Creating an open, more distinctive BBC…


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Tomorrow’s BBC – Creating an open, more distinctive BBC

 “By 2017 children will have suffered three years without any public service radio for them”.

 BBC Studios aims to transform the majority of in house production for TV and online but, apart from BBC Radio Comedy, radio remains in the public service arena.  BBC Studios – Strengthening the BBC’s role in the creative industries

If radio is to operate separately from BBC Studios, will it set new quotas for independent production; allow more or less funding from Licence Fees;  top slice radio budgets for partnerships with commercial companies and, if so, which budgets will be sliced?

And what of children’s radio following Charter Renewal?  In 2011 the BBC Trust decision on BBC’s Strategy for Children’s Audio  reaffirmed, in its five editorial priorities, the provision of outstanding services to children across all its platforms as part of its public service mission, at the same time approving draconian cuts to BBC Children’s Radio budgets and airtime. Out of an annual radio budget of £650m just £600k was left for children’s radio – less than the then DG Mark Thompson’s salary.  As reported in Nursery World, a protest meeting in the House of Lords called for urgent review of the cuts but they took immediate effect.

In September 2014 Radio 4 and 4 Extra controller Gwyneth Williams  announced  that adult speech network, BBC 4Extra, was to stop broadcasting the only remaining BBC radio programme aimed at children because listening by children aged 10 to 14 was so low and the station attracts a largely middle aged audience. Listeners under ten were not counted.

The demise of this vital element of UK children’s culture is well documented in successive BBC Service Licences for R4, R5 and, particularly, R7 and R4 Extra during their 13 years on air.  Artfully reworded clauses drafted by Executives and ratified by Governors and Trustees eventually cut BBC Children’s Radio to zero last year.

A brief daily podcast, of variable quality in sound and content, remains for the under sixes. Parents complain that, unlike a preset push-button radio that a toddler can use, these need adult supervision, technical knowhow and internet access – unavailable to many families who may  benefit most from daily access to culture and entertainment via radio.

Parents who bought DAB sets specially for the BBC Children’s content have been short changed and, while BBC Children’s radio is reduced to nothing, specialist areas for grownups, including  classical and black music, South Asian interests, cricket and so on continue to receive millions from BBC Licence Fees.

By 2017 children will have suffered three years without any public service radio for them.


The value of learning to listen when young cannot be overestimated.  Experts agree that access to daily radio stimulates imagination; aids concentration; helps language and speech acquisition; develops coordination; encourages critical thinking and a sense of place.  It can help families learning English as an additional language and is also great fun!

In partnership with abracadabra! we run an all-day non-profit internet service of stories; songs; rhymes; music and movement; games and information for listeners aged birth to 10 and their families to showcase what can be achieved with very limited funds.

The BBC abandoned its key public duty with a string of duplicitous claims:

“Children may no longer be able to listen without visual stimulation.”

If this sorry scenario were true, the BBC is culpable. Children were not listening because the BBC failed to engage them and neglected to flag up the meagre content offered.

Children only want TV and pop music … the rest can always buy our tapes/CDs.”

Adults like pop music and TV and can purchase CDs. They also enjoy a wealth of traditional radio choice.

“Children only want their radio via computers and personal devices”.

A large percentage of adults enjoy radio via internet and personal devices.  They also benefit from a wealth of traditional radio choice across a growing number of platforms.

 And most self-damning of all:

 “Children aren’t drawn to our adult speech networks”.

Successive BBC research has shown this so why bury children’s content in unsuitable schedules for so many years – the last and least appropriate being R4Extra with its Service Licence billed as “…home of stand up comedy, horror and sci-fi?

With Children 2000, Sound Start sponsored four surveys by MORI and Ipsos Capibus MORI

 The first two placed a national network for children above all the BBC’s five DAB services, the third joint top with R4Extra [then airing children’s content] and the fourth at third place.

In each case the Asian Network came last. Charged with lax management and poor listening figures the Asian Network was singled out for closure in Putting Quality First, however, it gained a reprieve and continues to target young Asians aged under 35.

At £10.7m in the 2014/15 Annual Accounts the network cost more per listener hour than any other DAB format and the narrow focus is perceived increasingly as patronising and unrepresentative.  The network could be better used.


With evidence of such marked public preference for a DAB network for young children, the Sound Start Group responded to the BBC Trust’s Review of the Asian Network  proposing that this scarce bandwidth could more cost efficiently target young children and families across all ethnic groups which would increase listenership, promote DAB take up in homes and cars, and encourage greater social cohesion – as reported in the Telegraph.

The BBC aims to spend £150m on New Ideas.  Changing the Asian Network to a Children’s service would make sound economic and social sense.

There are concerns that BBC Children’s may be targeted for wholesale transfer to internet delivery via iPlay but to confine this vulnerable audience to online only or commercial pressure is to rob them of the rights and choices in publicly owned free-to-air platforms enjoyed by adults.  To use BBC Children’s as a shoe-in for commercial interests, top slicing and contestable funding, over and above other PSB services is plainly unfair.

 Professor Jeanette Steemers warns in BBC Charter Review and children’s content: beware the Trojan horse!   “… the overall tone of the Green Paper seems to be lining up children’s programming as a potential Trojan horse to cut the BBC down to size”.

Children are a deserving audience today and the consumers and creators of tomorrow. They may not pay the licence fee but equitable investment in them is fundamental to the purpose and future of the BBC.  Notwithstanding decisions on funding, governance and size, the new BBC Charter must make full and fair provision for children to remain at the heart of public service broadcasting on all platforms, including radio. This will continue to set high standards and distinguish the BBC from other broadcasters.

In closing we make three suggestions:

  1. Re-title the TV Licence as Public Service Broadcasting [PSB] Licence, to properly record that this public funding covers radio, internet and any future platforms.
  1. Conduct a transparent in depth study into the purpose and value of PSB radio for children, with a view to safeguarding children’s rights and needs in all BBC strategy.
  1. To inform the study: Adopt the Asian Network to pilot a two year service of music; song; story; rhyme; quizzes; games and information for families with pre and primary school children, mixing BBC and other archive with new content. Publicise widely.

In the unlikely failure to engage this audience in sufficient numbers the service could move to annual subscription of 50p [less than a penny a week] per child. Disadvantaged families and cared for children could be subsidised via family charities; Lottery grant;  BBC Licence fees and/or the DfEE and DCMS                                                                                                                                        Do the math!                                                                                                                                    

Documents relied on

Susan Stranks,  Coordinator                                                                                    03/11/2015  


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