Edita Kudláčová: Meet the Czech taking over as Europe’s head of public radio

Edita Kudláčová, photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech Radio

At the start of March, Edita Kudláčová will assume one of the most important jobs in her field: Head of Radio and Audio at the European Broadcasting Union, the Geneva-based body that brings together public service stations all around the continent. Kudláčová has hitherto been spearheading innovation at Czech Radio and when we spoke the conversation centred on the state of the medium today, the future of radio and podcasting – and her plans for the exciting new role.

What were you own beginnings in radio?

“That goes back I think 12 years.

“But I have to say that when I talk to my friends about why I actually joined the Radio 12 years ago they’re all laughing, because I think since I was 12 or 13 I was listening to international radio stations.

“I would be listening to BBC 6 Music at that time and FM4 by ORF and that was the way I learned my English.

“After university – I studied literature; I did American Studies and Dutch literature – I was thinking about what would be the best job and I thought to myself, Wow, joining the Radio, that could be fun.

“Five years ago everybody was telling me, This is the wrong way – nobody will ever listen to podcasts.”

“And that’s how I started working for Czech Radio. And since then it has been a joyride.”

Most recently you have been the head of the Creative Hub at Czech Radio. What exactly is that?

“We started this team five years ago.

“It was launched as an innovation team and was set up to make a bridge between international trends and Czech Radio and the stations of Czech Radio.

“So our main mission was to open editors-in-chief, but also various people around the house, to follow new trends.

“Also maybe to even help with the English barrier, because sometimes – we have to be honest – there is a barrier with language.

“And to try to implement some of the trends from abroad also in our country, at the Radio.”

How successful do you feel you’ve been over those five years?

“I think there are two sides.

“One is the visible, and those are all the achievements we have had.

Photo: Aleš Pezl / Czech Radio

“We won the Prix Europa for the best digital online project – together with Radiožurnál and the whole news team; it wasn’t just our project but was a huge project running across all the News and Czech Radio.

“We have won I think two journalism awards.

“So these are visible achievements and it is nice to have that, because you get the validation for your work.

“But what I value the most was that we were able to maybe even introduce people internally among each other, and to put some people at one table and open up a discussion where it was frozen.

“And for that I am very grateful.

“Because this is something you cannot see, but today when I see certain people who wouldn’t be talking, or wouldn’t even know about each other, and they just go for a coffee and discuss things – I think this is the best thing that could have ever happened.”

I’m sure you’ve seen many changes in your decade-plus in radio, in the business. What have been the most significant, in your view?

“Well, definitely podcasts.

“If we are creative enough we can open up the scope of people listening to audio.”

“I’m not just saying that, because on-demand content was here I think for many years – but especially the promotion and the marketing of podcasts over recent years is fascinating to see I think.

“Five years ago when we started we were working on our first original podcast and everybody was telling me, This is the wrong way – nobody will ever listen to podcasts.

“And today I think it’s even like you can’t walk on the street without meeting a person who would be listening to podcasts.

“So I think that’s a major step ahead.

“At the same time – and this is my personal view – I love music, I listen to music a lot and I like listening to a lot of new music, and I always thought that Spotify would be here replacing radio and the role of radio in music.

“But what I see on myself is that I still need human curation; I still need somebody to recommend me good music.

“And maybe I am old, maybe I’m traditional, but I still do like the traditional guys who are focusing on music and who are telling me, If you like this, you might also like that.

“I prefer that much more than algorithms on Spotify.

“For me this is a touch that radio will keep forever.”

When you look around the world, which organisations do you think are doing radio in a really good or progressive way? The names that would come to my mind are BBC in the UK and NPR in the States.

Photo illustrative: Karolina Grabowska,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“I think there are two sides to this question.

“One of them is, Who does podcasts very well – who’s progressive in online – and who does good radio.

“If I look at radio, I definitely agree that BBC is ahead of the curve, for sure. It has always been.

“But it’s fair to say they are also struggling to open up to a broader audience, to attract more and more young people and children.

“I think this is a challenge that all radio stations have.

“But I also enjoy watching or listening to some of the Nordic productions: Danish, Swedish Radio, I think Finnish Radio is also in very good shape and same for the Norwegians.

“But in podcasts I agree with you. It’s NPR, for sure; I think they are setting the trend.

“What is interesting recently to observe in Europe is Radio France, because I think they have achieved some amazing numbers with kids’ content.

“They are really bringing children back to audio, doing really nice content for small kids, bed-times stories, even meditation podcasts – they’re doing a lot in these fields.

“And I think is very progressive and very open-minded from the directors of Radio France.

“So this I enjoy.

“You will always have news radio, because there is no reason why I would like to listen to news a bit later.”

“Then I have to say for me it’s very interesting to listen and see what the podcasting teams at CBC in Canada and ABC in Australia are producing.

“I am also in touch with people from ABC and CBC doing the podcasts, because I’m fortunate to know personally, so we email and we’re in touch.

“And I think the way they think about introducing new authors, new voices, opening up the discussion about formats, playing around with them – I think they have done some really nice work in this area.”

How much further do you think podcasting can go? I guess you could call it not just podcasting but on-demand.

“I think there will eventually be a peak, but so far what we are saying, even for Spotify, is that the numbers are growing and growing.

“Spotify has done something that I think the public service world is still not so good at – they did an amazing marketing campaign.

“Also by acquiring names such as Michelle Obama or Kim Kardashian.

“I think this was mostly done for marketing purposes, to get people to listen to audio.

“I’ve just seen some numbers where they say that people listening to audio content, not necessarily music but just audio content and podcasts, through Spotify has increased by, I think, 25 percent over the past three months.

“That is an incredible increase. I just wonder how far this can go.

“But if the commercials and the players that are like Spotify, the online players, can still reach such numbers, I see there is a possibility for growth for public service as well.

Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

“We’ll see how far it goes, but I think it comes back to us, to even start thinking about, Are we really attracting all the groups in online that we can be attracting? Are we doing enough to open up the content?

“Because this is not a linear station: It can go from small children through whatever: news podcasts for older people.

“And I think if we are creative enough we can open up the scope of people listening to audio.”

But is it still important for people working in radio to remember that for most listeners innovations aren’t that interesting – that what they really want is to hear the news or the traffic news on their commute?

“You will always have the radio that works for these purposes.

“You will always have news or current affairs radio station, because there is no reason why I would like to listen to news a bit later, or when I have time for it, because it changes so quickly.

“So for that I think radio will still be itself; it will still be radio.

“But – and I do believe in that – if you allow authors, creators and young people to be creative in the podcast world and make it their own, it is up to them to become a podcast producer or podcast host.

“It means, and I think this is what radio lacks, that people have direct access to you.

“You can create your own community, you can go into real interaction with people through social media.

“People then start loving you as a person. They want to hear your choices, they want to hear what you buy, what you listen to, etc.

“They say that radio sometimes it sounds like the ‘voice of God’, whereas in the online or the podcast world you can be yourself.”

“And I’m not sure that they have this kind of attachment to a radio host.

“Because it sometimes sounds like in the English world, and I’m you’ve heard it many times, they say that radio sometimes it sounds like the ‘voice of God’.

“Because the host has to be neutral towards everybody, whereas in the online or the podcast world you can be yourself.

“You can have your charisma and your personality and if people start loving you, I think the group of your audience just grows bigger and bigger.”

I certainly listen to podcasts regularly and if I like the host I don’t care who the guest is. And that’s what I would hope, with the podcasts that I do, that also people would trust, OK, if he’s got somebody, it’s worth listening to.

“Exactly. Yes. I’m the same.

“I listen to radio if I want to hear something current, here and now.

“But when I tune into podcasts, and I listen to a lot of English language podcasts, I’m like you – I just like the person, I think they’re a cool guy or cool woman and I’d like to be inspired by them, and that’s why I listen to them.”

Tell us about your new job at the European Broadcasting Union. Are you the first Czech person who has had such a high position in the EBU?

“Yes. I think there have only been some people who were doing sound engineering positions or production positions.

“I’m the first Czech person who is having any kind of manager position within the EBU.

“It’s both exciting as well as a huge commitment.

“Because I’m coming and I will be the head of the Radio Department; they are actually calling the position Head of Radio and Audio – up until now it was Head of Radio.

The meeting of EBU,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“I think this already gives some hint of what the direction will become – that we will go more and more into discussions about the online world.

“I’m taking the job over from Graham Dixon, who used to be the editor-in-chief of BBC Radio 3 and then he was working for, I believe, five or six years as Head of Radio.

“And he has done an amazing job. I think if he hadn’t retired I would have no plans to be replacing him, ever.

“What he was focusing on was radio in cars. He was doing a lot for securing the radio future in cars, and also on connected dashboards.

“That means that even if you have internet in cars, radio is still present; it’s not just Spotify, but it’s radio.

“He was doing a lot to promote DAB, digital broadcasting for radios, because that was a standard that wasn’t applied in all of Europe – so he was doing a lot in this way.

“I’m taking the job over from Graham now, in February, so we talk a lot about where to go next.

“DAB I think has been settled – lots of radio stations have their own campaigns.

“The radio player in cars is still a huge topic, so that will keep me busy for a long time, because you will need to talk to car producers and see how this can be implemented.

“But at the same time what we will want to implement more and more is discussions about formats in online podcast production for public service – going more and more towards the digital world.

“And this backfires even with cars, because even if you have internet in the cars you will need good content for online connection, so that you can still be relevant to people while they are driving.

“So this will be, I think, one of the major tasks that I will start working on from March.”

What are the practicalities of starting a new job – I know the EBU is based in Geneva – during this crazy and awful Covid time?

“I will stay in Prague at least in March, for sure, because there is no way for me to go and look for a flat in Geneva.

“I’m hoping that as of April I can actually go there at least to see my team.

“I know them, because I’ve worked with them in the past, but I definitely want to see them in person and catch up with them.

“But for sure until June there won’t be any business trips, there won’t be any conferences – everything will be done online.

“I think it will allow me more space to find some good rhythm for the job, but it will be more tricky because I won’t have the personal contact with all the people around Europe.

“It should start opening up from September for conferences and all that stuff; we should start travelling again from September.

“My idea at this moment, and I hope I can keep it, is I am living in Mala Straná in Prague, which is beautiful – I’m in heaven here, and I’d like to keep this as my home base and then travel around and make it work somehow, connected with Geneva.

“So this is my plan for now.”