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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Happy Day of the Dead

Today (and tomorrow, curiously) is the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead

It’s a festival I’ve always rather liked the idea of, not too mawkish, but rather colourful, varied, and personal. The idea is that it’s the one day of the year when the dead can come back and visit the living, and people are therefore encouraged to celebrate in a way which their dead friends and relatives would enjoy. Of course, as a miserable old rationalist, I don’t really believe that the spirits of the dead come back to visit, but I still think it’s a good, and probably psychologically nourishing, idea to celebrate people who are no longer with us, and be thankful for the impact they may have had on us.

The day always reminds me of Grim Fandango, one of the best, most imaginative and stylishly told stories I’ve ever enjoyed. It happens to be a computer game. It’s set in the Land of the Dead, the story told over four days, each a year apart, and each of them falling on the Day of the Dead. This seems as good an occasion as any to plug this beautifully written and crafted piece of storytelling. If you’ve got some time to fill without wanting to spend much, you could do much worse than getting hold of it. Go down your local second hand games shop, and unless Shrewsbury is completely abnormal, you’ll find it at a criminally low price.

Anyway, happy (or perhaps not so much, in some cases) Day of the Dead.

A Little Poem from Membrillo