Thursday, 4 March 2010

Some Thoughts On The Demise Of BBC 6 Music


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.

Related Links
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

22 comments:

James said...

That is an excellently argued piece. I would encourage you to send that as a letter to as many naional newspapers as possible.

Cheri said...

I agree with James. Send it out and try and get it published. We need to stop the madness. The DG needs to leave 6music alone.

sinisterpictures said...

Nigel, was there much surprise at western house at the outcry regarding the proposed axing of 6?

Nigel Smith said...

@sinisterpictures - I've actually been on holiday all week so have missed all the internal briefings etc. But talking to a few people and just listening to 6 Music the last few days there is certainly a lot of disquiet. The rumours had been flying around for so long though that I suspect the general feeling in Western House on Monday was shock and sadness rather than surprise.

David said...

An idle thought, based on the perhaps-incorrect assumption that it is now too late to save 6 Music: can we be more specific about why thia would not work as a commercial station? I take the argument about the Archive to an extent, but I would love 6 Music even if that were taken away. The recent fuss has revealed a very committed listenership, from a demographic which advertisers would love. A private company would feel much more free to spend on growing the audience, and a lot of very talented people are about to become available for hire. At a stroke you'd silence the howls about the many subsidising the few. Yes, you would have to listen to some ads, but people are going to have to get used to some form of inconvenience/ cost in their consumption of culture, or a whole generation of artists/ writers etc are going to fall by the wayside. I'm not sure I believe that just because a high quality specialist music station hasn't been done well commercially thus far (in the UK), it can't be.

nickp said...

Great post, the only thing I would take issue with is using figures from Compare My Radio. Pretty sure that it only scrapes playlist info from one source on the Xfm site and so doesn't pull any of the specialist show stuff which would include all of Xposure, The Remix, The Rock Show etc. That's probably 20% of their output and would feature the majority of their unique tracks.

Everything you've said stands, I just think using Compare My Radio stats gives a skewed picture of the music radio landscape in the UK and if we want to save 6 Music we shouldn't be quoting from sources like that.

(Full disclosure: I used to work for Xfm).

Peter said...

Brilliantly put, Nigel. I don't actually listen to 6Music very much so I'm not really that emotionally engaged in this issue, but it does appear to be indeed the kind of thing that the BBC does best and more to the point, what it should be doing. I agree with David that it should be possible for the commercial sector to give us a decent specialist music station. The evidence is that it can't, or if it manages it (see Jazz FM) it doesn't last long. The failure of DAB to take off in any meaningful way (despite the best efforts of the Beeb and the independent sector can't be discounted either.

Curt Shannon said...

Living in the States, we don't have an equivalent to Channel 6, but it sounds like an innovative outlet for music that doesn't fall into neat boundaries. There are university stations here that can provide this kind of music smorgasbord, but the playlists are often at the mercy of students, and their (sometimes) less-evolved tastes. I hope that you can find a way to keep the station up, and strike another blow against homogenization.

John said...

Incredible post, Nige, please follow James's and Cheri's advice and get this out to the people.

Nigel Smith said...

@nickp - fair point, though I also don't think Compare My Radio takes into account all of 6 Music's output either.

@David - could 6 Music work as a commercial station? As Peter points out past evidence seems to suggest not. I've just read this post by Steve Orchard, a commercial radio honcho, in which he writes:

"Commercial radio can never replicate 6 Music’s cultural value – it’s not viable for us to do so. The commercial landscape has featured many fine rock music stations that have never made any real money – over time we water them down and gently shepherd them back towards the traditional commercial heartland. We will gain nothing from this closure yet the music industry will lose much."

His full post at The Drum

stevethack said...

nickp compare my radio claims to be using actual data from tracks played, think you'll find their figs are pretty acurate.

this seems to be the best argued article that i've seen so far. 6music is unique. radio one or 2 has no space for the music played on 6. and nothing from the commercial sector even begins to compare.

sozzifer said...

One thing that's puzzled me over the past few days, in the myriad of articles that I've read about this ridiculous proposal, is that 6 "delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC radio". Really? From my completely unscientific survey of this claim (asking those of my friends who listen to 6), the only other BBC radio stations they listen to are Radios 4 and 5 (for the cricket). I'd like to see the data on which this claim is based.

Nigel Smith said...

@sozzifer - that's the point. The friends you mention are not "unique listeners to BBC radio" because they also enjoy Radio 4 and 5live as well as 6 Music. It's not surprising that because 6 Music fulfills so many of the BBC's public service aims that its core audience are also attracted to other bits of the BBC that do likewise.

This is also why BBC Three will likely survive all cuts. Its target audience of viewers who enjoy the likes of Snog Marry Avoid? and Hotter Than My Daughter are not as well served by the rest of the BBC as fans of 6 Music.

What's unfortunate in my mind is that much of BBC Three's output could easily be replicated by the commercial sector. I don't think the same is true of 6 Music.

sozzifer said...

OK, fair enough - maybe I should have specified *music* radio. I do think they're two different propositions. I'm not suddenly going to start listening to Radio 2 all day, every day if they follow through on the proposal, and I can't imagine many 6Music listeners would.

john2755 said...

I don't think commercial radio could or would continue 6music as it is. I think within a year or so it would become as moronic as the rest of commercial radio. As has already been said this station is the type of thing the BBC has occasionally excelled at in the past and can only be preserved as a high quality music platform by the BBC. It is an insult to the licence fee payer to even think about the wishes of outside commercial interests.

Space Cadet said...

Well said that man. In the 10 years I worked in radio the conclusion I came to was that throughout the radio industry, both commercial and the BBC (I worked for both) it's almost entirely run by people who care nothing for music and know nothing about radio, or at least it's true potential. If anything needs to be axed at the BBC it is certainly not 6 Music.

jps said...

Brilliant post, Nigel. Great to hear this coming out of people in the industry, including the comments and the quotes from commercial radio providers. It really shows 6music is a completely unique, public-service offering, and there's little or no likelihood of a commercial equivalent ever taking its place.

Apparently NUJ membership has sharply increased in the BBC over the past few weeks. It seems hard-hearted to mention that non-union members always go first during rounds of compulsory redundancy, but I dare say some people who might not have thought of taking the plunge might consider that and start paying subs. Good luck, everyone, though: whatever happens.

John Medd said...

I'm sure if the BBC are looking to dump some payload then a more likely candidate would have to be Radio 1. What made (sorry, makes - there you go - I'm already talking about her like she's gone already) 6 Music so unique is that (and I know I'm not the first to say this) they play music. Organic music. Music written and played by musicians. Along with every, and I mean every, commercial station in the UK Radio 1 is a just a glorified pluggers playlist of disposable pap which will be infesting our landfill sites for years (and years) to come.

nickp said...

@stevethack Steve, "compare my radio claims to be using actual data from tracks played" - yes it's scraping now playing data from the websites of other radio stations.

"think you'll find their figs are pretty acurate"

No, they are not. They are as accurate as the now playing information that the other stations publish on their sites. Xfm doesn't publish now playing data for specialist shows or anything played off a CD or Vinyl - the majority of the specialist shows.

When Absolute Radio launched Compare My Radio they got a lot of stick from other stations for this scraping. I don't have a problem with them scraping the info, what I do find annoying is their lack of transparency on how the info is gathered and their passing it off as truly representative of what their competitors are playing.

Want some proof?

Go to Compare My Radio and put Django Django in the artist field. I can see that John Kennedy played them on X-posure on Mon 8th March (http://www.xfm.co.uk/onair/shows/xposure-playlist).

Yet compare my radio only has 6Music and NME plays listed for them. Same night JK also played Flying Lotus - but not according to CMR.

Gyratory System - according to CMR no UK radio plays in the last 30 days, yet I can see John Kennedy played them on 24th Feb.

Again, this isn't a criticism of Nigel's excellent blog post or an argument against 6 Music, this is just trying to keep all the facts clear and stop people treating Compare My Radio as a legitimate source for an accurate picture of UK radio.

AND - I actually think compare my radio is a brilliant idea. It just hasn't been developed properly and Absolute Radio have been a bit sneaky about not being open about how it works and what it actually does.

Artful MTB Rocklands said...

Well argued. If the BBC thought themselves responsible to the license payers.

I'm not one for figures but at it's simplest, the percentage of listeners to action in favour of 6Music and Asian Network is sufficient to have promised a rethink, at least, within days.

I am a new music promoter, seeking buzzy ENTERTAINERS, from the applications for the City Showcase Rocklands in May it's interesting to see how many of these early comers have received air play support alongside established artists on BBC 6Music.

This is something that has brought out the articulation and eloquence in many.

If the decision is on 25th May the fight should go on until the 11th hour.

bkirk said...

What will I do on Sundays with no Jarvis Cocker or Stuart Maconie to listen to ? Heckle through Songs of Praise?

bellaunion said...

wonderful...i feel exactly the same way and have posted on my own blog and spoken on channel 4 news and in music week about it all, and i wont stop talking about it, till we have made the trust reconsider this foolish move x

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