By Barbara Erling

The increasing politicisation of the Polish state radio service has led to an exodus of some of its most popular and longest-serving stars. Some have tried going solo or clubbed together to launch new projects, funded by crowdfunding campaigns and embracing new technologies. Yet experts warn that there are inherent pitfalls with this business model. 

After 16 years on Polish Radio, the public broadcaster, Dariusz Rosiak needed to find a new home for his programme “Report on the State of the World”, a 50-minute-long report on recent world events. His attempts to convince commercial radio stations to produce his programme came to nothing. “Private media follow different logic. They are profit-driven, and don’t want to invest in a serious programme on international affairs,” says Rosiak. 

His response was to launch a crowdfunding campaign. It has been a great success. He now has almost 3,000 supporters and a 50,000 zloty (€11,200) monthly budget. “I never thought I would collect such money,” admits Rosiak. He has raised over 200,000 zloty to date, enabling him to produce two programmes a week. 

“Trójka” crisis pushes journalists out on their own

Polish Radio Three (“Trójka”), has gained cult status but also experienced various crises in its history. Yet none of them could compare to the current one. “It all started when the station did not extend Rosiak’s contract,” said Ewa Matecka, an opposition senator, during a Senate hearing called to assess the situation.

The decision not to extend Rosiak’s contract in January caused dismay in the Polish media industry, because the move was considered political. “Rosiak, like many others, was probably in the government’s bad books by being insufficiently enthusiastic about its actions,” wrote Łukasz Warzecha, a right-wing journalist. 

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) also expressed concerns over Rosiak’s dismissal, saying that “employment policy must be based on merit and transparency, not on affinities with ruling party leaders”. Earlier this year, RWB ranked Poland in its lowest ever position in the World Press Freedom Index, noting that public media have been “transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces”.

Rosiak was not given a reason for his dismissal. Unofficially, the radio management did not like his statements about Donald Trump – Rosiak called him a populist – and participation in programmes on TVN, a liberal television station.

The presenter’s departure was followed by a stream of further lay-offs. In March, Anna Gacek, who had worked for Polish Radio for almost two decades, left Trójka. She was joined by legendary DJ Wojciech Mann, who had been employed for more than 50 years. “I decided to take action before someone else did so for me,” Mann told Gazeta Wyborcza

In-mid April, former Polish Radio journalists and management launched a crowdfunding campaign to create a new online radio station, “Nowy Świat” (meaning “New World”), headed by Magda Jethon, director of Trójka from 2010 to 2016. 

A new way to support independent journalism

The new station and Rosiak’s venture have run a successful campaign on the crowdfunding platform Patronite. Nowy Świat has so far raised 2.3 million zloty. “It became the largest campaign on our platform,” says Michał Leksiński, an impression designer at Patronite. The radio’s monthly budget amounts to 694,000 zloty, far more than the 250,000 they said they needed to survive. Nowy Świat also has the biggest number of so-called “patrons” – more than 27,500. 

“Both projects are based on well-known personalities. In this case it is easier to earn trust among supporters,” says Mariusz Czykier, a commercial and production director at Optizen Labs. 

Tadeusz Kowalski, a professor at the University of Warsaw, has a similar view. “If the project is based on famous people it spurs the audience on to at least check out what the project is going to look like,” says Kowalski. This is a huge asset, he says, giving listeners assurances that the content will be professional. 

At a time when the media is struggling to fund serious journalism, the advent of crowdfunding is a welcome development. In Poland it is still a new phenomenon for funding media. Leksiński says that the Sekielski brothers, who in 2018 started a crowdfunding campaign to fund production of their first film about paedophilia in the church, were forerunners in promotion of this business model among media outlets. “Thanks to that, many media realised that crowdfunding might be an interesting source of income,” says Leksiński. He predicts that more and more media will turn to this model, as it brings projects closer to the audience. 

Financial instability

Globally, the success of such initiatives as De Correspondent in the Netherlands, Krautreporter in Germany, and El Español in Spain, who redefined their business models in 2013, has demonstrated the potential of crowdfunding. However, Czykier argues that this is not a stable source of income. “Of course, a launch of a project might be financed by a crowdfunding campaign, but in the long term, to maintain the financial stability, the business model needs to be changed. “It’s hard to convince a new audience to support an already existing project,” he says.

Kowalski says that Poles are not a wealthy society and are not eager to pay for content. “Crowdfunding mobilisation works on a one-off level in Poland. Shocking events, like journalists being fired from Trójka, unite people who want to support an action built on this basis. But it’s rather a short-term event,” he says. 

While Rosiak fully follows a crowdfunding business model, Radio Nowy Świat is looking at other funding methods. 

“We are considering sponsored programmes, because they are a non-invasive formats for listeners. Advertisements on Radio Nowy Świat are completely out of the question. We would have to be on the brink of existence to do so,” Patrycja Macjon, one of the founders of Radio Nowy Świat, told Notes from Poland.

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The rise of podcasts

Podcasts have recently started to become more and more popular among Poles. In mid-March, the number of listeners of the podcast of “Fakty”, an RMF FM news service, rose by nearly 50%. Listens to Radio Zet’s podcast increased by 78% and its online information service podcast grew by 114%. Tok FM recorded a threefold increase in traffic on its website in March, while the number of podcasts listeners increased by 10%. A survey in August 2019 showed that 27% of internet users in Poland listened to podcasts, of whom 65% had started listening over the past year. 

The biggest Polish publishers on the media market have spotted the opportunities of the podcast format. Agora, Onet, and Polish Radio have all announced expansion in this medium in 2020. Podcasts have also become an important journalistic form globally. This year’s Pulitzer Awards will also be awarded in the audio material category. 

Stanisław Jędrzejewski, a professor at the Kozminski University, notes that podcasts are a cheap alternative for both traditional and online radio. “If someone developed his name like Rosiak, people who listened to him on Trójka are going to follow him wherever he is, but it’s not the same big audience as on mainstream radio”. 

But Rosiak says that after moving online it has been hard to reach the same audience that was listening to him on Trójka. “The technological barrier reduces the number of people listening to podcasts. Traditional radio is easier to handle because you just switch it on and it works. With podcasts, things are getting more complicated. 400,000 people listened to my programme at Trójka in 2019, now it’s much less,” he says. 

The online radio niche

Online radio broadcasters have also recorded a growth in popularity during the pandemic. According to Gemius/PBI data, in the first week of lockdown alone the number of online radio listeners rose by 16%. The increase is even more pronounced for mobile users, whose number grew by 23%. The total range of mobile online radio has increased by over 24%. 

Many people see the growing potential of the internet radio market. In the last year, three online radio projects have launched: Radiospacja, Halo.Radio and Radio Kapitał. 

Just like Radio Nowy Świat, Halo.Radio relies on crowdfunding donations received through Patronite. The station reaches 1,000-2,000 people, who either listen on their website or watch them on YouTube. “If we break the glass door and get funds for promotion, we could reach even 10,000 people every minute,” presenter Kuba Wątły told Press.

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Both Radio Spacja and Radio Kapitał broadcast from home and are run by volunteers. “If we wanted to pay all who are involved in the project, we would need several thousand zloty a month,” Edyta Jarząb of Radio Kapitał, which describes itself as a community radio station, told Press. The station’s live programmes have an audience of 20-300 people, then more listen to their podcasts. Radio Spacja does not reveal audience figures. 

Online radio is still a niche interest. “In the past year, 90% of listeners chose broadcast radio, while the internet accounted for less than 8%,” Roman Kozioł, director of the RMF Group internet segment, told Press. Kowalski agrees: “Online radio doesn’t have a chance to challenge the traditional form due to the habits of how we listen to the radio.” Jan Beliczyński from Cracow University of Economics notes that radio is a mobile medium, which means that we listen to it while commuting, where traditional radio is still easier to listen to.

Old and new

Dariusz Rosiak says that the new format has given him more creative freedom. “I am the editor of “Report on the State of the World” and I decide what this programme is about. There is no outside influence, and that makes a big difference,” he says. “We focus on development and creating new formats.”

This has meant that, as well as traditional aspects of programming, such as reports on world affairs and interviews with experts, Rosiak has been able to expert with ideas such as inviting guests to read their favourite poems and, for the first time, including a play, Shakespeare’s Henry V, on the show.

Rosiak notes, however, that his audience is unlikely to grow a great deal, as “there is a limited number of people really interested in what’s going on in Bolivia, Sudan or even Syria”. Each patron who pays more than 1,000 zloty gets special thanks during the programme and can also visit the team in the studio or even meet Rosiak personally. Listeners making smaller contributions receive newsletters with a personal selection of news and are added to a private Facebook group.

“Building a relationship with supporters is very important, but it needs a lot of work to maintain audience engagement,” says Leksiński. He points out that a good relationship relies on transparent communication of the project aims and a direct conversation with supporters on social media platforms. 

Radio Nowy Świat has also created a Facebook group to communicate with its audience. After delaying launch as one presenter became ill with coronavirus, the station launched on 10 July, with Wojciech Mann at the microphone. “This is not the old Trójka, this is not the new Trójka, this is Radio Nowy Świat,” he began. Such was the demand from listeners that servers were overloaded. On the day of its debut, it had 460,000 listeners. 

In addition to familiar radio voices like Wojciech Mann, Beata Grabczyk, Katarzyna Kasia and Eliza Michalik, Nowy Świat also chose five young presenters in a talent contest. Besides music, its creators want to focus on commentaries. They promise that they will not invite politicians, instead they will focus on specialists.

“Not inviting politicians is a fundamental principle of the station. No politicians and no advertising are two rules that we will not break,” Macjon told us.

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This emphasis, while very innovative, is a risky one, according to Jędrzejewski. Not only might it drain broadcasts of emotions, he says, but the experts are likely to favour one political side. Kowalski is also sceptical. “The issue with the media lies not in politics but in partisanship,” he says. “At arm’s length” should be the motto for Polish media, he says – distancing themselves from a certain party but not from politics.

Beliczyński suggests that the young people who would listen to Radio Nowy Świat should be targeting are not interested in politics anyway. “Young people prefer listening to the music on Spotify, YouTube,” he says. 

Political but valuable for the public

Many experts believe that the success of such projects is politically and emotionally motivated. And if they weren’t, the results would not be as good.

“This can work if the campaign is somehow integrated – even unintentionally, like Rosiak’s, into a party or ideological conflict. Even then there is a question about the sustainability of financing, especially when the political excitement fades,” wrote Warzecha. The noble aim of doing good, professional and balanced journalism, without the context of political controversy, is less profitable.

“They [Radio Nowy Świat and Report on the State of the World] were raised on the wave of political breakthrough, that’s why many people got interested in these projects,” says Beliczyński. He admits that such projects as Radio Nowy Świat are valuable, but have little chance of long-term survival, especially without the support of young people.

Main image credit: Agencja Gazeta/Adam Stępień

Barbara Erling is a multimedia journalist. She joined Gazeta Wyborcza as a Google News Initiative fellow, and has worked for CNN Indonesia, Polish Television and Thomson Reuters.

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