Wednesday, 3 March 2010

BBC 6 Music and Asian Network Face The Chop

The media is changing before our very eyes. Traditional media is drastically re-thinking its business model. New media is being outsmarted by ‘newer media’. Social networking is now a major source of information and entertainment. And radio is striving to stay relevant, connected and mass market.

In the midst of this, the world’s greatest broadcasting corporation, the BBC, has to navigate and chart a course that balances public service, quality programming making and journalism, value for money, political pressure, and viewer and listener benefit.

The BBC’s ‘land grab’ into digital during the last decade was, strategically the right thing to do. Move, and move fast or risk being left behind; the symbol of a bygone era... an ‘IBM’ in a Google world.

So a raft of digital networks, both TV and radio, were created and the investment online was spectacular.

This was at a time when most commercial rivals, in all media, were doing well. And although some voices were raised, the opposition was not too vocal.

Fast forward to 2010, and the world is a very different place. The BBC has grown bigger and bigger, and concurrently, commercial rivals are being challenged like never before, many with declining audiences and declining revenues. The BBC had just got too big in many people’s eyes.

Read their annual report to see the scope of its work (and read the budgets, if you really want to bring a tear to your eye!)

So the announcement yesterday by Director General Mark Thompson of a Strategic Review into BBC services was always going to be met with some sort of reaction. After all, in the UK, we all feel we “own” the BBC and have a close personal relationship to it. It’s ‘our’ BBC. And due to the licence fee UK citizens pay, it’s all funded by us. So everyone has a sense of ownership, more than with, say a brand like ITV, or Sky.

The headlines tended to focus on stuff that’s going to close, which brings me to BBC 6 Music and Asian Network. For those of you unfamiliar with them, they are 2 national UK radio stations available on DAB, Online, Digital TV etc.

A quick look at the numbers for you; BBC 6 Music has a weekly reach of 695,000 and 0.4% market share. In 2009, BBC 6 Music costs £9 Million pounds to operate.

BBC Asian Network has a weekly reach of 360,000 and 0.2% market share. In 2009 BBC Asian Network cost £12.1 Million to operate.

Many in the commercial radio across the world will baulk at these figures. It’s no doubt that these networks aren’t exactly cheap to run! Could or should they perform better given the budgets? Or is that missing the point? Are we so obsessed with numbers and performance we forget that the BBC is meant to be a cultural body, safeguarding and feeding our cultural needs in the UK, whatever they may be.

It’s a nice sentiment, but the BBC doesn’t operate in a complete vacuum and has to function in a market environment, even though it has guaranteed funding.

(By the way, BBC Radio 1 cost £43 Million to operate in 2009, and Radio 2 almost £51 Million! Nice.)

So, why axe BBC 6 Music and Asian Network? It seems the answer is that the BBC feel that much of what 6 Music does could be incorporated by Radio 1 and Radio 2, which I actually believe to be true. It would certainly make those channels even more distinctive, and the crossover with commercial radio even less.

Likewise trying to group all Asians together and provide a UK radio station for them was always going to be a challenge, and the BBC believe that it can serve the Asian community better by more targeted programming through local radio, TV and online, which is probably true. The fact that neither of the stations were performing very well is true, but should not be the main argument for closing them down. They do become more of a target however, due to their low performance and high operating costs.

The BBC can’t be seen to grow to large. And it has. So it’s trying to do something about it. And fair play to them.

The reaction to the proposed closure of BBC 6 Music is unsurprising. The vast majority of its fans will be educated, highly computer literate, socially networked, and independently minded. The ‘Twitterati’ have sprung into action, so a visible and sustained campaign to keep it open will now follow.

I’m less certain how the majority Asian Network listeners will feel as it’s harder to define a ‘tribe’ that isn’t united by music or attitude, but rather defined by which continent their motherland was. However, nobody wants their favourite radio station to close down, so I’m sure the passion is there too.

So, do BBC 6 Music and Asian Network do some great programming? Yes... no doubt. Are the networks too costly to run? You bet. If they close, can some of their output feature on BBC platforms? Probably... yes. Will commercial radio benefit from their closure? Not greatly. Is there an over-reaction to the closure of 2 DAB stations? Undoubtedly – but they are ‘BBC’, so that’s expected!

The strategy review is now out to a 12 week consultation, and it’s the BBC Trust will ultimately decide the fate of these 2 radio services. You can have your say too, and if you feel strongly enough, I’m sure they’d welcome your thoughts. Just click here.

If these stations do close, I’m not overly concerned that the cultural backbone of the UK will wither and die. It won’t. I’m actually more interested in reminding everyone that these stations are staffed by a whole load of talented radio guys and girls that may lose their jobs at the BBC, and even their passion for radio. And that’s one of the sad consequences of all of this.

The media world has never seen a more turbulent time than now.

Good luck Auntie.

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