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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Where's the 6 Music of talk radio?

For a couple of months earlier this year the nation discussed the future of a minority music station as if its survival were the thin membrane separating civilisation from the abyss. The debate around 6 Music essentially hinged on whether there was only one kind of pop music or whether there were many. It was concluded there were many and 6 music was a sufficiently distinct variety to preserve.

Shouldn't there be a similar debate about whether the BBC could be providing more than a couple of varieties of speech radio? At the moment we have the news, arts and lifestyle mix of Radio Four; we also have the news, sport and phone-ins mix of Five Live. Both are admirable but it's clear that they do not cover the full range of what licence fee payers might wish to listen to.
Three things made me think about this.

Firstly, the appointment of a new controller of Radio 4 spotlights the peculiar challenge of introducing innovation in a place where listener satisfaction is so high. Anything new has to come by removing what is already there, which will be fiercely loved by somebody. If there is any change at Radio Four it will be at the margins.

Secondly, the uneasy introduction of "Men's Hour" on Five Live demonstrates how stylistically inelastic BBC stations are. The controllers have a highly-tuned idea of what fits. After a while the listeners become just as sensitive to what jars, which makes any innovation difficult.

Thirdly, I was listening to This American Life, Ira Glass's long-running show for NPR in the States, and wondering why British radio, for all its qualities, can't produce anything similarly soulful, hip and clever. The answer, at least to a certain extent, is it wouldn't fit anywhere.

There's no use looking to the commercial radio industry to provide anything like this because there isn't the advertising to support it. However you would have thought that the BBC, even in its current hair shirt mode, could divert a tiny amount of its budget (maybe the bit marked "taxis"?) to send up a probe of some kind to see if there is some new way of providing speech-based entertainment.

6 Music was saved on the basis that it did something that the commercials couldn't and, for many people, justified the licence fee on its own. Couldn't the same thing apply with a new form of speech radio? And surely it doesn't have to be a bureaucracy? Might it be possible to do something cheap and cheerful, without the normal overheads? Could it not curate material coming in from other sources rather than operating in the belief that all good ideas come from the centre? Why not start its own pirate ship? The web is teeming with talent and ideas which would benefit from some kind of broadcast outlet and at the moment digital radio has no reason to exist. This seems an opportunity to kill a number of birds with one stone.

Everywhere in media - whether it's in the big publishing companies or people running websites from their sheds - operators are having to contemplate doing things in an entirely new way. They're driven by necessity. The BBC, the only organisation in the media that has at least a rough idea of its revenue for the next few years, could innovate out of choice. I think they'd be surprised how much support they would get.