I’m overjoyed that DCMS today announced the arrival of the Audio Content Fund. It’s £1m a year, from the Government, for radio stations of scale to broadcast great public service programmes from a variety of production companies.
It all came about when the Government announced they were working on a content fund for television perhaps concentrating on genres that were hard to fund in today’s society – particularly children’s programmes. As the discussions for that were happening I started talking to people about how it shouldn’t be a TV fund but a cross-media one. I felt that if you’re creating public service media for children, that just keeping it on broadcast television – especially today – seemed a little anachronistic, and that it should be open for radio and new media too. I also run a children’s radio station, so you can understand why I was quite keen that the scheme be expanded!
RIG (now AudioUK) were very supportive of this, so we worked together to start talking to more people about it. I even wrote this piece for Broadcast magazine.
As part of those discussions we started a conversation with the DCMS, who were positive, but felt that the TV fund wasn’t the vehicle to do it. So instead we started having some exploratory meetings about what an audio fund could look like. First of all I started to ask some big commercial broadcasters about whether they would be happy to run public service material funded this way on their networks – things they would like to do, but couldn’t commercial justify. They were all positive.
Me, Will Jackson from AudioUK, Phil Critchlow, Audio UK’s chair and their policy expert Tim Wilson then had an interesting meeting with some of the policy team at DCMS where we explained how radio was made (commercially and at the BBC) as well as how the commercial radio business model worked. It was definitely a light bulb meeting for them, as they realised the cost-effectiveness of making public service programmes and broadcasting them on radio stations of scale, like commercial radio, would be.
AudioUK then started working with RadioCentre and doing the hard work with the Government which has resulted in what’s been announced today. The short version – £1m per year for radio stations of scale – to commission and broadcast public service programmes. It’s the cousin project to the £20m a year TV fund for children’s content administered by the BFI. The Audio Content Fund will be managed by a new company operated by RadioCentre and AudioUK – they’ll award the money to programme makers under the guidelines set by DCMS.
I think this really is a win-win for everybody. Commercial radio gets to commission quality programmes that they want to have on their networks, but can’t afford to do day-to-day. Production companies get an outlet for public service ideas that isn’t the BBC. This means more commissions for them (and new income), but it also means some competition for the BBC for these ideas.
At the moment many of the inefficiencies in the BBC’s radio commissioning structure stem from the fact that there’s no competition for great radio ideas. In television, the commissioning process has changed for the better because the influx of competition from Netflix and Amazon has meant the BBC now needs to be faster and more flexible. From discussions with BBC colleagues, the podcast commissioning rounds have also generated very different responses than radio, because there are a far broader range of outlets and business models for great podcast ideas – the BBC is just one. Again – it’ll change how the BBC works, for the better. Whilst £1m is perhaps only around 5% of what the BBC spend on outside commissions, it’s certainly a good start and will help invigorate radio commissioning.
More good programmes on a variety of commercial radio stations will also be good for ‘radio as a product’. If you consider all of the stations on broadcast radio (BBC and commercial) and our cross-platform delivery of them as a single product that we’re presenting to consumers – something I think is essential for radios continued relevance – then the addition of great shows can only enhance our offer. More great programmes can only ever be a good thing.
I’m excited to see what this new £1m a year delivers for commercial radio and listeners.
More information about the fund: audiocontentfund.org.uk