The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is currently receiving oral evidence in its inquiry into the future of the BBC. Quite often, in the debate on the BBC licence fee, radio is forgotten, and in terms of the overall budget of the BBC, this is perhaps understandable.
Yesterday morning though, the committee heard evidence from representatives of Bauer Media, Global Radio, and RadioCentre.
BBC radio should be offering listeners something different – something they cannot find elsewhere in the commercial sector. BBC radio should be adding value and leading the way, however the committee heard yesterday that far from leading the way, much of the output on BBC radio is in direct competition with commercial radio stations.
To give an example, the output from Radio 1 can be heard on commercial radio stations up and down the country. It interviews the same artists, attends the same festivals, and is in direct competition for listeners.
Much the same can be said of Radio 2. Although it covers a broad range of tastes, virtually all of those tastes are catered for in the commercial sector.
Radio 3 doesn’t fare much better. Instead of leading the way in classical music, it is seen as following Classic FM. One of those giving evidence commented that when you tune in to Radio 3 you quite often hear a former Classic FM presenter!
The only national BBC radio station that is seen as offering something not available in the commercial world, and therefore can be seen as offering genuine public service broadcasting, is Radio 4, although with a budget in excess of £100 million a year, it should not be any other way!
Ironically, local BBC radio stations, which, it can be argued, offer something their commercial rivals do not – and are not trying to compete with them either – are the stations facing disproportionate cuts.
I love BBC local radio. It offers in-depth coverage of local news, debates the issues affecting local people, and offers comprehensive coverage of local sport too.
So what should change? Well, those BBC radio stations that are competing with their rivals, rather than offering something their rivals cannot, should either change or compete in the commercial world just like any other broadcaster. I am a firm believer in public service broadcasting; however, it should not be abused.
For public service broadcasting to mean anything it has to add value. It has to offer something different. It cannot be more of the same but without the adverts.
Just as the government or councils shouldn’t be putting companies out of business by offering services that are already available in the private sector, the BBC should not be churning out the same output we can hear elsewhere.
The BBC can be accused at times of being elitist, however in its defence, when you are responsible for catering for niche audiences, that accusation is very easy to make. What came out of the evidence given this morning, though, is that the BBC is failing to cater for many niche audiences in its radio output. Instead of leading, it is following.
This is not what public service broadcasting is about.