Alex White not convinced by radio sector’s policy wishlist

Cabinet held ‘robust’ debate on media funding, Minister tells industry

Minister for Communications Alex White: Nobody in the radio sector is ‘naive enough to think the industry’s challenges have gone away’. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Minister for Communications Alex White: Nobody in the radio sector is ‘naive enough to think the industry’s challenges have gone away’. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Minister for Communications Alex White has told independent radio stations that he is not convinced by their calls for the creation of a public fund to assist the sector.

The Cabinet had “a very interesting and at times robust discussion” on broadcasting policy last week, as it published two reports on the area, he revealed to the annual conference of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) group.

“I want to assure you that this is a live issue,” the minister said. “Nobody here is naive enough to think the industry’s challenges have gone away,” he added.

But he had not got “a huge amount to say to you that would cheer you up”, he confessed to the representatives of the 34 non-RTÉ radio stations.

“I remain to be convinced that the distribution of public funds, or the redistribution of existing funds, to independent commercial broadcasters, beyond the support that already exists, would represent good public or broadcasting policy,” the minister said.

Independent radio stations’ campaign for reform of broadcasting policy is “a long and tough road littered with discouragement”, said IBI chairman John Purcell.

However, he described the minister’s remarks as “relatively positive” and asked radio station owners and managers to “engage with the political system” ahead and make their case heard of the next general election.

Mr Purcell said the IBI was “not looking for a blank cheque” when it asked for the creation of a fund to support the production of public-service content on commercial radio stations in Ireland, which employ about 1,500 people.

It was “not unprecedented” or “mad” for private companies to seek public assistance, he said, citing National Transport Authority supports to commercial operators to run unprofitable bus routes.

“If it is good enough for bus routes, surely it is good enough for broadcasting.”

Some public money is already allocated to the independent sector through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) Sound and Vision fund, but the funding is limited to pre-recorded programmes rather than the gathering of live news and current affairs, which is the mainstay of Irish local radio.

The IBI is calling for reform of Sound & Vision, which it says is too restrictive and bureaucratic, as well as the abolition of the BAI levy, which it describes as “inequitable”.

It also wants the legislation governing RTÉ to be altered so that it is not compelled to maximise its commercial revenues.

“This distorts RTÉ,” Mr Purcell said. “While RTÉ does a huge amount of good work, and I am pleased that we increasingly co-operate with them, RTÉ needs to be changed. As they are at the moment, it is not good for the market and ultimately it is not good for keeping RTÉ focused on what it does best.”

Mr Purcell, who is chief executive of Carlow-Kilkenny station KCLR FM, said the blurring of RTÉ’s mission was exemplified by 2fm, “a commercial operator when it suits, and a public service operator when it suits”.

The minister said he was aware of the IBI’s policy wishlist and that he thought some of the measures it was seeking “might be more realistic than others”.