Tune in to connect

Sally-Ann Wilson

Radio and television have allowed people around the world to share momentous global events from the moon landings to the Arab Spring. Public service broadcasters have a particular responsibility in this area and a unique ability to bridge divides within – and across – national boundaries, writes Sally-Ann Wilson 

Since the Dutch radio station PCJJ began transmitting programmes to the then East and West Indies in March 1927, broadcasters have been connecting cultures. By the 1930s, radio was used worldwide for the airing of news, sport, arts and entertainment programmes, both within and beyond national borders.

Television followed fast on its heels but, with the invention of wind-up receivers, it is still radio that has the reach, even in the digital era. And as the global giant of international broadcasting, the BBC World Service, celebrates its 80th anniversary, we are reminded that it is often public service broadcasting that has led the way in broadcasting across borders. 

The original principles of broadcasting as set out by the BBC’s founder Lord Reith – to educate, inform and entertain – are still upheld by many media organisations globally. But what is public service broadcasting in the 21st century? Media academics and industry experts regularly debate the definition – a national service, independent, free to all citizens, serving all tastes, impartial and publicly funded. However you want to define it, never has the debate about the evolution of public service broadcasting been more urgent. 

For decades, public service broadcasters have provided the media equivalent of the community hall or recreation ground, a place where citizens come together. Broadcast media is an arena for people to share in celebrations, worship or grief. TV and radio are platforms for the communal enjoyment of sporting triumphs or public anguish. Not restricted to national events, broadcasting provides a forum for sharing global moments. Consider how often people ask, “Where were you when man took his first step on the moon?” “Or when Nelson Mandela was set free?” The chances are that wherever you live in the world, you have ‘witnessed’ and shared era-defining moments of global history via radio or television. 

Public broadcasters are financed in myriad ways; by direct licence fee as in the BBC or by federal government grant like ABC Australia. Some are not only state funded but, while claiming the mantle of ‘public service’, sadly remain more state than publicly controlled. Others are commercially funded but maintain a remit to provide content that genuinely serves the public. Perhaps the new Thai PBS, launched in 2008, has the most innovative funding model – a ‘sin’ tax, where the broadcaster receives funds from taxation on alcohol and tobacco. Whatever the financing mechanism, all provide a focused public media space where people can share ideas and explore common identities and emotions. 

The Internet may claim the title of ‘world wide web’ but in many regions, lack of a reliable and steady supply of electricity is still an issue, let alone having access to a dependable and affordable Internet service. For many, radio is still the easiest and most reliable way of sharing news, views, comment and information. And for those who claim that broadcast is old-fashioned and not interactive, take a listen to NBC radio in Namibia or local radio stations in Kenya… how much audience interaction do you want?! In a world that appears to be dominated by digital media, the reality is that both radio and TV are still thriving. 

The Internet may well replace traditional broadcast infrastructures in the future but full global convergence of broadcast and Internet is still many years away. For now, the most successful in delivering public service media are those broadcasters that realise that the Internet is not a threat but a useful addition to broadcast interactivity. TV on demand has its attractions but sharing media moments would appear to be part of the human condition – indeed, live shows have never been so popular, boosted by new media technology. There is no point tweeting from your bedroom about the dance show that was broadcast last week or Facebooking fellow supporters about your team’s match when it took place last month! The thrill of personal comment comes from reacting to the moment and sharing. 

In the next ten years, broadcasting systems globally will switch from analogue to digital. The ‘digital switchover’, as the process is called, will raise many challenges for public service broadcasters but it will also offer new opportunities for innovative ways of engaging audiences in shared content and programming. 

The digital era has heralded more channels and more choice. The advent of new media technologies, broadcast catch-up and storage services, audio and TV via mobile platforms all mean that it is now possible to live in a personalised media ‘bubble’, an echo chamber that reflects rather than challenges an individual’s views and opinions. With so much niche media available, everyone can have their choice, so who will choose to continue to support public broadcasting? 

Many broadcasters erroneously take refuge in believing that large audiences are only drawn by the familiar. Certainly, people require relevance, but in today’s world relevance goes beyond national borders.

Television and radio have generally become rather risk averse, but national audiences are no longer single cultural entities encompassed by defined borders. Publicly managed and funded public service broadcasting has the ability to provide a rich and diverse diet of programming; it still has the capacity to tempt and surprise. 

Where national public service broadcasters properly serve their diaspora communities, they often discover that programmes reach new and surprising audiences. So it was with CBC in Canada. In 2007, they took a closer look at their audience profile and then launched the sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie. It was a hit and led to the headline “Muslims save CBC”. This comedy about Muslims and Christians attempting to live in harmony with each other in the small town of Mercy is now internationally acclaimed. The show reveals that, although different, we are all surprisingly similar when it comes to family, love, the generation gap and our attempts to balance our secular and religious lives. With increased global mobility and migration, the boundaries between domestic and international are becoming increasingly blurred. In broadcasting terms, connecting cultures can be a winner. 

Indeed, the ability of public service broadcasting to connect cultures could be its greatest unrecognised strength. Historically, international coverage has been driven by news and sport. By definition much news is ‘bad’, whether domestic or international, providing depressing snapshots of other people’s lives. News provides valuable information but it frequently leaves us feeling distanced and powerless to act. But global understanding comes from more than news; it is the sharing of stories, theatre, music, dance and art that are central to identifying with common themes of humanity. 

Frequently the world is brought together by sport. You can walk through a market in Accra, Ghana, and exchange views on the stars of England’s Premier League football clubs. The Eurovision Song Contest is shared and enjoyed by millions in and beyond Europe. The consistently high standard of radio documentaries produced by RTE in Ireland delights audiences across the world. And the most internationally exchanged programme, via the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, is the New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Quality of production, it seems, is the ‘wow’ factor for successful international programming. 

So, in a globalised world, perhaps international coverage should be central to any new definition of public service broadcasting. Digital media, with its ability to provide information from anywhere at any time, means there is a real opportunity to broaden rather than narrow the focus of coverage. Who knows, with more focus on connecting cultures, there may be better community cohesion and improved global understanding. 

About the author:

Sally-Ann Wilson is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association


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