Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The end for 6music?

I’ll say this straight away - I love the BBC and can forgive them practically anything and I gladly give them £142.50 of my hard-earned cash each year. To be honest, the fact the BBC house volumes and volumes of live sessions played for various incarnations of the John Peel show is plenty value for money. Thanks to the BBC, there is the only program on music worth watching in the UK (Later… with Jools Holland, which admittedly, has the misfortune to feature Jools Holland and his dubious interview “technique”), fantastic documentaries and archive footage on BBC Four, iPlayer and the programs of Charlie Brooker. So yes, the Beeb (that term that only journalists ever use) have plenty of Get Out of Jail Free cards to make up for abominations such as The Persuasionists, Miranda, My Family and the baffling continued success of Fearne Cotton and her Radio 1 show.

However, this time, they’ve gone too far…

On 2nd March 2010, Director General Mark Thompson announced a radical shake-up of the BBC and how it will be run, with one of those initiatives being the closing of digital-only radio station, 6music. The story of the proposed closure of 6music (along with the BBC Asian Network and BBC Switch) was leaked to Rupert Murdoch’s The Times newspaper - more of which later - and led to an impassioned response from 6music listeners.

For those not in the know, 6music is an alternative radio station committed to bringing a wide mix of old and new pop music. During the day, it plays it fairly safe - though earlier today I heard Blondie, Roxy Music, Public Enemy and a live track by The La’s all within half an hour - but by night, it’s prepared to go a bit more experimental. You can hear funk, soul, avant-garde, dance and anything in between. Sounds great, right? So why close it?

The strategic review states that the BBC needs to do fewer things better, which sounds like a reasonable business strategy to deliver quality content. However, the report goes on to say that 6music “delivers relatively few unique listeners”, “competes head-on for a commercially viable audience” and various other phrases of meaningless business speak 2.0 that can reduce a man to unconsciousness at fifty paces. If you know what it means for radio stations to “deliver unique audiences”, then answers on a postcard please, but I’m prepared to take issue with the assertion that they are “competing for a commercially viable audience”.

On that note, I shall say this… of course they are, what an absolutely stupid statement to make. Hey, guess what, these people who are listening to a radio station with no adverts could, in fact, be listening to a different one that had adverts instead. That’s true of 6music and it’s just as true of any other BBC radio station.

But perhaps I’ve misinterpreted that statement. Perhaps it means that the 6music listeners could find an alternative on commercial radio that would better suit their listening requirements. Well, to that I say… no they couldn’t. In the mix of music it plays, 6music is pretty unique among UK radio stations (despite apparently not having enough unique listeners) and commercial stations would be unlikely to take such risks. Commercial stations that claim to serve up a wide range of alternative music, like Xfm and NME Radio, actually play it remarkably safe and give the nation a diet largely subsisting of landfill indie. In fact, Radio 1, the BBC’s flagship radio station, has the most obvious commercial alternatives, with stations such as Heart, Capital and Virgin having similar playlists.

Now, this is where it starts to gets confusing - there appears to be no commercial reason for closing 6music. The annual budget for 6music is a relative drop in the ocean - maybe even less than the annual salary for some of the BBC’s biggest names. Mark Thompson has said that funds are being moved to boost the overall spend on programming - which I’m in favour of - but there are plenty of better ways to do that than sink the good ship 6. The recent Winter Olympics in Canada was extensively covered by a large crew on site, and I’d imagine the spending on reporting for the upcoming World Cup in South Africa will cost a few bob.

Even more bizarre is that another of the BBC’s new manifestos is to provide “inspiring knowledge, music and culture” which would “bring music to new ears” - something which is well in line with the vision of the first Director General, Baron Reith, who believed broadcasting could educate the masses. But if the BBC want to meet such a target… well, they’re pretty much already meeting it. You see, they’ve got this station called 6music which is really great and, oh…

I’m no political expert (cue audible gasps of surprise), but there may be some element of government involved too. As previously mentioned, the story was broken by a newspaper owned by that paragon of virtue, Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch is the kind of man who thinks of nothing but a way to make a quick buck and is to culture what Kanye West is to modesty and humbleness. Murdoch is extremely anti-BBC, but the primary reason for that is because they have a guaranteed income and stop him making money. He wants to charge for The Times Online and has voiced his opposition to the BBC often. He’s also extraordinarily wealthy and oh, did I mention he owns Sky TV and is a leading investor in satellite television? With a General Election in the UK months away and a victory for the Murdoch-supported Conservatives looking likely, the state of the BBC is becoming increasingly important. The Tories have a history of privatisation and have already made a section of the BBC a commercial entity when previously in power. Sure, I’m a bit of a hippie leftie, but it seems the BBC is shooting itself in the foot before the seemingly inevitable change of power even happens.

This is a sad announcement for lovers of music, lovers of radio and lovers of quality programming. It’s also a sad announcement for the marvellous history of public service broadcasting but all is not yet lost. These measures, although strongly recommended, are not yet definite - the final decision goes to the BBC Trust and there are signs the BBC may be backing down in the face of overwhelming support for 6music.

So, you can still play your part. The strategy review can be read and commented upon until the end of May at https://consultations.external.bbc.co.uk/departments/bbc/bbc-strategy-review/consultation/consult_view. Air your views, say what you love, say what you hate but I’m practically begging here - please, BBC, save our 6.