Public media looks at fees to solve finances

  • 2000-01-27
  • By Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - The state funded Lithuanian Radio and Television agency (LRTV) pulled the plug on two of its radio stations recently due to a massive shortfall in government funding. Broadcasts from Radio 2 (culture and education) and Radio 3 (classical, modern and jazz music) were suspended in order to stem the mounting losses the agency is sufferring. All employees at these stations have been temporarily laid off for at least one month with two-thirds salary continuing to be paid out. Also, its director is calling for a monthly fee to be introduced in 2001 in order to continue funding radio and television programming.

"I inherited a debt of 14,000,000 litas ($3.5 million) from my predecessor," said Vaidotas Zukas, interim director of the agency. "Its the best we could do given our present funding. At least the radio employees are being humanely treated and are receiving some income. The real saving for us is not the lay-offs, it's the fact that we've shut down the transmitters. Operating and maintaining them was draining us and the recent purchase of these transmitters alone has left us with 6,500,000 Litas of debt. You have to understand that the government cut our funding drastically in the latest budget. Right now we've just about exhausted our second quarter finances and are about to start dipping into money budgeted for the third quarter. "I'm uncertain as to the fate of our employees in the long term. Two years ago foreign experts visited this agency and told us we had one third too many staff," said Zukas. At present the agency employs around 1,200 people. Zukas' background is in private non-profit broadcasting. He built the Roman Catholic Church financed "Mazoji Studija" radio station from scratch and was there for seven years. He believes he left a legacy of highly trained, efficient staff able to produce quality programming and that given a chance, he can do the same for LRTV.

"My goal is to turn over as many stones as I can in order to find funds to keep us going. Most likely this will mean looking for foreign grants as well as advertising contracts. I've just been discussing a campaign with a consortium of Lithuanian brewers that could bring in 500,000 litas for us. If we don't accept the fact that we're going to have to go commercial in some form then we will be tying a noose around our own necks," he said. Until now all state radio and television broadcasts have been commercial free and the agency has been entirely government funded.

It looks like the government will be introducing a subscription fee for radio and television broadcasts of four litas a month in 2001. "Right now we're up-to-date as far as radio technology but our television equipment is dated and needs upgrading," said Zukas. "The subscription fee is the only guarantee for the long-term survival of this agency and it is very likely that the government will introduce it next year." Proponents of the fee also believe that it will ensure freedom of the press for state employed reporters and that the recent budget cuts are just pressure tactics to bring them into line.

"Subscription fees are not a panacea, let's not fool ourselves," said Rimantas Smetona, a former television producer who is now chairman of the National Democratic Party. "Many people in Lithuania today can barely afford their heating, water and electricity bills and are often behind in paying these. Why would they bother paying for television and radio? This is not a long-term survival strategy, nor will it guarantee an independent press. The government will just have to shell out more money. There are a lot of bright people working at LRTV and we need to keep them. The agency is an important part of our culture."