A map of community media

In its resource guide entitled What is community radio?, the AMARC (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) defines community radio as “having three aspects: non-profit making, community ownership and control, community participation.

Writing in May about the contradictions of the tender announced for small community radio stations, we promised to devote a future blog entry to provisions of the new media law relevant to community media. The topic seems particularly timely now that, in early June, the Media Council announced a tender with the relatively high allocation budget of HUF 100 million for supporting technical upgrades by community media providers. Similar tenders used to be not uncommon under the predecessor media authority. In fact, the current tender announcement is not all that much different from earlier examples. The significant difference lies in the legal environment governing the operation of media.

Under the former Media Act, stations belonging to the third sector (the first two being commercial and public service media) could decide whether to operate as public program providers or non-profit entities. The public program providers operated as quasi-local public service media, undertaking to carry public service content locally, and were subject to content expectations and restrictions  (e.g. in terms of advertising) very similar to those imposed on the big public media. On the other hand, non-profit status implied fundamentally different operation and programming. Initially, the main profile was to design programs to serve the specific goals and needs of a specific community. The non-profit status meant that any proceeds or revenues had to be reinvested in the operation instead of being disbursed as dividends. These radio stations — most of them were radio stations — served as forums for local public affairs, and the programmers were typically volunteer members of the local community.

In 2002, the ORTT introduced the optional special form of community title in order to facilitate the radio access of small local communities. These small communities were free to decide in their own discretion whether to operate as public program providers or as non-profit broadcasters. Most of them opted for the non-profit status.

Neither public program providers nor non-profit broadcasters were subject to paying a broadcasting fee. Not only that, but they enjoyed the benefit of ongoing central support from funds allocated by law for this purpose. (Under the former law, a minimum of half percent to a maximum of one percent of the revenues posted by the Broadcasting Fund had to be spent to support each of the two types of local media providers, the precise rate being determined at the discretion of the ORTT.) During the last years, this meant the minimum limit, i.e. half percent each — HUF 379 million in 2009.  

Additionally, the law stipulated a must-carry obligation whereby local cable companies were required to contract local and district public program providers and non-profit broadcaster within their range of reception for carrying their programs up to a specific percentage of the available cable capacity.

What community?

The new regulation merged the two formats to create the notion of “community service.” Rather loosely defined, this new catch-all category easily accommodates all media outlets that formerly operated as public program providers or non-profit stations. At the same time, the new Media Act introduced more stringent content guidelines, stipulating a minimum of four hours of air time a day, public service content in two-thirds of the total air time, and a 50% share of Hungarian-made music in music programming, among other requirements. In the new regulation, the intricate web of law has enacted a detailed framework modeled more closely on the former public program provision scheme, in which non-profit operation is absent and civil content is relegated to the background. There is a more emphatic demand for public service programs, whatever that may be taken to mean. In other words, the “community” label implies public service programming rather than a genuine community medium that is civil in its inception and execution.

The web site of the AMARC provides a variety of definitions for community radio, in line with the diversity of the civil domain. The most typical common denominators of these definitions include participation in the active organization of the community as the main function and purpose of community radio. In the words of the resource guide, “It should be made clear that community radio is not about doing something for the community but about the community doing something for itself, i.e. owning and controlling its own means of communication.”

The current regulation in Hungary does not reflect this spirit in its stringent content requirements and delegation of powers to the Media Council to monitor compliance.

A few things remain unchanged from the earlier regulation. The broadcasting fee is still waived for community media. The new law preserves government subsidy, albeit only as an option, without providing for a specific, predictable calculable annual budget. Following the former logic, the two times half percent of the MTVA’s annual revenues would amount to an annual budget of HUF 770 million. So far this year, the Media Council has earmarked tender funds in the amount of HUF 495 million.

Finally, the new regulation left the must-carry obligation of cable providers in place.  

 

Tailored to form

 

The radio and television stations formerly with public program provider or non-profit status had to petition the Media Council for a reclassification. Those meeting the new requirements were granted “community” status; those who did not either went out of business or continued as a commercial service provider. At the time of entry into force, the new regulatory regime affected one out of four providers, with 207 public program providers and 30 non-profit radio and television stations active in the market, according to the media authority’s 2010 report. (To this number must be added 45 non-profit small-community radio stations and 30 small-community radio stations operating under public program provider status.) In a rather diverse and colorful market,  public program provider status was the choice of the majority, including Lánchíd Radio, various religious stations such as Mária Radio or Katolikus Radio, as well as many local cable television and radio stations. Far fewer in number, non-profit stations included Tilos Radio, Civil Radio, and Vörösmarty Radio, operating out of the city of Székesfehérvár with programming related to college education.

The reclassification procedure reduced the number of providers in the market significantly. According to Media Council records, the market at present comprises 37 community radio stations, 43 small-community radio stations, as well as 5 terrestrial, 72 cable, and 4 satellite community television stations. The biggest decline was noted in the number of cable television stations. Half of these providers did not apply for a new status at all, and only one third of the applications were approved by the authority. Investigating the reasons behind the shrinking of this market, one mainly suspects the more stringent provisions which would have imposed an unbearable burden upon many small providers. Another possible contributing factor was the updating of official records by screening out providers unable to furnish proof of genuine active operation.

With such varied profiles crammed into a single new category, the total market picture has become more colorful than ever before. Entities now operating under the “community” label include such diverse providers as Ozone Network TV, operated by Origo, Mária Radio, Civil Radio, Túrkeve Television, and the radio news station Rákóczi Hírmondó under the egis of the civil society Emberkék az Emberért. Although the rules theoretically permit operation as a real community service, in practice the stringent content stipulations strongly discourage that option. In the future, the survival of genuine community media will to a great extent depend on the practice of to be followed by the authority in enforcing the requirements, for instance what programs it will recognize as public service content when assessing the high quota. The resolutions adopted to date suggest that the Media Council plays is determined to play it strictly by the book, and frowns on even a few percentages’ worth of deviation. At the same time, the explanations accompanying these resolutions do not go into details concerning programming choices regarded as unacceptable, but content themselves with pointing out deficiencies and the ratio of individual program modules in the whole.

Quite apart from the above, much depends on the terms and conditions of tenders for the distribution of available funding. The tender just announced, which is designed to aid the establishment and development of the technical background, is surprisingly similar to the technical tenders advertised by the predecessor authority. There is one major difference, though: The eligibility conditions used to be far more friendly to services with a different profile and a different principle of operation. The present tender plays along with the standardizing tendencies of the new law in that it refuses to differentiate between diverse providers under the umbrella term of “community.” This could become particularly burdensome for the smallest fish in the pond. Formerly, small community providers would be required to front only 10% in self-financing for a successful bid. Today, this privilege has been abolished, and a 25% self-financing requirement is standard across the board. For radio stations sustained by volunteer work and grants, the higher rate of mandatory self-financing makes bidding much more difficult.

Our final conclusion is what we have said before: The regulation is heavy-handed and fails to track the real-world conditions of the media market. The letter of the law notwithstanding, an attitude in favor of programming diversity and genuine community service may nevertheless triumph in practice, but solely at the discretion of the prevailing media authority.

In its resource guide entitled What is community radio?, the AMARC (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) defines community radio as “having three aspects: non-profit making, community ownership and control, community participation.

Writing in May about the contradictions of the tender announced for small community radio stations, we promised to devote a future blog entry to provisions of the new media law relevant to community media. The topic seems particularly timely now that, in early June, the Media Council announced a tender with the relatively high allocation budget of HUF 100 million for supporting technical upgrades by community media providers. Similar tenders used to be not uncommon under the predecessor media authority. In fact, the current tender announcement is not all that much different from earlier examples. The significant difference lies in the legal environment governing the operation of media.

Under the former Media Act, stations belonging to the third sector (the first two being commercial and public service media) could decide whether to operate as public program providers or non-profit entities. The public program providers operated as quasi-local public service media, undertaking to carry public service content locally, and were subject to content expectations and restrictions  (e.g. in terms of advertising) very similar to those imposed on the big public media. On the other hand, non-profit status implied fundamentally different operation and programming. Initially, the main profile was to design programs to serve the specific goals and needs of a specific community. The non-profit status meant that any proceeds or revenues had to be reinvested in the operation instead of being disbursed as dividends. These radio stations — most of them were radio stations — served as forums for local public affairs, and the programmers were typically volunteer members of the local community.

In 2002, the ORTT introduced the optional special form of community title in order to facilitate the radio access of small local communities. These small communities were free to decide in their own discretion whether to operate as public program providers or as non-profit broadcasters. Most of them opted for the non-profit status.

Neither public program providers nor non-profit broadcasters were subject to paying a broadcasting fee. Not only that, but they enjoyed the benefit of ongoing central support from funds allocated by law for this purpose. (Under the former law, a minimum of half percent to a maximum of one percent of the revenues posted by the Broadcasting Fund had to be spent to support each of the two types of local media providers, the precise rate being determined at the discretion of the ORTT.) During the last years, this meant the minimum limit, i.e. half percent each — HUF 379 million in 2009.  

Additionally, the law stipulated a must-carry obligation whereby local cable companies were required to contract local and district public program providers and non-profit broadcaster within their range of reception for carrying their programs up to a specific percentage of the available cable capacity.

What community?

 

The new regulation merged the two formats to create the notion of “community service.” Rather loosely defined, this new catch-all category easily accommodates all media outlets that formerly operated as public program providers or non-profit stations. At the same time, the new Media Act introduced more stringent content guidelines, stipulating a minimum of four hours of air time a day, public service content in two-thirds of the total air time, and a 50% share of Hungarian-made music in music programming, among other requirements. In the new regulation, the intricate web of law has enacted a detailed framework modeled more closely on the former public program provision scheme, in which non-profit operation is absent and civil content is relegated to the background. There is a more emphatic demand for public service programs, whatever that may be taken to mean. In other words, the “community” label implies public service programming rather than a genuine community medium that is civil in its inception and execution.

The web site of the AMARC provides a variety of definitions for community radio, in line with the diversity of the civil domain. The most typical common denominators of these definitions include participation in the active organization of the community as the main function and purpose of community radio. In the words of the resource guide, “It should be made clear that community radio is not about doing something for the community but about the community doing something for itself, i.e. owning and controlling its own means of communication.”

The current regulation in Hungary does not reflect this spirit in its stringent content requirements and delegation of powers to the Media Council to monitor compliance.

A few things remain unchanged from the earlier regulation. The broadcasting fee is still waived for community media. The new law preserves government subsidy, albeit only as an option, without providing for a specific, predictable calculable annual budget. Following the former logic, the two times half percent of the MTVA’s annual revenues would amount to an annual budget of HUF 770 million. So far this year, the Media Council has earmarked tender funds in the amount of HUF 495 million.

Finally, the new regulation left the must-carry obligation of cable providers in place.  

 

Tailored to form

 

The radio and television stations formerly with public program provider or non-profit status had to petition the Media Council for a reclassification. Those meeting the new requirements were granted “community” status; those who did not either went out of business or continued as a commercial service provider. At the time of entry into force, the new regulatory regime affected one out of four providers, with 207 public program providers and 30 non-profit radio and television stations active in the market, according to the media authority’s 2010 report. (To this number must be added 45 non-profit small-community radio stations and 30 small-community radio stations operating under public program provider status.) In a rather diverse and colorful market,  public program provider status was the choice of the majority, including Lánchíd Radio, various religious stations such as Mária Radio or Katolikus Radio, as well as many local cable television and radio stations. Far fewer in number, non-profit stations included Tilos Radio, Civil Radio, and Vörösmarty Radio, operating out of the city of Székesfehérvár with programming related to college education.

The reclassification procedure reduced the number of providers in the market significantly. According to Media Council records, the market at present comprises 37 community radio stations, 43 small-community radio stations, as well as 5 terrestrial, 72 cable, and 4 satellite community television stations. The biggest decline was noted in the number of cable television stations. Half of these providers did not apply for a new status at all, and only one third of the applications were approved by the authority. Investigating the reasons behind the shrinking of this market, one mainly suspects the more stringent provisions which would have imposed an unbearable burden upon many small providers. Another possible contributing factor was the updating of official records by screening out providers unable to furnish proof of genuine active operation.

With such varied profiles crammed into a single new category, the total market picture has become more colorful than ever before. Entities now operating under the “community” label include such diverse providers as Ozone Network TV, operated by Origo, Mária Radio, Civil Radio, Túrkeve Television, and the radio news station Rákóczi Hírmondó under the egis of the civil society Emberkék az Emberért. Although the rules theoretically permit operation as a real community service, in practice the stringent content stipulations strongly discourage that option. In the future, the survival of genuine community media will to a great extent depend on the practice of to be followed by the authority in enforcing the requirements, for instance what programs it will recognize as public service content when assessing the high quota. The resolutions adopted to date suggest that the Media Council plays is determined to play it strictly by the book, and frowns on even a few percentages’ worth of deviation. At the same time, the explanations accompanying these resolutions do not go into details concerning programming choices regarded as unacceptable, but content themselves with pointing out deficiencies and the ratio of individual program modules in the whole.

Quite apart from the above, much depends on the terms and conditions of tenders for the distribution of available funding. The tender just announced, which is designed to aid the establishment and development of the technical background, is surprisingly similar to the technical tenders advertised by the predecessor authority. There is one major difference, though: The eligibility conditions used to be far more friendly to services with a different profile and a different principle of operation. The present tender plays along with the standardizing tendencies of the new law in that it refuses to differentiate between diverse providers under the umbrella term of “community.” This could become particularly burdensome for the smallest fish in the pond. Formerly, small community providers would be required to front only 10% in self-financing for a successful bid. Today, this privilege has been abolished, and a 25% self-financing requirement is standard across the board. For radio stations sustained by volunteer work and grants, the higher rate of mandatory self-financing makes bidding much more difficult.

Our final conclusion is what we have said before: The regulation is heavy-handed and fails to track the real-world conditions of the media market. The letter of the law notwithstanding, an attitude in favor of programming diversity and genuine community service may nevertheless triumph in practice, but solely at the discretion of the prevailing media authority.