I think the Conservative Central Office press team must have a recurring press release set up. Every two years or so they, or an MP, argure that Radio 1 really should be sold off.
The main argument tends to be along the lines of “it’s not public service enough” and “it’s unfair to the commercial sector”.
Personally, I can think of nothing worse than making Radio 1 a commercial radio station. Simultaneously you’d kill off a massive amount of commercial revenue – as it transferred to Commercial Radio 1 – and you’d also make Radio 1 a more mainstream product as elements that are expensive or do not rate would gradually disappear. This is especially relevant as whoever bought it would be trying to pay back the money they borrowed to buy it. It would, in effect, be a leveraged acqusition – not something well known for producing well-funded creativity.
That’s not to say Radio 1 is perfect. Both it, and Radio 2, are formidable competitors. Quality aside, they have national FM frequencies (commercial radio has no national FM frequencies for pop music) and also national coverage on every UK digital platform. They have large programming budgets (over £25m each) and don’t have to run any of those annoying advertising messages. They also get the benefit of cross-promotion on some of the most popular television stations and websites in the UK. At no cost to the networks.
If you’re a radio station, that’s a pretty good deal.
The BBC, across all of its activities, has to strike a difficult balance. If it’s too popular it’s derided for being too mainstream, if it’s not popular it gets accused of not providing enough value to licence fee payers.
It’s a tough position to be in. But then it does receive over £3bn of our money. So, I don’t shed that many tears.
In the ‘old days’ it was much easier to defend a broad range of BBC output – it was one of few suppliers and could get away with much more. Case in point. Dallas. It was in primetime on BBC1. Nowadays, the idea of an American import in primetime on BBC1 would be unheard of. It’s not that the UK don’t like American serials – quite the opposite – it’s just become an accepted view that that type of programming shouldn’t be on primetime BBC1. The BBC’s role has merely moved on and developed.
I think the same thing needs to happen to the BBC’s populist radio networks.
It isn’t about being un-entertaining. Or worthy. It’s about providing high quality programmes that engage with large numbers of listeners that are not available elsewhere and perhaps would be signficantly reduced if they were to become commercial. What’s a good example? Well, something like Jeremy Vine on Radio 2. It’s a show that combines music, high quality guests and chat and generates significant numbers of listeners. It’s perfect output for the BBC.
I even think something like the Chris Moyles Show is a product that’s differentiated enough to pass my three tests above (high quality, unique and a question mark over being commercially maintainable). Whilst the talent could easily adapt to a new station, I don’t think the show’s format (a speech-intensive, young, breakfast show) would be maintainable. I think if it disappeared there would be some genuine public-service loss. Is it a show that there would be some arguments about whether it’s ‘public service’? Absolutely. But I think it’s worth that discussion.
Should this be independently managed, by Ofcom, or have money allocated like the Arts Council? No. Just like the Dallas example, collectively we should push the BBC to ensure all of its programmes follow a similar set of the suggested rules. Hopefully it would mean that progamming without real value would gradually disappear (yes, Alan Carr on Radio 2, I am talking about you) and programmes that are left work hard to be popular and distinctive.
Some may say that Radios 1 and 2 should be left alone. They’re popular stations that people love and it’s only commercial greed that’s causing all this discussions. And there is, of course, an element of truth in that.
However, what I would say, is that if you maintain the dominant position of Radios 1 and 2 you do so at a price. It is definitely not impossible, but it’s much harder for any innvoation to flourish if the BBC is allowed to continue unchecked. It is a sad thing, for listeners, if new stations (or services) don’t exist because of the budget, marketing and spectrum making them a dominant service – whether the output is quality or not.
There are a number of great initiatives like service licences and the like, but it’s on content that the BBC should be pushed harder. It’s a privilege to have the spectrum, cash and marketing to be able to deliver programmes. Unprompted, the BBC should ensure that every single piece of its output is distinctive.