Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director BBC Cymru Wales, Celtic Media Festival, Swansea, 25th April 2013
Thank you for coming. I’m delighted to be here at the Celtic Media Festival.
Swansea has some special memories for me. My grandparents grew up in the city – just off Constitution Hill. My grandfather ran a chemist shop in the town centre until the Luftwaffe put him and most of Swansea out of business.
In fact it was the bombing of his shop that encouraged my grandfather to put his own literary interests first – and he joined the BBC as a part-time news reader before, later, becoming a radio producer.
His timing was impeccable. That decision to join the Beeb coincided with a remarkable period of creativity here. He had the privilege of working with, and producing, many of Swansea’s leading poets of the time – not least Vernon Watkins and, of course, one Dylan Thomas.
To his dying day, my grandfather was rather tactful about the challenges of working with Dylan. He’d tell us Dylan was a delight to work with – punctual and scrupulously prepared for every broadcast. But he was clearly not always reliable. One of tadcu’s most treasured mementos of that time was a bounced cheque for ‘one pound only’ – signed by Dylan – a reminder that the city’s ‘wild child’ was better versed in words than numbers.
As you will know from the festival programme, BBC Cymru Wales is here in force in Swansea this week – and much of our contribution will quite rightly be focused on the success that we’re enjoying in drama production. We’re also announcing a major series of programmes about this city.
But I want to be a little contrary today – and turn away from the bright lights of Doctor Who and share a few thoughts on the challenges facing Welsh language broadcasters as we grapple with change on all fronts.
Of course, the challenges facing the language here will echo the experience of our Celtic cousins elsewhere.
But I think the Welsh story is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, because in many ways Welsh language broadcasting is sometimes seen as a sort of gold standard in minority language broadcasting; and, second, because I think we may be at an extraordinary crossroads in the development and usage of the language.
I have a real sense we’re at an intersection where cultural, linguistic, social and technology forces are all converging to pose fundamental questions: not just about Welsh language broadcasting, but about how broadcasting in Wales as a whole – in both Welsh and English – should adapt to reflect the changing reality of the world around us.
There are plenty of doom-sayers. But I’m not one of them. Frankly, I am constantly struck by the vibrancy and excitement of Welsh language broadcasting – and I’ve no doubt we will see that recognised once again at this year’s festival.
Anyone who heard Radio Cymru’s short season on RS Thomas’ centenary a few weeks back could not fail to appreciate its subtlety and craft. It was a real reminder that Wales boasts one of the most artful interviewers of all in Beti George – gently but brilliantly probing the most difficult of subjects. Dylan Iorwerth explored the poet’s rich legacy. And then, in a remarkable twist, a kaleidoscopic soundscape of words and music celebrating the man’s remarkable body of work.
There is remarkable work to celebrate – and an ambition that never ceases to astonish me.
But recent years have, of course, seen Welsh language broadcasting in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Just four weeks ago, the financial responsibility for funding S4C was pretty much handed from the UK Government to the BBC – a consequence of a licence fee settlement agreed in the heat of the UK Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010.
In Wales, many commentators warned that this was a forced marriage that potentially spelled ruin for the channel. And it was much heard at the time that the BBC could not be trusted with supporting Welsh language broadcasting.
I’ve always struggled with this. The BBC has many flaws for sure but a failure to embrace the Welsh language is surely not one of them. It’s a view that lacks a sense of history, and eschews a BBC commitment to the language that dates back precisely 90 years.
In fact, the history of the BBC in Wales throughout much of the post-war years is one where the Welsh language took centre stage – despite being spoken by a minority of the population. There were legendary talents and a high-fibre diet of poetry, talks, drama and readings. And when the miracle of television arrived in Wales in 1964, the BBC quickly ensured that its channels in Wales broadcast a mix of English and Welsh programming.
This cultural commitment by the BBC has not gone unnoticed by the audience. In fact, one of the more modest wonders of the world is that support for the BBC among Welsh speakers remains higher than among English speakers here in Wales.
In any case, if the so-called forced marriage between the BBC and S4C seemed like a recipe for meddling and upset – it hasn’t actually turned out like that. In fact, it has coincided with – or perhaps it precipitated – a strong new partnership between the two broadcasters in Wales that may have surprised some.
So as we speak, up the road in Aberystwyth, a major new drama production is being shot by Tinopolis and Fiction Factory – Y Gwyll/Mathias – a project that will be broadcast across S4C, BBC Wales and BBC Four.
And when the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World launches in June, both S4C and BBC will jointly celebrate this major cultural event.
Now, for the Irish broadcasters here today, this may be a bit unsurprising. Co-production and collaboration has been in the lifeblood there for years. The truth is we’re playing catch-up. But no matter – the new sense of partnership and opportunity in Welsh broadcasting is to be thoroughly welcomed.
So what are the challenges ahead?
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% of the population ten years ago to 19% 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% drop in the number of Welsh speakers; Ceredigion to the north saw a 8% 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 that young lives can be fragile and what is taught can often be lost quickly.
Ten years ago, the census that told us that 40% of school age children in Wales could speak Welsh. But among that same group of young people – now ten years older – only 24% 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% 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 week. Last Tuesday 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% 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 educationalist 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 the 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 level 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 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.
As part of these efforts to extend the appeal of the station, we will need to think hard about the changing role of culture in the lives of Welsh speakers. And it’s worth saying right at the outset that this is tough stuff.
Let’s take music as just one example. Radio Cymru has, for years, played a key role in supporting and developing new Welsh language composers and artists. It is part of the station’s DNA – and should remain so. The live sessions and music competitions produced by the station have played a big part in launching new talent.
Recently – as some of you will be aware – this strong partnership between the BBC and Welsh musicians was thrown into some turmoil when the station lost access to much of its Welsh language music repertoire in a dispute over commercial broadcast rights.
I’m not going to rehearse the right and wrongs of that case here today – an independent legal process is underway. But suffice to say the boycott was a deeply painful period for the station – caught in the middle of a dispute not of its own making.
The production team worked heroically to protect the quality of output – but unscheduled changes unsettle audience and, to be realistic, we expect the listening figures may be depressed for some time.
But if we step back from some of this recent acrimony, the economic plight of Welsh language musicians – faced as they are with a declining market – points again to the impact of those global influences that increasingly shape what we think of as culture.
One uncomfortable truth is that a younger generation of Welsh speakers – particularly those who were taught the language at school rather than at home – typically have lower awareness of Welsh music. In their own words, they often feel less affinity or liking for it. Their music tastes are eclectic and wide-ranging – and technology gives them instant access to an enormous diversity of repertoire from across the globe.
That poses a particular question for a Welsh language station seeking to attract new audiences.
The weekly music programme Sesiwn Fach already features the best acoustic and folk music from across the world, and Georgia Ruth’s weekly show is a delicious blend of Welsh and world music.
But how far can and should we take this more open and outward-looking approach to music on Radio Cymru? How far can you go before you risk diluting the station’s commitment to support and champion Welsh music?
Striking the right balance isn’t easy and it excites real passion. But we can’t duck this debate if we’re serious about reaching out to new audiences.
So we will be conducting further research over the coming weeks to look at how music tastes vary among those that listen and those who might be tempted to do in future.
The second thing I’d say is this. Just because we have a serious mission doesn’t mean we always have to be a serious station.
Radio is the most personal medium of all – it is a companion, a friend, it should be there by your side. And so pretty unsurprisingly, our audiences want us to cherish a real sense of fun. They want us to surprise them more. They want big personalities with something to say. More than anything, they want good company.
This might sound blindingly obvious – but I think, at times, we may have been a little guilty of taking ourselves too seriously. That’s why it’s been terrific to hear Tudur Owen lighting up the afternoons – and poking fun at many of our national traits, including some of our linguistic obsessions.
The third point I want to make today reaches beyond Radio Cymru, because I think all broadcasters in Wales should think hard about how our own media services bridge and connect the different cultures of this nation.
It is, I think, one of the ironies of broadcasting in Wales that the Welsh language arguably enjoyed a higher profile in our national media in the days before the creation of S4C and Radio Cymru.
In 1976, a monoglot television viewer would regularly stumble across Welsh language television on BBC One and HTV. Similarly, Radio 4 listeners in Wales would receive opt-out programmes in both Welsh and English. A listener would emerge from the Archers and stumble across a Welsh language play or a documentary on Gwyn Thomas.
Back then, there was a lot of stumbling – different cultures and languages crashed into one another. It irritated a great many people, of course – but everything was on show, everything was visible.
I don’t say this as some sort of ‘golden-ager’. The creation of dedicated, standalone Welsh language services was undoubtedly the right path: it broadened provision, and increased investment and quality significantly. And there’s no doubt the creation of both Radio Cymru and S4C have helped bolster the status of the language itself.
All I’m saying is that there was a price to pay. Because these days we don’t stumble about so much. English and Welsh language services are neatly demarcated. A viewer or listener can choose – with very little effort – to avoid any encounter with Welsh language media.
And there’s a paradox here. Just as lives in Wales were becoming steadily messier, more culturally diverse, more fragmented, more porous, more bilingual – so our media services became, arguably, more rigid and uniform.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that some Welsh language speakers tell us that Welsh language media services aren’t necessarily for them. They are rarely introduced to them, they rarely stumble across them. A whole culture can, at times, seem hidden from view – a language out of sight or out of earshot.
For BBC Cymru Wales, this is a challenge to quite ingrained ways of thinking: we have developed a tendency to think rather rigidly about English and Welsh language services. And so I think we have to send more time finding bridges that can connect different audiences to cultures, viewpoints and experiences that they would not normally encounter.
We need to define our services a little less by the language they speak, and a little more by the reality of the messy, bilingual world their audiences inhabit. We need to learn how to stumble about again.
So Radio Wales and Radio Cymru shouldn’t feel like they inhabit seemingly parallel universes – they should occupy the same ground even if they see the world through rather different lenses.
On BBC One I want us to think creatively about how we allow Welsh language voices and experiences to be heard and experienced a little more. It seems a bit unreal to me that the language is barely ever heard on the nation’s favourite TV channel.
It’s why I’m particularly delighted that S4C’s major new drama commission Mathias/Hinterland will air on BBC One Wales – it’s being produced in Welsh and English. And I hope we’ll ensure that Welsh speaking Wales isn’t hidden from view in the BBC One version.
The new interactive digital world at least has the potential to challenge the rather rigid media approach that perhaps the analogue world demanded. Narrow linguistic tramlines don’t get you too far on the internet.
Everything is messy, and mixed up – and what I called stumbling goes by a newer name: ‘browsing.’
In this environment, bridges and connections are far easier – at least technically. For example, we are currently adapting one of the BBC’s most popular children’s services, Cbeebies, so that it offers a rich mix of Welsh language games alongside its English services. It’s not a separate service – it’s just part of the overall brand experience offered by Cbeebies.
Already BBC iPlayer throws together Radio Wales and Radio Cymru programmes – and worries not a jot about where the old lines of demarcation should be. The new BBC Radio app gives a prominence to our two national stations that no amount of FM trickery could ever allow.
In many ways, this mash-up of programming and services in the digital world releases us from some of the constraints of the pre-digital. But there are challenges aplenty here too.
Nowhere is the weight of English language and global media more obvious – and we’ll need to be persistent and dogged to carve out a space for the language. But I’m excited about the possibilities.
In the coming weeks, BBC Cymru Wales will be announcing a significant new investment in our Welsh language digital services. And rather than replicating content available in English, there’ll be a much bigger focus on delivering unique output – distinctive, high quality content unavailable anywhere else in the world.
We’ll also be announcing plans to strengthen our digital news service and harness the power of the BBC brand to users find Welsh language content right across the internet. I want our service to be gateway to everything in Welsh – not just what the BBC produces.
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.
Thank you for listening.