cj#545> Death Knell of BBC Radio

1996-06-18

Richard Moore

        I realize many of you out in cyberjournal land aren't familiar with
BBC, except possibly through rebroadcasts of BBC-produced TV dramas, or
WWII movies which include snippets of Churchill radio speehes ("Our Finest
Hour", etc.), or coded broadcasts to the French underground fighting the
Nazis.  But BBC radio plays a unique role in the fabric of UK democracy,
and its slated dismantlement (announced in disguised form this week) should
be of interest to general students of democracy, the media, and
privatization frenzy.

        "Radio 4" is one of the five FM radio channels currently operated
by BBC, and it's rebroadcast to the world on long wave as "BBC World
Service".  I got hooked on Radio 4 when living in Britain, and was pleased
to find I got good reception after moving to Wexford.  It has a 24-hour
schedule of news, political analysis, interviews, radio plays, and a
variety of special features.

        The features are aimed at many different audiences and include
gardening shows, quiz programs, science reports, children's drama, and
human-interest vignettes of various kinds.  When you turn on Radio 4, you
can expect to learn something, or be exposed to interesting people or
topics.  It's a relaxed media, not trying to sell you anything or arouse
your andrenalin -- it _invites_ your attention in a liesurely way, it
permits reflection on the part of the listner.

        Radio 4 is a "thinking person's channel" with a high level of
intellectual rigor, artistic sensitivity, political savvy, and journalistic
competence.  Pacifica Radio and NPR in the U.S. are in some ways
comparable, but they lack the resources and staff to provide anything like
the scope and depth of programming BBC is able to provide.

* * *

        There are two primary factors, IMHO, responsible for the excellence
of Radio 4.  First is a strong British tradition of thorough journalism,
quality entertainment, and citizen involvement in public life -- after all
Britain is the land of Shakespeare, and it's a country which evolved its
democracy gradually over time, rather than all-at-once with a written
constitution.  Second is the funding method used by BBC.

        BBC (hope I have this right) is funded by license fees: everyone
who owns a TV or radio in the UK pays a license fee which goes directly to
the BCC, and which provides sufficent revenues to support independent
program development and operation of the broadcasting infrastructure --
with no need to resort to commercials or other forms of corporate
sponsorship.  BBC is independent of direct government control over content
or funding; it's autonomy is comparable to, say, the Federal Reserve in the
U.S.  The license fee is relatively small.  I'm not sure of the exact
figure, but it's considerably less than one pays for a cable television
service, and provides ever-so-much more in return.

        Certainly there is some grumbling about this "coercive BBC tax",
especially by folks who aren't part of the regular BBC audience.  But
by-and-large, people accept the arrangement, see it as good value.  In any
case, the license fee is not the excuse for the dismantlement, as we shall
see.  Keep in mind as well that Radio 4 is only a small part of the BBC
Empire, which includes as well several television channels, lots of sports,
sitcoms, movies, pop music, classical music, etc.

        The license-fee approach can be contrasted with funding by
advertisements, government, voluntary subscriptions, or pay-per-view.  With
advertisments, you get not only the annoyance of commercials, but you also
get a coporate slant on content -- "He who pays the piper calls the tune".
With direct government operation, as in totalitarian countries, then of
course the media is reduced to a channel for government propaganda.  With
voluntary subscriptions, as with Pacifica or U.S. public television, you
just don't have the revenue base for a comprehensive operation.
Pay-per-view over-emphasizes the popularity of each and every production,
discouraging use of production resources for risky, experimental, or
small-audience shows (or shall we say - laid-back shows).

* * *

        That's the one-page summary of BBC radio, as it currently exists.
But all that is due to change -- radically for the worse.  The announced
change is a major reorganization of BBC management.  Not only is the
structure of the changes ominous, but the rhetoric and deceipt employed in
the annoucement also reveal much about the direction things will be going.

        The substance of the reorganization is that responsibility for
producing programs is being taken away from BBC radio, and moved to a
central BBC production facility that will be responsible for producing both
radio and television content.  BBC Radio will only have the power to select
programs which have been produced, and decide when to schedule them.

        It is patently obvious that the kind of radio put out on Radio 4
will suffer greatly under this new regime.  Television is the "bigger"
medium, with larger audiences, and radio will be the slighted step child in
the competition for funding and production time.  More important, as was
pointed out by many listeners who called in on this topic, the mentality of
television production is qualitatively different than that of radio
production.  There's a different pace, an attention to the spoken word, and
a smaller scale -- this mentality will be swamped by the faster paced
pressures of a television-dominated production facility, peopled by a staff
responsible primarily for the success of the television operation.

        The whole thrust of modern "management leveling" -- the "flat
organization" -- is that you get the best results by moving responsibility
as low in the organization as possible: creating autonomous units that have
the resources and skills to determine their own success or failure.  What
the BBC reorganization is doing is destroying such a flat structure, and
replacing it with a centralized one, with control removed from the local
units.  It is obvious that the intent of the reorganization is to
disempower and downgrade BBC radio.  The former head of Radio 4 resigned
recently, possibly out of frustration with the pending changes.

        An interesting question is Why? -- Why are the changes being made,
and Why is there a desire to downgrade BBC radio?  To answer this question,
we can look at the rhetoric offered with the announcement of the
reorganization, but we'll need to unravel the deceit, add some analysis,
and take into account the general Tory program of privatization.

        First, the rhetoric.  What BBC management said is that it wants to
increase efficiency of operations, and prepare to compete effectively in
the modern digital age.  They said the "modern" view is that there's no
difference between radio and television -- they're simply different
delivery channels for content.

        From a narrow techonological perspective, there's sense to this
rhetoric.  One could imagine sending out radio and TV (real-time audio and
video signals) over the same digital infrastructure -- fiber, satellite, or
whatever.  Thus it might make sense to combine content-distribution
facilities into a unified structure.  But programming & production are
different -- the creative staff needs to be attuned to the particular media
being produced: radio and television, just like stage and film, are
distinctly different.  The "digital age" doesn't change that, and BBC
management knows their rhetoric is a sham.

        Nonetheless, their rhetoric includes the key to what is really
going on here.  When they talk about "modern", what they're referring to is
opening up British media to corporate development.  And when they talk
about "competitive", what they're referring to is enabling the private
sector to compete effectively.  It's not BBC that needs to fear
competition, rather it's the new commercial ventures that need help to
enroach on the established and well-served BBC customer base.

        With secure and guaranteed funding, superb production staff, and
established, loyal audiences, the BBC is doing fine the way it is.  It can
upgrade to more modern technologies, incorporate the flexibilities of
digital methods, and even cross-pollenate across video and digital
libraries where that makes sense.  No crippling re-organization is needed
for such adaptations to new technology.  The problem, from the viewpoint of
the privatization-fixated Tory management appointees, is that the BBC is
_too_ successful.  It will be too difficult for the private-sector
corporations to make inroads into BBC audiences the way things are
currently.

        Thus the BBC-Radio reorganization can be seen as part of the
general Tory program of dismantling British public institutions, and
creating opportunities for windfall profits for private corporations.

        In particular, the reorganization makes BBC more attractive for
privatization.  If a private operation wanted to take over, they'd want
control centralized so they could mold the organization to their own
purposes more easily.  They'd probably flatten it out again later, but only
after they'd realigned the editorial and business policies with their own
agendas.

* * *

        A session of "Call Nick Ross" was devoted last week to listener
feedback on the BBC reorganization.   I phoned in and, after many busy
signals, a staffer took down my number, what I wanted to say, and said
perhaps they'd call back.  Thus Nick has a whole desk full of callers, and
he can bring up those with the comments he prefers to see discussed.  His
agenda became pretty clear, by the way he stated the issues and by the
selection of callers he put on air.

        Interestingly enough, when someone pointed out that the reorg
smelled like preparation for privatization, he didn't deny that
possibility, but instead began arguing that privatization would lead to
greater consumer choice.  There was no questioning of the so-called
"efficiency" gains, and more important, no discussion of the implications
for the democratic process in Britain.

        Radio 4 is the best forum by far in Britain for the discussion of
public issues -- it's really more comparable to a good newspaper than to
normal broadcast news and entertainment.  If BBC is privatized, then all
broadcasts regarding public issues will be provided via the corporate
channel, like in the U.S.  This would be a serious loss to British
democracy, a fundamental impoverishment of the body politic.

        Thus in microcosm, this Nick Ross show illustrates our general
corporatist propaganda climate.  The deeper political implications of
privatization and other "reforms" are left totally undiscussed, while
attention is directed to alleged micro-efficencies.  Everyone is encourged
to believe that our democractic institutions will endure forever, even as
their foundations are systematically removed, one by one.


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    Posted by Richard K. Moore  -  •••@••.•••  -  Wexford, Ireland
     Cyberlib:  www | ftp --> ftp://ftp.iol.ie/users/rkmoore/cyberlib
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