Saturday, 14 July 2018

Another BBC year - the 2017/2018 Report


It’s not quite as exciting as the arrival of the bumper Christmas Radio Times, but the annual BBC report and accounts usually provide for some interesting titbits and a sense of the mood in the BBC's wood-panelled offices - in the shadows of portraits of dead DGs

Whilst the salary details attract the headlines, it’s important to look inside - in this first full year of a new Royal Charter and BBC iPlayer’s best ever year.

BBC local radio merits a mention in the opening paragraphs - and we hope it’s not 50 years before that happens again.

In his opening salvo, the BBC Chairman highlights “a clear distinction between governance of the BBC, which falls to the new Board, and external regulation of the BBC, which lies with Ofcom”.  (Addendum, added 17th July. The Chairman says that this allows  "the corporation to speak clearly with a single voice, and for accountability to rest unambiguously in a single set of hands".  In the absence of a BBC Trust, my view is that Ofcom could have stopped the closure of 6 Music, just as the Trust did, but under current operating licence, could arguably not have stopped the then planned further networking of BBC local radio.)

He also points out level of trust which BBC news enjoys.  When people want news they trust – and accuracy – 55% say they plump for the BBC. 

Whatever Twitter might suggest, I believe most sensible folk agree the BBC tries its best. If it gets it wrong, Ofcom can now send off nasty letters, and those rare upheld complaints suggests the system is working – not the contrary.  The DG makes mentions too of "false news": “if it is often hard for adults to tell the difference between fact and falsehood, it is even harder for young people”.

My jealousy of Tony’s healthy head of hair is distracted only by mention of the "reinvention" of BBC local radio. “Local radio is in the DNA of our communities; part of what defines them. Great local radio is not about broadcasting to audiences, but broadcasting with them”.  Yes. Let’s make sure the path ahead for those stations is well-chosen and implemented with real operational focus.

In "reinventing" the BBC overall, he stresses the sleep he's losing over the financial challenges: “tougher than ever”. “We have worked hard to make sure that the organisation is run as efficiently and effectively as possible, and to redirect spending and simplify procedures”.  Judging by what I’ve seen and heard from others, there are few in BBC radio who cannot see scope for further eminently sensible savings and certainly simpler procedures.

It’s reported that the length of time spent by UK adults (16+) with BBC Radio each week is relatively stable, down 6 minutes to 10 hrs 3 minutes. Ipsos Mori suggests 81% of people say it sets a high standard for quality; and 77% say it is effective at being distinctive.

In evidence of high quality, Natural Histories, Living with the Gods, Sunday, Beyond Belief, The Moral Maze, The Life Scientific, the Infinite Monkey and the truly beautiful Dawn Chorus are commended, as is Radio 4 marking 50 years since the first heart transplant. Partition Voices was said to have highlighted untold stories and Ten Days That Shook the World is mentioned. Jeremy Bowen’s compelling Our Man in the Middle East 25 part-series also receives deserved acclaim.

News

5 live is lauded for its six ARIA awards and #mumtakeover, reaching more than 3.5m on social media. I always find it puzzling that Radio 4’s Today Programme (accounting for almost a fifth of all breakfast radio listening), WATO, PM, the World Tonight or the 6 '0 Clock News rarely merit mention in annual reports. Do they not make an appreciable contribution to delivering impartial news? 

Under the ‘Delivering Impartial Information’ heading, the BBC is keen to highlight Radio 1 Newsbeat’s efforts in tackling mental health issues. Indeed, across both sectors, radio's done some good work in this area this year.

Arts

Radio 4’s The Art of Living is cited for its arts coverage as is Open Book, Free Thinking, Only Artists and Front Row on Radio 4. I hate the latter programme simply for smelling too much like the dreaded Kaleidoscope, which was thankfully murdered in 1998. Radio 2’s the Book Club is also mentioned in dispatches.

In drama, the BBC is excited about Radio 4’s ‘experimentation’ including the ‘innovative conspiracy thriller Tracks, the most visited Radio 4 programme online in the week it launched. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is mentioned alongside Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, Riot Girls and Radio 3’s focus on Joe Orton and Breaking Free, a Century of Russian Culture, featuring Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Also,a new production of the iconic radio play, The Dark Tower, by Louis MacNiece, a hugely influential BBC programme maker in the post-war period.

It may be me, but it’s a long time since I smiled at anything new in that 630 comedy slot on Radio 4.  BBC Radio “continues to champion rising stars in comedy and many of our comedy programmes appeal to large core audiences and new younger listeners”. Radio 1 is congratulated on its comedy in a new ‘late-night slot’. If 3-4 a.m. is ‘late night’, BBC executives must live wild lives. But – it’s on demand too, which is frankly a sensible home. 

It’s pointed out that Radio 4’s comedy podcasts regularly appear near the top of the BBC podcast chart. “Listeners have been able to enjoy a range of different content online as we reinvent BBC Radio for a new generation”. The packaging and circulation of the BBC's excellent radio/audio offerings is indeed a powerful foundation for growth.

Radio 4’s New Comedy Award has "recognised new comedians" and Nicholas Parsons is rightly congratulated for his incredible 50 years of Just a Minute. Honourable mentions too for The News Quiz, Miranda Hart’s Hampshire to Hollywood on 4 Extra. and the return of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Sport

In sport, BBC Radio 5 live and 5 live sports extra were said to have “continued to offer a wider range of sports than any other UK broadcaster” including coverage of this year’s Winter Paralympic Games. 

Somebody troubled to count the commentaries too, or maybe just the invoices. 144 live radio commentaries in all: "more Premier League matches than any other radio broadcaster in the UK", while Test Match Special covered every England cricket match in the summer, complemented by a "digital clips" service. "The BBC sport website is ‘the most popular in the UK, attracting 19 million unique UK browsers every week".

Music. 

Radio 1 ‘brought some of the biggest names in music to the Teen Awards’ and 1Xtra celebrated its 15th anniversary with a special 1Xtra Live in Manchester and distinctive programming included 1Xtra in Jamaica and coverage from carnivals around the country.  Perhaps protecting the Radio 1 brand, nothing is said about Radio 1's 50th anniversary.

For the first time, BBC Asian Network’s flagship event, Asian Network Live, was held in Birmingham and Radio 2, "the most listened to station in the UK", marked its 50th birthday by taking Soul Zone to Manchester for the first Radio 2 All Star Party. Its "commitment to specialist music" was said to be reflected in the Folk Awards and the In Concert series celebrated artists from the past five decades.

‘Radio 6 Music’ (whatever that is), reached record listeners this year, and ‘championed alternative and independent music including Hip Hop Hooray’. They point out that "with over 300 live performances, 6 Music broadcast more live music than any other station in the UK". Radio 3 broadcast Music of the Reformation and seven operas and curated a day of female composers to mark International Women’s Day.

Diversity

The BBC is committed to “reflect and represent...nations and regions and support the creative economy”, and will measure performance “against our ambition to reach all audiences through a range of audience panels, focus groups and satisfaction surveys”.  It cites 1Xtra’s Carnival Weekend; Levi Roots’s series on reggae on Radio 2; the Asian Network’s Comedy Nights; and "Radio 1 and 1Xtra’s output for young people".

47% of BAME 16+s use BBC radio in the  course of a week, up on the the year before, but still well short of the reach amongst all adults – and they listen for just 4 hours and 41 minutes a week. One can expect the BBC to be doing much to grow those figures if it is to achieve its aim.

Radio 3 is proud that the number of female record reviewers has risen to over half; and is identifying ‘forgotten’ female composers.

In its goals of disabled, BAME and women employees, both overall and in leadership, the BBC is approaching its targets, and comfortably ahead of many other broadcasters. That is a good thing – and a focus we’d expect from this Chartered public Corporation.  

LBGT staffing and leadership levels are some way above all BBC targets. I’m a little unsure of any suitable strategy to remedy that.

The English Regions

After rather too many years of hurt, it’s refreshing to see BBC local radio in neon lights, following the DG’s "new strategy for the 39 local radio stations". 

In a quiet word a few months ago, one very senior BBC executive suggested to me that Tony’s announcement had been "more of a speech than a strategy": the work on assembling and delivering a strategy now begins.  He is going to "reinvent", making stations "even more local" and "more creative".  Stalwarts will recall much the same words being used in 1967 and wonder why we ever went on the diversion.

There’ll be “a greater emphasis on uncovering and nurturing new talent and building partnerships with groups not currently well represented” – and, famously, the shared evening programme will be replaced by new local programmes "reflecting the diversity" of the places each station serves - a little like the ones they took off five years ago.  

It’s now been over eight months since that announcement and, in most places, the programmes have yet to begin which says something about the Corporation’s slow cogs. If managers claim to have more important things on their mind, like sorting out the peak-times, I’d accept that as an alibi. And, whilst 'new talent' is critical in our medium, listeners may feel that some maturity and relevant experience should not necessarily count against an applicant.

In its 50th year, BBC Local Radio in England "still attracts more than six million listeners each week". Does the ‘still’ indicate a level of surprise after all this time? Radio Humberside gets its annual honourable mention.

The BBC trumpets “an improvement to BBC local news online” which has “simplified the discovery of local content”. In honesty, I still find the journey to a BBC 'local live' online offering rather like finding one’s way round the Coventry ring road.

The BBC’s Local News Partnership is detailed: funding 145 hungry new journalists, paid by the BBC but employed by outside news organisations, to report on the work of local authorities. Their material is shared with the BBC and 800 other news outlets.

Money

Change in costs from prior year
The general relationship between the costs of services is as one would expect. Speech costs a lot; small stations cost more to run than large ones. Repeats are cheap.

The cost of BBC local radio has risen by over £5m this year; but the cost per listener hour is relatively stable at 4.1p (was 4).  

The significant BBC local radio hike must take into account the context of the large cost-base a multi-site, small scale operation will naturally generate – albeit it is still a 5% rise.  One new managing editor at a local station said to me recently that they’d hit budget for the first time in ages but "no-one seems to have noticed or commended me for it".

This local radio increased spend, of course, is prior to all the new programmes and appointments.  I just hope the next DG is as locally sympathetic as this one, otherwise it'll be time to run and hide.

Only 53% of Londoners use BBC radio weekly, compared with 75% in the South of England and 6%% in the North.

Radio 1 is up a bit in costs, but still down from as far back as 14/15.

The cost of BBC Radio Wales rises from 9.1p per listener hour to 9.3p, but Radio Cymru’s cost per listener hour falls from 22.6p to 16.9p on the back of growing listening rather than significant savings.  BBC Radio Scotland’s cost rises from 6 to 7.8p and BBC Radio nan GĂ idheal from 15.6 to 20.8. BBC radio reaches 72% of people in Wales, but only 58% in Scotland – and 62% in Northern Ireland, where it’s also cheaper per listener hour than Wales or Scotland.

Staffing

Staffing levels at the BBC generally have been “steady” in the past three years, with roles changing “significantly towards serving the audience and building BBC technology capabilities". Reductions in support and administration have allowed the licence fee to "support the World Service, create more original content and improve digital services”. Staff moves to Media City, the Mailbox and Pacific Quay, as well as the closure of TV Centre and other London premises "have helped change the geographical outlook”.

The BBC has achieved a 57% reduction in the number of senior managers, from 614 in 2010 to 267 by 2018, saving £38m. They say “A simpler BBC also means senior leaders that are more visible, more accountable and more approachable”. Notwithstanding the achievements, I still feel there’s scope for improvement in both the numbers and the behaviours.  In my old world, had the cleaner written to the chief executive with a question or point, they would have been seen worthy of a reply.

Next year, the BBC says it will independently “review whether the organisation has some responsibility for freelance on-air presenters whom are now facing historic demands from HMRC after being paid through personal service companies". A contingent (unstated) liability was accordingly disclosed in the financial statements.

The topic of salaries has been discussed fully by better folk than me. Suffice to say, top talent costs cash – and it’s absolutely correct that inequalities are being addressed. Let’s remain aware, though, that in this business, performers should be judged by what comes out of our mouths. What some people say - and how they say it - is better than others – and generates higher audiences and audience satisfaction. Even if those individuals sit side-by-side.  Experience, reputation and listener-love must count for something.

As we know, but others don’t, those mega-figures are not typical. More everyday BBC radio staff are rewarded relatively well, many with reasonably attractive packages when taken as a whole versus what they might earn elsewhere, but there are some on the periphery who wonder whether they can afford to go to work.

The BBC aims to spend no more than 15% of overall 'internal spend' on content on on-screen and on-air talent.

International

In reaching international audiences, the BBC World Service is rightly said to be “one of the UK’s most important cultural exports – attracting a global audience of 160m. It inspires and illuminates the lives of millions around the world”. The expansion is highlighted – the biggest since the 1940s, back to operating in more than 40 languages, as it used to some years ago under its former funding model. Impressively, a quarter of its weekly global audience is said to be aged between 15-24. I have a lot of love and respect for that service.


The Future

The BBC recognises that “over the longer term all broadcast television as well as BBC Radio have trended downwards as new competitors grow significantly. This is particularly the case among those aged under 35, and public service broadcasting will need to work hard to maintain relevance to younger generations”. Young adults (16-34) spend more than four-and-a-half hours per week with music streaming services – roughly equivalent to the time they spend with BBC Radio. That said, across all platforms, the BBC remains the single media provider with whom adults of all age groups, including young adults, spend the most time.

And Finally

The BBC will always have a tough job.  It will always get criticised. Too left. Too right. Too populist. Too niche. Too expensive.  Too many cuts.  Too safe.  Too naughty. It's not an easy gig.

Now, more than ever it demands clear and visible leadership, clean reporting lines, solid delegation, creative thought and - most challenging of all for an organisation of this scale - agility. 

This report offers a decent account of the last year which has been a little less troublesome than prior years, although not without its skirmishes. 

Perhaps it portrays, however, a strange perspective of BBC radio content, maybe owing to the document's intended audience. Were I Chris Evans, I'd like to have a little more about my contribution than an aside about Children in Need. Were I Jeremy Vine, I'd like to think I bring some value to news and  current affairs on radio - not least as I reflect on my 15th anniversary on the programme.  Were I toiling away hosting a spectacularly powerful regular BBC local radio programme, I'd like some credit. Were I Radio 1 Controller, I'd like a little more credit for all I'd done across platforms chasing those audiences you are worrying about. Were I John Humphrys or Nick Grimshaw, I'd like some mention of what I do, rather than just my salary.

Readers of my blogs will know of the real radio stories, the anecdotes which illustrate the genuine power of this beautiful medium.  Annually, though, the programme examples read as if written by a posh bald bloke rifling through a copy of the Radio Times - calling upstairs to his privileged teenage son for a contemporary reference every now and again.






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Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.




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