Rhodri Talfan Davies’ Eisteddfod lecture from Monday 3rd August.
A few months ago, I had my speech for today just about ready to go.
It sort of worked. It certainly had a beginning, a middle and an end. Not necessarily in that order. But it was getting there.
I wanted to explore the new world where interactive media and mobile devices offer almost limitless new ways to connect with users. And I wanted to explore what that might mean for Welsh language broadcasting. But then events got in the way. The election happened. And then the licence fee happened at a rate of knots. And then the new UK Government produced a Green Paper on the future of broadcasting and the BBC.
And, so, I have a different speech now. And it is a speech with a simple message.
If you share my passion for public service broadcasting, for the BBC and for S4C, it is time to raise your voice.
Don’t think everything will be ok if you look the other way. Don’t assume we’ll just muddle through. If you believe that public service broadcasting matters…If you believe that it underpins and supports the Welsh language… If you believe that it enriches and nurtures our nation and our communities… If you believe all those things, it is time to speak up.
WHY THIS DEBATE MATTERS
All this ominous talk about public broadcasting in the press over recent weeks baffles outsiders.
Why is it when you leave this country, everyone says to you, “you have got something really precious, don’t wreck it”? “Can’t you see”, they say, “the value of what you’ve created? Don’t you understand that every other country in the world envies the ambition and quality and distinctiveness of the BBC or, for that matter, S4C?”
Of course, it is not really the public that questions the value of public broadcasting. In fact, we know that pride and trust in the BBC has grown, not diminished, over the past five years.
We also know that the BBC is more trusted in Sky homes than Sky is. It is more trusted in Daily Mail homes than the Daily Mail is. Far too much of the newspaper coverage I read is based on the assumption that support for the BBC, the licence fee and for other forms of public service broadcasting is in decline. It isn’t.
Public support is strong and getting stronger. The public don’t think we’re perfect – and they’re right – but they know we’re on their side.
More than that. The assumption that, as choice expanded, the argument for public broadcasting in Wales and Britain would progressively diminish has turned out to be false.
The idea and reality of public service broadcasting still works. So if the public isn’t out to diminish the BBC, well who might be?
What we’re really seeing are powerful commercial interests that want to chip away at the notion of a publicly-owned broadcaster. A publicly-owned broadcaster committed to serving everybody irrespective of background. Why?
Well, because it doesn’t fit with an ideological view of the world where consumerism must trump citizenship every time. For them, public service broadcasting is a rather unpleasant system that doesn’t trust the public to make free choices as consumers. But just because the terms of the current debate can feel deeply frustrating doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore it.
There is simply too much at stake in this Charter Review. Get it wrong, and we could see public funding being reserved for a narrower range of rather niche programmes that commercial companies wouldn’t be interested in making. The BBC would become a sort of creative ‘polyfilla’ – there to fill the gaps left by the market. And the licence fee could be wound down over time. The transition might not be immediate, and it might not be possible in radio at all. But it could begin.
The result, in time, would be to dismantle the BBC and with it the broadcasting system not just in the UK, but here in Wales too. We would begin to dismantle a unique system of mixed public and private broadcasting that has been constructed over the past century on solid economic and cultural principles.
A system that reflects the lives and culture of the Welsh people. That brings us together as a people.
A system that provides one of the most independent and trusted news services in the world.
A system that has always adapted to changing times – developing radio, television, online, on-demand and mobile services.
A system that underpins Welsh language broadcasting across both the BBC and S4C.
And we should be clear with each other. Once dismantled, it would be fiendishly difficult to rebuild.
THE VALUE AND IMPACT OF WELSH LANGUAGE BROADCASTING
Of course, the Green Paper didn’t just raise questions about the big network shows. It also, to some surprise, raised questions about Welsh and Gaelic language broadcasting too.
The gist seems to be that it costs rather more ‘per head’ to provide indigenous language radio services than English language ones, and the paper wonders aloud whether this higher cost is defensible. Apart from this being a rather obvious point – a good programme costs broadly the same to make whether it serves half a million people or 60 million so of course the ‘cost per head’ is higher – this also appears to be a case of wanting to have it both ways.
On the one hand, the UK Government seems to be suggesting that some programmes and services are just too popular and not sufficiently distinctive. But on the other hand, it seems that other services just aren’t popular enough or perhaps even too distinctive. And it’s that duality in the Green Paper that fosters genuine concern that the true agenda is a diminished BBC with its wings clipped. So let’s be clear about two things. First, Welsh language broadcasting across radio, television and the internet has never mattered more. And the case for the public investment that supports it has never been clearer.
Of course costs should be scrutinised sensibly – that’s just good practice – but let’s not slip into an arid economic determinism that ignores the profundity if what is at stake.
For me, the provision of public services in Welsh is about something even more than that wonderful Reithian commitment to inform, to educate and to entertain. There is an added objective isn’t there? To sustain. To help sustain a culture, a community and a language.
And alongside our schools, the role of public broadcasting becomes ever more critical in that social and cultural endeavour. In fact, as so many of the public spaces and gathering points that traditionally supported the Welsh language fade from view – whether it’s the chapel, the community hall or the village pub – the public space created by broadcasting takes on ever greater importance.
Which leads me to my second point. Be wary, be very wary, of the doom-mongers ruminating on the inevitable decline of Welsh language broadcasting. You know, sometimes I wonder if we really understand what we have – and how special it is.
Just consider BBC Radio Cymru for a moment. A station that has been holding a national eisteddfod of its own on the airwaves every day, every week for almost 40 years. It is our debating chamber, our theatre and our concert hall, our sports stadium, our talwrn, our chapel, our town square, our library, our comedy club, our local pub all rolled into one. It is not perfect. In fact, it is better than that. It is noisy, messy, passionate, argumentative, scurrilous, satirical, entertaining and inspiring. Sometimes all at the same time.
It is a station alive with the cacophony of life and culture.
BUT IT DOESN’T WORK ANYMORE, DOES IT?
Of course, not everyone buys that. The sceptics will tell you that Welsh broadcasting can’t cut through anymore. They’ll gently bore you to death about a golden age of broadcasting that never was. They’ll tell you that we only talk up the cultural and social benefits of Welsh broadcasting these days because the listening and viewing figures aren’t very good.
Well, hang on a second. Yes, there’s growing competition. Yes, the growth of online and mobile services has meant radio listening among younger audiences has fallen. Yes, the challenge of reaching less fluent speakers only gets harder. But faced with all these headaches, Welsh language broadcasting still delivers a pretty powerful punch.
In fact, despite all the challenges, Radio Cymru to this day still attracts a third of fluent Welsh speakers every week.
Think about that. One in three of us coming to a single radio station every week. If an English language station were to pull this off at a UK level, it would need to attract 18 million listeners. No station comes close of course. Not Radio One, Radio 2 or Radio 4. In fact, Radio Cymru is the most popular radio station of all among fluent Welsh speakers. And it leads by a country mile – attracting 30% more listening than the second-placed station, Radio 2.
Ah yes, ok, but those listeners you get aren’t loyal any more, are they? They might tune in for a bit of Beti or Dylan or Dewi, but their real radio passions lie elsewhere, don’t they? Wrong again. Radio Cymru’s listeners tune in for more than one million hours each and every week – that’s comfortably more than ten hours each. That’s a level of loyalty that most stations would kill for.
Almost forty years on, Radio Cymru remains indisputably the backbone and cornerstone of Welsh language broadcasting. I’m proud of that fact – and the team should be too. So, please, spare me the doom-laden predictions. Of course there are challenges but Radio Cymru remains at the very heart of Welsh language life. A vibrant and lucid champion of culture and community. The heartbeat of our language. Our daily eisteddfod.
WHY A BBC FOR US ALL MATTERS
But let’s just pause here for a moment. Many you will have read in recent week that the UK Government’s main concern appears to be that the BBC is too big and makes too many popular programmes that the commercial sector could deliver instead. And if you’re passionate about Welsh language broadcasting, you might just find yourself rather attracted to that argument. Because, surely, if the Government demands that the BBC withdraws from more popular forms of programmes and focuses instead on more targeted output – in areas where the market is clearly not going 7 to deliver – well, that could be rather a good thing for the Welsh language, couldn’t it?
Let’s be really clear. This is fool’s gold. Because if we begin to unpick the BBC’s universal ethos and appeal, there’s a real danger that the public’s willingness to support investment in more targeted services like the Welsh language will fall away. Why? Because public service broadcasting is built on a remarkably simple compact between the BBC and the licence fee payer.
The reason that the licence fee commands such public support right across the UK is because we all contribute in the knowledge that everyone benefits from the shared investment. It’s a win-win. Society benefits, I benefit. Of course, it doesn’t mean we all watch and listen the same programmes. I might prefer Radio Three to Radio 1. I might never use the News Channel but love the Today programme.
But we really are fine with the idea that our licence fee might be used for services and programmes we might choose not to watch or hear so long as we can trust the BBC to deliver something we will want to enjoy.
And there’s the danger. If you chip away at those programmes that reach the highest number of people – the major entertainment and comedy and drama shows that ensure the BBC is a truly universal service for everybody – you will slowly and surely chip away at society’s collective willingness to contribute to the more targeted services that most audiences do not use.
And the implications for Wales and the Welsh language would be profound. The Welsh language benefits enormously from the UK’s shared investment in the licence fee. It sustains S4C, BBC Radio Cymru and all the digital and interactive services delivered by both broadcasters. And all that would be in jeopardy if the BBC was forced to adopt the ‘polyfilla’ route: a market failure model similar to PBS in America.
The future of Welsh language broadcasting – whether we like it or not – is now umbilically tied to the health of UK public service broadcasting. In fact, it always was. And we have a vested interest in the health of both. So if we want to fight for Welsh language broadcasting, we need to raise our voice for a strong and ambitious UK public broadcasting ecology too.
THE REVOLUTION TO COME
I want to turn now to the future.
And let me start by saying how important it is, in these difficult and uncertain times, that we secure sufficient funding for Welsh language services. Others have said it, but let me just underline that message. But in doing so, I believe we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of defending the past rather than building our future.
That’s the trouble at times like this – with everything up in the air. We can tend to circle the wagons, dig in, and before too long the status quo becomes our default view of the future. We cannot allow that. Because change like we’ve never seen before is coming – and it is exciting. It needs to be grabbed.
It will be nothing short of a revolution that places the user at the heart of our thinking and reshapes the media landscape for a new generation. It’s also a future we’ve been busy preparing for.
Three years ago, I had real fears that the Welsh language was at risk of being marginalised in the sea of choice and technology that was transforming the media landscape. Since then, we’ve made real progress. Now, every television and radio programme made in Welsh is available on practically every tablet, computer, TV and gaming console in the UK thanks to the reach and profile of BBC iplayer.
It’s showing us that there is real appetite for Welsh programming – not just here in Wales but right across the UK. Since the launch of S4C on iplayer last year, the number of requests to watch Welsh language television programmes online has more than doubled – with more than 100,000 requests for programmes each and every week. We’ve also been building out the digital transmitter network for Radio Cymru – doubling DAB coverage for the station to almost 90% in little more than two years.
The new BBC iplayer radio app provides an exciting new home for Radio Cymru – enabling listeners to access a full range of podcasts and, since last month, to download programmes to listen to later. Last month alone, more than 60,000 Radio Cymru podcasts were accessed by listeners – up 20% year-on-year. The number one programme? Yup, Beti.
Three years ago, I set a target that the totality of BBC Wales’s Welsh language online services should be accessed by at least 50,000 unique browsers each week by the end of this year. It was hovering around 20,000 at the time – and seemed to have plateaued. Well, the brilliant team that runs our online services has already surpassed the target we set.
They’ve been entrepreneurial, focused and their own biggest critics. And they’ve grown the user base from 20,000 to 55,000 browsers every week (and that excludes the impact of S4C launching on iplayer). The biggest contribution to that success has been the launch of our new online service, BBC Cymru Fyw. In just 18 months ago, it has transformed the performance of our online news service, trebling the weekly user base. From 10,000 browsers to 30,000.
This wave of innovation should be celebrated. But let’s not kid ourselves it is enough. Our audiences are changing faster than us, and we need to push on and accelerate the speed of change.
YR IAITH AR DAITH
You know, for forty years, Welsh language broadcasting was built on the premise of ‘build it and they will come’.
We’d build our broadcasting citadels and we could pretty much count on the audience dropping by. The new world is radically different. It is us that must weave ourselves into our audience’s lives. Not vice versa. We have to be where they are – and not expect them to search us out. We have to inspire them to turn to the Welsh language – and never assume that they’ll turn to us by default.
In short, we have to take the language on a journey to our audience. ‘Yr iaith ar daith’. That’s why we’ve transformed the prominence of Welsh language services on BBC News’ mobile and online services. No longer buried away and separate – but front and centre, loud and proud.
That’s why the new BBC News app allows the user to create a bilingual feed of news stories if they choose – blending the best of our English and Welsh language stories, rather than forcing the user to make what some might consider a false choice between languages. That’s why on iplayer we resisted the old default of silo-ing Welsh and English language programmes in separate guides – instead, they are brought together.
It’s why, over the last few years, we’ve taken determined steps to give the Welsh language a real prominence on the BBC’s own television services like BBC One and BBC Two – in programmes like Hinterland, Country Midwives, Make me Welsh, Patagonia, Welsh Heartland and Hill Farm.
And it’s why it is just brilliant that S4C’s Y Gwyll now has pride of place on the world’s biggest on demand service, Netflix.
This journey to our audience – to where they are – is our very best chance of maintaining a vibrant public space for a new generation of Welsh speakers.
To go where they go, to play by their rules, not ours. To thread ourselves into their lives, not assume they’ll thread themselves into ours. And to succeed in this new environment we need to be crystal clear that our only objective, together, is to deliver content and services that are relevant, that are valued and, crucially, that are used. This new world is chaotic. It requires us to be fleet of foot. To experiment. To learn fast – and to fail fast sometimes.
To succeed, we are going to have to loosen up and find a new rulebook. Let me give you an example of this. Many of you will be aware that there have been calls for a second national radio station to serve younger listeners. It goes by the shorthand – Radio Cymru 2. The argument is very simple: you cannot ask one station to be all things to all people if you want to succeed.
So, surely, you need two Radio Cymru services. There is an inherent logic here – but, still, there’s something that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Aren’t we in danger of answering a very modern challenge with a rather old-fashioned solution?
These days there is a whole spectrum of options for serving different audience groups. Traditional transmitter frequencies can be split in two in different part of Wales or in different parts of the day. Online services can enable us to reach different audience groups without any of the traditional costs of broadcasting. And using the two-way connection provided by the internet, we can begin to deliver highly tailored services. Perhaps there are more radical ideas worth exploring too.
Let’s take Radio 1 just as an example. It’s already a youth brand known and loved by well over half a million people in Wales – including more than 100,000 Welsh speakers aged under 30. It understands young audiences perhaps better than any media brand in Europe. In short, it’s loved, it’s credible and it’s working.
But, Rhod, you’ve missed the obvious. It’s in English, isn’t it? Well, it is now.
But, again, in a world of personalisation – where the internet enables us to tailor every brand precisely to the needs of every user – there’d be nothing to stop it being delivered in both languages. Audio, video and news services tailored to a young Welshspeaking generation. All these sort of ideas need proper thinking through as part of our Charter work.
But these are the opportunities of the new world. We need to make sure we’re open to them. They are the chance to reinvent what we do. To take ourselves on a journey to the audience. Yr iaith ar daith.
It will require a change in mindset. In this new world, it is the user who leads the way, not the broadcaster. And this will blur the boundaries between brands and languages and services. That can feel pretty uncomfortable and unsettling. But I think we can be very proud of the broadcasting ecology we have created without being captive to it.
This new world will also ask us to confront some of the rigidities that have been built into Welsh broadcasting. It’s amazing if you actually step back how much paperwork underpins Welsh language broadcasting. There’s a Broadcasting act, a Public Bodies act, a service licence, a strategic partnership, an operating agreement and – who could forget – a Royal Charter too.
Now, these agreement have been hard won – they are the fruits of years of struggle and campaigning. They should not be lightly thrown aside. I simply ask the question: at what point do they actually risk holding us back?
Shouldn’t we, for example, modernise Radio Cymru’s service licence – the agreement with the BBC Trust about what it must and mustn’t do – to enable it be bolder and braver in the on-demand world? Should we go a step further perhaps and bring all BBC Wales’ Welsh language services under one licence – in a world without boundaries?
And should BBC Wales’ own statutory contribution to S4C continue to be measured solely by the number of programmes hours we produce?
That’s 520 hours a year to be precise under the terms of Broadcasting Act. If, in future, S4C decided it wanted digital or interactive content from the BBC – free of charge as part of our strategic partnership – a law written some 35 years ago, in an analogue age, would stand in the way.
My point is that – right across the media landscape in Wales – we need to challenge ourselves to simplify things so that we can move faster, more freely, and try more things. We should be able to adapt and change and reprioritise and succeed and fail without having one hand tied behind our backs.
As I said earlier, our only objective, together, should be to deliver content and services that are relevant, that are valued and that are used. Everything else is secondary. This is our opportunity to take our language and the creativity of those working in Welsh and to inspire a new generation. It is a choice we have to make.
Because I’m an optimist, perhaps my biggest hope is that the Charter Review period provokes that real and far-reaching debate about the future of broadcasting in Wales. It is an opportunity not just to ask what sort of broadcasting we want, but also what sort of Wales we want.
We should be prepared for a passionate and often heated debate. In fact, we should demand one.
Welsh language broadcasting in Wales does not belong to the broadcasters. It does not belong to the campaigners or the politicians. It belongs to you.
You are the shareholders. You pay for us, so it is your voice that will matter most in this debate. Just make it count.