break to traditional music and country and western, which is particularly popular in rural Ireland.
One cannot justify RTE's situation. Our population is the same as that of Birmingham but the presenters in RTE command exorbitant wages, more luck to them. That is historical. We need a more equitable system. IBI is suffering massive losses in revenue with a 40% drop between 2008 and 2011. It will be interesting to see how it has fared over the past 12 or 15 months because unfortunately a lot of businesses are closing in many of our towns which must create a downward trend in IBI's revenue. We need a level playing pitch and new legislation must be expedited. I wish IBI well.
I thank the Chairman for his indulgence. I warmly welcome the members of IBI. We were all glad to meet with them and hear their informative presentation. Tip O'Neill famously stated that all politics is local. The funny thing is that all news has to start locally before going national and international. Many of the people in the national media who think they have a monopoly on everything seem to miss that point. They get their stories from the ground up. That is why I have so much respect for the work of our local radio stations in particular, because of the immense service they give in rural areas placing value and importance on every section of the programming, from 6 a.m. to 12 midnight. There are people who plan their day around their local radio station. That is not an exaggeration. There are people who eat their meals to suit what is happening on their local radio station. That is a fact but many of the arrogant bully-boys in the national media who think they run this country - I have nothing against a lot of them - fail to see that. That is why it is so important. I have great respect for RTE which has done this country immense service over the years. Some of its presenters have given a lifetime of dedicated service and I would never take anything from them but there has to be a change in funding.
I am coming to it. There has to be a change in the funding because they cannot have a monopoly on funding. All that the IBI is looking for today - and I appreciate what the delegates have said so far - is fairness. This committee has an excellent Chairman and team of people. The IBI will have to give clear recommendations on the exact programme of work it wants carried out. The delegates have outlined some of it but I would like them to elaborate further on what job of work they want us to do. Where do they want this to go? What exact agenda should we have after today's meeting? In the local media while one is not treated with kid gloves - one will get a belt in the jaw if one deserves it - one will not be bullied. One will be treated fairly, quizzed on the issues and every one of us who were local representatives and then national representatives have been treated fairly by local media over the years. We appreciate that and we want the local media to be treated fairly as well. The bullying that goes on in Dublin has to stop. It happens in many ways and it is happening to the local radio stations as well because there is a certain degree of arrogance. We all appreciate the service that Met Éireann gives us but last night I was studying figures which were released yesterday for the pay associated with giving us our weather forecast. It is shocking.
The reason local radio stations such as Radio Kerry are so effective is that one minute a person might be producing a show, a prestigious operation, and two minutes later that person could be reading death notices. That is the point. They adapt. They change. They do not have opinions of themselves. They are workers. That is what is lacking in the national media and that is why it costs us so much to run our programming in the national broadcaster.
I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by other members around the table. The IBI provides a fantastic service. In my own area Galway Bay FM provides an immeasurable service. It would be very difficult to quantify or measure the value of the work it does but we know that it is valuable work carried out by all local radio stations. It is the local angle that makes the services personal. It is a great resource for elderly people living alone. It creates a sense of community and for that reason it is important that we protect the services and support them in any way we can. I support the IBI's call for an independent stand-alone fund to support public service broadcasting, particularly in light of the fall-off in revenue of up to 40% in recent years. Can the delegates tell us how that has impacted on their services? Has it simply caused job losses or has it compromised production capacity?
Does independent television come within the remit of IBI? Does it represent independent television production companies? Could the delegates explain what level of public funding it receives, if any, and how is that distributed to the members?
Does IBI get any other supports apart from funding from Sound and Vision? The delegates mentioned the levy. What percentage of income is it for a local radio station? Could it be €60,000 or €70,000 a year? If there are no supports and the IBI is paying that kind of money and it has 34 stations, the State is benefiting from local radio rather than supporting it. Is that IBI's assumption?
We are dealing with cyber-bullying, anonymous texts, etc., so is there a policy in local radio for dealing with anonymous e-mails and texts?
At a local level people can be somewhat more identifiable than at the national level. Do broadcasters have to pay to broadcast certain events? We know there are television packages for the Champions League football but are payments requested to broadcast local Connacht championship matches or other sporting events?
I have one or two questions. I apologise for just arriving but if the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland had some insight on bi-location, it might help a few of us. I was pleased to receive a copy of the presentation. It might be helpful to get an overview of the radio stations represented, which are national, regional and local. Will the witnesses indicate who owns the stations? In many cases, the stations may not be independent, as UTV owns certain stations. Some background on the broadcasting landscape in Ireland for local stations might be helpful.
I apologise if the question has already been asked but the easiest definition of public service broadcasting might be anything that does not make money. Some radio stations perform some elements of public broadcasting extremely well; for example, many rural stations broadcast agricultural programmes. We travel around the country, tuning into different local radio stations, and one can nearly replicate different programmes. It is the same news and information but a different presenter on a different station. Is there a way of networking or franchising in order to consolidate the work? I am not just talking about agricultural programmes but also classical music, motorsport or niche interests that people do not hear of from a national broadcaster. It can be difficult to get it from local and regional stations. If that could be done, an element of the broadcasting charge could be set aside.
I do not want to go around the country listening to obituaries or easy listening for 23 hours of the 24 hours in a day. Local independent and regional stations must show that they are prepared to up their game. The witnesses have spoken about the challenges faced by local radio stations. I have mentioned obituaries and I will not focus on them but many people buy the local paper and go immediately to the back pages. People on the local radio station would spend 20 minutes reading those out. It is a matter for the station as to whether it is a public service. The same logic applies to reading out mart prices that are already available in the print media. The fundamental point is the competition is not just between the radio station and the broadcaster, as there is also competition between the print media and the local radio station. That does not help either party, and if a broadcasting charge is to go to local stations, they should up their game a bit.
Mr. John Purcell:
There is a range of questions and I will endeavour to address them. Deputy Harrington mentioned the competition between print and local radio media. I do not accept there is duplication. With the announcement of bereavements, for example, there are stations doing it on a daily basis, with most local newspapers published on a weekly basis. A person may miss many funerals if he or she relied on the newspaper.
Mr. John Purcell:
With regard to standards and a preparedness to up the game, we want to achieve better and more programming of the type mentioned by the Deputy. It is specialist programming. We receive absolutely no funding other than the negligible amount we can receive from the Sound and Vision scheme. Many of the types of programming are just not commercially viable.
Somebody else asked if there have been job losses and the impact of them. There have been job losses and the level of multitasking in a station like KCLR is phenomenal. I use this forum to pay tribute to the work force of 1,500 people providing the service, as the flexibility is unbelievable. A person could be presenting a programme before doing technical operations work or commercial production and helping with an outside broadcast. That may happen in one day. Deputy Harrington asked who owns the stations and that information is publicly available. We will happily gather it and provide it for the committee. Deputy O'Mahony inquired about the levy and the money involved. There are stations of varying size but with a medium radio station, the sum involved would be approximately €30,000 or €40,000, which equates to one job.
Anonymous texting can be a difficulty but many stations have rigorous policies on it. In our station we constantly keep texts under review and we have the facility to block certain texts. Stations may have a policy of not accepting texts that have the origin blocked. The principle is that one would always know who is making the comment and that a person can be contacted.
Mr. Tim Collins:
The only payments we have to make are for telephone lines at Croke Park, which are very expensive, and Mr. Purcell would have to pay much more in Kilkenny than we would in Sligo. Donegal, which is also in our franchise area, did very well last year. One of the services we provide to people around the country that may not be recognised is the wall to wall coverage of local sport. My station covers three counties and on any given Sunday, we could have commentary teams in three separate football grounds around the country providing live commentary, opting out on different frequencies and providing a service online for the many people who have left the country listening to news of their local team. The local service is used for that benefit, which is important. The other major external cost we have is transmission, with RTE providing transmission service facilities for us. We are on the mast at Truskmore. It is a good service and we have no problem with it but it is very expensive.
There was a point about upping our game. Our game is pretty good and 70% of the country listens to our stations. The content is produced on a shoestring. I have a mid-morning programme with one person on air and one producer but the equivalent programme on a national station, particularly in RTE, might have a dozen people working on it. We must produce the same amount of content and the same number of hours. We must hold listeners for the same length and they must be equally served by our programme as by a national broadcaster. If we can get more support, we can do more of that and better programming. We have two or three news reporters only attending one council meeting.
We could have them attend all the council meetings in our area every week, as well as attending local courts, community meetings, gathering the content our listeners want. We cannot do that, however, because we are so badly resourced. That is short-changing our listeners who are paying a television licence fee for a service they do not use as they are listening to us. There is a serious problem of equity there.
Ms Lisa Ní Choisdealbha:
One of the points about syndicated programming is that this is the one area we are trying to avoid. It happened in the UK. When stations became low in resources, they started taking programming from other areas. For example, all of the programming on Heart FM, whose motto was to have a heart in every town, comes from London. Whether one is listening in Manchester, Birmingham or London, one is hearing the exact same radio programme. That flies in the face of what local radio is in Ireland. It also contradicts the reason local radio is such a success. When Deputy Harrington listens in Cork to C103 FM, he knows what it broadcasts is relevant to him and his area. He does not want to hear someone broadcasting about issues in Donegal. We are looking for assistance to ensure local programmes can remain local.
Mr. John Purcell:
One area in which we feel there is unfairness vis-à-vis RTE is in the regulation of sponsorship and promotions. We feel we operate under a draconian set of guidelines which do not seem to apply to RTE. Senator Walsh asked if we represent independent television broadcasters. We do not but we have the same interests and concerns as that sector.
Deputy Healy-Rae asked how the committee could specifically help with our concerns. We would like to see the establishment of a fund to support public service broadcasting on independent stations, as well as on RTE. We feel there is an acceptance of the unfairness that pertains in this regard. We believe RTE's commercial mandate must be redefined. Currently, the Act governing RTE obliges it to maximise its commercial revenue at all terms. We feel this needs to be redefined in legislation. We believe the funding of the broadcasting charge through the licence fee or the proposed household broadcasting charge would make major inroads into introducing a fairness in this area, as well as addressing its imbalances.
Ms Lisa Ní Choisdealbha:
This brings us full circle to the first question asked by Deputy Moynihan which was if we had a blank sheet of paper, what would we be looking for. There is a blank sheet of paper because the legislation is imminent. That is where we would hope the committee would come into its own.
I would like more clarification as to what exactly the delegation wants from today's meeting. It was outlined in the presentation that it wanted to co-operate with RTE, which is a good starting point. However, what does the delegation want the committee to do?
The delegation is implying independent broadcasters are under-resourced financially. Are there any stations in financial difficulty? What measures are being taken for more co-operation between various stations to cut down on management costs? As we live in an age of efficiency, what proposals have independent broadcasters made to make their sector more efficient and better value for money, particularly if they are looking for taxpayers' money?
Mr. Tim Collins:
That is a good point raised by the Chairman. In response to the economic downturn in 2008, our sector became highly efficient. We hollowed out anything that did not have to do with on-air activities. We protected our on-air activities and, by and large, kept the same number of news reporters, presenters and producers. We hollowed out management, support staff and so on and reduced part-timers, unfortunately, to a great degree. What we have now are stations which are highly efficient.
In my station, we have 20 full-time staff who work a 24-7 roster. We have few enough part-timers contributing to our schedule because our full-timers now work weekends and nights. Generally speaking, we do not have a layer of management. I am the manager in my station. Two weeks ago I was up on top of a mountain trying to fix a transmitter with an engineer on the end of the phone telling me what to do. Everybody does everything in the station. It is quite a unique business in that regard because of the commitment of our staff to the business. They have done this in an uncomplaining way where we have had to make significant cuts and changes to the way people work. There are some groups with two or three radio stations which have made efficiencies too. Most of our businesses are stand-alone businesses which require a chief executive and the various different supports, however.
There is a clear commitment in the programme for Government to carry out a review of the funding of public and independent broadcasters. We believe it is probably not necessary to do that because there is clarity on where the funding is. Both sectors are under pressure but one sector, the independent broadcaster, is totally underfunded. The other commitment in the programme for Government to introduce a household broadcasting charge should be brought forward and prioritised. The legislation required to do that should revisit the 2009 Broadcasting Act and examine to limit the commercial mandate of RTE, as well as putting a constraint on RTE opening up new services. We have a significant concern that RTE, because of its mandate to seek out every little scrap of commercial revenue, is already threading in areas where we are operating and will do more so over the next few years. That is a significant concern to us. In the context of that legislation, we would like an independent broadcasting fund.
I know it is not in the committee's power to get the legislation in place but it has a powerful voice. We believe the Minister is for moving. We have had positive interaction with him and the Department.
I thank the delegation for what has been an informative, interesting and well worthwhile learning exercise. The committee has a lot of respect for the work of local radio. We all get an advantage from time to time from it. It is a necessary and fair tool of communication. We would like to see the sector has a future. We will do what we can and I am glad the sector wants to co-operate with RTE.