It Ain’t What You Play…

It’s the party conference season, and in the run up to a General Election the political pundits can’t wait to tell us that this is the last chance for [insert front bencher’s name here] to make their big sell on [insert policy name here].

Of course, nobody really cares about broadcasting. It’s simply not on the list of priorities for whoever comes to power next year. Or is it?

One of the key tasks for the next Parliament will be to renew the BBC’s Charter – the law that essentially protects the licence fee. And on the fringes of the Labour conference in Manchester, the usual suspects have come forward with the usual argument.
As a lobbying group largely funded by the commercial sector, you’d expect RadioCentre to question what the BBC provides. But I sometimes wish they’d think a little more carefully about what they’re saying.

RadioCentre’s boss Siobhan Kenny, argues that the playlist of Radios 1 and 2 are too similar to that of commercial radio. Her argument is thus:

“…. independent research commissioned by RadioCentre shows that over three quarters of Radio 1 and Radio 2 listeners believe that the BBC should produce content that is distinctive from commercial radio. Yet according to CompareMyRadio, 6 out of 10 tracks played on Radio 1 and Radio 2 during weekday daytime are also being played on commercial radio. The BBC Trust should have greater powers to tackle these shortfalls.”

Of course, you might expect there to be some overlap between what Radio 1 and Capital plays. And it’s clear to see why a significant number of tracks on Radio 2 might also appeal to the Heart or Magic audience.

The trouble is, commercial radio seems to think the BBC should be so distinctive as to completely alienate its mass appeal. Yet I see little in the commercial radio schedules to introduce me to Scandanavian imports or some classic roots and reggae (Huw Stephens and David Rodigan, both on BBC Radio tonight). Nor do I see the kind of significant investment that goes into covering major music festivals (other than self promoting teen fests like the Jingle Bell Ball).

Before the pedants butt in, I noticed that Siobhan Kenny was referring to the daytime output. It’s no secret that the BBC networks have been running a “ratings by day, reputation by night” policy for years. But to somehow suggest intervention by the BBC Trust to restrict what a particular station plays is absurd.

Not that the BBC Trust is powerless to act. The old Jimmy Young current affairs slot on Radio 2 – now hosted by Jeremy Vine – is one legacy of a Service Licence which demands a certain percentage of speech output. Just one example of where the BBC arguably faces tougher regulation on its formats than the commercial sector.

What RadioCentre needs to do more effectively is promote the distinctive elements of its own sector. There are plenty of good examples which, with a bit of thought, could provide some real ammunition against the BBC. Although much of it is provided by stations which choose not to be members of the industry’s trade body. I wonder why that might be?

It’s absolutely right that all sides use the fringes of the party conferences to bang their respective drums. But maybe it’s time to drop the dinosaur politics and come up with something more compelling.

Change the record, perhaps?

One thought on “It Ain’t What You Play…

  1. Radio Centre seem to have missed the key point which is that music selection is only one element in the creation of distinctiveness. If for a moment we assume that Radio Two (for instance) are playing the the same daytime music as some commercial stations, why are 9 million or so listeners choosing that station? The answer surely lies in the much greater investment that Radio Two makes in the added value it brings to the music. By that I mean the production values that create the context within which listeners hear the music industry’s contribution to its output.

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