Response to the BBC Trust’s Review from the Sound Start Group

Dear Sir Michael,

Public Service Children’s Radio

We thank you and the Trustees for the opportunity to respond to this further consultation on future BBC services. We do so with an updated version of the Sound Start partnership proposal that was put forward in 2008 and 2009, and which would now capitalise on the proposed closure of either the Asian Network or 6 Music in 2011.

Responsibility to provide children with more cost-efficient and accessible PSB radio was documented in Recommendation 11 of the BBC Trust’s Review of Children’s Services in February 2009:

Recommendation 11:

During this review the BBC Executive has acknowledged that the existing arrangements for children’s radio at the BBC will need to change in the light of consistently low audience numbers and has undertaken research to assess the options available.

 On the basis of this research the Executive will recommend an alternative approach for Trust consideration taking into account:

 • An assessment of the level of demand for audio content.

 • A consideration of where and when to provide audio content to maximise audience numbers in a cost-effective way. 

Executive emphasis on ‘audio’ rather than radio is significantly ambiguous.

In the 16 months following this recommendation all BBC mainstream children’s radio content has been axed and what little remains [largely TV led and CBeebies branded] is hidden and unwanted on adult speech station, R7, and so unlikely to find an audience.

This issue was raised by myself and fellow Peers during Baroness Massey of Darwen’s debate on Services for Children and Families [Hansard, 14 May 2009]

It is rumoured that BBC School Radio, which, from 2003, has aired at 0300 hours on digital R4, Tuesday to Friday during term-time, is also under threat and we await clarification from the BBC on this.

On 23rd October 2009, the following statement was published:

In response to the Trust’s recommendations the BBC Executive has:

  • Clarified its objectives for children’s services and set out plans to invest an additional £25.5m in CBBC content over three years
  • Set out plans to strengthen the online audio offering for children. The Executive has also stopped broadcasting Go4it on Radio 4 in light of very low audience numbers and made changes to the Radio 7 schedule to broadcast CBeebies radio at a time when children are more likely to be listening
  • Developed plans to address the fall in usage of the CBBC website
  • Set out plans to recover the audience lost when children’s programmes were moved earlier in BBC One’s afternoon schedule including through new investment in key citizenship programmes and possible schedule changes in the longer term
  • Safeguarding audience to children’s programming is a priority for the Trust and we will closely monitor progress against the Executive’s plans over the coming months.

Additional funds have been allocated to CBeebies online, including audio, but none of the promised research has apparently been released to justify executive claims that six-year-olds prefer radio via the internet, or that they benefit more from such delivery.  If this alternative approach is based on accredited research and has been documented by executives for Trust consideration, please may we see it? If this approach is not evidence-based, then this dismissive attitude to the Trust’s recommendations and to children’s rights and needs in public service broadcasting is unacceptable.

Over many years we have had meetings and conversations about improving children’s radio with successive BBC executives and departments.  In recent times Richard Deverell; Tim Davie; Michael Carrington; Will Jackson; Andrew Barnes; Jana Bennett; Caroline Thomson; BBC World Wide, and the Trustees themselves, have all expressed interest and endorsement for a potential collaboration in children’s radio development but then made ownership issues, funding and lack of capacity a common excuse for lack of follow-up.

 The Trustees have welcomed the Director-General’s targets for a way forward:

  • putting quality first; doing fewer things better;
  • guaranteeing access;
  • making the licence fee work harder;
  • setting new boundaries; and
  • keeping open a public space for all.

The Sound Start model complies 100% with these aims and objectives.

At this stage the Trust is not formally considering any specific changes to services, including the proposed closure of the Asian Network or 6 Music, but it is widely reported that aggrieved parties intend to challenge these executive plans in their responses to the Trust.

Under its formal regulatory processes, to make such changes, the Trust would need first to receive applications from the BBC and would expect the Executive to put those forward only after the Trust has completed its own work and set out its final view on what the BBC’s future strategy ought to be.

Strategy proposals that the BBC Executive has given Trustees are proposals for the next four or five years and contain no plans to restore or develop children’s radio.  

30 years of expanding capacity and consultation have given adult listeners [designated in UK broadcasting law as over the age of 14 years] thousands of stations and reduced children’s space to today’s indefensible pittance. This is clearly in breach of their Rights under the UN Convention.

Each year of deliberation is a long time in a child’s development and urgent action is needed to restore and safeguard a fair place for children in PSB radio. Now that two BBC networks are proposed for closure, there is an opportunity to take an innovative approach to advertisement-free content for our younger listeners, who have been so woefully neglected. This valuable new arena can expand their enjoyment, celebrate their achievements and give them a voice. It could also seed more indigenous programming for UK children’s, as evidenced in the Save Kid’s TV Response [19/05/10]

Children’s radio is a rare and endangered species driven to near extinction under BBC husbandry. It cannot remain hostage to the whim of BBC executives or commercial pressure, and access should not depend only on computers. This uniquely accessible medium can add choice and balance to the predominant screen and keyboard culture that is so often blamed for behavioural and attention disorders, language deficit and increasing childhood obesity. Radio has powers to nourish the young mind, body and soul, and can also seed other media. If lost, all radio will surely follow, for whence come the audience and industry of the future?

The Radio Amnesty was launched May 22, as the industry’s latest attempt to drive up sales of DAB receivers. Evidence shows that a children’s radio network would help to do this, in family homes and, crucially, in cars, where parents say they would be most likely to use it.

MORI research, published on 20 February 2001, asked members of the public to rate the BBC’s five options and a national network for pre-school and primary school aged children and their families. A conclusive 57% of the respondents rated the children’s service as the most important overall, with a national Asian network at 8% and ‘Network Y’ [6 Music]: pop music of the 70s to 90s, at 37% [Details attached]. But the BBC opted to schedule children’s content in adult speech on R7, where, over eight years, it failed to attract the target audience.

A children’s radio service will serve and support Asian families as well as all others. It represents a desired and deserving platform on which to test the Trust’s call for practical partnerships to deliver more cost-efficient public service broadcasting. Here is an outstanding chance to create something significant for UK children – at the same time adding weight to the £52 million of public funds committed to new ways of improving their listening and speaking skills.

We are proposing a new way forward in the form of a two year research project using a BBC DAB network, to be conducted to complement the National Year of Speech, Language & Communication in 2011 – 12. 

The six step approach for seizing this opportunity:

 1. Form a dedicated NPDO with trustees and management drawn from a wide range of professionals in child and family learning, welfare and entertainment.

 2. Review the accounts of BBC Children’s and BBC School Radio, including related internet development. Budgets are reported to be in the order of £3.3m per annum, but actual figures have been difficult to obtain.

 3. Review the archive, ownership and copyright of BBC Children’s and BBC School Radio content, past, present and commissioned for production. These have been difficult to obtain.

 4. Review the accounts, content and ownership of BBC 6 Music and the Asian Network. These budgets are reported to be £9m and £12m per annum respectively.

 5. Vacate and release either BBC 6 Music or the Asian Network to host a two year evaluation of national radio for younger children, their families and schools, as outlined in the attached Sound Start briefing paper.

 6. Evaluate and publish the findings.

This plan is designed to provide high quality children’s radio more widely and cost-efficiently. It uses public funds and public space to inform, entertain and educate young children, and to encourage their listening and talking. It fits the BBC Trust’s requirements for partnership and we hope the Trustees will consider it most carefully.

Yours sincerely,

 Mary Warnock: The Baroness Warnock, Chair – Sound Start Group..

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