As mentioned in my first entry, my arrival in blogland is heralded by an event, or a prospective one at least, which has given me cause to write. This being the initially rumoured, and now it seems confirmed, demise of BBC 6Music. As such I am already following no small amount of reporting, commentary and reaction from many quarters. Mighty encouraging this response is as well, if only for stirring something in the public consciousness which asks questions of the system and its various authorities at a time when we face a period of political and social uncertainty and change. Not since the 2009 case of De La Rocha & Morello vs McElderry have we seen anything of the like…
There are any number of blogs, articles, comments, status updates, posts, tweets, #tags and the odd petition which, while varying widely in their substance, agenda, position, emotion and influence, focus upon a common aim and are all equally valid as a result. I am sure there are interesting responses which counter our arguments although, despite looking, I haven’t seen any yet.
I feel very strongly about what is happening. This is an attempt to try and make clear in my mind what is going on – and what it means, while challenging the decision of the BBC. I hope that this serves as something of an open letter not only to my friends and the odd hero, but to everyone connected to the media, cultural and arts sectors with any degree of interest and/or influence that cares to read it. I hope that if you do find anything of interest then please forward it to others of a similar mindset. Equally, I welcome your thoughts and comments on what I have said here. Needless to say, the BBC Trust will be sent an abridged version of something along these lines very soon.
The music (and other stuff…)
Where else to start? By far the most subjective and emotive aspect at the heart of this debate and, from as balanced a viewpoint as I can take, the most critical. I am far from neutral here – music is by far and away the most important thing in my life outside of friends and family – in fact nigh-on inseparable from the former. Not quite objective then, but maybe that is the point. I am also a musical snob, a fact confirmed by many who know me, but for the sake of the argument have tried hard here to remain objective and not give in to the considerable anger which is consuming my being.
Also, very clearly, I am not alone.
Stepping back for a minute, an interesting word to consider is ‘eclectic’ – by and large an awful term used far too often in response to that dreaded question posed when meeting friends of friends, on a first date or during some other initially awkward social encounter.
“What kind of stuff are you into then?”
In equal measure this line of enquiry is a great social leveller and/or the first clear pleasing/damning assessment of potential friends, acquaintances, gig/fuck-buddies, soul-mates, or any permutation thereof. There is no right answer – everyone is entitled to their opinion – but by far the most unsatisfactory response is along the lines of…
“Oh, I like a bit of everything…pretty eclectic really.”
This response is an easy way to sidle out of that spotlight and generally a veiled admittance that while one likes music they are pretty comfortable sat in the middle of the road and could probably listen to most of the Radio 1/2 playlists without too much bother. That said, this is not a slight upon those people, there is nothing wrong with that position and the fact they have other interests – it is simply that eclectic is the wrong word. Eclectic is not a passive term – you cannot just be it. What you want to hear is some degree of passion for (or even just acknowledgement of) something finite, whether to your taste or not, a band, movement, genre or period.
Eclectic taste, in its true sense is a great thing, allowing for breadth of vision and understanding underpinned by active engagement and interest in all facets of music and the arts. It allows for the constant discovery of new things – good and sometimes less so – but also acknowledgement and acceptance of quality, whatever your tastes. My taste in music is eclectic and so is that of a great many of my friends. At 31, I am a big fan of Bob Dylan, have a penchant for punk and heavy metal that never stopped in my teens, fairly recently discovered the wonders of Northern Soul and 60s British psychedelia/R&B, wonder at the genius of Morricone, have an unfailing obsession with girls and guitars and these days generally wallow in the wonders of Americana. 6Music meets all of these needs and much, much more…and, beyond the music itself, offers unparalleled exposure for a music-focused radio audience to literature, film, comedy, theatre and the countless variations and combinations of all the above.
Most important of all though – 6Music, along with its presenters, playlist and listeners, is truly, wonderfully, eclectic and that is the main reason it should continue.
I will resist the temptation of comparing and contrasting the individual personalities (and relative ‘value’) across different areas of the BBC, much as I would like to, as there are too many easy targets and any such judgement is really a secondary factor in this debate. We’ll leave that to the Twitter playground, and I’ll be back there shortly for another round with the Twatbot.
The 6Music team though, collectively, are extraordinary in their consistent and open approach to showcasing new talent, rejoicing in the wonders of classics lost and renowned, all the while maintaining a level of warmth and humour which genuinely engages and sustains an active and committed audience. No further proof of this is needed beyond the reaction to the news of the last few days. The measurement of quality should be measured not only by audience size but by the passive/active balance of that number. In yesterday’s Metro, Mark Thompson is quoted as saying that BBC6 “delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC Radio”. Numbers aside, I will come to that point later, I beg to differ. The truth is that the 6Music listenership I would wager, to a person, is absolutely unique as far as BBC Radio goes and each of us listens to the station at every opportunity. It would be interesting to understand the ‘minutes per listener per station’ figures across the board as well – acknowledging the current limitations to 24/7 access of DAB channels throughout one’s day. 6Music is always there and each show is always up there in quality terms with the last – I think my longest listening stretch to date is around 21 hours, when on one occasion I was required to work through the night, and at not one time was I disappointed.
Mention should be made as well, in pure quality terms, of the exceptional musical talent that is regularly represented on 6Music through both regular and guest presenters. For example, in Guy Garvey you have the lead singer of arguably the best and most successful alternative British band of the last few years, and in Jarvis Cocker maybe the nineties equivalent (maybe). Then there’s the small matter of Bob Dylan, a Kenickie and even a long lost member of the The Fall (there are admittedly a few of those to choose from, statistics probably dictate it would be strange if there wasn’t).
In all, the 6Music staff (very nearly to a man/woman, sorry George – although I am a fan) are wonderfully talented in their own right, be it through their music, comedy or Peel-esque service to British radio. All are able to bring an unrivalled perspective to broadcasting which is essential for the cultural development of this country. This point is key, and indicative of the potential longevity of the station – 6Music is built upon a common vision and approach that runs throughout all programming, rather than the short-term reliance upon individual personalities to sustain the popularity of particular shows (which, I fear, is something that Radio 1 might soon live to regret given their developing roster).
Deep down, the likes of Jo Whiley, Annie Mac and Zane Lowe must be concerned at their medium-term fate with this news, certainly at the next round of (allegedly) ageist staffing changes at Radio 1. History does not favour a prolonged stint with their current employer – in spite of the quality of their output. A limited number of ‘proper’ DJs from Radio 1, dwindling as they are, who retain a focus upon the music, have succeeded in moving on to pastures new as they age with their audience, but realistically where can they go without 6Music? There are only so many God’s Jukebox and Radcliffesque slots on Radio 2, even if there were candidates fit to fill them – maybe by rights they belong to 6Music as well.
I use the word competition reluctantly, because I do not believe that where the British Broadcasting Corporation and its business are concerned we should be overly bothered with it. Rather the debate should focus upon quality and relevance, rather than quantity, which exists in abundance across the whole of 6Music programming. This concept allegedly underpins the BBC report behind this situation, which admirably encourages us to put quality first, but they do not seem to have quite gotten the point.
Nevertheless, it would seem that competition is what we are presented with, ahead of quality, and the players in question are broadly as follows. So, some thoughts:
Radio 1: Up until receipt of my first DAB, and subsequent discovery of 6Music, I was a very happy Radio 1 listener for close to twenty years. I have though had to grudgingly accept in recent times that I am well and truly outside of their target audience age-range, and it shows. Zane Lowe remains, (but for how long?), but even the divine Jo Whiley has taken a very different path to Steve Lamacq from their days on the Evening Session – I am sure to remain within the mainstream favour of her paymasters (and fair play).
Radio 1 serves a great purpose for a significant listenership, there is no doubt, but in doing so is forced to sacrifice to some extent guaranteed quality to satisfy the broad appeal of the masses. I put to the BBC that, in quality terms, this breadth and blandness actually fails to truly meet the needs of its advertised audience of 16-24 year olds. To a great extent, certainly during the day, many people will listen simply because it is there – there is no other active decision or reasoning involved (certainly that was the case with me and still is in the car). This excludes some of the evening and late night programming, but perversely I am sure that the majority of daytime listeners have gone over to the commercial dark side or will be watching Eastenders or Strictly Come Dancing by then. Would the ‘specialist’ DJs on Radio 1 not be more suited to the 6Music schedules? Do you know, I reckon it might increase the figures for those shows…
Eastenders is an interesting point as well which, along with daytime Radio 1, is representative of mainstream programming across the BBC that meets the needs of an incredible number of people – albeit importantly in a largely passive sense. I am a pretty regular viewer of the show and other similar content – but I do genuinely wonder why sometimes – just sitting there absorbing what is ultimately meaningless information. It is fast food media – you consume and for that brief moment you are satisfied, but afterward there is a sense of emptiness because nothing real remains. The same goes for the Radio 1 playlist – such are the demands of the commercial mainstream that songs have come and gone from the air before they are even released for purchase, let alone logged in some level of public consciousness. It would be unthinkable to ditch either ‘Enders or Radio 1, and why would you when it meets the simple needs of so many, but returning to the quality/quantity argument is this really what the BBC should be about? Maybe the public service in question is that it is easier suppressing the will, heart, ideas and imagination of a nation in the spirit of semi-Orwellian moral order, acceptance and calm? I’m pleased as well to hear Cerys Matthews raised a similar point on BBC Breakfast this week.
Radio 2: Again, Radio 2 is a great station and, as with Radio 1, has broad and successful appeal to a wide audience (and in its defence, I would imagine a marginally less passive one). Much of the above though applies here as well. What confuses me is that before this storm blew up, the BBC were recently clear (I imagine to lessen the mourning surrounding Wogan’s departure) that if Radio 2 were to develop at all it would not be in a move to encourage any reduction in the average listener age. Presumably then there is no real room for 6Music material to be shifted there either? From what I understand of the future direction of Radio 2, then yes, the likes of Sarah Kennedy, Simon Mayo and Steve Wright fit the bill perfectly. Wouldn’t Jeremy Vine for example though be better off on Radios 4 or 5, and what of the wonder of Radcliffe-Maconie?
Rather than attempting token distribution of the odd 6Music show around other stations why not do it the other way round – bring the exceptional slots from elsewhere to 6Music and re-examine the broad purpose/consistency of Radio 1 and Radio 2.
So we are presented with something of a dilemma then, in the form of a 15-20 year gap in the BBC’s programming schedules for music radio. This is not a subjective comment either – I, and many like me are way past Radio 1’s demographic and thankfully a little while off reaching that of Radio 2. The content of programmes across the stations at least backs this assessment up as well – according even to the crudest measures, there is very little overlap between the stations themselves and actually far less where 6Music is concerned. The goalposts should be clear – either the stations are structured for a given audience, predominantly by age, or they’re not. Judgements made on any other basis are simply not fair or accurate.
On the basis of the above, I would agree that the position of Radios 1, 2 and 6 does require review, and probably rationalisation, but the outcomes of such a review in a world of justice, common sense or otherwise will recognise that all three need examining in equal measure and on equal terms. I am sure that following, one would find it easiest to identify the common vision and associated audience for 6Music, before attempting to understand the inconsistency of target audience and content across other stations. There is a great opportunity here to sharpen the focus, and subsequently improve the output, of all concerned.
Commercial radio: As noted above, I am sure to some extent your ‘average’ commercial radio station serves the mainstream radio listener well, if even only as a refuge from anything slightly less palatable outside of daytime BBC output. They also of course, in many cases, serve a local purpose and need – and rightly so.
In competition terms though, it is simply the case that no commercial station does what 6Music does and nor could it. This is due in large part to the strength in depth of the BBC itself and the longstanding position it is in to create something so unique. What would become of the BBC archives? A body of music regarded and envied the world over – 6Music remains the only consistent outlet for this extraordinary collection to reach the ears of so many lucky listeners.
The other danger is that the very nature of commercial operation means that there can be no guarantee as to the ongoing quality of output (or even existence) of such stations in the medium to long term, compared to that which one would hope stems from the grounding and integrity of an organisation like the BBC.
The numbers game: There seems to be some confusion as to the nature of competition facing 6Music. On the one hand, listener numbers are insufficient in direct comparison with the major BBC FM stations – yet on the other they are so vast as to be damaging the health of commercial peers with (supposedly) similar output. Surely it can’t work both ways?
As regards the volume competition with Radios 1 and 2, one cannot deny that at face value there is considerable difference and as such a relatively easy, if lazy, judgement can be made. A fundamental point in this debate though is that basing such a major decision on this statistic is both unfair and short-sighted.
Comparing DAB to FM is simply not anyway near a like-with-like scenario. FM is available everywhere – cars, hairdressers, shops, even through the makeshift aerial of a mobile’s headphone cord. As a result, stations such as Radio 1 and 2 almost cannot help but attract, even monopolise, listeners not only through choice, but also lack of it. What else can one do on a car journey the length of the M4, other than take an inordinate number of CDs?
DAB though is in its infancy as a medium and therefore access is significantly restricted as things stand – for example I can only currently access it when at home. However at the same time we are crawling inexorably towards the ‘big digital switchover’ which will generate immediately a great many more digital customers for 6Music and other stations. In addition, the rate of technological development of digital media devices will have a huge impact – what will be the impact upon 6Music figures when the majority are able to pick up the station in their car, or on their iPod, as a matter of course – and how far will the numbers of Radio 1 and 2 then drop? I am certain that all of Zane Lowe’s listeners, for example, will listen to 6Music all the time in preference to the likes of Moyles, Mills and Cotton.
There is absolutely no doubt that the numbers of 6Music listeners cannot fail to increase incredibly between now and the proposed shut-down at the end of 2011. We will certainly see a far more level playing field across the piece. Where then will lie the argument for closure?
So, there you go…that’s what I think (I think) and you can make what you will of it. If anything strikes a chord from either a musical, philosophical or simply moral perspective please do forward this on and, if you have not already done so, please join the Facebook group and sign the petitions in protest against the proposed measures – both of which can be found at http://www.love6music.com.
I hope the BBC listens to us and understands, despite the barrage of criticism of recent days, much of what has been said is in many respects in recognition and acknowledgement of the extraordinary achievement/success that 6Music has been, and vindication of the risk the organisation took from the outset in establishing it. One important fact that remains is that the BBC itself is an extraordinarily important institution, albeit suffering at present from a glitch in the logic, reason and judgement stakes. It is absolutely right that any organisation regularly reviews its performance in order to maintain improvement, for the benefit of either shareholders or the taxpayer, however any such assessment must be balanced and fair across the piece.
6Music has fast become a national treasure not only for hundreds of thousands of people, but in a time when the spectre of digital technology poses so many perceived threats to artists and records labels alike it is vital for the future of the music and artistic industries as a whole. To coin a phrase tweeted originally by my (real-life) friend Mikey on Twitter, also picked up and used by Phil Jupitus in a Guardian article, closing 6Music will amount to nothing more than unnecessary cultural vandalism.