Silencing the People: Budapest community radio and the struggle to survive

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When Civil Radio was founded in 1993, broadcasting only lasted for a few hours a day. Today, broadcasting runs for 24 hours, seven days a week.

Six years after the Hungarian government introduced highly controversial media laws, Budapest community radio station Civil Rádió fears losing its license every day.

“It’s a permanent threat,” says Àkos Cserháti, the director of Civil Rádió. “Our license will expire in 2019 but the government can take away our frequency at any time.”

Civil Rádió is a non-profit, volunteer-run broadcaster whose aim is to give voice to people and communities not often featured in mainstream Hungarian media. The station was founded in 1993 in collaboration with NGOs, local communities, and civil organizations. At first, the station only broadcast for a few hours a day, but now programming runs for 24 hours with the help of over 130 volunteers.

Today, Civil Rádió continues its struggle to survive as a result of oppressive regulations and sanctions imposed by the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party back in 2010. The legislation redefined community radio status and lengthened the application process for licensing. Authorities can impose fines up to €700,000 for “imbalanced news coverage,” or material deemed “insulting” to a particular majority. Furthermore, according to research from the Mertek Media Monitor, the government also reallocated public funding and broadcast frequencies to stations that closely aligned with the government’s views.

Two government bodies are responsible for enforcing the law: the National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary (NMHH) and the Media Council. Critics and free press advocates have expressed concern at their lack of independence from the Fidesz government and inconsistency with democratic free press principles. In a 2011 report, Human Rights Watch stated that the law “undermines media freedom and is incompatible with Hungary’s human rights obligations.” However, the government has held a firm stance, saying the law is completely in line with European standards. In an official statement released in response to international criticism, minister of public administration and justice Dr. Tabor Navracsis said, “The Hungarian government remains committed to freedom of the press, and in no way wishes to stifle the opposition’s views…The [law] does not contain any element that has not been a well-established part of legislation in most European countries.”

But according to Cserháti, the laws and regulations specifically target low-budget stations like Civil Rádió. He says the government has narrowed open tenders, grants and other public funds that were crucial to the station’s operational costs and the laws were changed without consultation with the community.
“We don’t get much money from the government and it’s always a struggle to collect the money.” he says.

Civil Rádió‘s studio is located inside the Fonó Buda Music Hall and is entirely open to the public. The space is small and cramped, with stacks of old paperwork and posters lying on desks and shelves throughout. Due to the station’s lack of funding, some of the technology is not up to date. Nevertheless, the staff are organized and well prepared and programs run smoothly throughout the day.

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Ákos Cserháti’s office is small and crowded, and stacks of paperwork keep him very busy. As the director of Civil Radio and one of only two paid employees, he works tirelessly to keep the station on air.

Many other community stations in Hungary have declared bankruptcy since the laws were enacted. According to Community Media Forum Europe, an umbrella organization of non-profit media groups, the number of community radio stations fell from 68 to 44 by the end of 2011. Civil Rádió is not entirely independent from the government – the station receives roughly €100 every month, but Cserháti says this is not nearly enough given that the station’s annual budget is around €50,000. This is a relatively small budget in comparison to commercial broadcasters, and according to their website, Civil R Rádió’s budget is only five per cent of an ordinary media service provider’s annual budget.

Data collected from 2014 showed Civil Rádió has a listener base of around 13,000 people, which is not very big compared to Budapest’s population of nearly 2 million people. But Cserháti says the listeners are loyal to the station, and numbers are not as important as providing a platform to people and communities whose voices are often silenced in mainstream Hungarian media.

Community radio (also called alternative, free, independent or co-operative radio) serves civil society and offers diverse programming to meet the needs of the minority population and marginalized or oppressed people. Community stations offer programming that covers topics not discussed in the mass media, and give publicity to citizen activities and initiatives. According to their website, Civil Radio does not easily define its target audience, but the station takes pride in providing content that is not sponsored by political parties or big businesses. The station does not employ professional journalists, but rather a team of dedicated volunteers and members of the community. Cserháti says “it is more important for us what we say than how we say it.”

Under the Hungarian media law, stations can be granted community radio status by specifying a target audience and complying with the quotas. Civil Rádió claims to be one of the last authentic community radio stations in Budapest but according to the NMHH there were over 70 community stations in Budapest last year.

“According to the new law, if you dedicate your programs to a certain defined target group and you keep the quotas, you can have the community radio status,” says Cserháti. “But of course, every radio defines their own target groups.  Commercial stations dedicate their target audience to young adults between 20 and 25. That’s not enough to be a community radio, but according to the law, it is.”

The NMHH has acknowledged the lack of clarity in this aspect of the law. Under the old media law in 1996, the three main forms of broadcasting were community, commercial and national public service radio.  Now, public service radio falls under the community media category which has created some confusion.  A researcher with the NMHH, who has asked to remain anonymous, says even legislators have trouble differentiating public service radio and community radio.   “It’s not easy to distinguish them because community broadcasters take an obligation to broadcast special needs for a certain audience, which is also part of a public service obligation.” The researcher says that it would be more functional for the government and for radio stations to have one status for community broadcasting. “What community radio does is a public service obligation but a public service broadcaster has to serve the Hungarian nation and not just put one interest in mind. Community radio is more targeted, more specific.”

Civil Rádió does not strictly define its target audience, but the station offers diverse and inclusive programming that meets the needs of minority groups, marginalized and oppressed people. The station also has programming for people with mental or learning disabilities. Cserháti says one of the best things about the studio is that it offers a place for people of the community with completely different backgrounds to come together and meet.

“This radio is one of the last places where very different people can meet,” he says.  “We have a radio presenter who is homeless, as well as a very rich retired person, and it’s always funny when they come together and talk. Without such places and without Civil Rádió they wouldn’t have the chance to meet.”

The station broadcasts over 80 programs and a range of music including classical, jazz, blues, folk and alternative. According to the station’s website, among the radio presenters and editors are “high school students, journalists, engineers, mothers, bricklayers, bus drivers and more, who on air present their own world with their own words.”

Civil Rádió’s volunteers also come from very diverse backgrounds. Daniel Rubint, 18, Bence Sere, 18, and Dani Kemèny, 16, are among the youngest volunteers. Rubint and Sere started volunteering at Civil Rádió three years ago to earn volunteer hours for school. Rubint and Sere have long since earned their community service requirement to graduate, but they continue to devote several hours a week to the station as technicians.

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Bence Sere (left) and Dániel Rubint (right) are both 18 years old and have been volunteering as technicians with Civil Radio for three years. Their love for radio and the community has inspired them to continue volunteering long after earning their community service requirement to graduate.

“Last summer, there were only three technicians to make all the shows and it meant that we were here every day from the morning till evening,” says Sere. “It was a long summer but we enjoyed it very much. This group is very familiar.”

“We love this community and we love radio, so we stay,” says Rubint.

Kemeny also volunteers as a technician at another Budapest community radio station, Tilos Rádió. This station began broadcasting in 1991 as the first independent, non-profit radio station in the country. Tilos is faced with many of the same challenges as Civil Rádió, but in 2013 the station opted to rely entirely on financial support from listeners, fundraisers and European institutions to maintain independence from the government. Both stations are forced to cope with an ongoing lack of funding and large fines from the government for failing to meet quotas or comply with the regulations.

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Tilos Radio is Hungary’s first independent, non-profit radio broadcaster. The station was founded in 1991 and offers alternative programming with the help of volunteers and community members.

One example of a strict quota that is highly regulated is the daily requirement for at least 75 per cent public service content, meaning content that serves social and cultural purposes and not commercial purposes. Another quota is to devote five per cent of daily broadcasting to the ethnic minorities of Budapest.

“It’s not a bad thing, but it’s very vague,” says Cserháti. It’s a good thing that you’re forced, even though we do it anyway. But one day we broadcast only 1 per cent and another day it’s 12 per cent, but you have to keep it day by day. This kind of radio production is about your creativity – it cannot be measured mathematically.” Furthermore, stations are responsible for measuring their own public service content and sending the data to the media authorities on a weekly basis for review. Cserháti says there is no efficient method to measure public service content and this creates a lot of extra work.

“We are sending data to them but they don’t even have the crew or the staff who can check the data, so it’s really a stupid system,” he says. “They set up a stupid system that doesn’t work and they still keep it six years later. Six years have passed and they haven’t made any changes.”

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The National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary (NMHH) is one of two governing bodies responsible for enforcing the media laws. The NMHH and the Media Council have been subjected to international criticism for their lack of independence from the Fidesz government.

Another quota is that stations must devote 50 per cent of music broadcasting to Hungarian artists on a daily basis. Tilos Rádió’s managing director Gábor Csabai, affectionately known as “Papo,” and Cserháti both say this requirement is very difficult to reach, and does not align with other countries’ media laws in Europe and around the world. For example, according to a Canadian governmental report on radio content requirements, Canadian radio stations are required to devote just 35 per cent of weekly popular music broadcasting to Canadian content. In France and the Netherlands, 50 per cent of commercial broadcasting must be devoted to European productions, but in France only 40 per cent must be devoted to French music.

“There’s another trick,” says Cserháti. “Hungarian music can be considered Hungarian only if it is sang in Hungarian. We play a lot of famous jazz musicians and they sing the song in English but it cannot be considered Hungarian music even though the musicians and the composers are Hungarian.”

Last month, Civil Rádió had to pay a fine of €300 for failing to meet the quota for Hungarian music broadcasting. Tilos Rádió has had to pay similar fines, as many as four times a year.

“Up until now, it hasn’t been a problem to pay,” says Csabai. “But it gets higher and higher each time, and then it gets harder.”

In 2013, Civil Rádió set up a fundraising page to raise awareness of the dire situation for community radio stations in Hungary. Cserháti says the station came close to shutting down completely, but widespread empathy and support from listeners helped the station to carry on. Unfortunately, the fund did not earn as much as Cserháti would have hoped because it was difficult to gain financial support from listeners.

“Many of our listeners are unemployed or poor people and they cannot donate to the radio. They give 1000 forints (€3), which is really a great thing but it’s just not enough,” he says.

Despite a dismal situation and a grim media landscape for community radio broadcasters in Budapest today, both Cserháti and Csabai are grateful to be able to continue their work and they are optimistic about the future. Hungarian citizens can donate one per cent of their personal taxes to non-profit organizations, and this has proven to be a small but helpful fundraiser for both Tilos and Civil Radio.

“It’s a complete miracle that for 25 years the audience has helped us operate,” says Csabai. “But we hope nicer days will come.”

“It’s funny to see how we’ve struggled but we are still alive,” says Cserháti. “That’s the greatest thing. We are still here and the broadcasting is still alive.”

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