Saving BBC 6 Music

Since late Thursday night, I've been distressed. The news, first leaked in the Times on Friday, that Mark Thompson is planning wide-ranging cuts at the BBC as part of a "strategic review", is deeply distressing. According to the leak in the Times (now more or less confirmed), this will include cutting the BBC website by half (in terms of 'web pages') and by 25% (in staff numbers), as well as cutting spending on US imports (like Mad Men), and closing the BBC Asian Network radio station.

However, it's the axeing of BBC 6 Music that vexes me the most. This radio station has been a part of my life for the past six or so years, and is hugely important. It is literally the only reason that we own two DAB digital radios (given that we've always lived in cities with excellent FM reception, and so audio quality is irrelevant). Over time, I've watched the DJs come and go (having to say a sad goodbye to Phill Jupitus, Vic McGlynn and Andrew Collins), but the standard has always remained remarkably high, with just one, cough, exception. More importantly, the music is always more interesting, eclectic and appealing (to me), than any other station. I spend far more time listening to music via 6 Music than I do on my iPod/iPhone.

So the idea that the station is going to close is pretty distressing. I've seen tons of things I like get closed, from Urbis (just yesterday), to BBC Collective, and even the Millennium Experience (which was good, and had the potential to get better). But none of these closures have made me want campaign in the streets about them. Radio feels different somehow. Even though commercial radio stations do come and go (and get constantly rebranded), somehow they feel much more permanent than websites, visitor attractions, and so on. They feel like a fixture, a constant in our busy, changeable lives.

I would never be this bothered if a TV channel changed or closed down. BBC Four is great, and important, but we could live without it existing as a channel. The march towards non-linear television feels natural and unstoppable. I only care that the BBC continues to produce and commission good TV programmes, I'm not too bothered how I access them (I'll even buy them on DVD or pay to download them via iTunes). But radio is much more substantially different to listening to an iPod, Last.fm, Spotify, and so on. Those are all great services, and I'm sure they'll continue to improve (especially at doing personalised recommendations, which they still all suck at), but they are different and parallel to radio. Radio is about shared experiences. It's about being 'live'. It's about good music, chosen for you by people who know it better than you. It's about personalities who deliver warmth, wit and intelligent commentary. Those are all things that 6 Music delivers in abundance, and which are really difficult to find elsewhere.

The justification behind closing 6 Music doesn't make sense. There may be reasonable arguments for re-thinking BBC Asian Network (treating the asian population as a single audience when they are as diverse as the rest of the population is perhaps tricky), and for cutting US imports and sports spending and focusing more on quality rather than popular content. There's even an argument to be made for re-focusing the BBC's online output and doing fewer things better, although setting arbitrary targets like cutting the number of web pages and reducing staff numbers is hardly giving much thought to this.

But the logic behind cutting 6 Music is nonsense. As many others have pointed out (and as is even alluded to in an earlier BBC Trust review of the station), it can't be accused of having too small an audience whilst also not being niche and public service enough. The station has had to find a fine balance between growing audiences and remaining true to its distinctive music output. I think the BBC Trust review got this right by recommending that the station's remit be altered to acknowledge the focus on celebrating "the alternative spirit in popular music" (a nice phrase) via presenters with a "strong musical credibility" (ie they can't just be comedians). The idea that the station "unfairly harms commercial rivals" isn't particularly credible either, given the relatively small audience and complete lack of any commercial rivals doing anything similar.

The truth is that only the BBC could run 6 Music. Absolute Radio (the newly relaunched Virgin Radio) may have made noises by offering to buy the 6 Music format and network, but they would never be able to run it at the same standard as the BBC. They'd cut costs dramatically, resulting in fewer DJs (especially the high profile ones, I expect), less music news coverage and fewer documentaries (which the BBC Trust had recommended increasing). Plus, they wouldn't have access to the BBC's extensive archive of music and recorded sessions. And then there are the ads, which kill any enjoyment of radio...

Besides, if the plans go ahead, then I imagine that the valuable spectrum released (two national DAB channels), would, for 'fairness' reasons, be auctioned off to the highest bidder. And there would be much more profitable national radio services to run than a commercial version of 6 Music.

So, having said why I think 6 Music should be saved, what do I (or 'we', if you agree with me) do about it, other than adding a Twibbon to our avatars on Twitter?

Well, the official process is that Mark Thompson will deliver his report to the BBC Trust, who will approve or amend it. They'll probably do some form of consultation, so we can respond in our thousands to that. Outside of this, the issue may well become an election issue. The Tories have already spoken in favour of the proposed cuts. I can't find any official Labour (or Lib Dem) response yet, but Labour MP Tom Watson has tabled a motion opposing the cuts, which will hopefully gain widespread support in the House of Commons. The unions, too, are reacting angrily to the news, with the NUJ threatening strikes and BECTU promising robust opposition.

But perhaps a grass-routes campaign might just help? Would the general public show their support for the BBC by marching on the streets? It would be a good test of the BBC's value, anyhow. And if we don't do something now, it might be the beginning of the end for such a cherished national institution.

I pledge my support to the campaign. And I'll keep you posted.

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Updates: (Mar 1) Added two links to other blog posts.