It seems that hardly a day goes by without the finger of suspicion being pointed at the BBC. Googling and gossip is at an all time high, and the nation’s chattering classes and nattering networks are abuzz with criticisms and carping. The Corporation’s unfathomable remit and the indelicate quality of its output top the list of tetchy topics. Equally prickly are the budgeting excesses, ageism, political bias and that old standby, the ever-expanding licence fee. If, however, the BBC’s most glaring mistake was ever brought to bear, we would have to cite an issue that happened, or indeed didn’t happen, many decades ago.
I first hogged a BBC microphone in 1976 at the start of a four year stint with Radio One. Several seasons fronting shows at Radio London and the BBC South & West followed, plus a stint at the World Service. In each and every instance, the primary incentive for being on the air was to feature the life-changing music that the BBC had bypassed during what had been ‘the truly golden days’. For the sake of argument, the pop industry as we know it today began in 1956. The glitz, the glamour and the glory, all came together that year with the arrival of rock & roll and its attendant stars – Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. The music was honest, liberating and free-spirited, but if you lived in the British Isles hardly any of it could be heard on the BBC.
Cue the following decade, and the cultural revolution that went with it, yet very little had changed. Having broken the mould cast by America for the first time ever, the UK was suddenly dominating the world of global entertainment through such exports as the Beatles, the Stones and the Who. It’s hard to believe, but whilst all of this groundbreaking stuff was happening the obstructionists at Broadcasting House still thought that “Henry Hall’s Guest Night” was the peak of the week. It took until 1967 and the launch of Radio One before the Beeb stopped impersonating Rip Van Winkle. By then, the gift horse had been firmly kicked in the cheggies.
Fast forward to 2010 and boy, what a contrast exists twixt the old order and the BBC’s current cartulary of transmitted sound. Just look at the sum of the parts. In the past few years the key terrestrials, Radio’s 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, have been joined by two digital servers, Radio’s 6 and 7. Across the borders lie BBC Radio Scotland, Radio nan Gàidheal, BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Radio Foyle, BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru. Internationally speaking, the Corporation is represented by the ever-present World Service. And on a regional level there are no less than 40 local stations currently in operation. If podcasts, digital station 1extra and the Sound of Asian Britain are factored in, that brings the total to an astonishing 57 varieties of radio broadcasting. Viewed from the vast reach and the footprint covered, there’s a hell of a lot of ether being gobbled up by the BBC.
On paper this should be Utopia. In reality, it’s rampant overkill. To add insult to injury, the BBC’s tiresome youth directive continues to infiltrate the majority of the output like a slithering virus. And which age group (the largest demographic by far) is least served by this insulting imbalance? Why, it’s the ‘baby boomers’ of course. Those kids who had no BBC pop station to listen to when they were growing up. If one day the venerable institution performs a volte-face and actually honours its own Charter, by promising (q.v.) “to stimulate creativity and cultural excellence, and to provide public value in all of its major activities”, then ‘Nation might one day Speak Unto Nation’ as per the original intention. The next Director-General of the BBC, whose appointment should be sooner rather than later, might want to win friends and influence people by addressing the long-standing disparity. As this could take some time, will someone please wake me when the revolution is over.