Radio: Do we need an alternative to Auntie?

By Lyndon Jones
As a recovering BBC staffer, I now spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how an audio producer can make a living. Let me be clear – I’m not at all resentful of my position: I left the BBC of my own volition, eager to explore a wider aural world. And I remain endlessly impressed by the range, quality, and sophistication of BBC radio.

In the UK we’re in a curious position – we have publicly-funded radio of a consistently high standard, but it all is delivered (please forgive me for leaving commercial radio out of this particular analysis) by a single provider. The BBC has, to its long-term credit, always striven to protect high radio standards; but in a real sense, the BBC also holds a monopoly.

Is this a good thing? Experience tends to tell us not, that for one reason or another monopolies become dysfunctional, and that competition – the ability to compare how different people carry out similar activities – helps to sharpen standards of performance.

So we have a BBC that produces consistently excellent radio on a diverse range of networks on an hourly basis. And the word consistent is important – the BBC’s editorial, production, and technical processes clearly work, most of the time (in time the Savile scandal will abate). But can we imagine ourselves into a situation where the BBC had some radio competition? My hunch is that such a development would be widely welcomed, even at the BBC.

That’s why it seems such a disaster that – a couple of years ago –plans for a Channel 4 speech radio station failed to launch. It was such an exciting proposition – something that embraced many of the values of Radio 4, but which in the classic Channel 4 way would have been brighter, funkier, younger, more daring than the BBC can often seem. And surely there would have been an audience there – Radio 4’s audience is in its mid-50s, and I refuse to believe there isn’t an informed, engaged audience of 30-50 year olds who’d be interested in another, alternative point of view.

It does seem to me that that’s a generation of potential listeners that just doesn’t get anything like the amount of radio attention it deserves: there’s a missing brick in the broadcasting wall. Would a situation like this have been allowed to persist in television? Once you make that comparison, the radio broadcast environment seems positively antediluvian.

So where do you go to hear something that wasn’t BBC-produced? The Guardian produces a wide range of brilliant audio programmes on the internet – particularly fascinating because, freed of the BBC requirement to deliver a ‘balance’ of opinions – a style of ‘polemic’ radio, unfamiliar to British ears, can emerge.

Then there the artsy, experimental things going on – among them the Hackney Podcast, In the Dark, Resonance FM – all utilising the internet to explore new concepts in radio and audio-making. And there are also amazing ventures like the Moby Dick Big Read. Each day for 135 days, a new recording is being released of a reading of another chapter of what, for many, is the great American novel.

It’s attracted a lot of press attention – how could it not, with a cast of readers including Imelda Staunton and the Prime Minister. And there’s been criticism too – it’s editorially very different from the safer waters of a BBC-produced reading. It also contrasts in that the producers – liberated from the constraints of scheduling – have been able to commit to a read of the entire book – no abridgements.

I think it’s an incredible achievement, of lasting cultural value; my only regret is that there wasn’t funding in place to pay the contributors. In the case of the Prime Minister, this might seem a minor issue; but for the actors and voice professionals who took part, it seems to me that they should have been. I absolutely don’t mean to criticize the project because of this – it’s simply that for an industry to flourish, those who participate need to earn something for their work.

At the BBC fees would have been paid; and it simply seems a shame that the UK lacks sufficiently sophisticated funding mechanisms to support an independent audio production sector which, with encouragement, could make our aural environment even more exciting than it already is.

Lyndon Jones, Lecturer in Radio and Audio, University of Glamorgan

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About Julie Kissick

I'm a journalist with extensive experience working in radio, television, newspapers and magazines. I've been a manager, broadcaster and content producer for various media outlets including BBC, ITV and Northcliffe Newspaper Group. I have a passion for teaching and learning, social media and football.
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