Who doesn’t want Polish Radio for thinking people?

Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Krzysztof Czabanski, Board Chairman of Polish Radio.

Wieslawa Lewandowska: - Polish Radio, the respected media, has the mission and service to the common good in its genes.

Krzysztof Czabanski: - When Polish Radio was founded it fulfilled the state-creative role although it was a commercial company.

- Today this sounds almost like a heresy!

- 80 years ago it was obvious in Poland that work for the good of the state, i.e. the common good, was something very noble. Polish Radio was not founded to bring money but to open souls and minds. However, that tradition of service and mission was disturbed and today one cannot speak about a single tradition of Poland’s public service broadcasting and one cannot compare the pre-war radio with the post-war one. I always stress that the Polish Radio sections abroad in Free Europe Radio, in the service of the Voice of America and in the BBC defended the honour of Polish Radio. And the post-war Polish Radio was first of all a propaganda tube of one party.

- However, this post-war tradition stuck to Polish Radio after 1989. Even now one could hear the accusation that this media has been influenced by the previous epoch...

- Regardless of who formulates such accusations I must admit that they contain much truth. Both today’s Polish Television and Polish Radio were founded directly by the Radiokomitet, i.e. communist party organ, which was a form of political censorship and media control (apart from the state censorship). People who worked there survived safely all political changes, and they left the radio corporation after 1989, being a specific backwater. No wonder that recently Polish Radio has lost a lot in the free media market. In 1997, when the statistical data were collected for the first time, the radio channel Jedynka [One] had a 20-22% market share and within ten years it had a decrease, to a 13-14% share.

- It has not only lost its personnel. Nowadays Poland’s public media themselves are not popular with people!

- Indeed, the mission of public media is not easy today. Mass culture has caused considerable havoc in people’s minds. Listeners are drawn by reference to consumer values and the cult of youth, and that’s why, they prefer commercial radio stations. A radio station, which does not focus on the target groups desired by advertisers, i.e. the age group of 15-49, seems to be archaic and loses listeners. But our task is not to regain the lost positions since they cannot be regained...

- So what is the most important task of Polish Radio?

- To reach people who want to think.

- Do you know how to do it?

- Since the times of Copernicus we know that bad money drives good money out. And this is the ruling principle in media markets. However, I hope that a good product will always be sold. And if someone wants to ‘enjoy himself to death’ we will not hinder him. He will sit, eat chips and listen to completely different stations... We cannot do anything about it if schools, parents and various cultural institutions cannot cope with this problem.

- But the special mission of public media is to help schools, parents and cultural institutions, isn’t it?

- We are trying to do this. Recently we have introduced musical mornings for children, broadcast from the Lutoslawski Studio in Channel One, which means national broadcast. Can it be a better way to promote music among the youngest listeners? And we do not calculate it according to the numbers of listeners, shares in media markets and profit from advertisements.

- Exactly, public radio differs from public television in this respect - paid advertisements placed on radio are less aggressive. How does it happen that public service broadcasting has preserved this ‘purity’?

- The reasons are very idealistic. The radio evokes fewer feelings in business and politics, and thanks to that the professional criteria, product quality criteria are violated less than on television. The radio has always been aside and always without big money.

- But logically speaking it should be the other way round. When there is big money it is easier to have high quality...

- But the TV Theatre contradicts this. When big money appeared on Polish TV and there were chances for even more money (from paid advertisements) the theatre had to give way to poor quality programmes... Fortunately, the TV theatre is coming back. The Polish Radio Theatre has always existed because, luckily, it did not disturb anyone. One cannot eliminate what is good, by no means!

- But you got hard blows for having reformed Polish Radio!

- I was accused of suppressing ‘the throat of free radio song’ although I did not choke anyone. On the contrary, I tried to add new voices, especially those who had had no chances to present their opinions on any radio stations before. It was not easy to do that! It had been half a year before I succeeded, overcoming the attitudes of radio reporters, placing ‘Nasz Dziennik’ in radio press reviews. A journalist working in public media should not follow his or her private preferences and political convictions. But some people do not understand it.

- And they accuse you of political partiality.

- I hope that reasonable and intellectually sincere people can pass fair judgement on the matter. The fact is that for the first time since 1989, for the last year and a half, public media have not been controlled by any party that controlled them earlier. During those days all opponents had no access to the public radio and television broadcasters. Therefore, there is much criticism that Stanislaw Michalkiewicz has its own programme, that some Tomasz Sakiewicz comes to the studio and dares to interview people. Since earlier you could only meet journalists of ‘Dziennik’ and ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ but not from ‘Nasz Dziennik’ or ‘Gazeta Polska’. Now you can meet all kinds of people. This is my response to the accusations concerning partiality.

- Why did your decision to move LW Channel One to FM broadcast meet such severe criticism?

- Hard to say since I did not hear any substantive justifications. People raised the alarm that I limited culture on Polish Radio (the small percentage taken from Channel Two dedicated to culture). We could not succeed doing that a few years ago although it was a technologically simple and justifiable operation. If we had not done it Channel One would have lost raison d’etre because modern radios have no LW.

- It was an attempt to limit Polish culture. The commercial media thundered against you...

- If it had been an attempt to limit Polish culture how would we define the proposal to abolish licence fee? Now we are dealing with an attempt and desire to cancel Channel Two. When we moved Channel One to FM we strengthened Polish Radio. Those who want to deprive us of licence fee want to destroy Polish Radio.

- Polish Radio, financed from licence fee to a great extent, proves that a good valuable programme can be made without big money but certainly there are some limits to these possibilities. What will happen when licence fee is abolished, which is the plan of Donald Tusk’s government?

- Polish Radio will not survive. Only 30% of our funds come from paid advertisements and commercial activities (e.g. selling discs), the remaining means come from licence fee. We consciously keep this proportion since we think that its disturbance will be evident in the quality of our broadcast. Of course, if we are made to change our attitude we will change it and begin fighting in the market of commercials... We lost 14 million zlotys in the first three months in 2008 (considering the prognosis counted on the basis of the licence fee revenue in 2007). We lost this money only because the government announced that they were going to abolish licence fee. Fortunately, we have some surplus from the last two years, including some funds saved by the previous board, over 50 million zlotys. Therefore, we can somehow patch the budget reduced by smaller revenue. We will survive this year whereas next year can be very difficult if nothing changes. However, I hope that the concepts of ‘Citizens Platform (PO) will not be accepted.

- But if they are accepted?

- Public service broadcasting will be seriously lessened or completed destroyed. But at least for now nobody speaks about liquidation although such ideas were tested several years ago when the representatives of Citizens’ Platform, Democratic Left Alliance and Polish Peasants’ Party managed Polish Radio and it was obvious that they made plans to privatise Channel Three.

- But they did not succeed then!

- No, they did not although they were very close. The unique Channel Three began resembling the commercial Radio ZET and it was losing its specific character. However, it earned money through advertisements. The aim was obvious: Channel Three was to be financially independent so that it could be separated from Polish Radio and privatised. I stopped that process. I employed Krzysztof Skowronski, having only one purpose: Channel Three was to be made by intelligentsia for intelligentsia. I succeeded partly but there is still too much ‘herd instinct’ and seeing the world through the prism of the news headlines of TVN 24. This is a big fault since an intelligent person is someone who can think independently.

- The same - liquidation or privatisation - could threat all programmes of Polish Radio today?

- I hope that realising such concepts: the privatisation of Channel Three, changing Channel One and Two into a cultural-documentary programme, will not be possible now. They have plans to broadcast the new programme on LW but nobody will listen to it... The government would graciously give some 10 million zlotys to create a poor quality programme for 1% of people... And according to the dreams of Citizens’ Platform this would be the public service broadcasting in Poland.

- Who will gain if there is no radio broadcasting for thinking people?

- Those who will replace Polish Radio and enlarge its access to the market of paid advertisements, I mean, big business but also influence on public opinion since even if the influence does not bring profit now it will be important to build consumption attitudes. This is an obvious reason for collaboration between the commercial media and Citizens’ Platform in their unique attack on public service broadcasting.

- The aim is: even if public service broadcasting survives in some form it will not differ much from the commercial one?

- Exactly, since the space of public debate will be limited to such programmes as ‘Szymon Majewski show’ or ‘Kuba Wojewodzki’. This will be the level of public debate and no other discussions will be possible. This will also be a big attack against the Church since public media are open to the issues of believers.

- So what remains is to fight for keeping licence fee...

- On the first day after Donald Tusk took office I published an open letter to the Prime Minister, defending public service broadcasting because marginalizing it seemed to be one of the worst plans of the government. Recently artists have repeated my arguments but the government does not want to give up their plans and they even announce the abolishment of the licence fee.

- And they are arguing that the reason is that people are not willing to pay it. Perhaps the best solution would be to finance Polish Radio from the state budget.

- I would fear financing radio from the budget. One of the first victims of budget cuts would be naturally public service broadcasting. And we would hardly imagine bigger dependence on politicians! There may be other forms of financing, directly from citizens and independently from the government, for example through deduction from income tax or fee paid together with electricity bills. But I think that the best way is the traditional licence fee. You must only improve collecting licence fee from people.

- But this is almost an unfeasible task!

- Only if you do not want to do it. When the previous government announced last year that they would tighten the system of licence fee people began paying immediately. In England there is no problem of collecting licence fee, not because people are so righteous but because the fines are so draconian. It does not pay to avoid paying licence fee.

- What miracle should happen today to make Polish Radio good, as it is now, or make it even better?

- It is enough to keep licence fee and improve its collection. In spite of the present troubles I think that public service broadcasting should and can be decisively better. We are trying to add products that fulfil the mission and add prestige to the very institution, for example ‘Lato z Radiem’ [Summer with Radio] or broadcasts from Lviv and Vilnius. There are Music Mornings for children broadcast every Sunday in Channel One and in the Lutoslawski Studio. We have radio theatre, documentaries, reports from abroad, sports broadcasts and concerts from the best concert halls in the world. And we can make many changes in Polish Radio. I have the impression that we are half way through. Beginning in the middle of May Channel Four will become Polish Radio Euro. It will be a multi-media radio in cellular phones and the Internet. Although Polish Radio has its portal we do not move some parts of the programmes to the Internet but we make special programme for the Internet and cellular phones. This is an experimental laboratory for the entire Polish Radio and for its future.

"Niedziela" 17/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl