Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sound Engineers have zero value and respect in Hilversum

Regular readers of these media musings know that that I'm an optimist - looking on the brighter, creative side of life. But I also openly share my concerns.

Fragmentation is killing the quality of Dutch public radio. 

In 2014, the "audio" sector of Dutch public broadcasting needs to shave 2.9 million Euro off an annual budget of 90 million Euro. Many people abroad don't realise that there are no less than 7 public networks in this country, though as the table above shows, the 90 million is not evenly spread.

The lions share, 36 million Euro, goes to fund Radio 1, the news and sports network. But the second most expensive network is Radio 5, which to my ears, remains one of the strangest stations on the planet. It plays nostalgic music during the day and programmes with an educational/spiritual content in the evenings. Radio 1 has a market share of around 7.3%, with a weekly reach of 2.6 million people. Radio 5 has a market share of around 3 percent, and a weekly reach of around 700,000. Bottom of the list for public broadcasting is Radio 6, soul/jazz format with a weekly reach of 160,000.

To my mind, Dutch public radio has far too many channels, filling it with far too much music. No-one has ever seriously challenged their public purpose since discussions about broadcasting are never about radio, always television/Internet. 

If the same situation was present in the UK, there would have been a public outcry. And note that the Urban youth network, FunX, with a budget of 2.7 million Euro is not mentioned in the radio ratings. Frankly, the regional public broadcasters (in this list as ORN) do a much better job with a fraction of some of these budgets.

And, personally, I think commercial networks like Sublime FM and 100%NL do a much better job in their respective genres than the public networks Radio 6 and Radio 5. More recently, Radio 1 has starting putting music in its morning news programme. Along with the pingles and jingles that are played in and around the news bulletins, that radio network has become unlistenable for me. If I want something, I'll access it on demand through the website - I'd prefer a pre-roll ad than being forced to listen to public radio carrying ad breaks. I note that I go for the video items first. I only go to audio if I can't find the video.

Although the radio advertising bureau in the Netherlands says the radio advertising market here grew by 5 million Euro to 226 million in 2013, I'm curious to see how long that can last.

Sound Design has no value

I believe in a duopoly media system providing the balance between public and commercial makes sense. The problem is that no-one really cares about the future of radio in Hilversum.

As evidence, look at the call from the largest pubcaster in Hilversum, the new AVROTROS. They are looking for interns to work in their production department. The work on the TV side is spotting to make promos. The work on the radio side is to be broadcast transmission technician, playing out a programme they make for Radio 5. The remuneration for this responsibility is a mere a 300 Euro PER MONTH, for a 36 hour week, which effectively means the AVROTROS doesn't really see this as a career path. It's a just a cheap way of making radio. So why bother raising false hopes?  I find this scandalous for a public broadcasting organisation. Rather than re-thinking the role of broadcasters, editors and sound designers as we see elsewhere in the world, Hilversum public radio has stuck with workflows from the 1990's. Which means everyone loses out in the end.

So what needs to happen?

In the UK, attention was drawn to Asian Network and BBC 6 Music when the BBC Trust announced their imminent closure in 2010. In the end , both the Asian Network and BBC 6 Music were saved as the BBC Trust backtracked. To my mind, closing the Asian network made a lot sense as the commercial/community sectors do a better job of serving these audiences. Saving BBC 6 Music was the best decision the Trust made. I see various public initiatives like Friends of Radio 3, formed by those who want a continuous public dialogue with the BBC on the future of public radio networks. It looks like a healthy situation to me.

In the Netherlands, there is no ongoing public debate on the future of radio. People wait until cuts are announced, and then we see broadcasters setting up campaign sites to try and persuade the public of the politicians folly. That is rarely successful and shows that Netherlands public radio is still broadcasting to its audience, rather than working with its audience. Will anyone care enough to change it?

*This post has been updated on April 29th. Thanks to Stephen Martin for the fact check on BBC Asian Network. I said earlier that it had been closed down. May be they should call it the BBC South Asian Network? Can't imagine there are many East Asians in the demographics.
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