Mertek: The apropos of our conversation today is that last December Civil Radio publicly announced its plan to alter the way it operates. What’s this change about?
Ákos Cserháti: The change was necessitated by the fact that we used to keep the radio going with money from public grants. I mean grant competitions issued by the National Civil Fund or miscellaneous grant competitions offered by government ministries. The ORTT (Országos Rádió és Televízió Testület, National Radio and Television Authority (predecessor to the Media Council) also supported community radios. The developments of the past 1.5-2 years, the disappearance of grant schemes and the substantial decline in available grants has compelled us to seek sponsors or others who contribute to the radio’s financing. This is necessary because we must find funds to replace the grants that have funded the issues whose exploration we deemed important, such as equal opportunity media programmes, shows for various national and ethnic minorities, or shows produced with their involvement. In the meanwhile we have also sought to open up towards the commercial and business spheres, but they are not interested in the issues we pursue.
In December we began developing a new operational model. We would like for the civil and professional organisations that appear on Civil Radio to become involved in maintaining the station, not necessarily as owners, but with considerable greater responsibility, maybe even financial commitment. In other words the radio should belong to, say, 20-30 professional organisations that continually appear on it and feel responsible for keeping it going. That is the process we are engaged in now. At the same time we also wish to renew ourselves thematically. Recently we’ve broadcast numerous cultural shows, and we have to some extent let go of public affairs and civil engagements, or such issues as environmentalism and equal opportunities. They are still there, of course, but we believe that in the current political and social situation we have a significantly increased responsibility to provide those social strata that are completely absent from mass media with some media surface. Or approaching public affairs issues with a view towards presenting professional solutions. While we send out cries for assistance, saying “We’re really in trouble and Civil Radio may disappear”, we seek to reorganise ourselves, involving new players and professional partners. This is a plan, let’s see how it works out. What is apparent in any case is that the civil sphere has essentially been destroyed, it’s in a very sorry state.
Mertek: The new media law has also modified the rules that apply to community radio. Furthermore, after several years of operation your previous broadcasting licence expired in 2013. In the frequency tender last year Civil Radio won again, and you were able to sign another seven-year agreement with the Media Council. This will allow you to continue operating. What is your experience with the new regulatory framework and the frequency tenders?
Ákos Cserháti: Because of the law our new agreement includes quotas concerning the structure of our programming that we were not bound by previously. The requirement that delimits us the most is the quota for Hungarian music. Many radios have trouble meeting the requirement of a high ratio of public affairs content, because the Media Council deems many programmes as falling outside this category. From time to time Media Council reviews will reveal that precisely when we express our opinions on something – let’s say four of us are talking in the studio about football, for example, which is something completely natural in a community radio programme – then that will not qualify as public affairs content. But when four of us – or one person – sit down in the studio behind the microphone to objectively discuss football or other sports results, then that is considered public affairs content. This is a very substantial change, and the only reason why it has not affected Civil Radio is because the overwhelming majority of our shows were not opinion shows but programmes based on a very serious professional outlook. Our current contract imposes considerably greater constraints than the previous agreement, and the frequency tender itself was unbelievably tortuous to file, and also cost us a lot.
Mertek: How much did it cost?
Ákos Cserháti: The tender fee in itself came close to two million forints. That’s not what we had expected. Previously the amount had been around 100,000 forints or less, that was the order of magnitude we had anticipated. In this regard the Media Council does not distinguish between commercial stations and community radios. We had forty days to somehow scrape together these two million forints. That was already an astounding obstacle. To get back to our agreement with the media authority, there are ten points that circumscribe the subject matters of our broadcasts. They concern the ratio of news, the presentation of various cultural broadcasting contents and of local public life. These quotas must be met in various dayparts, which significantly encumbers the production and organisation of our shows. On a weekly average we meet the required quotas, and we sought to persuade the Media Council that the daypart-based review scheme does not mesh well with the way a community radio operates. We don’t work with professionals but with volunteers, and the programming structure must take account of the volunteers’ own scheduled and lifestyles. It is difficult to ensure that these quotas are met on a daily – practically semi-daily – basis. Yet this continues to be required of us, and we have been fined on several occasions because we diverged from the quotas that must be met on a daily basis.
Mertek: How can you afford to pay the fines? And while we talk about numbers, what’s the radio’s annual budget?
Ákos Cserháti: We pay the fines out of our own pockets. We can’t use money from grants to pay them, so in effect the members of the community have to chip in. It takes roughly a million and a half a month to keep the radio going. Half the money goes to the three-four technicians who work as employees at Civil Radio. They maintain the technology and they provide technical support for the production of shows. It is in part because of the undertakings in our agreement with the authority that we can no longer continue to operate the radio only with volunteers but also need employees who can be held accountable. They send in the data to the Media Authority and continually track if and by how much we miss the quotas on any given day. We also need employees, by the way, who write grant applications; this need owes also to the incredible and, incidentally, completely nonsensical administrative pressure. Another part of our expenditure consists of leasing the antenna and paying copyright fees. The radio needs at least 15 million forints annually to operate. To ensure steady and reliable operations, it takes 18 million.
Mertek: You mentioned that the funding you received from previous ORTT tenders was a significant source of income. Did this practice change?
Ákos Cserháti: When the so-called operating cost grants (rezsipályázat) were first published in 2003-2004 they provided us with sufficient funds to finance 70% of our operations. The civil service (an alternative to the since abolished military service – KN) was also a great opportunity for us. Technicians on civil service duty covered the work obligations incumbent on us. In 2004-2005 the financial assistance that we could apply for was 750,000 forints per month. Today, 500,000 is the maximum funding available, which is 25% of our budget, or 30% at the outside.
Mertek: Community radios have considerable tradition in Hungary. How did the situation of community radioing change over the past three years?
Ákos Cserháti: That’s interesting, especially if we consider which stations have emerged as community media providers based on the new regulations. In practice, the status of community radio was often given to non-independent media providers with significant political backing, and in some cases local commercial stations. The considerations that we traditionally regarded as key attributes of community radios, such as independence, for example, the fact that volunteers work here, do not even appear in the law or in the media authority’s thinking. The most important characteristic of community radios is that they are not hierarchically organised. Instead, there is some sort of structure based on which the show producers, volunteers and other participants make the decisions – which in effect concern themselves. Community radio gives publicity to topics and issues such as living with a disability, social exclusion, becoming impoverished, the dilemmas of urban life, environmentalism, and the difficulties faced by people at the periphery of society. We discuss these issues from a civil perspective, moderated by the activists of civil and professional organisations. As a matter of practice there is no category in the statutes right now that matches the concept of community/free radio. We feel slightly humiliated that the designation we’ve used – which is in fact community radio – has been taken from us and applied to radios and media providers that have otherwise nothing to do with it.
Mertek: In other words, the current regulation of community radio does not match the internationally recognised form of community radios, which has its own traditions. Have you encountered other regulatory conflicts that have encumbered your operations?
Ákos Cserháti: We have stumbled only on one such problem, and that was networking. In our efforts to find a way out we concluded an agreement of co-operation with an internet radio station. After Radio Café was dissolved a new internet radio was launched, led by the station’s former music editor. He had once started off at Civil Radio, so we got in touch out of a mutual interest. In the mornings they had a thematic focus on social responsibility and public life. We struggled greatly with producing morning shows; this is a problem that stems from the nature of working with volunteers, whose participation is more difficult to arrange for the morning and pre-afternoon dayparts. So what we told Radio Café is that the show they produce fits perfectly in our own programming structure in the timeslot from 7 AM to noon. In effect, therefore, they produced Civil Radio shows in the morning pursuant to an order we placed, but they also broadcast these on their own internet channel. Thus when someone turned on Neston.hu she would hear the same thing as on Civil Radio. We paid special attention not to diverge from the quotas, that the show would perfectly mesh with public service values. They had excellent ties to advertisers and they are also backed up by a substantial business and commercial community, which also enabled them to contribute to our financing. They on the other benefitted from also having their own shows broadcast on a radio frequency. The Media Authority said that this constitutes networking, that for five hours at the time the same content is broadcast on the internet radio and on our station. It did not even occur to us that such a co-operation between an internet radio station and a terrestrial broadcasting radio might be seen as networking. After all, we have always broadcast our shows on the internet, so internet streaming does not constitute something wholly novel just because it also appears on their website. In our interpretation of the law networking only occurs when two stations simultaneously broadcast on different radio frequencies. This was not the situation at hand. We brought up countless argument but failed to convince the Media Council. We had to end the co-operation and were assessed a 100,000 forint fine to boot. Of course we had the chance to appeal the decision in court, but we still have to pay the fine now. We also had to look for alternative solutions to ensure the survival of our station. We asked the media authority for an interpretation of the relevant legal provisions, but they referred us to the Constitutional Court. They argued that based on the law we had networked, and that it was not up to them to asses in how far the law was in line with practice or real life.
Mertek: According to the media authority’s records certain religious radios, such as Katolikus Rádió (Catholic Radio), Szent István Rádió (Saint Stephen Radio), the reformed Európa Rádió (European Radio) and the Mária Rádió (Radio Maria), broadcast on 60% of the frequencies – which have greater coverage areas – used by community radios. If we add the frequencies of Lánchíd Rádió (Chain Bridge Radio), then that share rises to 70%. It appears that media policy is not really inclined towards giving preference to radio stations that help the self-organisation of smaller communities and also serve as forums of expression. This reflects a massive restructuring as compared to the previous community radio arrangements. Do you perceive any changes in the media authority’s financial support policies?
Ákos Cserháti: We are in a considerably worse spot financially. We are not only forced to compete with more stations but also see that from a whole variety of standpoints larger stations with more stable background are given preference. And we also get this as a criticism, for example from the informal messages sent by the grant evaluation committee, which tell us that if we have a professional background, an appropriate number of advertisers behind us, then we have better odds of succeeding. What we have seen is that those who evaluate grant applications don’t know community radio. They will proffer foolish ideas such as the notion that we work with volunteers because we can’t afford to pay professional radio staffers and experts. But that is not why we work with volunteers. And the issues that end up falling by the wayside are those that really matter. A key ambition of community radio is to give a voice to those who lack one. That is not seen as a relevant consideration now. It’s not mentioned in the law, and it does not play a role in operating cost grants or in programming tenders. It seems they don’t understand why exactly we are here.
Mertek: What kind of a community is behind the operations of your station? How many volunteers do you work with, is there a significant community of support behind you?
Ákos Cserháti: This is an open radio station, anyone can come in and join us. Currently, some 120-150 persons produce the shows, and 25-30 organisations participate with their own shows. All our volunteers are somewhat self-governed. Someone will come in and take our mixing console, and then we find out that she is broadcasting from some event at the Budapest Opera. Civil Radio is present in innumerable places. We think that a huge number of people have heard about the radio, but few are in touch as everyday listeners. But they know about the mission, what we stand for, and when a cry for help goes out we get responses even from organisations that we would not have thought were interested in our cause. And then there are some that we’ve not heard from for 4-5 years, but suddenly they are touched by the fact that we are in trouble. Amnesty International, for instance, immediately offered us their international support. Another example was the the environmental group, Levegő Munkacsoport (Clean Air Group), which had been involved in the radio for some time, though not over the last year to year and a half. As soon as they heard we had problems they immediately contacted us to ask how they could help. There was also the Hungarian Association of Social Workers (Szociális Munkások Magyarországi Egyesülete), some equal opportunity foundations that continuously appear on our radio, or youth organisations, such as Kapocs Alapítvány (Clamp Foundation) or the Te is Alapítvány (You Too Foundation).
Mertek: What’s the training like at Civil Radio, how do you prepare future radio staff members for producing shows?
Gábor Géczi: You need a system beforehand so that by the time someone steps in front of the microphone she knows what she can say and what she may not say. There are rules here, after all. They also need to be able to handle the microphone or other equipment, and thus we have to give them a basic training. And this basic training needs to be financed by someone. Our situation is becoming progressively worse, though of course we never could finance a training, that was always done on the job. What this meant in practice was that whoever came in was assigned a colleague whom she had to follow like shadow. This is who she learned how to produce or edit a show.
In Western Europe such basic training is provided by the Association or Federation of Free Radios, since there, too, individual stations struggle with financial problems. In several countries the Association of Free Radios finances this basic training with central budget funding. This is a huge help.
Mertek: We also had an organisation that represented the interests of community radio. Is SZARÁMASZER (Hungarian Organisation of Free Radios, Szabad Rádiók Magyarországi Szervezete) still active?
Gábor Géczi: It’s been in a state of suspended animation for a while now and appears practically defunct. There are those who try to bring it back to life, but its membership is to a large extent gone. As recently as a few years ago it had 70 members, now there are only 15 left, and even of these only 5-6 are actively involved. It is burdened with debts and it has not been able to apply for grants and obtain funds. It would nevertheless be important for this organisation to survive because there are things that we can only achieve by working together. One such thing is the issue of copyright fees. They worked hard to arrive at an agreement with Artisjus (the official Hungarian copyright agency) and other copyright organisations, which allows us to pay less. But the organisational and administrative activities are handled on a voluntary basis, which renders the whole operation and the organisation’s performance uncertain in the long-run. So it does play an important role even beyond the aforementioned basic training.