Sacrificial lamb 

26 February 2010

BBC ‘to axe radio stations and halve website’ in strategic review

The Times: BBC signals an end to era of expansion (enjoy it free whilst you can)

It seemed that something major now had to give in terms of BBC service cutbacks – especially given a worsening financial situation in particular – and unless there’s a major change of heart (pun not intended), it now looks as if both 6music and the Asian Network have now become the first high profile victims of BBC cutbacks.

The near-term possibility of a Conservative administration has signalled to BBC management that financial cutbacks had to extend beyond the realms of behind-the-scenes trimmings in order to help reduce the probability of a direct and full-scale confrontation between the corporation and government ministers at some future date.

Because given the worsening relations between the BBC and the commercial media sector in general – including most newspapers by virtue of the BBC providing news “for free” – the BBC may not be able to survive any major future confrontation unscathed, through no direct fault of its own due to newly conflicting interests.

Closing the Asian Network was inevitable because it was just one station poorly serving a very diverse target audience as well as directly competing against numerous small community stations that have been struggling in recent years. Combine this with a ratings slump and the writing was definitely on the wall for the Asian Network.

Perhaps of even greater overall concern is the proposed downsizing of the BBC’s website (which was also sadly inevitable); such a move seems more politically orientated than the decision to close 6music and the Asian Network, especially when considering recent complaints from certain commercial competitors and politicians in this regard.

Plus all of these cutbacks, I fear, may not be enough to silence all of the BBC’s most important critics without further ‘corrective’ action, especially when television (relatively speaking) remains unscathed and is more expensive by far to run compared to the other services.

There’s also a possibility that Radio 2 will evolve into some form of partial 6music replacement; namely catering more for the kind of music that is largely ignored by commercial stations, which could also help defuse criticisms of Radio 2 being a direct competitor to mainstream stations such as Capital, Heart, Magic, Real and Smooth.

(Which Radio 2 really isn’t, but politicians and the commercial radio industry don’t often see it that way.)

Of course these BBC radio station closures will place another uncomfortable spotlight on DAB digital radio, especially at a time when an analogue radio switchoff date was proposed for some point soon after 2015 (unlikely to actually happen), since 6music and Asian Network were formerly given as significant reasons for people to buy a DAB radio.

However there’s another recently-neglected and highly contentious aspect of DAB digital radio, namely that of sound quality of DAB digital radio stations in particular, especially compared to the ultimate audio fidelity achievable using FM radio in a strong reception area, even when on the move.

The relatively poor sound quality of DAB radio stations on the BBC National DAB multiplex was caused a few years ago when extra stations were crammed into the allocated space, which caused an overall reduction in sound quality as a consequence. (Unfortunately most commercial DAB stations followed suit with sound quality reductions.)

At this point, the BBC started marketing DAB digital radio as having a greater choice of stations as opposed to better sound quality (it was marketed as “crystal clear”, “digital sound quality”, etc., which were euphemisms for “just good enough”), although to be fair DAB still had a few qualitative advantages over FM, especially for mobile reception.

Now that DAB no longer has a wide choice of BBC radio stations compared to what’s available via FM and AM analogue radio frequencies, the BBC will now have to adopt another approach if it wishes to promote DAB digital radio with the eventual aim of a planned future analogue FM ‘switchoff’ date.

An obvious step would be to increase the sound quality of the remaining DAB radio stations by increasing their audio transmission bitrates (perhaps also making stations like Radio 7 broadcast in stereo), because station closures would provide the necessary additional space to make this possible.

Another related possibility is a longer-term objective of using the freed space to facilitate a future migration to the DAB+ radio standard that various other countries have recently adopted; perhaps better for sales of digital radio receivers in the short term compared to a threatened analogue radio switchoff which may not actually happen for many years.

All things considered, yes it’s a real shame that the BBC has to close 6music in particular since it offered a very wide range of music that you couldn’t usually hear anywhere else, and for many people 6music was one very compelling reason to buy a DAB radio in order to listen to this particular station especially whilst out and about.

As a station, 6music catered for that awkward gap between Radios 1 and 2; listeners that are too ‘old’ for (or bored with) current chart music but aren’t ready for the pipe-and-slippers approach signified by Radio 2, even though the latter has been edging towards a younger demographic (eg. Chris Evans replacing Terry Wogan) recently.

Even if you never listened to the station, the loss of 6music would still represent a significant cultural blow to popular music despite its relatively low listening figures. Nobody would dare axe Radio 3 nowadays yet BBC management appear to have selected a station for closure based on ‘unpopularity’ as opposed to its pure public service remit.

This anomaly may not go unnoticed by some politicians even though they may openly approve of BBC management taking “bold steps” to reduce the corporation’s overall expenditure – what happens next in relation to both Radio 1 and Radio 2 will also have great significance in this regard.

It also seems obvious that most of the planned cutbacks are partly politically-motivated, since the television services have remained relatively unscathed apart from Switch and Blast! being axed (nobody appears to be mourning for those), which in turn still leaves more unanswered questions to be answered at a later date.

However if the BBC were to incorporate elements of 6music into Radio 2 as well as increasing the transmission bitrates of stations (or adds DAB+) on its National DAB multiplex, then maybe (just maybe) these changes could be worthwhile, and BBC management will have made the right decisions in respect to cutbacks this time round.

But just try telling that to the hordes of 6music fans out there.

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