Thursday, 6 October 2011

On Where British Radio Went Wrong

In addition to TV, websites, publications etc., the BBC runs around eight national radio services plus a clutch of national, regional and local stations. Its licence fee also  supports the World Service, until recently funded by the Foreign Office, in addition to some of S4C and the costs involved in the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting.

New cuts will inevitably affect BBC radio, but if the Government hadn’t made such a terrible decision 45 years ago, the BBC wouldn’t be facing the dilemma it is today.

I believe that BBC radio was in its heyday back in the mid-60s.  Britain was a liberated, creative cauldron, exciting things were happening across all aspects of society, and the BBC was a means by which the nation could discover and explore what was going on.  It ran three national networks: the Home Service, the Light and the Third Programmes.  Journalism and drama formed most of the Home Service output, the Light Programme thrived on music and entertainment, and the Third Programme studied classical music and the intellectual world.  And that was it.

However, just over three miles out to sea, rusting hulks broadcast pop music to the millions ashore yearning for something different, contemporary and beyond the domain of the mandarins of Portland Place.  It was the success of pirate radio that prompted Harold Wilson to become suddenly aware that people were enjoying something that his Government couldn't control.  In a very British knee-jerk reaction, hasty legislation cut off the revenue stream to the pirate stations around the country, and reconstituted the BBC to serve their audiences.
It was a mess.  The Home Service became Radio Four, the Third Programme Radio Three, and the Light Programme an uncomfortable hybrid of Radios One and Two.  Uncomfortable because, in their early years, they shared programming: it was not unusual to find a programme exploring the depths of prog rock followed by 'The Organist Entertains'.  Pop music programming was rationed, because the BBC had no facilities to promulgate it.  Restructuring the behemoth to accommodate it would take time.

When the Conservative Government came on the scene a couple of years later, they opened up the airwaves to operators of local commercial radio stations, the first of which, LBC, opened on 8th October 1973: the first music station, Capital opened a week later.

It was this six year hiatus since the pirates were forced off the air on 15th August 1967 which skewed the development of radio in the UK irredeemably.  Instead of encouraging the commercial talent and opportunities the pirates offered by legalising their services and making them land-based, the Government prohibited them and used the hefty might of the BBC to create its own take on pop music broadcasting.  The innovative edge those maritime stalwarts brought to our transistor radios was lost forever.  Local popular music radio had to reinvent itself over the next decade, and by the time the whole country had its own pop stations in 1980 that fresh edge had withered and died.

Yet there had been a one-stop solution.  Frank Gillard, having exhaustively studied local radio in the US, was behind the BBC developing it in the UK: its first station opened in Leicester in 1967.   But the US model is a commercial one: how on earth did the government ignore this and give the UK local radio network to the BBC?

This disdain for commercial radio in the UK in the sixties precluded any new local radio stations from effortlessly assimilating the work of the pirates onshore.  The London-based BBC needn’t have been involved and would have continued excelling itself with its three national networks,  expanding over time to provide rolling news and sports services using existing facilities.  Popular music would have been left to the people who did it best.  Specialist stations would have eventually arrived, operated under the aegis of established operators (much as HD stations are in the US today) and accommodated within existing spectrum. 

Therefore, if Wilson’s Government hadn't taken such exception to the commercial sector offering the public something previously unavailable (and at no cost), the state of British radio would now be so much better.

And the hopelessly over-indulged  BBC wouldn't find itself today having to divest itself of 20% of what talent it has left.

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