The problems of minority broadcasting 

26 August 2022

Howard Newby, Controller, BBC Radio 3, states his personal views on the problems of minority broadcasting in this article which appeared in the Listener on 3 December 1970.



Cover of "In the Public Interest"

From “In the Public Interest: a six-part explanation of BBC policy” published in January 1971

NOT counting a brief appearance in a Hillbilly show in Boston, Massachusetts, some years ago, my entire career in radio has been taken up with what is known, rather dispiritingly, as minority broadcasting. By that is meant (or I mean, anyway) poetry, talk, documentaries, drama and ‘serious’ music. There is a view that the BBC’s main concern should now be with this kind of broadcasting, and with a comprehensive service of News and Current Affairs. BBC Radio should leave pop and the lightest forms of entertainment to those who have a financial interest in providing them. In this way the BBC would, in its money difficulties, be able to save on its radio networks and so concentrate on what it alone can provide.

The money argument has been discussed by Charles Curran, the Director-General of the BBC, in a recent article in The Times. He said that as a result of recent pay agreements and other economic pressures, ‘by 1974 the accumulated deficit of the BBC could be nearer £50 million [£850m now, allowing for inflation -Ed] than the £13 million [£220m] we had estimated for that date, and even that £50 million assumes a reasonable control of inflation’. Taking BBC Television and Radio out of the entertainment business would be no contribution at all to solving this problem. ‘It is incontrovertibly true that the minority programmes, towards which the BBC’s attention would be turned, are the most consistently expensive of the BBC’s entire output.’ The scrapping of Radio 1 would mean the saving of no more than £750,000 [£13m]. It is the cheapest of the radio networks. If it were replaced by minority programmes, costs would in fact go up.

Money is only part of the argument. Without a broad popular appeal the very basis of a broadcasting service financed by licence fees is called in question. As the Director-General said, a broadcasting service financed by all the people needs to serve all the people. My personal view is that if BBC Radio ceased to be a meeting point for the majority, an eventual consequence would be the erosion of serious broadcasting itself, and more particularly the kind of broadcasting carried out by the old Third Programme and the present Radios 3 and 4.

Broadcasting is not a matter of providing basic products for an unchanging public. Society changes, tastes alter, fashion dictates, and all in a way that no one quite understands, far less controls. What was popular yesterday, and even despised, like oysters and fresh salmon, becomes the choice of the discriminating few today. Pop music becomes progressive and moves up with the experimentally serious. Certain exotic music shifts in the other direction.

I can remember the time when the only folk music regularly to be heard was on the Third Programme. No one can put his hand on his heart and say what, in five years’ time, will be the arts with a mass appeal and what the new minority cults. The really popular arts – of which the Radio 1 disc jockey must be counted as one of the practitioners – affect the vernacular of our time and no broadcasting system can afford to be insulated from them if it is really to be part of society.

Howard Newby

That is the argument about the changing stuff of broadcasting. It changes so much that it ought, more properly, to be called a relationship – one that society has, through radio, with itself. However specialised an individual radio producer or department or network may be, they all know about this relationship and draw confidence from the knowledge that the total service is ‘plugged in’ to a changing total society. Broadcasters know this in their bones. The consequence of an insulation from the really sizeable sectors would be an impairment of confidence surprising only to someone who did not know them. They would corporately feel they were in danger of losing touch.

Counsel about radio and television is repeatedly darkened by arguments appropriate to quite different matters. The economic argument that competition leads to lower prices and a better service to consumers is one of them; another is the view, drawn mainly from the press and publishing, that competition and the absence of central control are necessary to freedom. But radio and television are not producers in an industrial sense, and they are something more than organs of information and opinion. They operate more characteristically in the world of entertainment, in the broadest sweep of that term; and indeed, one of the dangers they face is of turning everything to entertainment in its trivial sense. Competition impels them that way. Competition increases costs because it turns out to be for scarce talent and resources; and it does not lead to a wider choice for listeners and viewers.

All the more reason, it might be argued, for liberating radio from competition for the mass audience. Secure in the knowledge it was playing an important social and cultural role, BBC Radio could lower the disc jockeys, the stacked gramophone records, and the popular entertainers over the side and pursue a serene voyage of public service.

I should hate to be misunderstood at this point. The BBC is very much involved in the quality of national life. I have no neo-Darwinian belief that what survives is necessarily most worthy to survive. Battles for quality have to be fought. The BBC has an obvious commitment to certain values – and of these charity and a passion for truthfulness rank high.

Minority interests are squeezed in the ordinary competitive situation and they would be squeezed even harder in radio if a significantly large proportion of the population did not listen to what BBC Radio had to offer. The assignment of the mass audience to commercial radio and the minorities to the BBC would create the most extraordinary state of affairs. Outwardly there might appear to be no competition. Inwardly there would be a different story.

I have been using the word ‘competition’ to mean rivalry for large audiences. In talking about radio and television it can have little other meaning. There is no competition for esteem as such. There is no bidding for the favours of some all-wise, cultured and discriminating autocrat. Indeed, we live at a time when everything is called in question and anyone who thought himself possessed of a hierarchy of cultural values would quickly find himself under attack. It is an attack I, for one, am ready to withstand; but there is no self-evident answer to those who question the rightness of, say, broadcasting new and difficult music, or experimental drama, or poetry, or any opera in full, or sustained argument. In the public debate about broadcasting, and more particularly that part of the debate that has to do with the apportioning of funds, the only hard facts are about the listening and viewing habits of licence-payers. Everything else is opinion. I remember otherwise intelligent people talking about the failure of BBC-2 when what they really meant was the failure of certain of its more specialised programmes to draw big crowds.

Unless BBC Radio draws the big crowds as well as the little ones it will always be open to question over its effectiveness.We cannot be sure that any answer that broadens the issue to one of quality will be seen as finally convincing to opinion at large or in Parliament. Knowing this, the broadcasters would be increasingly concerned with the patronage of Radios 3 and 4. It is only the knowledge that the big battalions are being served on the other networks that makes it possible to cater with confidence for the numerically smaller sections who want another kind of broadcasting. Without this confidence, the tendency might well be to manoeuvre for larger audiences, and the sad thing would be that the manoeuvring would be done with inappropriate material. There would be no way of changing the material itself because BBC Radio would be working to a prescription as to its nature. A serious erosion of quality would follow. The erosion would be resisted, of course, but in an atmosphere that was basically conservationist and defensive.

BBC Radio will before long be facing commercial competition. My argument is that an attempt to take it out of that competition by making it culturally privileged would be misguided. The present network arrangements will ensure that commercial competition will present a reduced danger to minority broadcasting. The real danger comes from believing that the competition can be rigged or evaded.




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