The BBC has published its third Annual Plan for the current Charter period, updating its strategy and setting out the work plan for the year. Below is a thumb-nail sketch of some of the contents as they apply to radio and audio.
There is much mention of the BBC’s responsibility with news at a time of “growing partisanship and fragmentation in politics and the media” which has “changed the context in which our news teams operate, altering perceptions of impartiality and bias”. “We are determined to sustain the trust audiences express about the BBC.”
“Our updated editorial guidelines will renew our commitment to impartiality, accuracy and other core values, and we will roll out new training resources to challenge subconscious bias and test how it might creep into anything from a presenter’s tone to a programme’s running order." It is good to read about “the need to stand up for impartiality”, and I have long said that the BBC might just be a little more confident in its official rebuttals and do even more to explain to rational consumers the lengths to which it goes to get things right rather than leave it to its valiant and long-suffering producers and journalists.
As expected, there is a focus on young audiences. It’s pointed out that music streaming has grown by 40% in a year and “15-34s now spend around as much time each week with Spotify as with BBC Radio (both around four and a quarter hours)”. The report also suggests that “the internet is the primary source” for news amongst younger people and habits are being adopted by older demos. They are comforted, however, by Ofcom’s conclusion that “a substantial majority of young people support public service broadcasting”.
They talk of new formats that match the ways young people are consuming news, on-demand podcasts for younger listeners and developing the ‘voice’ offer for news on smart speakers.
Creativity remains a priority and the intent to “take even more creative risks for our audience”, especially younger audiences. In radio they mention Radio 2’s changes as being “a great example of creative refreshment – with Zoe Ball at breakfast, Sara Cox at drive-time, Jo Whiley in a new evening solo slot and Trevor Nelson bringing his Rhythm Nation to late nights”.
Other creative highlights are Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Middlesbrough, the return of BBC Music to Glastonbury, BBC Proms and BBC Music Day. “Across the BBC, we want to make sure all our output is marked by the confidence to do things others simply would not”.
The focus on diversity on and off air is highlighted: “audiences will be able to see and hear diverse voices in everything we do”. I think we do. There is an acknowledgement that “there are still too many creative talents who can feel locked out of an industry that remains stubbornly tilted towards London and the South East”.
The first few months of BBC Sounds “have proven the impact that ambitious new podcasts can have”. They say it will “continue to improve as we listen to audience feedback” just before they close the iPlayer radio app.
Growing BBC Sounds is included in the BBC’s second major priority for this year: “For the future of radio, pushing ahead with BBC Sounds is vital. In its first few months we have seen around 1.8 million downloads of the app, and an average of more than a million listeners a week. This year our aim is firmly to establish Sounds as the best place to listen to all BBC audio – music, podcasts, and radio.”
There will be new “investigative, storytelling and funny podcasts” for the increasing numbers of on-demand listeners and more companions to television programmes, plus “new titles from the archives, and more exclusive music mixes”. “We will explore combining human and algorithmic techniques to curate our content more effectively so that audiences discover more content they love".
There is talk too of implementing proposals to link from BBC Sounds to live linear radio and podcasts from third party sources and trial of ‘windowing’ BBC podcasts in BBC Sounds. There is a nod to the industry too: “Our plans for BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds are bold and ambitious. It is important that we are clear and transparent with the industry around our plans in these areas.”
Culture and HR
The BBC recognises a need: “to modernise our organisation and make the BBC one of the very best places to work”. I hope they feel sufficiently confident and open to publish suitably granular detail of the latest staff survey and hold managers to account across the Corporation.
By 2021/22 they want the BBC to be used every week by 90% of the adult population. It’s now 91%, but they want 90% of all under-35s to sign in to one of our online products every week, compared to the current frequency of once a month. There are also specific goals set out for all services; and an account of the distinctiveness of each.
Radio headlines the music section, with Radio 1 supporting BBC Introducing, and of new music in general: “Radio 1 will maintain its support of new and home-grown music with 50% of music played during daytime hours being new, and 45% of daytime music played from the UK.” 1Xtra will continue to "surface new UK artists and Asian Network will act as a showcase for The British Asian Sound". BBC Radio 2 will "shine a light on specialist music" and BBC Radio 3 will "promote new talent. 6 Music remains committed to championing new and alternative music from the UK and beyond. In 2019/20, at least 30% of music in daytime will be new and there will be more than 300 live music sessions".
In local radio: “Work is already underway to reinvent BBC Local Radio”, some two years after the DG announced it was starting. “All of our 39 Local Radio stations in England have introduced 15 hours of new local programming each week” “more than 200 new shows on BBC Local Radio, with a diverse mix of presenters and themes", as part of the "effort to build a new relationship with underserved audiences across England”. Transforming local radio aims to ensure “stations better reflect the communities they serve, uncover and nurture exciting new talent, and engage younger, more diverse audiences. Local Radio will be the front door for new talent into the BBC and the place where local conversations are heard.”
They flag up some possible changes, including “refreshing” the speech quotas for English Local Radio, Radio Scotland, Radio Foyle, Radio Ulster, Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, and Radio nan Gaidheal. Whilst speech – “with news at its core – will remain a vitally important part of our local radio service”, they will be asking Ofcom to amend the Operating Licence to remove the 100% speech quota at breakfast time, whilst retaining the overall 60% quota for speech content.
There is also mention of 'The Social' online service from BBC Scotland, which will be expanded into England; and of the progress at the World Service since their language expansion.
In funding, the BBC points out that it has had to absorb inflation and the cost of significant new obligations imposed by government (such as paying for the World Service and S4C) with largely a frozen licence fee. They calculate that by 2017/18, licence fee income available for UK public services fell by around 20%. For the current period, licence fee inflation has been restored, which helps, but the BBC points out it is lumbered with the funding for free TV licences for over 75s. Over this period, they point out that ITV’s income has grown by more than 31% and Sky by 99% in real terms.
It’s a useful document and, as one might expect, no huge surprises in this interim report. Drawing back, I just get a feel though that maybe the real value of everyday radio to the BBC’s audiences is not totally understood. Some would say that’s been the case since the 1960s. And yes - tomorrow's BBC customers are hugely important and pivotal to the health of the whole industry - but let's also attach suitable importance to radio's most avid consumers and they're a tad older.
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