Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 October 2003

Criminal Justice (Temporary Release of Prisoners) Bill 2001: Committee Stage. - Local Radio Licensing: Motion.


10:30 am

Photo of Brendan KenneallyBrendan Kenneally (Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann takes note of the Fifth Report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources – Local Radio: The Licensing Process – a review of the licensing system as experienced by Local Radio Stations in Ireland.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Chathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to open the debate. I want first to congratulate the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources for bringing forward its report. The joint committee has been very active in a number of areas and has a considerable workload. I congratulate the chairman and also the members.

Reports such as this could not be brought forward without the members and the executive of the committee devoting much time to it, and I thank them for that. I congratulate and acknowledge the significant input of the chairman, Deputy Noel O'Flynn, and also Senator Kathleen O'Meara, who acted as rapporteur to the committee.

Today's debate is timely as my own review of radio licensing in Ireland, which I announced some time ago, has moved on apace. I will provide the House with some details of it later, and the committee's report will inform that review as it is ongoing.

The committee's report deals with the subject of the licensing of local radio. As Members are aware, licensing of local radio services is a particularly sensitive matter. The Oireachtas has determined that licensing decisions should not be taken by politicians but by an independent regulator. I agree with that principle. It is important for the political system, and the Oireachtas specifically, to actively engage in the development of the policy in this area. When I say the Oireachtas has already decided that the decisions should not be taken by politicians, that works both ways. As I have said repeatedly, a Minister should not interfere in the granting of licences but, equally, a Minister should not even be seen to interfere in decisions made by the independent regulator. Senators and Deputies will be aware that there have been people and concerns who have been unhappy with decisions made by the independent regulator, as set up by the Houses of the Oireachtas, but people have endeavoured to lead in deputations to me as Minister in order to complain about the decision of the independent regulator. I repeat that people cannot have it both ways. If we want an independent system, it has to be independent in all its facets.

Local radio is a somewhat recent phenomenon. It is only 15 years since the Radio and Television Act 1988 was enacted to establish the Independent Radio and Television Commission. This was the legislation that paved the way for the licensing of local radio services. The first services were then licensed in 1989.

The story of local radio has been a great success. Anyone from rural areas in particular would know that. It is more a rural than an urban phenomenon, but not exclusively. Indeed, it has changed the way many of us politicians have operated over the past 15 years or so. The sector has developed beyond all our expectations. The people have been offered a new alternative. Local radio has provided a new forum of high quality programming that is of relevance to specific local communities.

The analysis and recommendations of the joint committee's report are based on views set out by licensed radio stations and as such represent one analysis of licensing policy and processes.

Of the stations that responded to the committee's request for information, the majority indicated that they were happy with the existing licensing regime. Licence holders accept the need for independent regulation and have generally commended the increased level of consultation they enjoy with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. In that regard, I thank and congratulate the chairman and the previous members of the existing Broadcasting Commission of Ireland.

Many special interest and community stations singled out the commission for praise for its support for new and small stations starting up. The committee report also highlights issues of concern identified by the local radio sector in relation to the commission's processes and procedures.

Respondents to the committee have sought greater transparency with regard to licence application analysis. Applicants have raised issues around the cost of making an application for a licence. Some applicants have questioned the need for any licence renewal process where operations appear to be running smoothly, and a number of operators have also raised issues around programme diversity and challenges in radio station ownership and control.

The report includes a very informed historical analysis of the developments in local radio since the Radio and Television Act 1988. Drawing on this analysis and from the views of radio station operators, the committee's report makes a number of recommendations. These relate to transparency, possible appeals processes, application costs, alternatives to existing application processes, licence non-renewal issues and ownership issues. All of these matters are discussed in some detail in the report. These recommendations and the analysis underpinning them will be considered by the review I am undertaking in my Department.

I want to select two of the issues addressed by the report to demonstrate the complexity of this area. The report addressed the issue of licence rollover and an appeals process. On the licence rollover, an argument can be made that where an incumbent has met all licence conditions and provides a high quality service, there is scope for an automatic renewal. The outcome would be that the public in the franchise area concerned would continue to have a local radio service that they valued. However, there would be a possible downside to that. If the licence was open to competition, it is possible that another provider would come forward with an even better offering. The approach adopted must always be informed by what is best for the audience and the public.

At present, appeal of a licensing decision is restricted to an appeal on grounds of process only. Like the committee, I see merit in a broader appeals mechanism, as I have said publicly. I accept that developing such a mechanism could prove a difficult task. Getting the balance right could prove difficult. If a body is charged with making licensing decisions, that body should decide who is awarded a licence. If too broad a power is provided to an appeals body, the appeals body could, in effect, become the licensing body. Notwithstanding the complexity of the matter, it will be a central issue to be addressed in the review being undertaken by my Department.

The committee's report approached the subject of licensing local radio services from the perspective of the experience of local radio stations in Ireland. In some quarters, this approach might be criticised on the basis that it would not provide balanced analysis. I am of the view that the approach adopted by the committee was useful. The committee's report offers a particular perspective on the subject and has contributed to opening up debate on this topic. The views of those who have been licensed are articulated clearly in the report. Since the report was published the committee has continued the debate in a useful and thorough session with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. I have no doubt that as my own review progresses, the committee will return to this issue.

I now turn to the review being carried out by my Department. During the summer I announced the terms of reference for my review. The review will consider the processes through which radio licences are awarded. It will consider the local radio sector but will also consider the question of national, regional and community licences. The review will also consider the policy objectives that underpin Ireland's approach to licensing radio services.

I recently appointed expert external advisers to provide me with independent analysis on a range of relevance to this review. The task of the advisers will be to review the processes through which radio licences are awarded in Ireland having regard to comparative international experience and to make recommendations on the licensing of services in the future. The first task they have been asked to consider relates to the objectives of radio licensing in Ireland. They have been asked to describe the current objectives of radio licensing; evaluate whether there is a need to revisit objectives having regard to changes in Irish society and in broadcasting markets; and to consider the existing power of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, including its powers to decide the type of services to be provided and franchise areas.

The advisers will also consider the processes through which licences are awarded and will describe and evaluate existing licensing processes; evaluate existing roles of the executive of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and of the commission itself; evaluate the need for independent or outside expertise in the licensing process; and explore options for an appeals mechanism in relation to licensing decisions. There are also issues around who and what can be licensed, the terms of the licences and how difficult it is for new entrants to emerge. The advisers have been asked to consider what and who should be licensed; terms of existing and future licences, including duration; issues of licence rollover; and barriers to market entry. Clearly, many of these issues pick up directly on the report of the joint committee.

The final task the advisers have been asked to reflect on is the existing policy interface. I see this as an integral and important part of the review. I am on record as stating that I am specifically ruling out the possibility of any increased ministerial or political involvement in the licensing process. Political interference or involvement in licensing decisions is simply not an option. As long as I am Minister, as I said earlier, I will not countenance such interference on either side of the equation.

I am strongly of the view, however, that there has to be an ongoing political role in reviewing and developing policy. The review will consider how these two objectives can be best achieved. I have asked the external advisers to report to me by the end of this year. I will then publish the report and consult widely on its findings. It is important we plan now for the next 15 years given that we have had 15 good years since the original set up was put in place.

We need to consider the experience to date, see what lessons can be learned and take stock of the current range of services on offer. We also need to look outward and draw on the experiences of other European countries and consider how they have developed independent radio. Most importantly, we need to plan for the future to ensure we maximise the quality and range of listening opportunities for Irish audiences. Again, I congratulate the committee on its work and its initiative in bringing forward this report. I look forward to today's debate.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I thank the Government side for allowing this debate in such a speedy fashion. I only asked for the debate last week. It is extremely useful and I thank the Minister for coming to the House. He is clearly familiar with the report and, as he pointed out, the committee has had a thorough discussion with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland on its findings, a discussion which will probably continue. The role of the Seanad is important in such a discussion. We have had this discussion at the joint committee but this debate gives us all, including the Minister, myself as rapporteur to the committee and members of the committee, an opportunity to hear a wider range of views on this issue which is important to the Minister's brief and to us as public representatives. As the Minister said, local radio has been successful and the last licensing round generated a certain amount of controversy. In light of the Minister's review, the report is timely and is proving useful. I welcome the Minister's open attitude to our discussion so far.

As I pointed out at the joint committee during our useful exchange with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland two to three weeks ago, a local radio licence is a valuable and scarce resource. The entire country is covered by successful, well run, popular and commercially successful local radio stations. In rural areas, in particular, people feel close to and a sense of ownership of their local station. We, as legislators, must take account of the importance of local radio in the lives of the people we represent and to the general political and social life of the country. In that regard, the question of the changing and granting of licences is extremely important. I agree with the Minister that it should be an independent power awarded to an independent body, but the main issue which arose in our deliberations was that of an appeals mechanism against the decisions of an independent power.

I make an important distinction between the issue of independence and accountability because the granting of a licence is a powerful role for anybody. The Oireachtas has given the BCI this role. We set it up and we have given it the power to award and, indeed, take away licences but it is necessary to review how that is going. The issue of an appeals mechanism was considered important and I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the establishment of an appeals mechanism in the new legislation. We are not talking about setting up another layer of bureaucracy. It is not our intention to take the power of decision from the BCI and give it to another body. Our intention is to ensure there is general agreement abroad that there is accountability of decision making. The whole question of the transparency of the decision-making process is linked and is important in its own right. People have to know, particularly when the decision affects them, be they the owners, workers or listeners of the station, that the decision was made in a transparent way and that there is accountability for the decision.

We suggest an appeal mechanism whereby an eminent person could arbitrate in the event of a dispute. We are not suggesting a permanent superstructure to mirror the BCI, but the possibility of calling on an appeals mechanism when, or if, it was necessary to do so. The circumstances in which an appeal could be made against a decision of the BCI should be limited. It should not be the case that people who are unhappy with a decision of the BCI could immediately go running off to appeal it. The Minister, without any disrespect to our colleagues in the legal profession, would accept that having no recourse except to the legal structure for an appeal is essentially limited, as one can only raise points of law. In such a case, one cannot make the broader argument one may need to make. It is an extremely useful proposition and I hope the Minister will have an open approach to it when he is drawing up the legislation.

The other issue that has arisen in our discussions is transparency, to which there are two elements. The manner in which information given to the commission by a proposed licence holder containing data on audience figures could be, and probably should be, independently assessed with a scoring system whereby applicants are marked and assessed. That should be done in a very open and transparent manner. Also, the examination of that data should be done with the necessary expertise. If that is not available on the commission or among its membership or staff, it should be acquired, with the results of that process being transparent.

The deliberations of the members of the commission at the point of decision on a licence application should be open and transparent and the legislation should ensure, in the event of an equality of votes on the commission, the chairman would preserve the status quo. Though I do not have a definitive view on this, perhaps the Minister would consider this in the review. It would be useful, because in this House and many other bodies, where there is an equality of votes we are used to the chairman exercising his vote to retain the status quo, rather than making a change.

The role of co-operatives in local radio needs to be raised, as there is a fear or perception in some quarters that they are not suitable vehicles for the running of a commercial station and that they are more suited to the running of a community station. We have received an assurance from the BCI that this is not the case. However, coincidentally this year it was co-operative-run stations that lost their licences. In the case of Tipperary Mid-West, the licence has become a community rather than a full commercial licence. We need clarification on that point.

Co-operatives have served this country extremely well over the years. They have modernised and met the new commercial imperatives that have developed. There are some powerful and impressive co-operatives, such as Kerry Co-op, operating effectively on a global basis. I hope we are not looking at a situation where co-operatives are considered not to be the correct vehicle for running a radio station. I hope that what happened this year was pure coincidence and that more explanations will be offered on why we have seen the removal of co-operatives from the commercial radio business.

I look forward to hearing the views of other Members. It is an important issue in a general sense, not only in those areas in which our constituents have been affected. Local radio is such a critical part of our social life it should be given the attention it needs.

Photo of Brendan KenneallyBrendan Kenneally (Fianna Fail)
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As a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss this report on local radio and the licensing process. It is particularly appropriate that we should be doing so in the Seanad, as the rapporteur for the committee is a Member of the House, Senator Kathleen O'Meara, and I compliment her on the great work she has done in researching the huge volume of information, contacting the various local radio stations, collating the results so clearly and effectively and publishing this excellent report. I should point out that there was cross-party support within the committee for this report and I am quite sure this will be reflected in the Seanad.

Even if this report was not before us today, we should be discussing local radio, as the system has been in existence, legally, for 15 years. Stations have settled into a pattern and have created their own place in the media and our population. It is time to look back and reflect on the success of what was an entirely new medium, or at least a new version of an old one, which was designed to be closer to the people, particularly in provincial areas. We can also look at the shortcomings which have come to light along the way, though it is clear that the successes and advantages of local broadcasting far outweigh any arguments we might be able to find against it.

When local broadcasting was first introduced, or at least when it was first put on a legal footing, very few people could have foreseen the great success it has turned out to be. Certainly, there were those who, for a variety of reasons, would have liked to gain access to the people of their region for the promotion of community items, advertising a product, or just expanding an audience they might have had through theatre or the print media, but the vast majority of our people would have been unaware of the huge potential of this new opportunity, even though the then pirate radio stations were quite successful at a variety of levels.

Some of the local radio stations have turned out to be hugely successful, reflected in the very large sums for which some have changed hands through the years. Everyone, for one reason or another, probably has a different way of looking at these stations from the time they were set up a decade and a half ago. Quite obviously, the number and size of the bids for some of the stations demonstrates that there is a high level of interest in the sector among the business community and investors now wish to get involved.

I wonder at this stage if the market should be allowed to dictate what is happening. Perhaps the time has come to make more licences available and allow the market to decide which of them succeed or fall by the wayside. There would, of course, be a problem with the radio spectrum which is available for transmission purposes in each area and in any event this is not what this report primarily addresses. Another reservation is in regard to quality of programming. We would not want stations just to pander to the interests of the spending population, or any single interest.

In any debate about local radio, one would always have regard to the service in one's own area. The people of Waterford and environs are fortunate to be served by a station of the calibre of WLR FM, which has consistently high independently produced national ratings and which is a mirror image of many other stations throughout the country. The station's programming is of a consistently high quality, covering wide interests, and its schedule takes account of local needs in precisely the manner first envisaged for the stations. In common with a number of other stations, WLR FM has built up huge expertise in various elements of broadcasting, including news, sport, current affairs, music and special interest areas. It has also discovered local broadcasting talent which might never have emerged otherwise and has contributed household names to the national radio and television stations.

Most importantly, the local radio stations have given access to the airwaves to people and interests for which the national stations could never hope to cater. In the main, local stations have become what they were intended to be – vehicles for expression at community level all over Ireland. I am pleased that WLR FM is the first and only radio station to have provided its own purpose-built studio and administration complex since RTE went to Montrose over 40 years ago. This is now shared by Beat 102, a regional radio station which came on the air this year and is proving very popular among its target audience. This new station is an experiment which is being closely watched by the BCI and the rest of the country and could well be the model for other stations in time. WLR FM is the kind of success story dreamed about when local radio was first set up 15 years ago and since then it has discharged its mandate fully and responsibly.

We must remember that some of our radio stations are less commercially driven than the majority and that there are community and special interest stations for which there is a place and which must be catered for in society. Recognising that they must survive financially too, community stations can derive up to 50% of their income from commercial activity. If there is a broadcast area which seems to prefer its community radio and where it thrives better than its fully commercial counterpart, the choice of the people should be respected and accepted. I wonder what the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland is doing as it seems to be phasing out community stations in favour of the commercial sector. If that is its policy, it should spell it out clearly.

The situation in Kilkenny, where the licence of the community radio station has not been renewed, is a case in point. Since I represent a neighbouring county, I have better knowledge of this situation than others elsewhere. Greater clarification needs to be given by the BCI on why Radio Kilkenny and the other stations are losing out to what are seen as purely commercial interests. It has created unease, at the very least, in various areas and the BCI should move to clarify its thinking and operate in a more transparent climate. I realise this matter is sub judice and I do not wish to prejudice it in any way. However, we have privilege on such matters in the House and while I do not wish to abuse that by excessive comment, these cases highlight more than anything else a greater need for transparency in the affairs of the BCI.

One of the fundamental recommendations of our report is that an appeals mechanism should be put in place for those who have lost their licences. However, for whatever reason, the BCI does not seem to agree with this stance. There needs to be an individual body or board, totally independent of the Minister, the Department and the BCI, to which an appeal may be made and which will give the aggrieved party an adequate and impartial hearing. The only avenue available at present is the higher courts and this is much too expensive for the bodies which administer community radio. Appeal systems are in place for lesser bodies in other fields of enterprise which feel aggrieved.

As a genuine and tangible element of a local community, its own radio should be able to have its say and its day, without having to enter a very complex and expensive legal process. However, I accept the Minister's point that such a new independent body could become the licensing authority itself. That is something which can be thrashed out and I am sure it is not beyond us to come up with some form of proper and enforceable appeals mechanism.

In the context of transparency, it emerged during our deliberations that the BCI does not commission any independent research. This might well improve the level of its knowledge and the quality of its service and it is worth examining.

The report suggests a quota for local programming. It is clear that some stations make more of an effort at increasing the level of their home-produced content than others and we should actively encourage this area. I realise that programme making, by its very nature, is costly and that sharing is an attractive alternative. However, perhaps we should consider such a stipulation as an element in the issue of a licence.

The automatic rollover of a licence should also be considered, particularly in the case of a station which has fulfilled its remit, produced good programming, looked after its community and listenership, complied with all regulations and maintained a quality station. There is no reason, if there is no other bona fide contender for the licence, that the operating station should be put through the demanding, expensive and time-consuming procedure of re-applying for its licence. In such cases, there is a strong argument for automatic renewal.

I regret that time constraints prevent me from raising other important issues in regard to local broadcasting, but I have no doubt that they will be dealt with in the contributions of other Members.

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. As a member of the joint committee, I acknowledge the great work Senator O'Meara put into the report, which opened the debate about radio licences.

At the outset, the BCI complained that it was not consulted about the report. However, the objective was to have consultations with the radio stations to see how the procedures and mechanisms were working and whether they had any criticisms in regard to the licensing system. Some 65% of the stations indicated that they were happy with the operation of the BCI, while others had reservations.

It is understandable that reservations were expressed, having regard to the backdrop against which the report was formulated. There was a furore in various areas in regard to stations with existing licences whose renewal applications were unsuccessful. A classic situation pertained in regard to North West Radio when the seemingly successful station was unsuccessful in renewing its licence, which was instead granted to Ocean Radio. Ocean Radio carried out market research, the results of which presented North West Radio as "drab, unexciting, old.", etc. This was unjust and was taken up by the station's listenership, some 7,000 of whom, as Senator MacSharry is aware, marched in Sligo to support it. This station was a classic example of the efficiency and success of local radio.

Local radio is truly local and has begun to outstrip RTE in recent surveys. At 86%, Ireland has one of the highest listenership rates for local radio in Europe. All politicians like the oxygen of publicity and turn to local radio to communicate with people. The Cathaoirleach and I are fortunate to have Limerick 95 FM, a successful radio station with a large listenership. There are also a number of other stations in Limerick which are classified as pirates and cause concern to certain people. However, they seem to serve a niche market and many constituents ask why some of these stations cannot be left on the air. Many of the local radio stations are geared towards a mainstream audience which is sometimes pop music oriented towards the 18 to 35 age bracket.

Quite often, the older generation is precluded from listening to the radio because the type of music that is entertaining for them – mainly traditional or country and western – is unavailable. However, various radio stations are now trying to identify and capture such niche markets. From time to time, the ODTR closed down radio stations by removing their antennae, although they could be reactivated later.

I agree with Senator Kenneally that radio wavelengths are subject to restrictions for the purpose of conformity but there is a contradiction in talking about liberalisation for other areas while this does not apply to radio licences. At the end of the day, consumer choice will dictate what radio stations are being listened to. If such a liberalisation came about, and assuming the radio band widths could cope with it, one would find legitimate stations capturing certain niches. If the type of music played on local radio stations is not entertaining for older people, are we right to deprive them of a chance of listening to the music of their choice? I have received telephone calls from elderly people asking me if there is any possibility of restoring a radio station that has gone off the air. They are extremely concerned about it, even though such a station may have been put off the air quite legitimately by the authorities. That is one dilemma concerning unlicensed radio stations.

Looking at a recent licensing case, three board members of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland voted for North West Radio, and three for Ocean, while the chairman gave his casting vote in favour of Ocean. Seven people were involved. When the broadcasting legislation was enacted in 1988 none of us could have realised the sums of money that would later be spent in purchasing local stations, which have turned out to be massive money spinners. Given the sums spent on these takeovers and the advertising revenues involved, the legislation should have included a clawback for the State. If a radio station is sold for €20 million or more, which has happened, would it not be legitimate for the State to receive 20%, which may be reinvested in the radio network? In drafting the original legislation, we never realised that millions would be made from lucrative local radio stations but that has happened around the country. One may say that the original investors took a risk in 1988 but there is a huge disparity between the amount they invested and the revenues accrued through takeovers since then. That disparity is not compatible with the consumer price index. One may say good luck to those millionaires but there should be some mechanism in the legislation whereby the State can claw back a certain percentage for the development of the radio network.

The furore over the licence bids by North West Radio and Ocean FM proved the necessity for an appeals system. The BCI cannot be expected to hear an appeal against an original decision it has made. In the interests of objectivity and fairness, and because such investments are so lucrative nowadays, a mechanism for appealing against licensing decisions is required.

I sympathise with certain radio stations that have lost their licences. Senator Mansergh and myself were interviewed regularly on Tipperary Mid-West Radio, which was servicing a useful niche market in south Tipperary and south Limerick. People listened to that station's chat programmes, which I found very interesting.

Earlier this year, some 47 expressions of interest were made concerning the provision of local TV licences. That will be an important development for the future.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this opportunity to comment on the Fifth Report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, focusing on the licensing system for local radio stations. As a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources I was delighted to be associated with the excellent work of Senator O'Meara in drawing up a report on the licensing of local radio stations by the BCI, specifically examining the response to local radio stations themselves to the most recent round of licensing.

I am pleased that the objectives outlined by the committee in advance of the report were met. These objectives were comprehensive and important targets and I would like to pay tribute to Senator O'Meara for her excellent work as the rapporteur. Before the committee began its report it was agreed that the aims should include an assessment of the opinions and experiences of the licensing system by local radio stations. This ensures that the report is representative of those affected by licensing procedures and gives an insight, which is necessary to draw up effective legislation to deal with the problems identified during the course of this review.

Following consideration of the concerns of local radio licensees, the report made nine recommendations. The first recommendation is to establish an appeals mechanism and I am particularly pleased with this suggestion as most other independent licensing authorities have the facility to appeal their decisions. The need for an appeals mechanism was exemplified in the cases of North West Radio and Radio Kilkenny, which, following the decision to revoke their licenses, were unable to appeal the verdict. I fully understand that should any appeals mechanism be implemented, it would not be retrospective.

As a representative of Sligo, which formed part of the area served by North West Radio, it is important for me to make a few points concerning this matter. I fully respect the decisions of the BCI and the criteria it must follow, which were laid down by the legislation in the first place. I also acknowledge the tremendous work that North West Radio did over 12 years in building up a business which was hugely successful and important to the local community. I also acknowledge that the application by Ocean FM, which won the licence, must have had – as was duly decided by the BCI – a better set of criteria in order to win. It is, however, hugely regrettable that an appeals process did not exist then. I appreciate that the process being proposed cannot be retrospective, it is a shame that it could not have been in place before now. It would have given NWR the opportunity to appeal against the licensing decision without having to pay extortionate fees in the courts. The high cost of legal fees would prohibit many local stations from taking that course.

The situation of stations, such as NWR and Kilkenny Radio, which have had their licences withdrawn, should not be emulated by other stations subject to decisions by the licensing authority. I welcome the report's recommendation for more transparency and for the provision of an appeals process in the awarding of local radio licences. I am glad that this appeals facility will not be governed by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland but that a non-judicial, independent body should adjudicate appeals in relation to licensing decisions. The report's provision for this independence is desirable.

I do not want to imply in any way that I am critical of the BCI. In fact, I pay tribute to the excellent work it has done since its establishment but I agree with the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, that changes in licensing procedures are timely. The Minister has ruled out any increase in ministerial involvement. This is because there is an existing framework which, in the main, has proved to be very successful, whereby licensing decisions are made by an independent regulator. I am pleased that the Minister, upon receiving the recommendations of the committee, announced a review of the radio licensing regime. I agree with him that the time is now opportune to review the granting of local radio licences, given the forthcoming establishment of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the conclusion of the present round of licensing. I am glad the Minister has recommended that the review procedure will be carried out using comparative international experience which will provide an insight into radio licensing processes leading to Ireland adopting the best practice observed. Like the Minister, I have concerns about cost, fairness and transparency in the radio licensing industry raised in the review of licensing systems in Ireland. There is a case for a reduction in the cost associated with the application for local radio licences and I am fully behind the suggestion in the report that cost is a major issue for licence applicants which has to be tackled as soon as possible. The current cost for a radio licence application is in the region of €80,000 and above. Considering that the communities behind local radio stations are operating on what are at times very limited budgets, I believe this fixed cost is a contributory factor to the establishment of pirate radio stations. The extortionate costs associated with the licensing of local radio stations must be curtailed and I am completely behind the committee's suggestion that cost may act as a deterrent to applicants. Therefore, alternative ways need to be examined to reduce the cost.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for his proactive approach to radio licensing. After commencing a series of fundamental reforms to public sector broadcasting, the Minister is now concentrating on the reform of the independent sector. It would be easy for him to suggest greater ministerial interference or involvement as a means of reforming the licensing process, but I join with him in not supporting the removal of strong independent regulation in this area. The soon to be established Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will serve the interests of local radio licensees and licence applicants best.

I am very pleased with the report on local radio licensing drawn up by the committee. The recommendations suggested are comprehensive and desirable at this time. The time has come for the Department to conduct a review of the radio licensing procedures as a result of this report and as a consequence of the establishment of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

I hope we will see the implementation of the recommendations suggested as soon as possible to improve the current local radio licensing procedures. I thank the Minister for his response to the report. Finally, I again pay tribute to Senator O'Meara for her tremendous effort in this report.

Photo of Eamon ScanlonEamon Scanlon (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and I thank Senator O'Meara for bringing this issue to the House where we will have an opportunity to discuss it.

I want to refer to North West Radio and the good work it has done over the last 12 years since being awarded the licence to run the local radio station. There is no doubt that problems have arisen as a result of what has happened, particularly over the past two or three years in regard to licences being changed from one station to another. In my opinion and in the opinion of independent observers, North West Radio appears to have done the best job possible. It has been recognised as a local station in the real sense. Listenership figures have been increasing for 12 years, including 70% steady listenership over the past three to four years. It has done a very good job. Some 42 people are currently employed by the radio station. However, it was unsuccessful in its application, which we must accept, and we accept the BCI's decision. North West Radio was notified three months ago that it was not successful. Since the new licensees will not take over until September 2004, it is very unfair to the 42 employees of North West Radio to have to continue until then. It is difficult for these people to be motivated and keep the station at the present level. There should be a shorter time span between the old licensee leaving and the new licensee taking over.

While there are ten members on the BCI board, only six people were present when the decision on North West Radio was taken. If there are ten people with different expertise on a board and four are missing, it means that four people with a certain amount of expertise are not present on the day a decision is taken. Given the decision of 3:3, plus the chairman's casting vote, it is no wonder those involved in North West Radio felt aggrieved. If a decision is to be made by a board, the least that can be done is that the full board is present when the decision is taken, otherwise no decision should be taken.

I welcome the appeals process, which is necessary. It will give people who feel aggrieved, as in the case of North West Radio, a chance to appeal and a second bite of the cherry.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, the Minister of State, Deputy McDaid, and the fact that there is a debate on this issue which is very important for many communities. I warmly congratulate Senator O'Meara on her report, which I broadly support and which appears to touch many of the main issues. While I am not a member of the joint committee, I sat in on the session a week or two ago when the BCI was present and there was a very interesting and worthwhile exchange of views.

As the Minister pointed out, local radio has been a great success. It has made a marked contribution to the quality of life throughout the country. Despite the controversies, it was one of the main political achievements of the former Minister, Ray Burke, when he held that portfolio. Prior to that there had been a kind of stand-off as to whether it should be State owned, community or commercially run. Some of the controversies relating to that period contributed to the decision to keep the licensing process strictly on an arm's length basis. While I accept this, it creates difficulties in terms of accountability because if a community is up in arms over a decision, naturally they tend to turn to local politicians. The normal response would be for a local politician to go to the Minister but the Minister can do nothing except perhaps look at the way the system operates.

A number of controversial decisions – I am not familiar with the ins and outs of decisions in other parts of the country – have provided an opportunity to look at how the system operates. This is what the rapporteur's report and recommendations deals with. She would have been well aware of the situation in mine and her part of the country when so doing. I agree with the comments about transparency and the need for an appeal mechanism. I do not know whether there are any other situations, such as exists in Mid-West Radio, where a licence is being withdrawn from the existing operator who is being put out of business. They were community in spirit, with a commercial licence, but there is now a question of getting a community licence. There are some considerable difficulties of transition involved in that. It was received at the time as a worsening of the terms of trade and it was believed it would create difficulties for employees and also in terms of raising enough income to operate. There is a comment in the report about the co-operative ethos and whether the BCI understands that. Without taking a position on that, in parts of the country, particularly in Tipperary, the co-operative ethos is important not just in terms of running the radio or the agricultural co-operative, but in many other facilities, including the Excel heritage centre in Tipperary. I hope that is not the case.

I endorse what the report says about the objectives of the legislation, namely, that it would contribute to cultural and social discourse within the locality or community, build an even richer broadcasting sphere and increase the audience by different age groups, etc. Senator Kenneally made the point well when he spoke about it being a valuable force of expression within the community and giving people and organisations, which would not have access to the national media, a voice. A radio station such as Tipperary Mid-West provides a service to the community, particularly to older groups. My main concern is that under the new situation Tipperary Mid-West would be able to operate viably as a community radio without too much disruption. I appeal to the BCI to give every assistance in terms of the flexibility to operate and to raise income. I understand a portion of the licensing fee is devoted to such things as community radio. Attention should also be paid to the need for a corps of experienced employees. One cannot expect a community radio or any other activity to be run mainly on a voluntary basis or solely with FÁS workers.

I am not aware of other such transitions. I hope it will be a success once it happens. I also hope the BCI will give the maximum assistance and understanding to the people running Tipperary Mid-West radio in the transition which will be difficult for them.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I congratulate all those involved in this report, including Senator O'Meara. This is a topical issue which has raised many hackles throughout the country. My colleagues on the other side of the House spoke about the west. However, the case in Carlow-Kilkenny has been equally controversial. Lessons must be learned from this process. The Minister was correct when he said he would rule out any ministerial interference in the future. However, there must be some scope for an appeals process because these licences are worth a lot of money. They could make a person wealthy overnight. The idea behind local radio is to give a voice to local people. We all know that little media coverage is given to places outside Dublin. Unless something happens in Dublin, it is not relevant. I am glad that local radio has allowed many of us to raise important local issues, which would not make it past the editor's desk in the Dublin media.

I regret the Minister did not say he plans to introduce an appeals process in the future. I hope he will consider that in the review currently under way. People deserve to know why they were unsuccessful in getting a licence. The lack of a full attendance at board meetings is also a concern. People feel aggrieved that decisions were made when only half the board was present and that the chairperson had the casting vote, which, in effect, meant two votes. That is not the way to do business. People do not mind if decisions go against them but they will be justifiably angry if they feel the decision is not fair. That is the case in Carlow-Kilkenny.

We must learn from the current format. Every county should have its own radio station. Carlow shared a radio station with Kildare, but Kildare now has its own station. Carlow is now sharing a station with Kilkenny. Many people in Carlow would prefer their own radio station and I am sure the people in Kilkenny feel the same way. Although we are neighbouring counties and we get on well together, there are different traditions in the two counties. Kilkenny, for example, is a hurling county whereas Carlow is more interested in football. One of the main successes of a radio station in Carlow would be the sports coverage on Sundays. People in Carlow would tune in in their thousands to listen to the county final. I am not sure how the new station will work given that Kilkenny does not share the same football tradition. It would be better to have a radio station in every county because it would cover local issues.

It is unsatisfactory that some radio stations must go to the High Court, the Supreme Court or the European Court of Justice to seek rulings and judicial reviews. That is why I urge the Minister to consider an appeals structure. It is also unfortunate that the assets of people who are unsuccessful in getting a licence, but who had a licence in the past, are devalued overnight. I am not sure what the solution is, but something must be done. I hope the current review will consider some of the issues I have raised.

I am intrigued by the use of the word "independent", which is often abused. How can the board be truly independent? It is only possible to have a truly independent board if it is made up of machines or computers because once human beings are involved, it cannot be independent. I am concerned about the background of some of the people on the board. There seems to be a bias towards barristers. While I have great respect for barristers, they do not know the answers to everything. It is important to have a board which will be able to make independent decisions in the true sense of the word while bearing in mind the broader picture.

I hope the Minister will consider an appeals structure. I also hope each county will have its own radio station. People should be told why they did not get a licence as that would leave them in a better position to apply for one in future. I hope local radio is not hijacked by commercial interests. It is ironic, given our history, that many of the radio stations in Dublin are owned by English or Scottish based companies. It is worth noting that 80 years after getting independence from England the main media group will have an English background.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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The report from the Oireachtas committee was timely. It is important that we have the opportunity to discuss this report, mainly because of the debate that has been taking place throughout the country, some of which is quite animated. There was much confusion about the future of existing radio stations and the method of granting licences. It is important to provide a focus in addition to the work being undertaken by the Minister. Much of the debate was to do with people's realisation of the potential of local radio. They had seen at first hand the results of many of the stations not only in terms of reflecting community aspirations and issues, but also in terms of the professionalism that existed in those stations. One of the biggest fears when local radio was initially established was that we would not have a professional service, but, by and large, we have been successful in that regard.

Local radio was established mainly to reflect the views of the community and provide a service for it. Before the introduction of local radio, a service was provided by RTE where an outside broadcasting unit would go to a town or area for a week, giving people the opportunity to design, produce and publicise their own programmes. That was the foundation of local radio, although RTE might feel that to some extent it was helping to put itself out of business. At that time there was a suggestion that RTE might also act as a service provider to those stations. There were arguments for and against this and the resources at RTE's disposal, the archive it built up over the years and its expertise in the area were taken into account. One of the strong arguments against the idea was that involving RTE might result in a return to a monopoly – we might only see copies of what was already available at national level – and that we would be defeating the purpose of local radio.

One of my big fears in recent years has been the over-commercialisation of local radio and this issue has been central to much of the debate that has taken place. Local radio is seen more as a method of making money than providing a service. If that is the driving force of local radio, it does not bode well for the future. We will have more difficulties down the road. This worry was accentuated by some of the monopolies I have seen building up in recent years. Local newspapers are being bought up by conglomerates and to a large degree a monopoly is being created. In my own area, the Tipperary Star, The Clonmel Nationalist and the Kilkenny People have been bought and are now being run by Scottish Holdings. Members will have seen in the media in recent times that Scottish Holdings, UTV and others are eyeing a lucrative market. The more local radio stations are absorbed and controlled, the more we will return to the days before local radio. That was the fear we had of RTE becoming a service provider.

It has already been mentioned that the radio station in my area has gone through some rocky patches in terms of viability but, through good leadership by many people, including the late Seán Kelly of the ICMSA, the station was turned around. This station epitomised for me what local radio was intended to be. There was community involvement in presentation and programmes. Nobody could be critical of the professionalism of the station and loyalty to it was built up throughout the years. We must achieve a balance between the loyalty and satisfaction of the local community and a pseudo-professional approach to the service. In the Tipperary case, the pendulum swung too far. It should have been possible for us to have ensured that the two stations there could continue and compete and possibly make the potential market a little less lucrative for a commercial takeover by one of the other stations, which seem to be adding many prizes to their baskets at present.

We have seen examples of what I am talking about not just in Tipperary, but in other cases. If a station is offering a good service, reflects what we thought local radio would be, is viable, has a certain voluntary input and has loyal listeners, one would think we, as legislators making policy, should be happy with it. I am not talking about the commission but us as legislators. That is surely the result that everyone wanted to achieve, so I still cannot understand why this is happening. In many ways the commission does not set about explaining its decisions; there is not that type of transparency.

Whatever the future holds, however, it is important that where there are genuine local community-based radio stations providing a good service, there is a way of ensuring that the big money is not capable of ousting them. We must ensure that the whizz-kids – I do not speak in a derogatory sense – do not hijack these services, because the service that is there when they take it over is not necessarily the one that will be there when they are finished. As someone who has supported and been directly involved in local radio right back to the RTE days, I would like to think that we will not dim the vision we had or lose the opportunities we have now.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I join the Acting Chairman in thanking the Leader for arranging this debate so soon after we raised the issue in the House. I agree with much of what my colleague, Senator Browne, said. He spoke about what is happening in Kilkenny. I know there are difficulties in other parts of the country also, but, as a Kilkenny man, I am very conscious of the controversy that has arisen about the position of Radio Kilkenny and the fact that its licence has been withdrawn. Consistent JNLR survey results have shown that Radio Kilkenny has been one of the two or three most listened-to radio stations in the country. It is, and has always been, run on a co-operative basis by the community in Kilkenny and it has been by any measure an outstanding success. Senator Browne has outlined the importance of local radio so I will not rehash it, but we all know the significance of its role, especially in rural areas.

With regard to Radio Kilkenny, it appears the BCI decided to change the franchise area that existed between Carlow and Kildare. As Senator Browne pointed out, it decided that Carlow would be included with Kilkenny for radio licensing purposes. While I accept there are many cross-overs between Carlow and Kilkenny – in a political sense there has always been a relationship between Carlow and Kilkenny – how did the BCI arrive at its decision to divide Carlow from Kildare and, following on from that, to include Carlow with Kilkenny in the context of local radio? That is the nub of the issue from a Radio Kilkenny point of view and from where the problem arose. The question of franchise areas and how they are determined has not been properly explained. The BCI has work to do in that regard.

Other speakers mentioned the fact that many of the local radio stations and radio channels are being taken over by non-national companies, large conglomerates which have interests in other media sectors and in different industries. Radio Kilkenny was set up as a result of the community spirit there and its whole emphasis was on being a voluntary co-operative. The current situation where large conglomerates take over radio stations is highly undesirable and goes against the wishes of the founding fathers of local radio and those responsible for initiating the whole process of local radio. It flies in the face of the role local radio plays in local communities that large multinational entities are taking over and increasing their role in local radio.

The main point made by a number Senators revolves around the lack of an appeals process. Radio Kilkenny has gone the legal route and proceedings are ongoing in regard to its appeal against the decision of the BCI to remove its licence. It beggars belief in this day and age that a State organisation, which had such power and control, did not have a clear and well thought out appeals process. I am disappointed by what the Minister said because he gave a watered down commitment. In expressing support for the idea of an appeals process, he used the word "possible" to explain his position on the issue. If a situation such as that at Kilkenny Radio is not to arise again, it will be necessary to have a clear appeals process laid down.

I express my disappointment at the decision reached in regard to Radio Kilkenny, which has been a highly successful local radio station. I learned with regret that the licence was being removed from it. As Senator Browne pointed out when he mentioned football in Carlow and hurling in Kilkenny, it comes down to such issues. Up to now, Radio Kilkenny has been focused entirely on Kilkenny. The question is whether a radio channel which can play as important a role in the lives of people in Kilkenny can do so if it has to cater for two counties because counties Carlow and Kilkenny are very different. There is much merit in what Senator Browne said regarding the possibility of a radio station for each county. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Jim McDaidJim McDaid (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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As the Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Ahern, is not present I shall ask the officials to convey to him the views expressed here. I thank Senators who contributed to the debate and I thank the House for the opportunity to conclude the debate on behalf of the Minister.

The subject matter is clearly of great public interest as evidenced by the quality of the contributions. I join previous speakers in congratulating the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources for bringing forward its report. The Minister has asked me to point out that he wishes to acknowledge, in particular, the work of the committee chairman, Deputy O'Flynn, and Senator O'Meara in her role as rapporteur to the committee.

When opening the debate the Minister detailed how the committee's report will feed into the review he is conducting. The Minister's review of radio licensing is a broad one encompassing radio broadcasting policy. It will consider issues surrounding the licensing of local radio services and it will, therefore, consider many of the issues addressed by the joint committee's report. The recommendations of the joint committee will feed into this review.

The review will look at the issue of local radio licensing from a range of perspectives, including that of the radio stations. It will also consider the approach to licensing radio services at a national, regional and community level. We have come a long way in a relatively short time. Less than a decade and a half ago we had no independent local radio services. Today, it is impossible to imagine a world without these services. Each one of us can tell our own tale of the key role our local radio station plays in our community. We can all point to individual examples of where the local radio station has made a real difference. More than anything else, it is in doing ordinary things that local stations have shone. Local radio truly has been about empowering local communities. The stories that matter to us in our day to day lives do not always deserve international or national coverage, but that does not mean those stories are not important to us. Local radio provides individual communities with the chance to tell their story and have their say. As the Minister said earlier, the story of local radio in Ireland has been a huge success. I agree with him that we should not be complacent. As policy makers it is our duty to ensure objectives are in place and strategies adopted to make certain the success story continues.

The review being conducted by the Minister has that objective. It will focus not only on the procedures and processes through which licences are awarded, but address some more fundamental issues. I also welcome this move. The review will take a step back and look at the bigger picture. It will consider what we have achieved in Ireland, but also look at the experience of other countries. I am sure there are lessons to be learned, both positive and negative.

As we move forward we need to be sure our core policy objectives are appropriate for the Ireland of today and the decade ahead. We need to consider whether the range and categories of services available today best meets the demands of audiences. We need to consider and debate the categories and the number of services that should be licensed in the future. As the review progresses, no doubt there will be opportunities in this and the other House for further debate as well as in the local radio stations.

I congratulate the joint committee on its initiative in bringing forward the report. The officials will bring to the attention of the Minister the points raised in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended at 3.30 p.m. and resumed at 4p.m.