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Cilla Benkö is the director general and CEO of Sveriges (Swedish) Radio. She started as an intern in the sports department when there were very few females in the industry. Benkö, who has worked at the organization for more than 30 years as a journalist and has held several managerial positions, provides insight into how Swedish Radio is navigating today’s evolving landscape.
RedTech: Is radio management a friendlier place for women than it was 10 years ago?
Benkö: I’m not sure that it’s friendlier, but it’s less lonesome. In Sweden, public service media has a long tradition of strong female CEOs, so that was nothing new. But when I started, I was one of the very few women in the international radio community. Thankfully, this is changing, and I believe the radio business is better having a multitude of different leaders in the sector.
RedTech: Would you characterize the radio market in Sweden as very competitive?
Benkö: I believe it’s competitive in a healthy way — the Swedish people are a listening population. For example, more than 50% in the ages 18–79 listen to podcasts regularly. The competition for “Swedish Ears” is enormous — print media is expanding into the field of audio, and we shouldn’t forget that Spotify’s headquarters are in Sweden. That said, I strongly believe in a robust dual system: A strong public service media side by side with a prosperous commercial market brings the best possible outcome for the audience. It’s also important to remember that the Swedish media market is not very Swedish anymore. We are all competitors in a global and digital market that is constantly growing and changing. We must all adjust and be aware of that.
RedTech: Is Swedish Radio entirely taxpayer-funded? How does that affect how you think about audiences versus the way private radio operators do?
Benkö: Swedish Radio is funded by a public service fee. Since Jan. 1, 2019, everyone over 18 pays this tax, which is earmarked for public service media only. So, the Swedish people essentially own Swedish Radio. I believe the best outcome for the audience and democracy is strong public service companies working alongside a healthy commercial market — research also shows this.
The competition for “Swedish Ears” is enormous — print media is expanding into the field of audio, and we shouldn’t forget that Spotify’s headquarters are in Sweden.
The Swedish Radio vision is very simple: “More voices and stronger stories for a greater understanding.” This does not mean that everyone should think alike or that there is only one perspective. On the contrary, we believe that a democratic society feels best when we share the views of others, even if they differ from your own. As a public broadcaster, we also offer a much wider type of listening than our commercial colleagues, who mainly focus on music and entertainment or talk shows. We offer news, current affairs, culture and local radio from all over Sweden, and have Sweden’s largest network of foreign correspondents.
RedTech: What is happening to time spent listening in the radio market in Sweden? If it’s declining, where are audiences spending more of their time, and how are you reimagining your radio stations to grow your share of TSL?
Benkö: Swedish Radio currently has a historically high reach with about 7.4 million listeners per week, in a country with a population of 10.4 million (2021). Linear listening still stands strong, but on-demand listening is increasing. I often say we need to develop in pace with our audience while also being a bit ahead of them. It’s important to develop new formats and ways of listening, but always focus on the listeners’ needs. They are, after all, the ones that must choose us.
We’re constantly working with new content and formats to be even more attractive for our listeners — but also to attract new ones. In February, for example, we launched a new political talk show aimed at a younger audience.
And we’ve developed our linear radio stations to offer more live and less pre-produced programming that you can listen to on-demand whenever you choose to. There are different needs at different moments, live radio is a category and an on-demand podcast is another category. They both need to develop differently, catering for different needs. We have also developed a unique format for “stand-alone” audio news instead of providing news based on a text format.
RedTech: How has the health crisis impacted your operations?
Benkö: The pandemic has, of course, affected us, as indeed everyone, and there have been both positives and negatives. We have put a lot of time and energy into keeping our coworkers as safe as possible, but also ensuring we deliver trustworthy news to our audience, as well as entertainment and dialogue. In short: keeping them company in a time that has been lonely and difficult for many people. I believe the pandemic has strengthened us as a company and our relationship with our listeners. They show their appreciation for our creativity by listening to us even more than before, both in linear programming and to podcasts and on-demand.
Our main strategy is long-term: to focus on what we do best, namely audio.
RedTech: What does post-COVID look like for Swedish Radio and the radio broadcast industry in Sweden in general?
Benkö: I’m not sure that we are there yet. In January, a lot of coworkers were still working from home. We sincerely hope we can soon return to a more normal state. Constant change is the new reality, and we have gotten good at adjusting. We focused on innovation and technology over recent years, so when the pandemic hit, we easily adapted to broadcasting from coworkers’ homes, for example. We developed technical tools for producing and distributing content that won European technical innovation awards, and in 2021, we won the EBU Technology & Innovation award for a new “public service algorithm,” used to generate news playlists. This ensures our listeners are hearing the most important news of the day, while also finding items that surprise them and broaden their knowledge and perspectives. We’re very proud of that.
RedTech: What role does technology and software play at Swedish Radio to either help you grow or cut costs?
Benkö: The more efficient we can be, the more money can go to journalism and content for the audience. This is one of my main priorities as CEO and general director of Swedish Radio. All new technology is adjusted to suit the organization’s needs, and is implemented, scheduled, communicated and planned properly. Another key challenge for Swedish Radio is, of course, budget limitations that always make prioritization necessary. But we try to use cross-functional teams as often as possible to combine technical ideas with content ambitions — the best brains on the same team make a big difference.
RedTech: Is your strategy different from three years ago? If so, in what way? And how do you expect it to change again in the next three years?
Benkö: Our main strategy is long-term: to focus on what we do best, namely audio. That means we shouldn’t spend too much time writing long articles or making visual content, such as video. As far as I see it, that strategy will remain so in the future. There is one important change in our digital strategy. Three years ago, our aim was to reach the audience, no matter where they were – whether on third-party platforms or our own. That is not our aim today. We now want as many listeners as possible to find our content on a Swedish Radio platform and then stay with us. With this, we mean our combined offering, linear radio, the best programs and podcasts and automated stand-alone news provided as clips. All this the audience can find in one app — Sveriges Radio Play.
RedTech: If you had no budgetary constraints, what would you do at Swedish Radio to ensure a thriving future?
Benkö: I would obviously want to invest even more in journalism, high-quality content and developing new ways and forms of bringing that to our audience. Ensuring competence and talent is difficult today when we can’t compete with the commercial world when it comes to salaries or benefits.
RedTech: Can linear radio survive an era of extraordinary competition from streaming and other on-demand players? If you believe it can, what qualities and characteristics will help sustain the medium?
Benkö: The pandemic showed us that the audience still needs traditional linear radio — for company in uncertain times, but also for constant news updates and immediate comments and analysis. That doesn’t necessarily mean that other formats can’t replace linear radio in the future, but for the moment, we certainly see a need from our listeners for both linear and on-demand.
People discussing linear radio’s future tend to forget it can develop into new and interesting formats suited for a digital environment. To listen to linear radio fulfills a need that on-demand can’t replace.
RedTech: Increasingly, privacy matters for media companies who hold significant amounts of personal data about their audiences. How is Swedish Radio responding to the scrutiny that media companies are under concerning how they treat their audiences’/customers’ data?
Benkö: We care very much about protecting personal data or confidential information. It’s part of our DNA. We collect only as much personal data as necessary to improve our offering for the individual listener.
People discussing linear radio’s future tend to forget it can develop into new and interesting formats suited for a digital environment.
RedTech: What major trends and/or technologies benefit the radio industry or give linear radio an advantage in the 21st century?
Benkö: There is a golden age for audio right now. Listening is increasing, and new technology such as smart cars and smart speakers makes it even easier to access, wherever you are and whenever you want to listen to something.
So far, it has also been mainly cost-free for consumers, but we are seeing more and more platforms charging for audio content.
It will be interesting to follow if, commercially, it is possible to earn money on content in local languages such as Swedish. Radio is not television. You can’t just air international content, put subtitles to it, and start a new global streaming platform.
I’m also really excited to see where these next years will take us. Competition brings innovation — and I will do everything in my power to make sure that Swedish Radio will keep on taking the “audio lead.”