Response to the BBC Trust Consultation on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 7.

The background: BBC Executives have long argued that children don’t use radio but only want TV and pop music – an opinion largely based on their personal experience as parents of teenage children. As a consequence all young listeners were given low PSB priority and their radio programmes were reduced and finally withdrawn.

Young people enjoy a wide range of interests, activities and aspirations beyond pop and celebrity and it is the BBC’s duty to respect and nurture them with wide ranging, age-appropriate services across all platforms.

After three years of public protest children’s radio was partially restored, only to be under-publicised; under-funded and undiscovered: rendering the non-user argument a self-fulfilling prophecy. The last half hour of content for children on mainstream services [Go4It] disappeared in June 2009. The matter was raised in the House of Lords on May 14th last year.

We believe the public purse should not fund only what the young think they want but also what is beneficial to them and what they never knew they could have.  Children may prefer burgers and pop but we continue to provide them with fresh water and green vegetables.

Last year the BBC’s argument for denying children their place in radio changed: “Today’s kids are glued to computers in their rooms and only want their audio on-line” is the new claim.

Independent research has yet to be produced in support of the argument that four to six-year-olds prefer radio via screen and keyboard or will benefit more from this mode of delivery. It is true that older children spend a great deal of time on computers, which raises concern about obesity, behavioural and attention disorders and poor communication. Handcuffing their radio access to IT will add to the problem.

Many adults spend their days glued to computers but they aren’t forced to consume their radio on-line, although they can do so if they wish.

It defies comprehension that the BBC has denied, and been allowed to deny, the needs of young listener’s over so many years and during the vast expansion of radio capacity. Aggressive competition for all this new space continues to push children to the back of the queue behind adult formats which are often irrelevant or inappropriate for young ears. 

British broadcasting law lists adults as being over 15 years of age – three years below the age of adulthood in the UN Convention.  These ‘adults’ have their access and choice in radio protected by legislation but children’s listening needs are left to the whim of executives.

A Capibus Ipsos Mori survey was commissioned this month [August 2010] to inform these consultations. The results are significant. They place radio for young children and their families above all five BBC digital formats, including R7, in terms of how important they are considered to be for the British public to be able to listen to: 23% for the children’s service down to 7% for the Asian Network.

Public support for children’s radio continues to be very strong.

The opportunity:  Arguably Radio 3, 4 and 7 are the three most culturally nourishing of our radio services and they should provide regular space and content for young people. This need not, as is often argued, disrupt adult scheduling but could be programmed with appropriate buffering and use of a watershed to create safe listening zones at regular, clearly defined times across the week. The BBC should be a world leader in young people’s radio, which, sensitively integrated, would enliven and enrich these services rather than hinder and dilute them.

The joint service budget for R3, 4 and 7 is £133.3m per annum. Let us consider young people’s interests in these networks.

BBC R3 Radio 3 has an annual service budget of £36.6 million and the following remit:

Radio 3 offers a mixture of music and cultural programming. Its main role is to broadcast high quality classical music and its speech based programming should inform and educate the audience about music and culture. It should also feature jazz, world music, drama, the arts and ideas, and religious programming.

Young people would benefit from all of these programme categories and were served, briefly, with some home-from-school music during term-time. Now they have no regular scheduling on R3. Sporadic concerts, Proms and music of interest to children are broadcast but in addition there could be dedicated daily or weekly time with family and child-friendly concerts, speech and quizzes, etc. These might best be placed on Saturday or Sunday mornings or afternoons, with repeats and related follow-up on R4 and R7, together with play-again and back-up resources via the internet.

BBC R4: Radio 4 has an annual service budget of £91.3 million and the following remit:

Radio 4 is a mixed speech service, offering in depth news and current affairs. It also offers a wide range of other speech output including drama, readings, comedy, factual and magazine programmes. The service should appeal to listeners seeking intelligent programmes in many genres which inform, educate and entertain. 

Young people would benefit from all these programme categories but from 2001 to May 2009 they were served only with Go4It: a weekly half hour magazine format for a very wide age-range for listeners, aged six to 12 years.  GFI aired at 19.15 on Sunday evenings, during homework catch-up and family viewing time, regardless of BBC research showing children hadn’t been tuning in to serials broadcast for them in the same slot from 1994 to 1998.

The last episode of Go4It was broadcast on 24 May 2009. The reason  given was that it didn’t attract the target audience, although 25,000 four to 14 year olds had been listening. There are now no regular children’s programmes on BBC analogue radio.

BBC School Radio airs on digital R4 where transmissions begin at 0300hrs every Tuesday to Friday morning during term-time, but note that you will not be able to tune in using a standard analogue radio set and the slots are intended for down-loading. BBC School Radio is also rumoured to be under threat.

Non-school children’s content now broadcasts only on digital R7.

BBC R7: Radio 7 has an annual service budget of £5.4 million and the following remit:

Radio 7 is a speech based entertainment station and its schedule should include comedy, drama, stories, features, readings and programmes for children. Most output should come from the BBC archive, but the station should commission some original content, particularly of types of output rarely found in BBC Radio.

R7 was launched in 2002 as a mixed-speech network for adults, to include content for children aged four to 12.  BBC research showed that children wouldn’t be drawn to this format but it was decided to include four hours daily: Big Toe for 8 plus and Little Toe for 4 – 6 year-olds.

In March 2007, Little Toe was rebranded as television-led ‘CBeebies Radio’ and now airs daily at 0600 to 0800, having been reduced by an hour. 

‘Big Toe Books’ now offers an hour of archive stories at 4pm on weekdays – repeated at 8am on Saturday and Sunday. At present there are also children’s classics at 5am: 30 mins. of ‘The Secret Garden’ and 15 mins. of ‘Ballet Shoes’, repeated at 2pm.

Programmes for children remain a key component in the R7 remit but these too are under threat because planners complain they interupt core listening. Eight painful years of re-branding, re-scheduling, complaints and disruption have failed to find an audience and have rendered young listeners unwanted and problematic.  Plans are on the table to eradicate PSB radio for children and instead serve them via ‘audio-on-line’, with ‘family-friendly’ content on adult stations from time to time.

Children’s listening should be at the core of PSB radio planning not falling off the edges.

Members of the BBC Trust and Executive include parents and grand- parents who have young children’s needs and aspirations to consider every day. Do they believe these young citizens should find their culture and entertainment only via screen and keyboard technology?  We all enjoy access to theatres; cinemas; television; museums; libraries; art galleries and out-of-doors visits and pursuits. We also have radio: a uniquely varied and accessible medium, which stimulates our imagination through music, drama and literature and provides conversation, news and information to challenge our perceptions and strengthen our critical faculties.

Children’s radio has been driven to near extinction under BBC care and urgent action is needed. 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 BBC’s denial of young listener’s requirements prompted the Sound Start Plan to replace the Asian Network with a two year radio pilot for young children, to encourage listening, communication and motor skills.

We now suggest scheduling regular music, plays, stories, information and news content for young people aged 11 to 14, on Radio 3, 4 and 7. These stations could cross-pollinate each other as well as feeding regional and community networks with high quality programmes sourced from the BBC and independent companies. A Children’s Radio Fund would be ring-fenced from the annual budget of £133.3 million available for these three stations.

Summary: The BBC spends £460m annually on its radio services of which £133m goes to radio 3, 4 and 7. These three publicly funded networks are, arguably, the most culturally nourishing in the UK yet none of them allocates air-time and funding for children’s programmes. We believe they certainly should.

In 2008 the BBC spent £460.9 million on its radio services.

  • R1- £37m
  • R2 – £48.3m
  • R3 – £39.2m
  • R4 – £91.3m
  • R5Live – £56.4m
  • 6Music – £7.1m
  • R7 – £5.8m
  • 5Live Sports Extra – £2.6
  • Asian Network – 9.2m
  • Local radio – £111m
  • Radio nan Gaidleal – £3.8m
  • Radio Cymru – £6.1m
  • Radio Wales – £12.9m
  • Radio Ulster/radio Foyle – £16.1m
  • Radio Scotland – £22.8m

Total – £460.9 million

Notes: The Children’s Radio budget was reported as £1.6 for Year 2008. Following the decommissioning of go4It, the reduction in CBeebies radio hours and repeats of the Big Toe Books archive this sum is likely to have been further reduced.

The Sound Start Group Response to the BBC Trust Consultation R3, 4 and7 is available on from 0500hrs 26/08/10

Contact: Susan Stranks, Coordinator – National Campaign for Children’s Radio and the Sound Start Group  T:+44[0]1273 777489.

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