Thursday, 19 November 2020
6. To ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if she plans to introduce further supports for the local radio sector other than the €2.5 million made available earlier in 2020 through the sound and vision fund; if she plans to waive the broadcasting levy for the remainder of 2020 and for the first half of 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37044/20]
I want to ask the Minister whether she has any plans to introduce further supports for the local radio sector other than the €2.5 million made available earlier this year through the sound and vision fund and whether she plans to waive the broadcasting levy for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021.
I thank Deputy Munster for bringing forward this issue. I am acutely aware of the valuable source of reliable and trustworthy news that local radio offers in a time of uncertainty and with much disinformation in circulation. Local radio also plays an important role in bringing communities together, strengthening their bonds of solidarity and mutual support. I recognise the challenges faced by the sector due to Covid-19 and I am pleased the supports in 2020 have provided a valuable source of funding at this challenging time.
During 2020, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, which is statutorily independent, held two closed rounds for radio targeted at the independent commercial and community radio sectors, respectively. In June 2020, the BAI awarded €2.5 million sound and vision funding to 32 independent commercial radio stations across the country supporting public awareness and understanding of Covid-19. This was in addition to a waiver of the broadcasting levy for the independent radio sector for the first and second quarters of 2020, which saved the sector €1 million. I secured €839,000 in budget 2021 to compensate the BAI for this levy waiver.
LMFM, which the Deputy and I are familiar with, was awarded €95,000 under round 35 and a community radio station, Dundalk FM, was awarded €16,945 under round 36. In addition, the BAI distributed €750,000 in a special round for community radio that Dundalk FM benefited from.
The purpose of the sound and vision scheme is to support eligible content across the broadcasting sector as a whole, ensuring a balanced and fair approach. In light of the ongoing challenge faced by the sector, I secured an additional €2 million in Exchequer funding for the sound and vision scheme under the July stimulus package. This has greatly enhanced the funding available for the final round for the scheme this year, round 37, bringing it to a value of €4.5 million.
The BAI continues to report to me quarterly on the impact of Covid-19 on the commercial radio sector. For the Deputy's information, local radio has been included in the Government's current advertising campaign on resilience.
The BAI is currently finalising the most recent round and no decisions regarding 2021 rounds have yet been made. However, the BAI will be meeting with representatives of the commercial radio sector to discuss the approach to sound and vision in the new year. I very much welcome that. That engagement needs to happen. I will continue to work closely with the BAI to see how best we can support this sector.
We are all aware of the importance of local radio, in terms of public service and news roles and also in giving a platform for local artists and community initiatives. The fund of €2.5 million was available for Covid-related programming up until the end of the summer, but since then local radio stations have been in dire straits with a dramatic drop in revenue, and particularly under level 5 restrictions.
There are serious concerns in the sector about the additional €2 million that was allocated under the July stimulus. Is it correct to say that this funding was a separate stream for elements of the radio sector that were not eligible for the previous €2.5 million Covid round? This would mean that local radio stations are not in a position to avail of this round of funding. I wonder if the Minister could clarify this. It would mean, in fact, that they have had no additional help since the end of the summer, for this period and going into 2021. Will the Minister consider making an additional grant available to local radio stations given their dire financial predicament?
I am engaging closely and directly with the stakeholders in this sector. I met with representatives of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland on Monday last, 16 November. We had a productive discussion on the value of the supports the sector has received during 2020 and a follow-up meeting was held yesterday at official level. I also met with the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, on Tuesday, and my officials will continue the engagement with the NUJ.
On the Deputy's question, local radio stations are in a position to avail of this round. The funding of €2 million which was secured was allocated to the fund for the latest round, round 37. This round was opened for applications on 8 September 2020, with a closing date of 7 October 2020. The BAI will make decisions on the successful applicants over the coming weeks and thereafter it will be a matter for those awarded funding under the scheme to produce the programmes being supported. The BAI will enter into contracts with successful applicants which will determine the manner in which the funds are drawn down and set out the timeline for same.
If there is anything specifically that the Deputy needs information on, I can ask the BAI to engage directly with her too if that would be helpful.
At the most recent committee meeting, the local radio sector representatives were of the opinion that they will not qualify for that grant. Maybe the Minister could clarify it for them for their own needs.
I also asked the Minister about considering an additional grant for local radio stations. Maybe she could clarify whether she intends to give that additional grant.
The BAI levy, as we heard at the committee, is a significant cost to local radio stations. They have received a waiver for the first and second quarters of this year but they are looking, given their financial predicament, to see if that can be waived again for the second part of this year and into 2021. Has the Minister any intention of doing that?
In relation to the levy waiver, the BAI is statutorily independent in its functions, including the levy waiver. The Deputy indicated, and I am keenly aware from my engagement with them and the ongoing direct engagement of my officials with them, that they are in dire straits. As far as I am concerned, I am looking at all the options to support them. I have committed to that. That is why I am having that direct engagement with them.