Keith Harris: The Future Of The BBC

17 Dec 2013

So the BBC is under scrutiny again.  The House of Commons Select Committee on The Future of the BBC  is meeting to answer questions, which include “what should the BBC be for, and what should be the purpose of public service broadcasting?”  It is also asking “Is there a case for distributing funding for public service content more widely beyond the BBC?”  There are of course many other questions which are being addressed by the committee but these two are I think of real significance and importance to British music.

Underlying the question about the purpose of public service broadcasting is the idea of whether or not public service broadcasting has a valid function in contemporary society, where people can get whatever they want whenever they want it.  Here we would do well to be reminded of Lord Reith’s original idea that the job of the BBC is not to give people what they want, it is to give people what they didn’t know that they wanted.

Whilst  I don’t see the role of the BBC as being to promote music per se, I do recognise the vitally important role that a public service broadcaster plays in terms of being able to support all facets of musical cultural life.

Last year radio two played over 28,000 unique musical recordings. Contrast that with the ‘more music variety’ Heart Radio network which played fewer than 1500 and you begin to see that unless we want a very limited range of the lowest common denominator broadcasting, the BBC is offering an important and very valuable public service.

If you consider the first question together with the second one it seems to be floating the idea that some of this public service broadcasting work could be taken away and put into private hands. I think that the recent shift from Choice radio to Capital Xtra along with what has happened to most of the incremental licenses granted to serve niche communities, shows what happens when radio which is supposed to have a public service remit – in terms of serving communities – is passed over to the commercial market.

Choice FM was originally given a licence to serve the local black community of South London by playing alongside more popular urban music sounds, more specialist and varied music types like Reggae, Soca, Calypso etc. Choice was bought in 2004 by Global and was moved out of Brixton into Leicester Square with Capital Radio, losing the local element originally envisaged when the license was granted in 1990.  Predictably, all the DJs playing these niche genres have been fired and Choice has become Capital Xtra playing exclusively more commercial hip-hop and R&B styles.

The regulator has not as yet intervened and in spite of protests from local communities it seems that the public service element for which Choice was originally granted its licence has disappeared. This should be a salutary lesson and a real warning about what can happen if we begin to take the BBC for granted, or if we believe that we can entrust the public service remit to private hands.

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