Save BBC 6 Music

Thursday, 4 March 2010, 0:01 | Category : Stuff
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So it’s official. The rumours were true. The BBC wants to kill 6 Music. No surprise after last Friday’s leaked story, but it’s been interesting to actually see the report that recommends the closure, and infuriating to see Mark Thomson trying to justify it on TV today. The problem with the report and what Thompson has been saying is that the arguments are weak, they makes little sense and there have been a mess of contradictions.

I’m going to be going on about this at great length below, but just to spare the casual reader, here’s a quick summary of what I’m saying,

  • The proposals fly in the face of the BBC’s stated desire to have quality not quantity. 6 Music provides consistently high quality, distinctive output which is unique in radio
  • It’s no good complaining that the audience figures are low when the station is only on digital radio and hasn’t been promoted extensively. And if you want to look at total budget/audience ratios, 6 Music offers more than double the value for money that Radio 3 does, and there’s no proposals for any cuts at that station
  • The proposals don’t even make sense – there is a confusion about what will happen to 6 Music’s ‘most distinctive programmes’ and where their listeners should go, when vague and contradictory things are being said (both in the report and by its defenders in the media) about 6 Music and the future of Radios 1 and 2
  • The assertions that BBC 6 Music does not have a target demographic and that it is encroaching a ‘commercially valuable audience’ are nonsense. 6 Music’s listeners are discerning people who love music and spend their time and money on music-related stuff (records, CDs, gigs, festivals) probably more than any other music radio audience. And there is no similar competitor for this audience or for 6 Music itself anywhere else on commercial radio or the BBC. I challenge anybody to find one.
  • Ultimately though, this isn’t about audience figures or commercial competition – 6 Music (and Asian Network) are cheap and easy political sacrifices made by an ill-informed and cowardly BBC management who need to be seen to be making cuts. The BBC is a monstrous organisation and there are hundreds of places cuts could be made without having to sacrifice two excellent, distinctive radio stations.

This is what I’m probably going to be sticking in my email to the BBC Trust, who are the people who have the final say on the BBC’s proposals - and there may be a chance that they could say no. There’s a consultation from now until 25 May, so if you care about 6 Music, or even just about good quality music broadcasting, you should respond too. Go to the strategy review page and fill in the questionnaire, or send an email to the address given. Or do both.

Nerds and people with time to spare can now read on.

The Strategy Review’s big recommendation is “closing Radio 6 Music and focusing popular music output on Radio 1 and an increasingly distinctive Radio 2, using the resources released to drive digital radio”. I’m not sure what this actually means, and statements made elsewhere make it even less comprehensible. For instance, saying the Radio 2 should have 50% speech content may make it more ‘distinctive’ but makes a nonsense of the bit about ‘focusing popular music output’. Then…

“The BBC will also review how some of 6 Music’s most distinctive programmes can be successfully transferred to other BBC radio stations, and how its support for new and specialist music can be sustained across the BBC”

How is that going to work? Particularly if Radio 2 is going to have less music. Or are they just going to make the little music they have left more eclectic? This is where things get really confused. Thompson said that that “a broader range of music would be broadcast on Radio 2 under the proposals, in which there were ‘big changes afoot’”. OK then, I’d like to see where Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone is going to fit into the Radio 2 schedules. But then he also said that the station should continue to serve older listeners and should not suffer from “age creep” towards a younger audience. This is nonsense. How can he have both?  Radio 2’s average audience age is 50. 6 Music’s is 37. How there be any combination without ‘age creep’?

So if 6’s listeners aren’t going to be heading in Radio 2’s direction, will we be off to Radio 1 then? I doubt it, since there’s nothing about changing Radio 1’s focus away from the under-25 age group that they’re so determined to conquer. The truth is more likely to be that no effort will be made to accommodate either 6 Music’s most distinctive programmes or its listeners elsewhere.

The main recommendations for 6 Music are on pages 11 and 12 of the report. Here’s a quick breakdown, with some comments.

“Radio 6 Music presents a different challenge. Although small in audience, reaching around 700,000 listeners a week, it plays a wide range of music that listeners do not hear elsewhere and it introduces many listeners to music that is new to them. The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radio 6 Music confirmed that it is popular amongst its fan base and its music offering is distinctive.”

All well and good.

“However, although it has achieved good growth in recent years, it has low reach and awareness and delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC radio. Thompson said that it was “expensive … given its relatively small audience”.

Well duh. It’s a digital radio station which hasn’t exactly been extensively promoted by the BBC and it would no doubt have a far larger listenership on FM. And looking at just how much is spent on other BBC radio stations (via this lovely diagram), surely Radio 3 with its budget of £51m and 2 million listeners represents far worse value for money for the licence payer ( £25 per listener) than 6 Music with its budget of £9m and 700,000 listeners (£12 per listener).

“And whilst 6 Music does not have a target demographic audience, its average listener age of 37 means that it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience.”

This seems to be saying that there’s plenty out there for 6 music listeners in commercial radio land, and it’s unfair for a publicly-funded broadcaster to be barging into this market. This is where it’s impossible to take the report seriously. The report’s authors must have made no effort to find out anything about 6 Music or its listeners. 6 Music does have a demographic – people over 25 who care about music. Sure we like to be entertained, but we listen to 6 because we want to hear enthusiastic, passionate and knowledgeable DJs play a great range of music. And where is the commercial alternative to that? It could be argued that XFM is a competitor, but that’s like saying that Radio 3 competes directly with Classic FM and 5 Live and Talksport are jousting for the same listeners. It’s also far easier to argue that Radio 1 and 2 are competing in a commercial space, because they have scores of similar stations across the country. Thompson argued on Channel 4 News last night that “both of them do things that no commercial radio station does.” Well, true (and they are probably both better than their commercial rivals), but take a look at the Radio 1 playlist and compare it with Capital’s.

The key difference though is what happens outside the playlist, and it’s here that 6 Music really excels. Where else can you hear Captain Beefheart at half ten in the morning?  Where can you hear far-out sounds like Stuart Maconie plays? Which other BBC station is making as good use of the BBC’s amazing music archive, a veritable history of rock music? And who else is providing the consistently excellent nightly live music sessions that Marc Riley does? No commercial station is. Neither is radio 1 or 2. If it’s a distinctive music station you’re after, 6 Music wins every time.

Even if 6 Music is “taking audiences away from its struggling commercial competitors”, as Mitch Benn said on Twitter today, “isn’t it the commercial competitors fault for being shite?” followed by “Is there a clearer example of cultural cowardice than culling off the exceptional so that the average feel less threatened?” Spot on.

But ultimately, Thompson doesn’t really give a toss about the commercial competition. 6 Music and Asian Network are political sacrifices, so Thompson and his other highly-paid BBC executives can show that they’re cutting costs on their publicly-funded behemoth by getting rid of two of their national stations with relatively low listener figures (not the lowest mind, if that were the case 1 Extra and 5 Live sports extra would be for the chop) thinking that there won’t be much of a fuss. If that’s the case he’s going to be wrong. There’s already a huge stink brewing among 6 Music’s faithful listeners but it hopefully won’t be long before this spreads to the industry.

Because surely the industry isn’t going to be happy about 6’s demise. More than any other BBC Music station, 6 Music helps build the careers of new bands at an early stage in their careers. Take for instance Mumford and Sons, currently riding high in the top 10 album chart. Which station championed them from their early days, played their records and gave them live radio sessions? Whether or not you like this band doesn’t matter. The point is supporting new music and the industry knows this. And perhaps even more crucially, 6 music listeners are exactly the sort of people that the industry need because they’re pretty much the only demographic left who buys music regularly. Radio 1 listeners probably think that having to buy a download is an infringement of their human right to free music. Radio 2 listeners only buy one CD a year. Whereas the dear old 6 music listeners – testified to nightly on Marc Riley’s show – are the ones parting with cash for music they love, mostly music they first heard on 6 Music. So how about some top-level industry support – stars and record bosses – in support of 6? Can’t be that hard, eh? Come join us in the fight.

7 Comments for “Save BBC 6 Music”

  1. 1John H

    This sums up — and clarifies — all my thoughts on the matter. Thanks. I’ll tweet it far and wide.

  2. 2Robin @ Breaking More Waves

    All very good points here. Totally agree.

    Incidentally last year the combined BBC wage packet of Jonathan Ross, Ann Robinson and Jeremy Clarkson were more than it cost to run the whole of 6 Music.

    The essence of what the report says is good - that the Beeb should be focussing on quality. But this cultural murder is not doing that.

  3. 3Jefferson

    Bad timing right after the digital switchover surely? More people than ever have access to the BBC’s best station…

    http://wereviewanything.co.uk/2010/02/27/the-axeman-cometh-bbc-6-music-face-the-chop/

    xoxox

  4. 4steve thack

    good article , pretty well summarises the stupidity of the decision to axe 6music. its a political decision made as a sacrifice to keep the tory party happy, but a decision made by idiotic managers who didnt understand how much 6music was loved (unless the backlash is somehow part of some big master plan)

  5. 5Dick Muskett

    Just back in the country after three weeks aways to hear the 6 Music news. Your article sums up the idiocy well but its worth adding that I’m in my mid 60s and a number of friends in the same demographic are also 6 Music listeners. Why? Because although we’ve been around a while, we see no reason why some accountant should decide that at our age we have to listen to the bloody Eagles, Paul McCartney and all the rest of the MoR aural Complan that Radio 2 dribbles out. I don’t complain that Radio 3 provides classical music all day to its listeners, but why should people who enjoy a mix of old punk, new Americana, and other odds and sods be allocated half an hour at 10.30 on Thursday evening? Lets start asking questions about Mark Thompson’s expense account!

  6. 6Rob Sessions

    This article offers some great insight into the numbers behind the decision to axe 6 Music - and why it makes no sense.
    http://www.beehivecity.com/television/bbc-6-music-lies-damn-lies-…-but-what-about-the-statistics/

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