Syndication should not replace BBC children’s radio.

After painful decades of complaints, re-scheduling, re-branding and reduction, The BBC still condemns children’s radio as problematic and un-wanted. Now the few remaining hours may be axed from R7 in a re-launch as R4 Xtra and syndication of children’s content is again on the cards.

This may seem a way out of the BBC’s in-house obligations to young listeners as well as a handy nod to the Trust’s call for partnership but it raises serious questions.

For years the BBC’s meagre and dwindling radio for children has needed wider airing and eight years ago, when it was shoe-horned into adult schedules on R7, we offered to air BBC children’s programmes, free of charge and advertising, on our London digital station, abracaDABra!.

Various meetings with executives and lawyers concluded that unpicking complex copyright ownership, free access, and ring-fencing PSB material between advertising would be costly and difficult. Sadly, talks stalled.

Possible syndication is again under discussion but the issues still apply and could take many months to sort out. Meanwhile PSB radio for UK children could be compromised and even lost under this stratagem.

Certainly cash-strapped independent stations would welcome free access to licence-funded content but they shouldn’t become the UK’s only source of children’s radio, else why isn’t all radio aired by independents, with bits of PSB here and there?

I approached the BBC to share content as a means to sustain and expand platforms for PSB children’s radio, rather than subsume its failed efforts into a struggling commercial sector. As specialists in radio for younger listeners we need robust PSB platforms as well as commercial openings for our trade. The BBC is closing these down with no proper evidence to support the tired mantra, “Kids don’t want radio they only want pop.” And, latterly, “Kids only want internet and downloads”.

Confining kids to internet delivery when grown-ups enjoy AM; FM and DAB as well as all the other platforms is discriminatory and unfair. Parents and carers of young children are looking for choice beyond screen and keyboard activity and many homes don’t yet have the internet.

Children are extremely vulnerable to commercial pressure and have need of ad-free radio just as adults do. If commercial broadcasters don’t satisfy shareholders they will fail and take the remnants of children’ radio with them – stoking the BBC’s claim that kids don’t want it and it doesn’t work.

I’ve lost count of the BBC high-ups who ask why commercial companies aren’t cashing in “… if kids really do want radio”. This is far from the point.

They also ask how to make kids listen. No-one asks how to make Asians or middle-class music-buffs listen. They provide targeted programmes at suitable times and promote them vigorously. Do so for children!

The BBC has a published remit to delight and surprise young audiences and help children explore their world in a safe public space. A safe public space can’t be guaranteed by market forces no matter how worthy the intentions. This is why we fund the BBC.

The BBC also states,”Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest”. Independent impartiality can often be compromised by market forces. This is why we fund the BBC.

Children should be at the core of PSB services, not hanging off the edges.

Public funding of content for syndication is a kind of top-slicing and will need vigilant governance with real teeth. Meanwhile the BBC has the platform, capacity and money to regenerate children’s radio as of now.

The Asian Network has enjoyed an eight year trial period costing £60m, with average funding of 6.9p per listener: more than any other UK station. A children’s radio trial using this capacity would cost £3.6m over two years, including a published evaluation: saving public money and serving the wider community, including Asian families. See

Competing BBC departments fear children’s radio may raid their precious budgets and air-space but funds and capacity would come from the £9m per annum Asian Network savings – resulting in greater efficiency, better value for more listeners and more work for UK programme makers.

Research shows the most common place that children listen to the radio is in the car. It follows that digital children’s radio will help to drive up sales of in-car DAB receivers, fulfilling an urgent Government target. So what’s not to do?

Notes: CBeebies makes BBC Children’s Radio that is funded by BBC Audio & Music. £1.6 million was spent on children’s content in 2007-08, drawn from £460m for all BBC Radio.

The Trust’s 2009 Review of Children’s Services found this to be poor value for the licence fee payer and that poor usage levels and low awareness were exacerbated by the programmes being broadcast in the wrong places and at the wrong times.

BBC 7 and Radio 4 are primarily stations aimed at a much older audience and it is therefore unlikely that children will develop an affinity with these channels or go looking for content when it is available. BBC research presented to Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, prior to the launch of its digital networks, highlighted this problem. Nonetheless children’s radio was placed in R7 schedules.

Opinion – Susan Stranks – 14/01/11.

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