WHY CAN’T IT ALL JUST STAY THE SAME

There’s an interesting column on the Evening Standard’s website today about radio. The column is where someone anonymously gets something off their chest. The piece is from an in-house BBC Radio producer (apparently) and they rail against the BBC’s planned compete and compare (which will open more BBC programmes to competition from independent production companies) and that they’re forced to do social media when they should be making radio.

I don’t for one minute, think this is a view shared by all BBC radio producers, but it did make me think a bit about independent production generally as well as social media’s role in radio.

In the piece there’s a view that opening BBC Radio up to more competition will destroy many good things about BBC radio whilst lining the pockets of the independent sector.

At Folder, we’ve been involved in a bit of independent production over the past few years, so have some experience of how bits of it work.

Firstly, most independent production companies don’t make a fortune from BBC radio work. Indeed many don’t make any money from it at all. For simplicity I’ll break down commissions into two – one off documentaries or short series and then regular strands (weekly or daily shows).

It’s pretty hard to make much money from the former but you can make good money from the latter. Most people hope that the work that they put into the former will hold them in good stead to win the latter.

Folder’s involvement with productions is predicated on that – start small creating docs or small series, build up a reputation, and hope that you’re in a better position to win bigger things. This is hard. Competition is tough. Big boys like Somethin’ Else, 7digital or Wise Buddah have already done this hard work and are also annoyingly good at making programmes, so they’re difficult to unseat.

Strands are great for indies because they generate extra resource that can be shared on other shows. So, for example if I win Bob’s Indie Experience on 6Music the production fee may cover an AP, a Producer and time from an Exec – but it’ll probably be quite tight. As soon as you also win Geoff’s Soul Experience you can share resource among the two shows – and start to make some money. For large operations there’s benefit back to the BBC too – they get access to graphic designers, video people and social media bods from the indie too.

Docs though are quite a different story. To get these one off’s is also hard as the networks are inundated with pitches. I think Radio 4 get 10x as many submissions as they have spaces available. This means 9 out of 10 ideas get rejected. I think this means that the ones that get through turn out to be truly excellent ideas. If in your job you had 90% ideas vetoed by the boss, what’s left would likely be the best of the best and make you work harder to get your ideas accepted. That’s what Radio 4 and the other networks get.

I would love Radio 4 to commission Matt talks to his mates in his office. Profitability would be quite high. Unfortunately they don’t seem to like this. What they do like is a documentary about Hip Hop in the Middle East. Where we have to go to the Middle East. Flights, insurance, fixers, travel etc.

Radio 4 gets great ideas, the scope of which, ensures that the vast majority of the money from the commission goes on the programme. Indeed the profit margins of these shows are often wiped out when you take into account the research to pitch the 9 ideas that didn’t make it and then the unbudgeted management time to cope with any issues.

In our organisation we’re lucky that as we do a few things, we have resources that are paid for by something else, these can then be used by these docs for free. If anything we’re subsidising the BBC’s radio docs, not the other way around.

Now, we’re not martyrs. We don’t have to make these things. We’re doing it because we’re hoping to do more later and can make some more money. It can also bring in revenue and use people that we’re employing anyway. Plus it helps build staff experience which is valuable to the company,

But the combination of the 9 out of 10 failure rate and the ability to draw on other companies resources is why I think independent production wins the vast majority of awards.

We have to work so hard to get things commissioned, that when they do, they end up being premium ideas as chosen by the commissioning bosses. I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen in-house, but where there’s production quotas to fill there can be less pressure to come up with stunning ideas when good ones will do.

That’s why I think Compete and Compare is a good thing. It does bring more jeopardy, it does change the way people have to work, but what it also does, for both ends, is focus the mind on delivering great, interesting ideas for the budget that’s available. Surely that’s a great thing for licence fee payers?

What it does mean is that you’re not going to be left alone to get on doing what you’ve always done. Sorry. Whether it’s public money or shareholders money – it’s your job to deliver value – creative, monetary, whatever. If someone else can do that better they should be given the chance to do it.

Where does the line get drawn? Well, the network decides, the bosses decide. Balancing budgets and creativity has always been a thing and it will continue to be. The system will just change.

Social Media

The other bit of the article is the audible sigh about having to do social media to support a radio show. It sort of fits the head in the sand narrative of the piece, but I know it’s something that many in both BBC and Commercial Radio agree with.

Unfortunately there isn’t a one size fits all answer to the question. But it can be useful to go back to first principals – why bother with social media?

Using social media helps increase your hours from existing listeners (giving them another reason to tune in) and provides a reach building opportunity (if that piece of social content is shared with others) so new people tune in.

Personally I think if you care about what you’re making, then you should want people to sample it.

Whether you’re a commercial broadcaster that needs ratings for revenue, or you’re a public broadcaster that wants to demonstrate value by your content reaching audiences that could love it, social helps you do that at little or no cost.

As modern media folk we decide how we spend our time. 10mins on improving some audio vs 10mins promoting that audio – what’s the best use of that time? Each individual has to decide that themselves.

I also don’t think the argument ‘someone else should do that’ necessarily washes. You could say the same thing about everything. I need someone to do that interview, I need someone to answer my phones, I need someone to do social media. Well, just like whether you get an assistant, someone decides whether your output justifies extra resources. If they don’t (rightly or wrongly) then you’ve just got to get on with it. So, yeah, open up Photoshop and get drawing. That is your job too.