Cilla Benkö: Digital radio shouldn't impinge on today's quality

MEDIA POLITICS/PUBLIC SERVICE. The government's proposal for new guidelines for public service presented a series of clear messages: the importance of public service, the importance of independence, stable finances, and public service's presence across different platforms. But there are several areas where we still await news of the government's intentions - not least the future of digital radio, says Swedish Radio Director General Cilla Benkö.

The proposal presented on June 19th () shows that the government values the importance of public service, and Swedish Radio's role in Swedish society. We welcome that the culture department clearly wants to protect our independence and our long-term stability, which gives us the freedom to develop. That freedom is secured both by stable financing and through certain clarifications about what our task is.
   The government emphasises central parts of our mandate such as knowledge, education, news and culture. That corresponds well with the prioritising we at Swedish Radio have made in our editorial development, and in the statement of purpose we submitted when the government's review of public service was initiated.

We want to strengthen independent and investigative original reporting and keep and develop our extensive network of foreign correspondents. We want to develop our news journalism in accordance with the new needs of our audiences, and we want to approach our audiences at local level - even in areas where we today are not sufficiently present. We want to mirror the population, regardless of the audience members' background and opportunities.
   We also want to strenghten our role as the country's biggest forum for the arts and as the most knowledgeable guide to music. We want to meet the audiences on their terms and develop our content in dialogue with them - we want the content to be easy to find and easy to share digitally. That would allow us to continue being the country's most important media company and the biggest cultural producer.

An important prerequisite for this is that there be stability when it comes to how we are financed, which can guarantee our independence. This is why we welcome the news that Sweden will keep its TV and radio licence fee until the end of the current licence-fee period. Swedish Radio has all this time underlined that there is no reason to change a system if there is not an equally good or better system to replace it with. The news from the government means our independence and our long-term financing is secured, as well as our  relationship to the public, which is important.
  The proposal also includes that the government would like to transition from terrestrial digital radio. This is an important issue not only for Swedish Radio but for the entire radio industry - and it is good that this intention has been made clear, in particular as we have to borrow money to  cover the costs of broadcasting through short-wave and digital simultaneoulsy until the proposed end date for short-wave, which is set for 2022.

Yet the questions surrounding digital radio are far from answered by the new government proposal. If  digitalisation is to be a success, the audiences must feel they are getting more value from Swedish Radio than they do today. The transition will require financial resources in order for it not to impinge on today's level of quality. Swedish Radio is prepared to pitch in 50 million kronor to increase production and to shore up the in house technological shift so that it does not undermine today's quality.
   There was no news on this point from the government in its report. I assume, however, that the industry coordinator that will now be appointed understands that the allocation of resources is necessary if the digitalization is to avoid again becoming a political failure. We won't be able to leave the short-wave network behind by 2022 if the majority of our our 5-million audience members don't have a device that allows them to access our content.

The proposal suggests that the Swedish Broadcasting Authority is tasked with analysing how our programming affects the media market, and looking at competition and market developments as a whole. The details of this task will be drawn up in the autumn.
   It is difficult to understand why this analysis is necessary, it is even more unclear what it will be used for. The entire point of public service is that we must offer an independent and commercial-free alternative for the entire audience. Our task is clearly mandated in the broadcasting licence and every year we review and present how we live up to that task. Our feedback is then reviewed by the Swedish Broadcasting Commission.

A second analysis should logically conclude exactly the same thing as the first analysis does about what we should be doing. Our influence on the media market as a whole has to be reviewed keeping in mind the benefit we bring to society, as part of our mandate. Thus it is difficult to see what a second analysis would contribute with. Furthermore, it is unclear what the analysis will we used for, which means the proposal poses questions about how we protect freedom of speech.
   Swedish Radio has already questioned the Swedish government's decision that new services proposed by the public service companies should be reviewed and approved in advance.

When it comes to Swedish Radio's digital programming, it is important  that the government underlines that our core task of producing programming must be made available on different platforms - but also that it is part of our mandate to do things digitally on other platforms if it lends itself to supporting and developing our main mission. The proposal also clearly states that it's the companies producing programmes that must make the call about how that programming is made available, depending on  the audience's demands, usage and ability to access  content.

The government has also made clear that public service is at liberty to increase its output thorugh special solutions that may require subscription or payment - for example Spotify, Youtube or other services - if such solutions help to maximise the accessibility of our content.
   In order to make sure Swedish Radio continues to benefit from a high level of public trust, we must reach out to the public, and we must reach out to them on platforms where they are already active in order to  make our quality content available to them everday, which in turn strengthens our credibility and our independence.

Cilla Benkö
Director General, Swedish Radio


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