Tuesday, 2 March 2010

If you are a UK music fan, follow these instructions

Anybody who has ever gritted their teeth at the third play of a tedious James Blunt song during their working day will know how feeble commercial radio is for those who value music with passion, soul and sincerity.

If you're a fan of heavy rock, drum 'n' bass, punk, indie, reggae, ska, hard dance, electronica, funky house, Northern soul, blues, metal, etc, you will be all too familiar with the agony of Groundhog FM - the nightmare that is some witless local DJ churning out the same old tracks you heard yesterday, in between double-glazing adverts and his own 'in the newspapers today...' spiel.

The fact these charismaphobes are allowed near a microphone and feel no shame in inflicting the likes of Phil Collins, Dido and Bon Jovi on an entire county surely must be in breach of the Geneva Convention.

I'm no music snob, I do actually like plenty of mainstream music, quite a lot of it new. I admire the production behind Girls Aloud, I appreciate the simplistic exuberance of the Black Eyed Peas, and the punchy sound of Lily Allen.

However, there are times when the Clash's 'I Fought The Law' needs to be pelted out full blast. Times when the severely underrated M.I.A. should be on the airwaves, times when some full-on skanking from Toots And The Maytals can brighten an evening, and times when a long-forgotten Elastica track can stick a smile on your face.

To satisfy such desires, I've always recommended BBC 6 Music, a station that plays tracks that other broadcasters don't touch. From Craig Charles' Funk Show to the heart-warming surreal musings of Adam and Joe, with the wit and whimsy of Andrew Collins, this station is a pure gem, a rare showcase for esoteric tuneage.

You may not have heard of it (until recently) as it's stuck in the wastelands of DAB. According to the BBC's own surveys, the station has a mere 20% awareness among adults. I was surprised it was as high as that, as the Beeb have never done a good job of promoting 6music.

In the news today of course, BBC director general Mark Thompson has announced his intention to axe BBC 6 Music along with BBC Asian Network. The timing of which has to be brought into question, as a Conservative government is likely to be established soon. It seems like a sacrificial lamb offering.

Also, the BBC are continually blasted by the right-wing press for their dominance in mainstream media. The criticism is a curious parodox which is rarely questioned. One line is "you're doing too well, you're harming the business of your commercial rivals", and the other line is "incredibly low ratings, it should be axed". The idiots who spew out this bile, from the likes of bigot Richard Littlejohn and the ironically-surnamed Jon Gaunt, do so without acknowledging their own spectacular broadcasting failures.

Naturally, music lovers are starting petitions, Facebook groups, and even a flashmob to prevent the closure of 6music.

Whilst these are all very well and good, nothing can be going to the Powers That Be. In this case, the BBC Trust. The news may scream "BBC axes radio stations", but actually it's only a proposal there is time to save it.

Please e-mail the BBC Trust at srconsultation@bbc.co.uk to air your support of BBC 6music. Without significant recognition of this quality station, we could lose it at the end of 2011. BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons has admitted if "there's massive public concern that we need to take account of then we will go back to the director general to rethink the strategy before it's approved".

If an e-mail is inconvenient for you to write, you can always submit your views in the online consultation from the BBC Trust, all listeners and viewers invited to take part before 25th May, that also goes for the e-mails.

With that, I reproduce below the e-mail I sent.
Edit: As my friend Nic says in the comments to this blog entry, don't copy-and-paste this, just let it inspire you. Organisations don't look fondly on lots of people sending the same thing in!:

Dear BBC Trust,

I'm stunned at the proposals to close down digital radio stations 6music and Asian Network. The Director General believes 6music is competing too closely with commercial offerings and is too expensive to run, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Within your established national portfolio of stations, 6music is easily the most unique. The intelligence, passion and eclectic choices in music - past and current - makes 6music an astonishing and well loved arena for people whose tastes are simply not served by any competing broadcaster.

The same cannot be said for many of your other digital services. BBC Three is currently a poor performer that's in the shadow of E4 and ITV2. Shows such as 'Joe Swash: I Believe In Ghosts' and 'My Man Boobs And Me' are cheap tawdry tabloid fare which has little appeal to its target audience.

I've also never understood why the BBC dedicate two channels for children's television. I'm not questioning the quality of CBBC or CBeebies, which are a breath of fresh air in comparison to commercial rivals' offerings (simply toy adverts masquerading as cartoons), yet I feel you could preserve costs by placing the pre-school output (CBeebies) during times when the usual CBBC audience are supposed to be attending school. The extra bandwidth saved could be used for a second HD service.

Of course, my issue is with the plans to decimate your digital radio services under the questionable notion that there's a feeling of overreaching into areas that are normally the preserve of commercial radio.

The irony is that your analogue-based stations have long been on commercial radio's doorsteps.

Global's Heart are moving in to mirror Radio 2, and judging by significant audience increases, it's up to the Beeb to make the next move. Radio 3 of course has a distinct commercial competitor in Classic FM, its popularity eclipsing your offering. Radio 5 thankfully outdoes the rather downmarket talkSPORT, but both chase the same audience.

BBC 6music costs just £9 million a year to run. Out of the TV License fee income of £4.6 billion, I would say that represents extremely good value for money. I only wish I could say the same for BBC Three, costing £115 million a year, with very few 'hits' to date.

The nearest commercial station to 6music? I feel embarrassed at even mentioning Xfm or Absolute Radio, two stations that play token 'alternative and indie' songs in daytime only if they've become big chart breakthroughs. They're usually overplayed and when it's a new band, it's just their one song they'll play.

Xfm's commitments to the listener are laughable. DJs have been made redundant in favour of an automated playlist that is narrow, safe and repetitive. It's no surprise that such DJs - Lauren Laverne, Shaun Keaveney, Guy Garvey, Adam and Joe, Stephen Merchant, etc - have found homes at 6music and have offered better shows as a result.

Absolute Radio's diet of soft rock and anthemic pop, with a prohibition on dance and hip-hop, is an anathema to the tastes of 6music listeners. There is simply no room for esoteric choices in obscure music when commercial interests have to be served.

Mark Thompson also states "low audience awareness" for 6music, yet this is down to the lack of promotion the station gets. BBC 1Xtra is continuously plugged on Radio 1 throughout the day, yet 6music (which has massive crossover appeal with Radio 1 listeners) is never mentioned. I'm not surprised at low figures.

If the cuts are allowed to go ahead, it would not just make a mockery of the BBC's public service commitments, it also devalues DAB as a platform, something which the BBC have been pioneers in introducing to the UK.

Need I remind you that commercial ventures with DAB have been predictable failures? On the television side of things, I'm sure we're familiar on how Granada and Carlton spectacularly let down all those who bought ON Digital/ITV Digital boxes, and it to the BBC's credit that it founded Freeview, which is now a highly acclaimed platform, serving as the most popular method of digital television for UK viewers.

With so much simulcasting of existing analogue stations, DAB is not a highly attractive offering, yet the BBC have done well to provide 1Xtra, 5Live, 6Music, Radio 7 and Asian Network. In wide swathes of provincial Britain, these are the only stations setting the platform apart from standard FM/AM radio. You have made DAB viable for me, in spite of commercial broadcasters fleeing the platform.

For the BBC's continued survival, it is important to support low-cost services which have a passionate audience. It's unquestionable value for the license payer and is true commitment to underserved audiences. I could not think of anything more 'BBC-esque' than what 6music does.

More people listen to 6music than buy the Times newspaper. Even with the station treated like a red-headed stepchild by the Corporation, its listener figures are actually commendable.

The BBC wisely paid tribute when John Peel died, a man whose ethos is represented by 6music. Why undo all that work by closing down a station due to questionable political pressure from vendetta-based campaigns run by press barons who wish the BBC quashed so they can monopolise the market for news?

I know this is going to be one of many thousands of emails sent to you on the subject of 6music, which simply reinforces why the station should be kept and hopefully, promoted!

Yours faithfully

Peter Thomas.