Wales has the most porous culture in Europe

Rhodri Talfan Davies invites a national conversation on how Radio Cymru can find its place in a ‘messy’ world






Rhodri Talfan Davies is Director of BBC Cymru Wales

Four months ago, the results of the latest UK census were published and the picture it painted of the language – and those who speak it – surprised and, I think, alarmed many. I want to, first, talk a little about what we learned – and then look specifically at what this might all mean for Welsh broadcasting, and our own Welsh language station Radio Cymru particularly.

So what did we learn first?

Well, there were some big headlines. Overall, the numbers who say they speak Welsh fell from 21 per cent of the population ten years ago to 19 per cent this time round. It was a decline that many had not predicted. But the detail behind the number is rather more revealing.

The language appeared to be in retreat across much of what we call Y Fro Gymraeg – the so-called bedrock or heartland of Welsh-speaking Wales. Carmarthenshire, just across the county border from here, saw a 7 per cent drop in the number of Welsh speakers; Ceredigion to the north saw an 8 per cent drop. Only Gwynedd and Anglesey appeared to be largely unscathed.

Now, it’s also the case that those losses in the old heartlands were partly offset by increases in south east Wales – but they were not enough to prevent an overall decline.

The census was also a reminder that the language is in the midst of a fundamental shift. Traditionally, Welsh was a language learned and passed on in the home. As a result, it was the main language among those who spoke it. A culture – not just a language – was passed from generation to generation.

That’s changing – now, more often than not, Welsh is learned in the classroom rather than in the home. That’s a big generational shift. The census also told us that while the education system may be introducing the language to far greater numbers – its hold on young lives can be fragile and what is taught can often be lost quickly.

Ten years ago, the census that told us that 40 per cent of school age children in Wales could speak Welsh. But among that same group of young people – now ten years older – only 24 per cent say they can still speak the language. To put it another way: almost half of those learning Welsh at school are losing that ability within a decade of leaving.

But there was something else too – in among all that data – the impact of a long and open border that sees phenomenal traffic in and out of Wales. The result is that Wales, in one sense at least, boasts one of the most diverse populations in Europe.  More than a quarter of those living in Wales weren’t born here – a higher number than anywhere else in Europe, apart from Luxembourg (and it doesn’t really count – because most people there could reach three other countries within 10 minutes).

The impact of such a porous and open border is, I think, profound – not just linguistically but more deeply and broadly. It impacts on our attitudes to culture, to society and to the way we think about ourselves in Wales. Because it’s not just traffic that moves easily across such a long and open border – it’s ideas, cultural and media influences and the values that shape us. And not just from England – but from across the globe. And if we are honest the cultural and social transmitters beaming daily into Wales are often far, far stronger than those facing out.

Just take newspapers as one example – some 95 per cent of morning newspapers read in Wales are printed in London and contain virtually no editorial about Wales. The challenge this poses to the wellbeing of the Welsh language has been debated for years. In his seminal Welsh Extremist back in 1971, the language campaigner Ned Thomas wrote pointedly of “Welsh children brainwashed by hour upon hour of English television from infancy”.

I was reminded of this issue in a rather more benign way last month. On 16 April in fact: an historic night for football in Wales as Cardiff City sealed promotion to the Premier League, where of course they’ll join Swansea City. This is significant. Next year 10 per cent of the English premier league, the world’s biggest and richest sporting league, will in fact be Welsh. That’s an amazing sporting success story and a moment of real pride for Wales.

But it has cultural significance too because it edges Wales’s sporting world and Welsh sporting interests closer to the traditions, rhythms and norms of our English neighbours. Again, the power of those cultural transmitters edges up another notch or two. And it illustrates perhaps the scale of challenge for those who cherish the idea of a distinctive Welsh culture, a distinctive Welsh public space.  This plays out at many levels in different ways.

  • Regional rugby in Wales wonders how it will survive the onslaught of the English Premiership – and its potential grip on the hearts and minds of youngsters across Wales.
  • Welsh educationalists and parents wonder whether a separate qualifications system for Wales might disadvantage students looking to work in England.
  • And Welsh language campaigners of course wonder aloud about how they will safeguard one of Europe’s oldest linguistic cultures in the teeth of such external, UK and global influences.

In all these examples, the power of external and global influence can inexorably shape our own local or national debate here. That’s not necessarily right or wrong. It just is. So what does this mean for a radio station like BBC Radio Cymru which exists to serve Welsh language audiences?

Since the beginning of the year, we’ve been looking hard at the census results but also commissioning our own parallel research to really get under the skin of this social change, and to think hard about how it should inform the direction of our service. We’ve also been talking to the Radio Cymru team – both the staff and independent producers – who know their audience best of all. There’s more work to do, more conversations to have and more research to pore through. But we’re making good progress and the immediate challenges are already clear. I’d highlight four key points:

  • The so-called homogenous Welsh language audience is becoming more diverse than ever before.
  • At a functional level, their ability to use the language varies more than ever before.
  • And at a more emotional level their confidence in using the language is also becoming more varied.
  • But perhaps most profound of all, the cultural and social reference points of Welsh speakers – both those fluent and those less so – are more varied than ever before. For an increasing number of Welsh speakers, Welsh language culture is only one part of a patchwork of influences that straddle Welsh, British and international cultures.

So how do we think we’ll need to adapt over the coming years? Or, indeed, do we need to adapt? Let me offer you a starter for ten. First and foremost, we want to extend and broaden the appeal of Radio Cymru – and strengthen its role as an indispensable part of national life. If Radio Cymru is to thrive it must reach out to serve the broadest possible Welsh language audience – including those less confident with the language – to fully embrace their lives and passions.

To be crystal clear, we don’t think the answer is for Radio Cymru to mutate into a bilingual station. But we do need to work harder to reach those who are less confident in the language – or are still learning it. And we do need to reclaim those more heartland audiences that have drifted elsewhere.

Our research tells us that they all need to feel more confident that the station will be welcoming and inclusive, that it’ll talk their language and reflect their world. There is a perception among these potential listeners – mostly ill-founded, I should hasten to add – that Radio Cymru will be too formal or culturally narrow for their liking. To succeed in this we also need to address head-on the attitude of too many Welsh speakers to Welsh language broadcast services – “it’s important, I’m glad it exists but, really it’s not for me”.

The fact that the station broadcasts in Welsh is no longer enough for this broader audience. They want clearer reasons to listen and they want us to recognise that they’re busy lives encompass more than Welsh language culture and interest. My sense is that they really want to be convinced that Radio Cymru is a station that reflects our national life as it is – not as we might wish it to be, or how we imagine it once was.

Now this can be controversial territory. Among the station’s most loyal listeners are those who are sincerely uneasy about change – who believe the station has already travelled too far in the name of modernity. For some, the station is more than a public service. It is a totem that should stand impassive to changing tides and fashions.

I respect that view but I don’t agree with it. Radio Cymru’s overwhelming priority is to serve its audience – rather than save a language. And conflating the two is dangerous. If we were ever to insist that the station’s over-riding goal should be to protect and preserve a rarefied form of Welsh language and culture come what may, we would – in time – condemn it to irrelevance.

The secret in the digital world – just as in radio – must be to stay close to your audience and anticipate the challenges ahead, however disruptive they might appear.

BBC Cymru Wales’ head of programmes in the 1960s, Hywel Davies, got it right when he said the role of the public broadcaster is to stay stubbornly “in the vanguard to society”. For me, that means we should never lurk nervously in the shadows or shuffle our feet – our job is to embrace change with real ambition and grit.

And that’s why we’ll be spending the coming months listening to what our audiences want and expect of us.

  • We’ll be asking them whether Radio Cymru is striking the right balance between its news and entertainment output.
  • We’ll be asking whether the station’s music strikes the right chord with listeners and their families.
  • Looking to the future, we’ll be asking whether listeners agree we should look to broaden the appeal of the station, including among those less confident in Welsh.
  • And if they do agree, we want to hear their ideas about how should we change or adapt our programming to make these new audiences feel more welcome and included.

We’re going to listen hard to the answers as we shape our plans for the station. And we’ll shape our response carefully to ensure that Radio Cymru secures a confident and vibrant place in our national media for years to come.

Because in the end the census tells me two things: there are challenges aplenty but the role of Welsh language broadcasting has never been more important nor more precious.

Sgwrs Radio Cymru is a nationwide ‘conversation’ about BBC Radio Cymru as part of the biggest radio research project ever undertaken in Wales.

Listeners can share their views with BBC Cymru Wales in a number of ways:
By email at sgwrsradiocymru@bbc.co.uk
By telephoning the dedicated Sgwrs Radio Cymru hotline on 03703 33 16 36
By writing to Sgwrs Radio Cymru, Room 3020, BBC Cymru Wales, Llandaff, Cardiff, CF5 2YQ

Rhodri Talfan Davies is Director of BBC Cymru Wales. This is an extract from a lecture he delivered at the Celtic Media Festival in Swansea on 25 April. The full text of the lecture is here.