Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Whoah! BBC - What is it good for? MEGA-POST

After doing that mega-post last month about the evolution of Radios One and Two, I always felt there was a bit of unfinished business with reference to the 'ecology' of the entire BBC radio output. I might never have gotten around to writing it had it not been for the subsequent BBC Trust announcements re specific reviews of Radio Two and 6Music and, yesterday, the announced intention to close the latter.

Having finished writing most of this post I've doubled back as I realise I must remind people here I'm an uber-defender and supporter of the BBC - a true eighth wonder of the modern world - and largely the licence-fee method of funding, but this seems a good place to let rip on where it falls short ... as I see it. However I do it with a heavy heart in a climate when the BBC needs all the friends it can get, but true friends don't lie to you, and true friends should be in charge.

So you might expect this is another 'Save 6Music' contribution - it isn't. In fact part of the unfinished business of last month's post would have been a preference for 6Music not to exist but, importantly, because there shouldn't have been a need for it.

I think most of the problem lies at managerial level, particularly the strategy of obliging the bosses of Radios One and Two to oversee digital siblings 1Xtra and 6Music respectively. Laying aside the possibility that these individuals themselves may never have been convinced of the need for those digital stations to exist - their very positions will encourage further a conscious cordoning off of 'alternative' material from the parent analogue stations, if only to bolster the digital stations' individuality. Basically 'if we don't do this on 1Xtra/6Music there'd be no reason for them to exist'. But that's casual ghetto-isation in action and demeans the reputations of the parent stations as well.

Particularly heard in the defence of 6Music of late has been cries of 'where else would you find 'x' artist/genre/show/presenter', implicitly chiding Radio One and/or Two. But these defenders have demonstrably given up on those stations already and now can't see the wood for the trees. I don't want to detail all these lamentations but one basically said 'where else would you find a credible presenter like Stuart Maconie?' and even 6Music presenter Cerys Matthews appears to believe only her station plays the blues or bands like Mumford and Sons. "Oh but Radio One or Two play them alongside stuff I don't like" - who sees the irony here?

I happened to listen to Jon Richardson on 6Music last weekend, partly as an exercise to see what the fuss was about, and a feature of the show was to play live BBC sessions from years gone by. Given how much the analogue services apparently abandon your average 6Music devotee you can imagine my surprise when one of that day's archive came not from some well-into-the-night, decades old Peel or Lamacq session but from Rufus Wainwright on Dermot O'Leary's peak time Saturday Radio Two show! Either there's an amazing degree of wilful ignorance going on, or these 6Music fans are rather too fond/comfy in their muso bolthole and don't want the content spread around, or to acknowledge that it exists elsewhere and did before 6Music began. The accusation it garnered of being 'Radio One and a half' was not without foundation - and remember that didn't ever mean it was just a superior version of Radio One.

Basically, the BBC has too many outlets to spread stuff around, often just promotional stuff, and has lately come to defining the outlets for the sake of defining them rather than actually pondering why they existed or continue to exist in the first place. It's begun to confuse itself and its consumers.

A few random things that puzzle me - what are poetry and drama doing on Radio Three, rather than speech-based Radio Four? Why, if Radio Three is not just a classical music station and covers folk, jazz and world music, why isn't it doing other contemporary genres - who chooses? What is a pop culture documentary doing on Radio Four when it should be on Radio Two? What is comedy doing on Radio Two, when Radio Four excels at it? What is a two hour film review programme doing on news/sport channel 5Live, even when one presenter has now moved to Radio Two where it would sit rather better? Why is BBC Scotland increasingly trying to cover UK/world affairs? Why are there two BBC Childrens' channels which both bleed into the analogue channels while both leave BBC Two to do schools programming ? Why isn't there at least a digital TV equivalent to 5Live Extra? Why does the Asian Network hand over at night to 5Live and not the World Service? Why does the execrable PMQs get broadcast simultaneously on three TV channels and one radio channel? Why isn't there an "English Six"? Why does the BBC website carry more recipes than Delia Smith? Why is Chris Evans doing video content for a Radio Two show that can only be accessed by the BBC website? Why is Radio Two's relaxed "Pause for Thought" better than Radio Four's pedantic "Thought for the Day"? And Fearne Cotton - just WHY? Most of these deserve posts of their own.

Anyway, the more that the various BBC outlets seem to stake a claim to their defining USP the more they are actually stepping on each others' toes and yet still missing opportunities..

There's one event which crystallizes that problem, and further underlines it is not confined to radio - I call it the 'Glastonbury dilemma'. I admit this partly stems from the present 'broad church' state of the festival, but where primarily do you go on the BBC to hear/see it? Of course it's probably a more useful exercise to ask where do you go on the BBC to avoid it that weekend - it's covered by almost every outlet, even those that in every other year will also be juggling with Wimbledon and major soccer tournaments at the same time. It's certainly something that annually outs how much material Radios One, Two and 6Music have in common - no doubt many artists can tell you this happens all year round and U2 shamefully took blatant advantage of lately (one of the BBC's biggest ever bad calls).

It's probably unavoidable that there will be some crossover of BBC channels but the arrival of 6Music made it that much more regular an occurrence as, despite the vociforous cries of the 6Music massive, there are very few artists and genres - if any - that won't get some airplay either on Radio One or Radio Two, who both retain specialist programming. The latter has even had overt "6Music on 2" slabs with Craig Charles' and Dave Pearce's shows (arguably these would be a better fit on weekend Radio 2 anyway) and 1Xtra appears to do a simultaneous broadcast on Radio One for 12 hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning, with one of those DJs (Trevor Nelson) also being a specialist Radio Two presenter!

And any 'music of black origin', if they are to persist with 1Xtra as it seems they are, should be confined to 1Xtra - though I feel 1Xtra deserves the axe as much as the Asian Network and their programming should also be split between Radio One and Two, possibly even Three. The existence of 1Xtra begs the question, for me, is this the default home for acts like JLS or Beyonce and, if so, why are they on Radio One and Two as well? Such stations go against the ethos of inclusiveness and merely legitimises community divisions. It's the major reason I'd never advocate the BBC do general gay programming either.

As the BBC stations are not commercial enterprises they also should not be arranged on the increasingly flawed age profiles adhered to by commercial stations - there really should be no upper or lower age limits to target in vain - it's much more a matter of content, personality and taste that drives you to BBC radio stations. Just as there are probably people out there who will never be 'old' enough for Radio Two, others that have never been 'young' enough for Radio One and many who stick to other channels entirely - what age should you be for Radios Three, Four and Five anyway? - some will shockingly listen to a mix of them, just as they do with TV. We don't personally define what we listen to by our age or race (nor by location, sexuality, religion or politics) - the only exception might practically be language, which I'll address seperately.

So I'm edging to my point - change Radios One and Two to take on 6Music's role - I've heard the DG say this is the plan but I'm not sure I believe anything he says.

Many have defined 6Music as the station you graduated to when you felt too old for Radio One but too vain to switch to Radio Two - if so, it's not an attitude that is strong enough to deserve indulging. And echoing something I said last month, it's Radio One that needs to do the most changing as it has failed to remain true to Matthew Bannister's radical 90s vision while ironically, Radio Two has since (unbidden) evolved more successfully while still keeping baby in bathwater. Another Bannister-like beating is what Radio One needs again - more on content than personnel this time.

Radio One shouldn't have feature artists whose latest single I could hum, it shouldn't target the X-Factor demographic and YOU SHOULD NOT hear chart acts on Radio One that would not and do not raise significant hackles on daytime Radio Two - so no Coldplay, Fleet Foxes, Franz Ferdinand, Robbie Williams, Snow Patrol, Paulo Nutini, Manic Street Preachers, Take That, Glee cast, U2, Mika, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, The Killers, Razorlight, Alicia Keys, Girls Aloud, etc etc no matter that they're in the charts. The charts indeed should not be any way for Radio One to relate its output against - it should be leading not following and Radio Two can follow where necessary. If they're in the charts, Radio One's job is done - move on to the next.

Somewhere along the line Radio One and 6Music (and their respective listeners?) have also forgotten that Radio Two is now less the station your whiffy grandad listens to and more the station your camp clubber of an uncle listens to. I've heard Radio One organise entire concerts around acts that can all be heard regularly on Radio Two (and some on 6Music). That Glastonbury analogy strikes again.

Arguably, Radio Two should be playing very slightly less of this too and could do with reigning in its unchallenging playlists between breakfast and drivetime, regularly throwing in a few well-placed vintage curveballs that would never be heard on daytime commercial radio - who's really going to switch of for a Glenn Miller or Herb Alpert track? Maybe something like replacing Steve Wright with the Radcliffe & Maconie evening show? They've made strange attempts this year with the new incarnations of Chris Evans and Terry Wogan, but rather ineptly I think. Somewhat bizarrely I'd cite Paul O'Grady's mixed playlist as a good example of where Radio Two is at and should be at.

It's difficult sometimes though to choose which new music suits which station. It must always be Radio One by default where there is any doubt, but there really should be no instance where 6Music has had to step in with a particular genre or new artist. I'm sceptical of course that that's ever really happened.

I mentioned language earlier as an example of something that could be used to define why you would listen to audio and it would apply also to the written word to a lesser extent, something the BBC would keep in mind by giving translations on its websites. No problem with that or with the BBC's Radio Nan Gaidhael or contributions for S4C though I'm unsighted on the latter.

What we don't need is a part licence-fee funded digital TV channel which either dubs/subtitles gaelic from a language that even the vast majority of gaelic speakers understand perfectly well or makes programmes in gaelic that have to be dubbed/subtitled into English for anyone else to understand. Yes, I speak of BBC Alba, which currently still threatens to throw all BBC radio stations off Freeview in Scotland, just when the BBC is meant to be encouraging digital switchover.

I realise that the whole gaelic issue is a political hot potato for Scotland generally more than it is for the BBC, but BBC Alba is a perfect symptom of it.

With two particular acts in defence of Alba the BBC at Pacific Quay - under its gaelic speaking controller - has behaved in a disingenuous manner that would do a politician proud. First it has made sure their ratings are not measured the same way every other TV channel is, but has contrived to put mainland soccer matches exclusively on BBC Alba - a sport I'd have thought has actually less not more association with the gaelic heartlands, but just happens to be a peculiarly Scottish central belt passion. Of course, the commentary is in gaelic, but that's not a problem with subtitles or if you're listening to it on the radio at the same time. Deeply cynical move to prop up the ratings BBC Alba can get.

While there's an arguement to say what the BBC does best is sugaring the public service pill so you don't even know you've been medicated (and that incedentally must involve sugar), Scotland doesn't need gaelic, let alone paying for it.

My particular beef with BBC Alba goes deeper than that though- almost as soon as it started broadcasting there came calls for a BBC Scotland digital channel - or SBC as the SNP government prefer. Some even called for 'Scots language' promotion - I call them numpties. Had they not noticed Scotland had just been gifted a digital channel and chose to give it up to a minority language that isn't even native, unlike the situation in Wales. Yet there IS a legitimate case for a BBC Scotland channel, and yes, it would include gaelic programming had that not already been catered for first. Ideally, it wouldn't be centrally controlled from Glasgow or Edinburgh so as to avoid the central belt oriented content served up now - when was the last non-networked BBC Scotland show you can recall that wasn't set in Glasgow? Who are you most likely to hear calling for more Scottish news coverage - why it's Holyrood MSPs who can then top up egos and screen career before 11pm on BBC Two. I actually have some sympathy with them though - devolution hardly dented coverage of Scottish politics on the likes of "Reporting Scotland" when it should have had something ring-fenced as they do with the 'sport'. As it was they pleased no-one with "Newsnight Scotland" simultaneously banishing political discourse to the margins and denying Scots of what can often be the most interesting part of the network programme. As an aside I'd also say STV should give up the ghost and hand in its channel 3 licence to instead become the foremost independent producer for a BBC Scotland channel. That's a BBC Scotland channel that replaces BBC Alba.

But I've now rambled a bit and this is already another mega-post - time to attempt round up.

Just been listening to ex-BBC DG Greg Dyke (on 5Live with Richard Bacon*) who not only was one of the best leaders at the BBC, and I use that word advisedly, but he talked a lot of sense about the current issues facing the corporation, notably that so near to a general election it's folly to show weakness with announcements of cutting services.

However, it was Dyke himself who got carried away in relatively fairweather times, adding new services there was no clamour for. It created hostages to fortune - Eldorados for the modern age.

Anything that exists on the BBC will equally have it's hardcore fans and it's detractors and neither need to be listeners or viewers as it's often expressed on principle with an institution like the BBC - the whole 'this is what the BBC should be doing' or not. There's probably no hard and fast rule or mathematical equation to trump those arguments. Should cost and value for money be the priorities for continuing with a service or should providing what the market can't/won't be what it's all about?

They're fundamentally opposite considerations of course, and we all pick and choose whichever is convenient for our causes, just as we always want the thing we don't listen to or watch dropped first.

Even rather intelligent people who should know better do this (I'm sure I've not avoided it above). Yesterday I challenged a tweet by a Guardian journalist who wanted Radios One and Two to be axed to spare 6Music, which is bollocks logic anyway. I'm sure she doesn't simultaneously listen to all three stations. Were "Doctor Who" at risk of being binned again there would be little point of me asking for the heads of Chris Moyles and Jeremy Clarkson just to avenge my wrath.

So actually it's difficult to make a conclusion on the grounds I expected to make - which was basically to say that if anything should have been cut it should be the likes of BBC Alba which I don't think is value for money or a genuine public service. (Mixed metaphor warning) But really BBC Alba, 6Music and the Asian Network are all minnows in the cash stream and yesterday's announcement probably amounts to little more than a hasty cutting of Auntie's toenails, clumsily drawing blood but attracting derision in the process.

Because ultimately it was all down to external politics and one of the main reasons I rate Dyke way above present DG Mark Thompson is that he had a backbone and championed his staff and politely told the usual suspects to fuck off - Thompson is already dropping his trousers for a Daily Mail spanking at the slightest criticism of his corporation, even from people who should be firmly in the 'well they would say that wouldn't they' camp like the Murdochs, the commercial radio lobby or, let's not forget, The Guardian. And in seeing how successful a strategy this is these bully rivals only come back for more.Thompson probably has 'mea culpa' tattooed somewhere, but then this is a man who has personally took it on himself to travel to the Vatican and curry favour with the Pope in the hope that Big Benny might come and spread his particular brand of poison on the BBC airwaves while he's passing through. Personally, I have a problem with a DG who actively pursues these agendas, while not attending to the day-to-day job

Yet at the same time executive pay and allowances at the BBC have been allowed to go through the roof, apparently just because they can. I was never that bothered about Jonathan Ross's infamous multi-million contract (there is only one of him on a one-off three-year contract), though it was probably a mistake in hindsight even before 'Sachs-gate', but I was livid when I heard about Erik Huggers' stupidly extravagant expense claims - even the inventor of the iPlayer isn't worth that much cosseting. Of course his was only the worst case of excess and indulgence on the executive blank cheque.

But this is happening under a Labour government and we are still under threat of a much less naturally sympathetic administration come May the 7th. What will be the sacrificial lambs then and how regularly will Thompson be offering them up? That's the real worry as it's looking possible that 6Music (and perhaps the rest) will survive. I actually have more faith in the Tory party doing the right thing than Mark Thompson, as I doubt that too many of them really want to kill off the BBC or reduce it to Radios Three, Four and the news services, but Thompson might well offer it first.

The solution I propose is decapitation - Thompson must go, and before the general election.

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