Forget the US caucuses and the EU referendum. Because in broadcasting land, it must be Charter Renewal season. You can easily tell from the unedfying display of radio executives having public spats over whose network is best. And frankly, it’s sounding like a broken record.
The latest attack on the BBC, which comes around almost as often as The Four Seasons on his station, is from Classic FM’s boss Sam Jackson, who has called on the head of Radio 3 to “stop aping” its output. As a biased observer, I’m bound to say this is laughable. But it does raise a fair point about the balance to be struck between what might loosely be divided into “popular” versus “public service” broadcasting.
When Classic FM first came on the air in 1992, it was certainly a breath of fresh air compared to the stuffy fare on Radio 3. Its birth – as the UK’s first national commercial radio station – was something of an accident. It was awarded the licence after another bid, promising variety and show tunes, failed to pass what the regulator called the “quality threshold” – in other words, being both financially viable and acceptable to the suits at the Radio Authority.
Classic FM is unashamedly populist – probably the only model which can turn a profit. And the brand is franchised around the world, being easy to duplicate in almost any territotiry with minimal copyright issues. It probably isn’t helpful, therefore, that the controller of Radio 3 Alan Davey has compared the station to MacDonalds.
It’s partly these comments that have promoted the backlash from Jackson. But putting the name calling aside, is it really reasonable for commercial radio to demand that the BBC only broadcasts output which isn’t commercially viable? The suggestion – as with Strictly Come Dancing or daytimes on Radio 2 – is that the BBC somehow has no right to entertain the nation, to be something for the mass population.
It is, of course, no surprise to hear this guff churned out yet again, so close to negotiations to renew the BBC’s Charter and Licence Fee. Radio 3 may not be to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t mean the BBC shouldn’t continue to attract new listeners through popular programmes, and perhaps at the same time persuading them to try something a bit more serious.
It very much sounds like Classic FM is whingeing in the same way that Smooth moaned a few years ago about Radio 2, perhaps in the misguided hope of getting a few highbrow MPs to lobby the Culture Secretary. Critics also complain that the BBC has a guaranteed income, while conveniently forgetting that it is constantly under review and scrutiny by several layers of management and regulation.
Like all radio stations, Classic FM has to recognise that the landscape has changed massively since that September day in 1992. It should also recognise that its sole competitor was one reason for its very existence.