Radio24syv

Denmark Launches New Public Radio Network

Radio24syv hopes to challenge old stalwart DR

(I wrote this for the Columbia Journalism Review, published yesterday here.)

*

On a Friday afternoon in November, Denmark’s latest experiment in public broadcasting had only been up and running for two and a half weeks. Radio24syv’s Copenhagen headquarters were busy, but still under-furnished; young-looking radio producers dodged stacks of new chairs, and their voices bounced off of wooden floors and bare walls as they prepared for the next live talk show to go on air.

Perhaps because of the sparse décor, one blown-up photograph on the newsroom wall stood out: a candid picture of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s first female prime minister, who was just elected in October. Reporters’ microphones surrounded Thorning-Schmidt—one from public radio behemoth DR, one from commercial network TV2, and, closest to the then-candidate’s face, one from Radio24syv.

Jørgen Ramskov, Radio24syv’s CEO and editor in chief—who, with his stud earrings, long hair, and deep radio voice, resembled a less excitable Richard Branson—explained that the photo was a bit of a marketing stunt. The Thorning-Schmidt press event occurred over a month before the network went on the air. Every television channel and newspaper that covered Thorning-Schmidt’s remarks also transmitted the image of the microphone with the new logo. And, in a country with only a handful of broadcast media networks, people wanted to know: What was Radio24syv? And was it any good?

They would have to wait until midnight on October 31 to find out. That’s when one of the four national FM channels owned and operated by Denmark’s 86-year-old public service broadcaster, DR (previously Danmarks Radio), officially transferred over to Radio24syv (“Radio 24/seven”).

When Radio24syv was born, so was an entirely new model for public radio: a privately-owned, publicly-funded network, which had all of the public service obligations of DR but none of its traditions, and which would be generously funded for eight years, whether or not it made a dime. As the debate over the approproate funding structures for public broadcasting in the U.S. continues, policymakers and media entrepreneurs here would do well to look across the ocean to bold experiments like this one.

***

In May 2010, the Danish government announced it would put P2, one of DR’s radio stations, on the market. Media companies were invited to apply for the rights to produce a new station focused on news, current affairs, culture, and political debate.Berlingske Media, a large Danish conglomerate that owns one of the oldest dailies in the world, Berlingske, joined with the advertising company People Group to bid for it, and they won it, uncontested.

Under the new agreement, the combined company, Berlingske People, would invest its own money to building the studios and buy the equipment needed to get up and running. The station would receive 100 million Danish kroner per year—about $17.7 million—guaranteed for eight years. Additional investments will come from Berlingske People, who in exchange can receive a maximum of 5 percent return on their investment each year.

In Radio24syv’s charter, the Danish Radio and Television board spells out the new network’s programming guidelines in painstaking detail. The charter specifies quotas for the types of programming Radio24syv must have, down to the minute. For instance, it requires at least two hours a day of straight news, at least five minutes of news per hour, 20 hours of cultural programming per week, 70 minutes of sports per week, and even 25 minutes of satire daily. The quotas are much stricter than DR’s, but this, says Ramskov, is to ensure that public funds are going to make quality programming, rather than into Radio24syv’s owners’ pockets.

The charter is also very specific about the staff that Radio 24/syv is expected to maintain: 35 staff members total, 30 of whom should be journalists. (DR, by comparison, has about 3,000 employees.) It mandates the use of outside, independent radio production companies in order to stimulate the freelance economy—at least 20 percent of the network’s production budget—as well as the development of a “Radio Camp” training and recruitment program for student journalists. Finally, the charter states that the network should involve its listeners in its programming in every manner possible: phone, text messages, Facebook and other social networks, and “listeners’ meetings, both physical and virtual.”

***

It is clear that the ultimate goal for the arrangement is to inject competition into the national radio news media. In the 2010 media agreement announcing the change, the ministry of cultural affairs cited the example of Denmark’s big commercial television network, TV2, as proof that it could do just that.

DR had a monopoly on television in Denmark from the time it started transmitting in 1951, until the government opened up the market to commercial competitors in 1988. Sabine Matz, a television news reporter at DR who also previously worked at TV2, remembers the impact the new competition had. “DR was like this tired old elephant, just dragging its feet along,” says Matz. When TV2 launched, DR staff didn’t take it very seriously, but they should have, she says. “Very, very fast, TV2 had completely smashed DR. Because they did things faster, quicker, younger.”

In response to the new competition, DR had to reexamine and refresh its television programming; everyone’s standards were raised. What TV2 did for Danish television news, the ministry of culture is hoping Radio24syv will do for Danish radio news, too.

Ramskov, who was also head of DR’s television news department for several years, is diplomatic when he compares the offerings of his new network to DR. “We decided from the beginning that there was no need for doing another P1,” he says, referring to DR’s in-depth news and talk station, which consists mainly of one-hour-long, pre-recorded programs. “It is a rather traditional way of communicating with the audience…sort of a didactic way of educating people. Talk radio around the world is for grown-ups. But our aim was to make a younger sound.”

In order to make that younger sound, as well as to stretch a much smaller staff, Ramskov says Radio24syv actually takes its cue from American talk radio, with its longer blocks of live shows. Instead of having a different finely-edited program on every day and every hour, Radio24syv hosts come on every weekday at the same time, for one or two or three hours at a stretch. Some pre-produced shows will play at night and on the weekends, but the network features more panel discussions and call-in (and text-in, and comment-in) segments, which tend to make for more spontaneous, listener-involved conversations. Public radio listeners in the U.S. may think of the tone as more like The Brian Lehrer Showthan the BBC Newshour.

Like any startup competing with an established and well-staffed news institution, Radio24syv’s relative size and newness can be an advantage. DR has hundreds of employees at the executive level; Radio24syv has five. “It’s a very small, lean organization—it’s very easy to make a decision here,” says Ramskov. “We don’t have a lot of meetings, we don’t have a lot of people to tell, we just do it.”

As a result, Radio24syv feels very fluid. It can switch to breaking-news coverage almost immediately, as it did when Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned during the new network’s second Saturday on air. Many of the programs are hosted by freelance production companies, so that a small staff will come in and take over the studio for an hour or two at a time, and then clear out. Some programs are also broadcast remotely:Globus USA, for instance, is a weekly show about U.S. current affairs, hosted by a Berlingske foreign correspondent stationed in D.C. and run out of a studio at American University.

Ramskov says he knows Radio24syv will have to work hard to prove itself; the unique challenge of a brand-new public service network is inherent in the unique opportunity. “This radio is a political construction,” he says. “This is not a public demand. If you did a survey, there would be no people asking for more radio.”

***

Public response to the network’s initial launch was mixed. For instance, in November, the Danish daily Politiken had four people of different ages listen to Radio24syv’s first week on air and react to what they heard. Most of them thought Radio24syv sounded fresher and younger than DR, but with less substance. They tended to think that the discussion programs seemed totally unplanned—programs which at their best could be surprising and engaging, and at their worst could be disorganized and boring. In February, three months after the launch, one Politiken columnist criticized the network for its poor sound quality and repeated on-air flubs by inexperienced hosts, while another praised it for its sense of humor.

Now, almost seven months after its launch, Radio24syv is still working to challenge the status quo. According to a media usage report published by DR’s audience research department at the end of 2011, Radio24syv’s weekly listenership in its first two months on air was higher than experts had expected—almost half a million listeners, in a country of only 5.5 million people—but still much lower than the audience for DR’s competing station, P1, and that figure has since declined to about 300,000.

However, the report also pointed out that Radio24syv had “to some degree helped lift talk radio’s share of the total listening time” when compared to listenership of all types of radio. And that was one of the main goals for the Danish government’s establishment of a new talk network, one that Ramskov embraces.

“We have already seen some adjustments in P1, in terms of being more live, more able to reflect the daily news,” Ramskov says. “My hope is, we’re not so focused on stealing audience from P1—we’re more focused on increasing the overall [market] for talk radio.” He also told Politiken that his goal was to average half a million weekly listeners by the end of Radio24syv’s first year.

To increase its listenership, Radio24syv will continue to solicit listener feedback and adjust its programming accordingly. At the end of April, the network commenced an overhaul of its weekly lineup. It cancelled the programs that weren’t working well, like a current affairs hour about Russia, and added new ones, like a call-in advice show featuring topics like marriage and law. And it will expand: this month brought the announcement that the network would be opening a second branch in Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark. Live broadcast from Aarhus is scheduled to begin in June. Ramskov told reporters that this is only the beginning of the network’s geographic expansion, and that he hoped this would help address criticism that it was too Copenhagen-centric.

Whatever Radio24syv does, as long as it fulfills its obligations laid out by the media charter, it will continue to be funded by Denmark’s license fee for eight years—which Ramskov calls a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for him and the other journalists involved. When asked what he thought Radio24syv would look like in eight years’ time, he laughs.

“I’m afraid I haven’t been able to dream that wild yet!” he says. “I hope that there will be a lot of talent and a lot of ideas that will come out of this…that a lot of the things that we start doing, perhaps DR will take them over, or perhaps some of the commercial stations will—but that we will be an incubator of innovation.”