You'll've probably seen in the media this week that the BBC are planning to make a few cuts here and there. The vast BBC website will be slashed by half, and they'll completely get rid of two digital radio stations; The Asian Network and 6Music, probably selling those spaces (or giving them away) to the commercial sector.
As they say in TV's "Dragon's Den", let me tell you where I am at this point. In theory, I really rather like the idea of the commercial sector being given more space to expand. God knows in this recession radio has been hit hard, so the thought of any expansion is very exciting, even if it is at the expense of a BBC frequency. Back in the mid 1990s when BBC Radio One moved to FM exclusively, they gave their AM frequencies back to the Radio Authority (now OfCom) to be re-advertised as commercial licenses. Thus was born Talk Radio UK which, eventually, morphed into Talk Sport and, eventually, became the only talk station outside of London's LBC to make a profit and survive more than 15 minutes on air. But here's the rub; so far, in almost a decade if widespread digital radio broadcasting, no commercial digital-only radio station has been able to make a profit. DAB is popular, no doubt, and the technology-loving British public has embraced it full force. But no station that uses DAB as their exclusive distribution platform has been able to make a profit.
So what are we likely to see 6Music and the Asian Network replaced with? Let's look at it from a business perspective and forget, for a moment, that we're music-loving listeners and instead have been handed a blank radio frequency with which we have six months or less to hammer into shape, or the company we work for will give us The Spanish Archer. Bottom line is that whatever radio station you decide to fill the digital void, it has to make money, or have the potential to make money within a reasonable timeframe. That's the big bad world of capitalism, like it or not. A sad (and, often, overlooked) fact about radio programming is... I almost feel bad telling you this... generally, people like to hear songs they recognise on the radio. Sorry. I know all you music geeks who have had that wet dream of "if I could only own a radio station, I'd play music that *I* like, and I'd play bands nobody else has heard of, because I'm PASSIONATE, and everybody would love it because I'm PASSIONATE and I have the bestest taste in music in the whole wide world ever, so THERE!", which is fine and dandy for student radio or a bedroom shoutcast stream, but in the cutthroat world of profit and results-driven business, what rules is what makes money. And there's no money to be made with that business model on a national scale. So, what we're looking at is two digital niche stations that will be replaced with, undoubtedly, a top 40 station and maybe a modern rock station, owned by a larger media conglomorate, filled with programming that is probably pre-recorded. Why? Because it's cheap, and because when they sell commercials on a company-wide basis, they can claim larger distribution and charge more. We all like to think that commercial radio stations are there to be entertaining, and they are, but the purpose of that entertainment is to make you stick around long enough so that you'll hear as many commercials as possible. TSL, or the average time a person spends listening to the station, is a huge part of selling airtime to potential advertisers.
Harsh? Sure. Hard to swallow? Maybe. The truth? You betcha.
The BBC, as many of you know, is a taxpayer funded organisation, created from a royal charter and controlled by a board of governors (now called the BBC Trust). Because funding for the BBC is mandatory through a tax known as a 'license fee', it has a lot more money and resources to play with than the commercial sector; a sore point for some working in its shadow. Its funding is guaranteed each year and doesn't depend on sales or sponsorship or PBS style begathon pledge drives. But because it's funded differently and its budget is guaranteed (assuming David Cameron and his crackpot cronies don't piss all over it when they win the next election), doesn't it make sense that the BBC - as a self-proclaimed "public service broadcaster" - should be the ones to provide services that would be unprofitable? Is it not a better public service to fill those gaps and allow the private sector to profit from the formats that can make money?
Full disclosure: As you can imagine, the content of the Asian Network is not aimed at someone like me, and aside from the musicless edit podcast of Adam and Joe, I'm not a 6Music listener. In fact, most of the time I've listened to it, the music has been unlistenably shite. But I know a lot of people who do listen to it, and who are upset that this niche station, which is obviously put together extremely well, is going to disappear. It's an expensive station to run ($10m per year is one estimate), but I wonder how much Radio One costs in comparison; a station format that is more than catered to by commercial radio, in spades. Ditto Radio Two (and I *am* a R2 listener), is it not possible that commercial radio companies could easily cobble together a national 35+ station of comparable quality? What if Radio Five and Five Extra stopped paying for sport coverage and left that for the commercial companies to fight over and, instead, concentrated on covering more news? The BBC is the envy of the world when it comes to its news department, but I don't think it's as revered worldwide for its ability to play the top 10 songs three times an hour, or its ability to tell you whether Stirling Albion won or not. I feel safe in the knowledge that pretty much anyone could do that.
It's obvious that this move is director general Mark Thompson making voluntary cuts now, rather than waiting for the Thatcher-worshipping David Cameron tory government-in-waiting to demand them. But is there not a better way to make those cuts than to abandon niche services? If the idea is to reduce the size of the BBC's budget and allow the commercial industry to expand, even if it just means a bigger jukebox-o-hits with added "heeyy, that was [X], this is [Y] on [Z] radioooooooo", surely there are sections of the corporation that could be cut that would cater to both, instead of alienating unprofitable minority groups.'
Just an idle thought.