Let’s get one thing straight before I launch into something that is inevitably going to be quite diatribey. I am not a BBC-loving lefty who thinks you can’t touch the national institutions that made this country great, etc. I am a Tory-voting borderline market fundamentalist who, in principle, would not agree with the idea of distorting the entertainment market by demanding money from people in order to ensure a company could do whatever they wanted without having to worry about whether or not it was any good.
However – and this however has a big butt – I know a good thing when I see it. More importantly, I am not alone. Clearly, despite my boring views on political economy, I cannot pretend that the BBC fails in every area. On the contrary, by providing me from the age of 3 with Top Gear, HIGNFY, Parkinson, Tomorrow’s World, Election Night specials (thinking aloud here), all of Attenborough, Buzzcocks – I could go on – and, more relevantly, Radios 1 to 6, it has been nothing less than my third parent and now, perhaps, fifth housemate. This is not sentimentality (I’m a Tory remember), it’s testiment to the consistent quality of their output.
Now, I have been known to rant about the decline in standards due to some of the appalling choices they’ve made across the board of late which mostly leave me staring incredulously at the TV wondering what the hell happened. In fact I agree with and/or accept some of the cuts proposed in the strategic review; the BBC does crowd out competition in several areas and doesn’t need to be so prevalent in the sector. Also, during the explosive hate-circus that was expenses/salary-gate I was fairly amazed at some of the figures bouncing around the bank accounts of Thompson and friends. But none of this matters here. I say it only to outline my position before I start chanting, with Twitter hashtags, #SAVE 6MUSIC.
The decision to axe 6 Music is based on two simple premises: that the ratio of cost:audience is not good enough to sustain it and, were they to treble its audiences, due to their demographic they would be in direct competition with… er, the competition, which is contrary to EU Law etc etc. Now, given my political pursuations outlined above, I would generally agree: competition is hugely important in all market places. In The Times’ double-page spread on Friday (26th) they had a compelling graphic of the most listened-to stations, showing Radio 2 at the top with a ‘weekly reach’ of 14.8m, Radio 1 at 12.8, right down to Smash Hits at 1.5m. 6 Music doesn’t even feature as it ‘reaches’ only 695,000 people. But wait, if it’s about cost and demographic competition, what about Radio 1? There is no way that a station with an output as eclectic as 6’s can have as strongly identifiable a demographic as Radio 1, or even 2. The Times’ says the average listener age is 35. Well, the average age of the population is 39 so you can make your own minds up about how supportive that statistic is of the BBC’s argument.
Surely, rather than cutting those stations that don’t reach The Times’ listener reach graphic they should be cutting the ones at the top? I can only assume they won’t get rid of Radio 1 because the outcry would be huge; it is perhaps too big to fail. The point is, the competition/cost principle doesn’t hold up. Rather it is quite plainly the case that if a station is getting ‘enough’ listeners, regardless of what it’s doing to the competition, it stays.
So, hold on a minute, you would be right to say; isn’t the adherence to chasing ratings and making sure your station is financially viable the guiding principle of a commercial enterprise? Indeed, does not The Times’ headline for said double-page spread read, ‘The empire cuts back as Auntie is told to stop chasing ratings’? (It does.) This is why, despite holding closely arguments about cutting other things instead, I set that particular rant aside. Such opinions are highly subjective. My point is much wider: that the whole point, the sodding raison d’etre of the BBC, is to make the best use of the luxury of not having to worry about ratings but, instead, worrying about quality of output. The BBC has much experience of measuring such things, so why not put that to use with 6 Music rather than brushing them aside because their numbers aren’t high enough? As any academic would tell you, this problem demands a qualitative, not quantitative approach.
If distorting the market to achieve higher quality of output was in the forefront of the minds in charge, 6 Music would be safer than the concept of cool in the hands of Jarvis Cocker. At the heart of the save 6 Music protest, and what makes it a wider cause for concern with respect to future decisions, is the fact that this is clearly no longer the case. If things like 6 Music are not wanted, I fail to see the purpose of the BBC in its entirity. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.
I can’t end on that dispondent note though. There is some hope in the unlikely shape of the commercial sector. If I were a budding entrepreneur I would set up a new station called ‘6 Music’, offer all the current presenters whatever money they want – given their dedication I doubt this would be commercially uncompetitive – and simply airlift the station out of the misguided clutches of the BBC and into the private sphere. Yes there would be advertising, but there would also be billboard and TV promotions which would, in time, yield the listener base 6 Music so richly deserves. Here’s hoping I’m right.