BBC 6 Music and the Future of DAB #saveBBC6Music

Today, the famously pro-BBC Times reports that the BBC plan to slim down their radio services, amongst other things.

The Times report that

Mark Thompson, the Director-General, will admit that the corporation, which is funded by the £3.6 billion annual licence fee, has become too large and must shrink to give its commercial rivals room to operate.

Commercial rivals. Room to operate. Got it.

So that will be the most commercial stations and least distinctive output on the block, will it? Good idea. Fair enough. Fine.

In a wideranging strategic review, he will announce the closure of the digital radio stations 6 Music and Asian Network…

*sprays coffee over newspaper*

I’m sorry, what?

WHAT?

Somebody please explain to me how this makes any sense. If you want to give commercial operators room to operate, you close Radio 1 or, possibly, Radio 2. You do not scrap the things that the BBC does which nobody else shows the slightest interest in doing. You don’t close Radio 3 (as some narrow minded Tweeters have suggested), you don’t close Radio 4, you don’t close Radio 5 (although perhaps you do push it back in a slightly harder news direction in places, so as to give TalkSport’s non-sport output some room), and you don’t close 6Music. For that matter, I’d also suggest there’s an argument for not canning Asian Network, but I can’t honestly say I listen to that, and it is at least conceivable to me that in some areas there will be commercial rivals which cater to a similar but more focussed audience (after all, “Asian” is a pretty wide remit), so I won’t venture an opinion on that one.

It’s particularly galling when 6Music seems to have a stronger sense of what it is for than it has for some time. The massive improvement of relegating George Lamb to weekend early mornings, to be replaced with the excellent (and much more in tune with the station’s outlook) Lauren Laverne, is a move for which I was hugely grateful to the beeb, like many 6Music listeners.

Surely there are other more deserving candidates for the axe? What about BBC3, surely that’s not contributing much unique content to the nation?

At least, that was my gut reaction. But then I stopped and thought a bit, partially prompted by Will Howells. So I thought about it some more, since, unlike Stephen Colbert, I don’t believe in thinking with my gut. So here are some pertinent facts:

Take-up of DAB has been slow, and it has yet to become a really mass medium. It’s hard to imagine a digital radio switchover coming down the pipe any time soon. I’m not sure I hold with the slightly reactionary “what’s wrong with FM” line, but there are all sorts of very sensible uncertainties about the wisdom of pressing on full steam ahead with DAB in its current form.

The thinking on 6 Music amongst meeja types is almost completely divorced from the actual quality of the output. It is mostly concerned with the average ratio of listeners to the cost of the hours of radio produced. And 6Music, it cannot be denied, costs money. Rather a lot more money than, say, BBC7. The high production values, the frequent live performances, the researchers looking for new music to play; this is an operation with some resources, and you couldn’t really cut back on that whilst keeping the things about 6Music that make its fan base loyal and committed enough to put #saveBBC6Music on the trending Twitter topics at the moment.

So that leaves the other side of the equation. The “listeners” part. The real question is, how far is it possible to drive up listenership of 6Music, when DAB is not as large a market as FM, putting it at a definite disadvantage in any comparison based on listener to cost ratio? To be fair, the BBC has tried; there was a fairly big campaign of telly and cinema advertising for 6Music not that long ago. I’m assuming that they’ve evaluated the results of this, and decided that this whole thing is just a bit too much to push uphill in the current climate.

After all, the BBC has to question its current role as one of the main drivers of DAB growth. Whilst they were doing a favour to the commercial sector in putting enough DAB content out there to drive the take-up of the format, they could justify the expense as part of a wider purpose. Now, with the rest of the radio industry increasingly lukewarm about DAB, this argument has gone, and the value of the BBC’s digital radio output must stand on its own merit, lest it become a white elephant. If it’s too costly, I can see why it would make sense to strip it back from a strategic point of view.

The problem with that, of course, is that I still love 6Music and think its output is much more of a public service than several of the BBC’s FM stations. Only on 6Music do you find programming with the genuine sense of exploration of stuff like Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone, or the sheer brilliance of Adam and Joe, who don’t quite fit the bill of either Radio 1 or 2, but are brilliant nonetheless.

But I wonder whether the answer isn’t to insist that between them, Radios 1 and 2 take up much of the function of 6Music as it stands, and drop some of the things that the commercial sector genuinely would do perfectly well if the competition from the BBC eased off. After all, as I said above, if the BBC want to stop treading on the toes of commercial rivals, then it’s those stations which are most in line for a rethink. I’m sure Adam and Joe could fit on a retooled Radio 2. If Radio 1 decreased the sheep-like industry-driven playlist culture a bit, and took back more of the John Peel mantle which 6Music has worn well for the last few years, it would be both immeasurably better and less of a commercial sector spoiler. Perhaps the most difficult to rehouse would be Freak Zone, but even that might find a slot on Radio 3, perhaps?

In an ideal world, I’d like 6Music to carry on where it is, I’d like Adam and Joe to come back next week, and I’d like to magically upgrade all the DAB radios already sold in the UK to something like DAB+ or whatever, and make the rest of the world standardise to that, thus instantly removing much of the hemming and hawing over digital radio’s future.

Back in the real world, I wonder if people urging the BBC to save 6Music might do better to urge them to save all the elements that make 6Music brilliant, and find space for them elsewhere in the BBC’s radio output.

Or perhaps, find space in their FM bandwidth for 6Music?

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6 Responses to “BBC 6 Music and the Future of DAB #saveBBC6Music”

  1. BBC 6 Music and the Future of DAB #saveBBC6Music « Wouldn't It Be … | My In Group Hot News Says:

    […] this link: BBC 6 Music and the Future of DAB #saveBBC6Music « Wouldn't It Be … Posted in Music, Uncategorized Tags: actual, amongst-meeja, average, average-ratio, […]

  2. Fred Hart Says:

    I hope the BBC don’t shut down 6 Music. I listen quite often and would say its probably the most distinctive of the 3 “music lead” channels.

    Yes, it has a lower audience, but that’s because it is so unique!

    Knowing the BBC, they will ignore all the negative feedback about the station’s closure and close it anyway. But I hope that someone will have the sense to move some of its programmes over to Radio 1 and Radio 2; Chris Hawkins, Gideon Coe and Huey Morgan are too good to loose!

  3. governing principles Says:

    With regards to shutting BBC1 & 2 instead to create more room for commercial operators: The fact is that popular programming is meant to draw people to the BBC so they will then hear the BBC’s educational programming (either through not switching over or by hearing an advert). This model did not work that well on the Radio (unlike TV) until iPlayer but now seems to work rather well. The point is that popular channels, like BBC6, are not really meant to be there for their own ends. Instead, there job it to pull in viewers/listeners who can then be lured to documentaries/news etc… I’m actually quite a fan of Radio 6 but I have to admit that it viewing figures are too poor to be able to achieve this. That said, I hope the BBC moves some of its content to Radio 1 & 2.

    http://www.governing-principles.com

    • Andy Says:

      I’m a little puzzled by this response, I must say. I realise that the BBC has argued that there must be an element of popular programming in its services which serve to put the BBC firmly on the map amongst the viewing and listening public, rather than letting it exist as some kind of minority-interest ghetto for worthy programming which nobody watches. I agree with this argument for TV channels like BBC1, but I don’t see that much public service broadcasting is put out by Radio 1, for instance. Maybe half an hour or so at the weekends, but that’s about it.

      You say that 6Music has “viewing figures” which aren’t good enough, because it’s meant to be a “popular channel”, but this misses the point. Radio 1 and 2 are intended as the “popular channels” you mention, but I would suggest that 6Music is emphatically not. It is there for relatively serious music fans, and it performs a genuine public service in playing its part in the ecosphere of the British music industry, giving opportunities to lots of new bands and giving listeners somewhere to go for DJs with real passion for new music. I don’t agree at all that the BBC should be considering 6Music as one of its populist listener grabbers, any attempt to make it into one would ruin it. My comments were only intended to suggest that, if the BBC is going off DAB as a whole, then this wouldn’t be so unforgivable. As it is, with 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC7 and 1Xtra staying, I don’t actually think they can credibly argue that, so I would rather they keep 6Music unless there’s something else they aren’t telling us…

      • governing principles Says:

        We might be talking at cross-purposes hear. The loss of 6 Music is not the Beeb going off DAB, its because it needs to appease concerns that it is distorting the commercial market without damaging its broadcasting model. I was making the point that Radio 6, in not adding value to the BBC broadcasting model, was always going to top of the list when cuts began.

        I would point you to a speech by Sir David Attenborough that explains how the BBC model is meant to work: http://www.scribd.com/doc/22601976/The-Future-of-Public-Service-Broadcasting-by-Sir-David-Attenborough

        The basic idea is that entertainment broadcasting on the BBC only came into existence to draw people to the educational stuff. This works very well on TV but not well on radio (which is why Radio 1 & 2 have actually been attacked a lot in their day as they are not considered educational enough) but it is the purpose of the model. Anything that is not educational has to draw in decent viewing figures as its role is to get people to the educational stuff.

        The point is, to fulfill its role in the BBC model 6 Music needs either be popular (Radio 1 & 2) or educational (Radio 4 & 5). That 6 Music pleases a minority audience is not a reason in itself for 6 Music’s existence.

        You are, however, correct that this leaves other BBC stations open to further cuts (including attacks on my favorite stations Radio 7 & BBC3). The post was merely explaining why 6 Music’s demise is inevitable: disliked by commercial stations and of little value to the BBC model.

        Sir David’s speech was made when the Beeb was circling the wagons last year. There is also one from Stephen Fry: http://www.stephenfry.com/2008/06/18/the-bbc-and-the-future-of-broadcasting/

        http://www.governing-principles.com

        • governing principles Says:

          Have just re-read what I posted an realised how unhelpful it is. If you want to defend 6Music you need to go down the “on iPlayer it has amazing figures for listeners clicking-through to BBC documentries” line of defence. You need to show the BBC that it fits with their model.


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