In May 2019 the Austrian government increased the funding for the private media sector by € 5 million. However, this substantial increase will solely benefit the commercial private media sector – the funding for the community media sector remains the same. AMARC Europe invited Josef Seethaler to discuss the impact of these changes on the Austrian Community Radio sector. AMARC Europe reacted to this biased amendment of funding of the Austrian private broadcasting sector with a statement to the Austrian government in English and German.

On 6 May 2019, the Constitutional Committee of the Austrian National Parliament decided with a large majority to increase the funding for commercial private television and radio stations by five million euros: from 15 to 20 million annually. The additional funds are to “particularly benefit TV formats that promote democratic understanding, social and political information and education or […] the transfer of media competence as a basis for understanding democratic media education processes”.

Josef Seethaler is Deputy Director of the Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and Alpen-Adria University in Klagenfurt. His research focuses on political communication, political participation, media system analysis, media and communication history, and scientific communication.

Quality of content, training, media competence

This is undoubtedly a step forward compared with previous funding practice: after all, the terms “democracy” and “democratic” did not appear at all in the guidelines of the Fund for the Promotion of Private Commercial Broadcasting. But what a major media policy coup this would have been if all media funding in Austria had been placed on a democratically relevant basis: on the quality of content, the training of media professionals and the teaching of critical media competence (To say nothing of an equally necessary reform of advertising rules for the public sector). This demand was raised in numerous studies commissioned by the Austrian Federal Chancellery or the Austrian Regulatory Institution (RTR). This chance has been missed once again. But not only that. Moreover, it seems the Austrian legislator has forgotten the non-commercial broadcasters, which are regulated by the same law.

20 years after the licensing of the first “free radios” in Austria

Non-commercial private broadcasting in Austria has established itself as an institution in the media landscape – as the third pillar of the broadcasting landscape – alongside public and private commercial broadcasters. In recent years studies commissioned by RTR have shown on several occasions that they are an indispensable part of a pluralistic media landscape in the Austrian democracy. 14 free radios and three free television stations are currently operational all over Austria. Their activities are not profit-oriented, and they follow the principle of a programme without commercial product advertising. So, if advertising as media content is important to anyone, it will not be served by non-commercial broadcasting. It offers a different solution (underpinned by RTR studies):

–       They offer individuals and civil society groups an open platform to freely express their opinions, concerns and interests.

–       They promote civil society discourse, the willingness to engage in society and it promotes social cohesion. Diversity of opinion, social dialogue, equal rights and tolerance are not preached, but realised on a daily basis.

–       They give a voice to social groups that are otherwise underrepresented in the public sphere and thus integrating them into social coexistence. Accessibility is not just a buzzword here.

–       Non-commercial radios are proximity media and can respond to the information needs of local communities like hardly any other media in this context. In this way it sensitises the public to topics that are hardly represented in the mainstream media.

–       Through this transparent and lively relationship between “media makers” and “audiences” (whose roles intertwine), they ultimately promote media competence as an ability to deal critically with media and their content

In English, the term “community media” is often used when it comes to non-profit media. This term hits the heart of the matter: the promotion of integrative and participative processes within and between local communities is at the centre of media work. The contribution this makes to strengthening identification with our democratic development cannot be overestimated.

Political disenchantment

A democracy based solely on elections and party representation (important as both are) is part of the problem of political disenchantment, not part of the solution. More and more young people want to participate in political processes. The “Fridays for Future” movement is an expression of this, but only one of many. This participation, as political scientists like Colin Crouch (“post-democracy”) show, will be feasible above all in the local space: in our own living environment, whose advantages and problems we know. If we experience democracy there, we will have confidence in it. Let us strengthen the role of non-commercial media! They currently receive only one fifth (!) of the funding for commercial broadcasting in Austria. An increase in this already low amount is paramount in terms of democratic policy. Media policy action is called for in order to make appropriate changes to the government bill before the National Council takes its decision.