Media Council redraws the radio market – Report on the frequency tendering by the Media Council

Main findings

■ Tendering practices clearly point to the intention of the Media Council to redraw the radio broadcasting market. The contents of the Calls for Tender, and in the case of certain frequencies, the absence of tenders, and even the announced tender results created adverse situation for incumbent radios. Only one quarter of the radio frequencies were re-awarded to the former operator by way of tenders. In the course of re-tendering expiring licenses, the Media Council decidedly disregarded, and still disregards, the evolved market structure. Each frequency is announced as stand-alone license, even if it used to operate as part of a network. As a result, radios need to submit a stand-alone bid for each frequency, and repeatedly collect the spectrum required for maintaining their former market position. At the same time, where there was an official intent to retain the market position of a given radio station, obtaining all the former frequencies posed no problem at all.

■ The Media Council has not started the re-tendering procedure for the national frequency freed up after the bankruptcy of Neo FM and shows no intention to do so. The silence surrounding the tender implies that the Media Council has no intention to change the monopoly that evolved in the national radio market and create competition for Class FM operating as a member of the right-wing media empire. Concurrently, it also foregoes public revenue arising from the utilization of this valuable frequency.

■ The rate of tenders published for community stations considerably increased during the period under review: half of the Calls for Tender involved the operation of radios with community profiles. This change was advantageous for certain operators, specifically, for Katolikus Rádió and Lánchíd Rádió, which had been given preference before as well. The above practice of the Media Council does not only change the key characteristics of the radio market, considerably restricting competition on the entirety thereof, but also completely redefines community radio broadcasting itself. The radios that have have been awarded a license ultimately seek to obtain national coverage, are no longer subject to the market competition, explicitly committed to a specific belief, and have no local character or intention to satisfy any of the specific needs of the people living in their reception area.

■ In our first report, analyzing the tender procedures in 2010 – 2011 we concluded that the three preferred applicants – Lánchíd Rádió, Európa Rádió and Mária Rádió – had won 43% of the announced frequencies. There are also preferred applicants in the currently analyzed period. They share the same characteristic: whenever they submitted a bid, they won. The highest number of frequencies were awarded to two stations tied to the Catholic Church: Katolikus Rádió and Szent István Rádió. As a result of the tenders, the coverage area of Katolikus Rádió expanded by ten frequencies, while Szent István Rádió won six tenders. Lánchíd Rádió also continued its expansion: it acquired two more frequencies. Európa Rádió, which has ties to the Reform Church could win the re-tendering procedure for its former frequency in the city of Miskolc. The results make media policy considerations apparent: to promote religious profile in the local radio market, and replace media broadcasting local content on local frequencies by airing religious content from a central place with large reception area. There is still no detailed explanation available for this apparent media policy concept.

■ A frequency allocation concept which results in a narrowed market does not comply with the constitutional requirements towards tendering, as it fails to ensure the evolution of diverse content supply. The current tendency of concentration in the radio market is not controlled by market mechanisms. The expansion of radios obtaining stronger and stronger positions is not attributable to their successful operation, the number of their audience, but exclusively to the market-distorting tendering practice of the Media Council. The ongoing concentration processes hinder the evolution of a diverse supply.

■ As a result of the transformation of the media market, successful radios have fully or partiallydisappeared. The greatest loser of the tenders published by the Media Council is Rádió 1, once operating a successful nation-wide network then becoming a brand used by only a handful of local stations; ultimately, the former operator of the network, Rádió 1 Kft. wound up its operation. The tendering practice of the Media Council also eliminated the network of Klubrádió (with the exception of two stations) and the lawsuits regarding the Budapest frequency of the radio have still Mertek Media Monitor not come to a conclusion. After lengthy court procedures, Klubrádió ultimately obtained Budapest 95.3 MHz, at a price of having to considerably change its profile and – lone from among the talks radios – having to pay a broadcasting fee. At the same time, despite a non-appealable court verdict, the Media Council still has not signed its agreement to provide community broadcast on 92.9 MHz. Network members in the country lost their broadcasting right, then the tenders invited for the allocation of their frequencies were announced unsuccessful by the Media Council. The fate of the two stations still operating in the country is doubtful as the radio is struggling with economic difficulties.

■ In three cities – Debrecen, Székesfehérvár and Kaposvár – radios tied to the local municipality obtained licenses. In all three cases, a Fidesz-lead municipality increased its media portfolio with the radios. Media holdings with close ties to municipalities raise serious doubts about the healthy operation of media freedom and local publicity. Local publicity is manipulated, and these processes lead to the disappearance of voices expressing criticism.

■ After the tender procedure, the Media Council concludes an administrative contract with the winner. The radio may only diverge from the commitments made in the contract after the modification thereof. Typically, radios request fee reduction, the modification of their program plan, authorization jointing the network of another radio or the expansion of their reception area. Obviously, these modifications also reshape the local markets. Significant modifications may jeopardize fair competition, and the reliefs granted by the authority are also relevant from the aspect of the operation of local publicity. However, the detailed decisions of the Media Council on these issues are not published on the website. Still, it is apparent that 60% of the decisions approving requests for market expansion were related to Lánchíd Rádió, Európa Rádió and Katolikus Rádió. None of the expansion requests of these radios was rejected by the authority, as opposed to the expansion requests of Rádió 1 or Mária Rádió.