Where does BBC radio go from here?
Updated: Jun 28
"It is submitted in the interest of broadcasting, not of the British Broadcasting Corporation”.
Lord Reith, in making a 1925 submission about the future of the BBC, was highlighting that what is good for the BBC is not always the same as what is good for broadcasting.
It remains a fair point today. If the BBC is not seen to serve everyone in exchange for its licence fees, then it worries it cannot justify the licence fee - and the BBC in its current form. That is probably true – and if you wanted to sustain the BBC in all it does – and your own job – you’d make damn sure that you really proved that everyone derives value and do all you could to fill in any gaps.
That might help preserve the BBC – but is that the appropriate objective?
The BBC enjoyed a monopoly for fifty years. It tried to please all, and extra-curricular broadcasters rose to fill the market gaps, whether Radio Luxembourg or the pirates. When local radio came, it was decided that the BBC would provide it first, even though there was huge commercial appetite.
Commercial radio did eventually arrive, albeit almost suffocated at birth. For 20 years, it was not allowed any national frequencies and prevented by statute and regulation from the consolidation and networking which would enable it to play a full role in the broadcasting tapestry.
Now, commercial radio is freer - and much more networked and national. It’s meant the sad end for some much-loved local services, although some might argue that it should not have been in the expensive business of local radio in the first place. A huge proportion of stations were making losses; and even the BBC finds local radio expensive.
Commercial radio is now providing Jazz, Country, talk, news, soft AC, CHR – and the list goes on. Ambitious radio owners always argued that if consolidation were allowed, then operators would spread their wings rather than compete against themselves. They have. The industry now commands almost half of all listening.
Although podcasting is currently only used by 17% of adults (vs radio's 88%, Midas Winter 2019), the trends are huge and the future is clear. Radio was only linear because it had to be. Radio outlets were few because frequencies were limited. Now those two factors have changed, the audio world is transformed. Some younger talk listeners are choosing podcasting. It’s little wonder. How can we possibly expect the Google generations to sit listening to a talk station for hours lest something interesting crops up. Or listen to a music radio station when a particular stream serves better.
This is not a problem - it's a huge opportunity. It's all audio for ears - and that's the business we are really in.
Should the BBC still be burdened with the monochrome responsibility of doing everything and serving all in broadcast - and if not, the financial deal must change alongside.
You could ask if you started BBC radio today, what would it do? But that’s not the question, we are where we are. To suggest shutting down BBC Radio 2 or 1 would cause riots in Portland Place - and privatising them would impact adversely on commercial radio generally, as argued with typical straightforwardness by Phil Riley.
But the BBC does need to draw back at the world of today and tomorrow, accepting what the commercial and podcasting industries are generating and establish what it can contribute in breadth, quality and resource. Then, in time, deliver just that content brilliantly at the best possible price - and fight solely for the commensurate level of funding.
Should the BBC be obsessed with younger audiences? If Gen Z are quite happy not using the BBC much, is that a problem? If the BBC is required to commandeer youth audience bulk to survive, is it going to genuinely deliver something distinctive for that audience – or simply park tanks on obvious lawns satisfying appetites which others might be more than happy to satisfy?
Some BBC radio offerings are tired and did need some refresh to keep them in-line with their demographic, but not to fight against it. BBC radio audiences have grown older in the last 10 years, just as commercial radio's audiences have - and thus the medium's audiences overall.
In a world where media is increasingly well-targeted, sprinkling youth dust across all BBC outlets is an ill-considered strategy. If, in time, much-loved Radio 2’s audience became so old that the station became a diminished force and then no longer required, is that really an issue? If, as is the case already, almost half of all 25-44s don't choose any BBC radio - and those people are served well by commercial radio, is that really an issue?
Focusing young overnight is like Waitrose hitting all its wealthy customers over the head with a baseball bat and rolling out the red carpet for those who quite like Aldi. Or vice-versa. You piss off your existing loyal customers in pursuit of those who are not going to shop with you anyway – and if they do, they’ll only pop in for a sandwich.
As a grown-up, listening to some Radio 4 offerings, I groan when I hear some obvious burst of patronising ‘youth-think’ in topic, treatment or presenter selection. And, whilst I do not want to denigrate the Beyond Today podcast, for it is not the producers’ fault, to attach the Radio 4 Today brand to something which really is not Today is a brand extension too far. I’ve tried it twice and gave up when, at the outset of an interesting topic, I was told I was going to get ‘firstly some fun facts’. There is a market for a ‘Beyond Today’, but it is not a funky version.
BBC local radio is "ending the idea of targeting just the over 50s" after the puzzling Tony Hall speech in 2017? Why? Its audience wasn't becoming 'too old' - it had only aged by two years in the last decade, much like Radio 1 and 4's audience - and radio generally. It was changed because the BBC needs to save itself - and because its highly expensive audience was dwindling.
The poignant tale of the Cornwall listener this week is a brilliant example of just how much older listeners value their BBC local radio. They get that service from no-one else - yet it is a BBC sacrifice enabled by a careless Ofcom operating licence.
Whilst the BBC should absolutely focus on new, young talent and content, there are better homes than BBC local radio for its principal efforts. Radio 1 was impressive over Christmas with its fresh talent opportunities. But there's also a case for time-served broadcasters - few get worse with age. When I open the door to a plumber helping out with some watery emergency, I rather hope they've fixed a few sinks before.
Had BBC local radio focused efficiently on a 50-65 audience (which is not old - and not a key commercial radio target), it would now be double its current size. It was always variously too young - or too old. There are some notable exceptions across the country where gifted managers - and presenters - got it right.
As I’ve argued before, the UK now needs to create a single sustainable tier of local radio - by bringing together small ILR, community radio and BBC local. Such a layer of non-metropolitan, thoroughly local stations would be funded by a decent contribution from the public purse (but not as much as the £124m plus other costs the BBC currently spends) plus a slice of some of whatever Facebook and the like volunteer to save their own reputation - and some commercial revenues.
BBC Sounds “aims to give people, especially younger listeners, the best in entertaining, experimental and highly creative audio”. Using the vehicle of podcasting to feast younger audiences - for that is where they will increasingly live - is a sensible approach. But with over half the top ten UK podcasts being BBC created or inspired, should the BBC be striving to create material on the public purse which others could provide at a similar quality? There are some brilliant BBC Sounds offerings, and some exceptional ones from other sources (I adore Elizabeth Day’s 'How to Fail'). We also know that there are some truly awful podcasts – and some poor BBC offerings, at goodness only knows what cost.
The BBC owned broadcast, should it really set out to own the UK podcast?
This is a moment for the BBC. It is 1926 all over again, with the BBC trying to identify the space it will occupy. Back then it was a monopoly – and that monopoly had a logical funding conclusion. Now, that monopoly cannot exist and the funding conclusion must be similarly different.
“Stop BBC cuts – save the BBC” is a non sequitur. Without cuts there will be no BBC.
The BBC remains luxuriously-funded and wholly inefficient, much like many large public organisations. For the best insight, speak quietly to those who’ve worked in other worlds and then crossed to the BBC. They know the areas where the legitimate added resource lends for the very best quality output, and, by contrast, where its structure and processes simply get in the way. It must operate more tightly – and when you do that sensibly, you generate a great environment for creative thought, not one bound in bureaucracy.
It’s important to make the right cuts. The BBC has proven how good it is at identifying the wrong ones – presumably to create public outcry. BBC 6 Music was always an excellent example of what the BBC should be doing and should never have been at threat. Without the BBC Trust, it would have closed - a BBC Trust which is no longer on sentry duty. The BBC often spends, surprisingly, too little sometimes on areas which make a difference to the listener – and too much on poor projects and over-management.
Every BBC staffer can tell you tales of how much time is spent working on looking after the needy Auntie herself, rather than the listener or viewer. It’s interesting hearing Jane Garvey speak of the relative production process of 5Live vs. time honoured Radio 4.
Run it more efficiently, focus on what is important in the 21st century to be a valuable part of the UK’s overall broadcast and podcast offering. Honour current audiences – and be prepared to lose services along the way long-term as the market delivers.
Overall, this is the time when true, bold BBC leadership is needed, if we are to save the unrivalled quality of UK radio overall. There is a risk that in purely seeking to preserve the extant BBC at all costs, we will destroy it.
“He who prides himself on what he thinks the public want is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards” (Reith)
Catch my less controversial talk at Burgh House in Hampstead on Wednesday 4th March. 'The Story of Radio' - looking back at the last century - and forward.