A mixed day for RTÉ

June 21st, 2011 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

Two rather different news stories featuring RTÉ today. The first, their triumph at the New York Festivals Radio Program and Promotion Awards (and isn’t that a mouthful), where they were named Broadcaster of the year, as well as being recognized in 17 different categories, including one of only three Grand Awards. I learnt about the news via a release from Michael D. Higgins, who noted that “this is the first time in the Festivals’ 54-year history that an Irish broadcaster has won the Broadcaster of the Year Award and it represents a timely boost for Ireland’s radio broadcasting community throughout the country.”

I’ve been listening to some of the station’s documentaries recently – now that the Documentary on One is consistently available online – and reminded of some of the great colour pieces regularly produced, such as a touching portrait of the situation on Arranmore in light of changes in fishing regulations. This content doesn’t attract the attention – or audience – of the big name stars, but is at the center of the public service remit of the station.

In more sombre news, the station is launching a redundancy plan, with plans to lay off at least 70 staff. That’s not an incredible surprise, in light of a recent opinion piece by DG Noel Curran in which he blamed a projected budget shortfall of €17m for this year (after remedial action to cut it from a possible €34m) on a range of factors, including (State) budget decisions, unexpected expenses associated with the two major recent State visits (by Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama), and a number of other unspecified items. The redundancy will actually increase the shortfall in the near term, by an estimated €10m, but result in savings of €5m a year thereafter. The original €34m projected overrun for this year was split between €20m in annual costs (the Budget issues and “other recent cost impositions on the public side”) and €14m in once-off expenses, so after the €17 in savings made this year (if those are sustainable on an ongoing basis, rather than once-off efforts such as maintenance deferral), the station’s finances should be stable in the medium term – provided there are no other State visits, funerals, or other unexpected events! In other words, the numbers add up, but the station’s still looking rather vulnerable to outside pressures.

If we look beyond the short-term budgetary pressures, though, what might we ask of a world class public service broadcaster, as it looks to the future. I’ve got three items on my list:

  1. The broadcaster recently announced it would make its TV news available for free to members of the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI). This is part of a strategy to defuse pressure from the major newspaper groups, who claim that RTÉ is (and should not be) subsidizing its online operations from license fee (public service fund) revenue. A clever move (though it will be seen whether these commercial operations are able to both take the free service and continue to push for restrictions on RTÉ’s operations). Inspired by Simon McGarr’s attempt to be covered under the offer I would suggest that much RTÉ content should be made available for use, in non-commercial contexts, by outside users – and that in particular content produced with public funds should be made available to non-profit and non-commercial users on at least as favorable terms as they are made available to commercial users, such as the members of the NNI.
  2. RTÉ should build new platforms and tools to provide improved services to the diaspora, drawing on the potential of digital (and internet) distribution technologies, including the ‘new’ emigrants of the post-Tiger age.
  3. There’s a lot of attention paid to the ‘top 10′ presenters, focusing in part on their high pay (sometimes in contrast to their perceived, or actual, workload, though sometimes noting the tendency to find a talented person and place them in every possible part of the TV and radio schedule, in part on the varied quality of their output (with subjective readings of this element lending itself to a multitude of criticisms and critiques). There’s a more significant, and long-standing, issue – one that dates from the days of Sit Down and Be Counted – and which takes on a new significance and shape given the participatory potential of digital tools. RTÉ should take it upon itself to investigate how to facilitate a more multi-vocal, inclusive, and decentralized rendering of our national conversations. Public service broadcasting not just from D4, but threading more directions through and around our country. Documentaries such as that from Arranmore show what can be – and is – done, but there’s potential for far more ambitious undertakings here.

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