On Monday my employer, the BBC, announced that it plans to axe my favourite radio station, 6 Music. Carnival Saloon's regular patrons will have read previous posts here about songs I've discovered on 6 Music and I doubt there's another station in the world that plays Tom Waits so regularly. That in itself is worth my licence fee. Jude Rogers has written a great piece in the Guardian that's spot-on in summing up my own feelings about the station.
The death knell was rung in the BBC's Strategy Review, a lengthy and wide-ranging document entitled Putting Quality First, that outlines proposed changes to all of the corporation. Although one of the five "content priorities" the review says the BBC will now focus on is "bringing knowledge, music and culture to new minds, eyes and ears" 6 Music's demise is justified on page 39.
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. 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. 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. Boosting its reach so that it achieved appropriate value for money would significantly increase its market impact. Given the strength of its popular music radio offering from Radio 1 and 2 and the opportunity to increase the distinctiveness of Radio 2, the BBC has concluded that the most effective and efficient way to deliver popular music on radio is to focus investment on these core networks.
This argument baffles me. The BBC are unwilling to try to increase 6 Music's reach because they believe commercial radio will well serve its average audience. Really? On page 56 the report states, "it is clear that commercial radio effectively delivers mainstream popular music broadcasting to younger and middle-aged adults. This audience is commercially attractive and the BBC’s digital services in this space (for instance, Radio 6 Music) do not currently deliver significant enough public value to justify their intervention." But which commercial stations are going to step up and fill the void left by 6? Certainly none of them do so at present. In a blog post last week Adam Bowie, who works for Absolute Radio, wrote, "One less major brand is never a good thing. Perhaps there'll be opportunities for services like Xfm or NME, but I'm really not sure."
I agree. One of 6 Music's great appeals is the vast and diverse array of music it plays in from many genres and eras. According to the Compare My Radio website in the last 30 days 6 Music played a whopping 2723 more unique tracks than XFM and 1317 more than NME Radio. Another of 6 Music's unique selling points is its creative and extensive use of the BBC archive. How will commercial rivals tap into this wonderful resource?
I think the Strategy Review's authors, gentlemen who evidently don't know their Art Brut from their Elbow, are confusing mainstream music with popular music. They are right that there's plenty of mainstream music on commercial radio (as there is on BBC Radio 1 and 2). But 6 Music is not a mainstream channel and it's frustrating to read that they think the station lacks significant public value. It's closer in spirit to Radio 3 than Radio 1 or Radio 2 in that its witty and engaging DJs expose their listeners to the rich cultural seam of popular music (in the very broadest sense) from the last 60 years.
I'm listening to the 6 Music Breakfast Show right now. Arcade Fire has just followed Jerry Lee Lewis. When I came home on Friday Tom Robinson played some grand old-timey twang I'd never previously heard and then had a beautiful live session by young folkie Emily Portman. While it's amusing to think about Golden Wonder sponsoring the Steve Lamacq show and Jarvis Cocker's Sunday Service brought to you by the good people at Harris Tweed is there any genuine likelihood that 6 Music's intelligence, breadth and depth will be met by commercial radio?
On Wednesday's edition of Radio 4's Media Show John Tate, the BBC's Director of Policy & Strategy, stated that his review "sets Radio 1 and 2 a challenge to take up the best of what Radio 6 (sic) did and so become even more distinctive". Mark Thompson told Jon Snow on Channel 4 News the previous day that, "Some of the best stars and some of the best output on 6 Music could find a place on other networks".
This not only seems wrong-headed but also contradictory to what Putting Quality First proposes is "the most effective strategy for its popular music radio services" namely that "Radio 1 focusses on its target audience of 15-29 year-olds" and to "implement the findings of the recent Trust review on Radio 2, including the need to ensure that the average age of the station's audience (50) does not fall and, if at all possible, goes up". So presumably if some elements of 6 Music do migrate to Radio 1 or 2 then the station's 37-year-old average listener will not be encouraged to hear them.
It's unlikely that the playlist dominated output on Radio 1 and 2 will ever appeal to 6 Music fans especially if Radio 2 adopts the Strategy Reviews's proposal to commit "to at least 50% speech during daytime". This means that if elements of 6 Music's output do find a new home they'll likely be in "specialist music" slots. The joy of 6 is that you can turn it on at any hour of the day or night and hear a new song you've recently discovered, an old one you've forgotten you loved or something amazing that you've never heard before. Best of all, for the most part you'll be guided to that music by a presenter who's passionate and knowledgeable about what they are playing.
The Strategy Review begins with an introduction by Mark Thompson titled The BBC and Public Space. Public space he writes is "an open and enriching environment" that the BBC is part of. He discusses ITV's cancellation of the South Bank Show in this context: "Audiences lose a precious connection to arts world; the UK television industry loses an important documentary platform; but at the same time, many artists and cultural institutions lose a significant pathway to the public. Public space is diminished".
I'd argue that canning 6 Music will have a similarly negative impact. The artists and institutions that will "lose a significant pathway to the public" are new or non-mainstream bands and independent record labels. In a joint letter to Mark Thompson opposing the the cut the chief execs of the British Phonographic Industry and Association of Independent Music write, "There is no other radio station which is remotely comparable in scale or depth for showcasing new music". Today's Telegraph quotes Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien on a similar point, "I wonder if those who made this decision are actually aware of the hugely important role that 6 Music plays in fostering and promoting new bands, as well as still playing the likes of the band that I am in. It literally is the radio lifeblood for music outside of the mainstream."
6 Music is not perfect. Since Bob Shennan became its controller in January last year it does seem to have developed a stronger identity and the addition of Jarvis Cocker and Cerys Matthews to its DJ roster have both been well received. Still, some its other presenters are irksome and the station could do more at defining its purpose. It does have a relatively small audience and only 20% of the population has heard of the station. But let's not forget that 6 Music is only available on digital platforms and the station has never been well publicised. The only TV ad for it has been this bizarre one that does little to promote what makes 6 Music unique and worth investigating. I am convinced that with cross-promotion and a continual and sensible marketing push 6 Music audience's could grow significantly.
As a proud BBC employee and as a licence fee payer I'll be hugely disappointed if 6 Music closes down. There is no other station like it and I doubt that another one will spring up in its wake. To my mind it epitomises what the BBC can do that no other broadcaster can or is willing to do.
The BBC Trust may yet reject the proposals. If you have any thoughts on the Strategic Review the public consultation runs until 25 May 2010 and you can feedback via the BBC Trust Website. If you've never heard 6 Music and thinks it sounds appealing start listening.
On Monday Lauren Laverne ended an emotional show with Lambchop's Up With People. This morning she kicked off with Positively 4th Street. It seems appropriate to share them both.
MP3: Lambchop - Up With People
Buy Lambchop - Nixon: 7digital | Amazon
MP3: Bob Dylan - Positively 4th Street
Buy Bob Dylan - Biograph| 7digital | Amazon
Note: The views expressed above are my personal opinions and not those of the BBC.
6 Music - listen online to every show from the last seven days
Save 6 Music Facebook Group
BBC Strategy Review Public Consultation - have your say