BBC Children’s Service Review

On March 4th, the BBC Trust announced a Review of Children’s Services, to include changes to public service radio provision. A public consultation will gather views on BBC children’s services and suggestions on how they can be improved. We urge individuals and organisations concerned about BBC children’s radio provision to respond by the deadline on May 31st.

To the BBC trust from the Sound Start Group:

Current policy is dictated by the BBC’s Strategy for Children’s Audio and it is important to read this document, which ordered significant revisions to the R7 Service Licence and ratified the following changes as permanent and ongoing:

• delete a core mandate to serve children up to the age of 14 years as a distinct and deserving  radio audience
• pass 75% of airtime and 50% of the budget to adult listeners [Of £640.1million budget for BBC domestic radio less than £1million is now allocated to children’s content]
• axe all radio for under-sixes and replace it with 20 minute audio podcasts [These average 11 minutes and are mainly TV sourced]
• reschedule remaining content for six to 14 year-olds in a ‘family friendly’ hour on rebranded R4Extra [Home of horror, crime sci-fi and stand-up comedy]
• prioritise the trade of public archive to commercial rivals. [Due to extensive copyright problems has yet to happen]

These plans were challenged by families, educators and childcare professionals who were concerned about the immediate and permanent loss of BBC children’s radio; unsuitable context for remaining family content and potential breach of Editorial Guidelines on Harm and Offence but requests for further consultation were refused and the Strategy was adopted in full. Conversely, R6; the Asian Network; World Service and BBC Local Radio gained whole or partial reprieves.

The selected age-range of the target audience is narrow and confusing in the guidelines:

“Children aged between 6 and 12″ actually means those aged 7 to 11 and “children under 12″ means those up to 11. “Children aged 6 to 12″ more accurately represents the age range chosen by Trustees but why have they excluded listeners aged 13 and 14 who make up 22.2% of the children served by R4Extra’s ‘family content’?

Radio for children aged under six and their families is also missing but this audience suffered most in the Strategy which replaced their daily hours with ‘Crime and Thrillers’ and left them with downloads that homes without the internet cannot access. These vulnerable listeners lost all their BBC radio in the cuts and their views and those of their parents need to be openly canvassed rather than in separate CBeebies research which will run the danger of focusing only on replacement downloads rather than lost radio hours.

Guidelines point children and families to R4extra, as the primary service for broadcasting children’s radio programmes, but we can find no mention of the 4 O’Clock family hour nor any warning about the adult focus of the network which, with no watershed, airs content that can include extreme violence, potentially offensive language and sexually explicit material in   programmes repeated up to three times a day.

As a consequence responding children could stray across unsuitable material when searching out content meant for them. For example, at 6 -7pm ‘The 7th Dimension’ features the more family oriented ‘Dr Who’ alongside gruesome adult scare stories about ghosts, vampires, arson, drowning, hangings, suicide, etc., and this horror and sci-fi hour is promoted next to the 4 O’Clock Show.  A half hour extension of ‘Mel’s Best Bits’ on Sundays has now nudged family drama up to the start of The 7th Dimension. A repeat of Henry James’s disturbing tale, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ led up to the family hour last week, and featuring children, which could intrigue young listeners. Adult podcasts are available with a click of the mouse.

Official complaints about conflicted scheduling have been dismissed as the BBC continues to maintain that R4extra is an adult network to which very few children listen, and advises parental monitoring. Adults don’t want their radio censored but children need a safe listening environment. Younger children’s should have their own network but if they must be served via an adult station we have advised R2 as preferable with its  mixed speech and music format and more family friendly tone.

The BBC has a mandate to serve all communities across all its platforms of delivery and set standards for others to aspire to but, after decades of expanding public space, UK children have less licence-funded radio than ‘Children’s Hour’ provided in the 1940s, when the Home Service was the only available option.  The little they have left is in a potentially harmful place. The BBC insists that all children prefer their radio online through other devices. Many adults use radio online and also benefit from traditional mainstream radio.

By way of excuse for abandoning young listeners, the BBC speculated that today’s children may no longer be able to listen without visual stimulation – apparently unmindful of culpability, were such an alarming surmise to be true. Children are engaged by the BBC ‘Schools News Report’ and the current ’500 Words’ Hay-on-Wye story competition but these once-a-year events represent a tiny example of radio’s potential in young lives.

This Review of BBC Children’s Radio needs to ask the following questions:

  1. Do the instant cuts of 75% airtime and 50% budget compare fairly with savings averaging 16-20% across other departments spread over five years?
  2. Do TV sourced podcasts averaging 11 minutes duration adequately replace regular daily radio for children aged under-six, bearing in mind families without Internet access, who may be the most needful group?
  3. Does trade of publicly funded archive to rival commercial stations mitigate against the impact of the BBC’s withdrawal from children’s radio provision?
  4. Is such trade likely to commercialise young ears and top-slice the licence fee?
  5. In decades of expanding capacity is it right to reduce children’s public service radio to less than ‘Children’s Hour’ provided in the 1940s when the Home Service was the only platform of delivery?
  6. Does 15 to 20 minutes in an hour of clips repeated from adult stations, delivered via the network licensed for horror, sci-fi and stand-up comedy, represent fair apportionment and responsible placement of publicly funded radio for children aged six to 14 years?
  7. Does current high rotation and repetition of adult content across BBC R4 and R4Extra, together with copious free downloads, compare fairly with the minimal space and content allocated for children’s leisure and cultural development?
  8. Is less than £600k per annum from an annual budget of £640.1million a fair proportion of the BBC’s domestic radio budget to invest in ‘family friendly content’?

R4Extra showcases some of the finest radio comedy and drama ever made but this only highlights the paucity of provision for children, whose shelved archive now awaits rights clearance for commercial trade.

We make no apology for reiterating our concerns about young listeners who continue to be so neglected.  Savings were necessary but children suffered unfairly in the forefront of the cuts and their rights and needs have been abandoned without fair assessment.

Clearly There is scope for a rigorous and transparent review of public radio for children but all the facts need to be on the table.

Sound Start 12/04/13


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