BBC Asian Network reaches 10 years

Shah Rukh Khan and Tommy Sandhu Indian megastar Shah Rukh Khan hosted his first radio show when he joined Tommy Sandhu on the Asian Network in June

It's been a tough few years at the Asian Network.

In 2010, the BBC executive suggested the digital station, along with 6 Music, should be axed as part of their cost-cutting plans.

But threatened closure has arguably, and perversely, become the best marketing campaign for both stations.

After falling to a weekly reach of 370,000 listeners in 2009-10, the Asian Network audience has grown, with the network recording two consecutive highs in 2012, now reaching 547,000 according to Rajar data.

The closure plan had already been rejected last year, which means the network station has survived to its 10th birthday.

On MW in the Midlands and northern England since the mid-90s, the Asian Network went nationwide digitally on 28 October 2002.

But as Mark Strippel, head of Asian Network programmes, is keen to point out, the BBC has been delivering output for audiences of South Asian background since the 1970s.

Not just Bollywood

However, there are many who query whether the BBC should be providing content targeted at a particular "community" - a generic label which doesn't quite reflect the varieties among its three million members in the UK.

Strippel, who has been working at AN for six years after a stint at 1Xtra, likens the network's focus to the BBC stations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Start Quote

Mark Strippel

We want to broaden the appeal of our content”

End Quote Mark Strippel Head of Asian Network programmes

He also believes AN's existence is justified by its range of British Asian content in contrast to the commercial sector.

"Commercial Asian broadcasters have a very heavy focus on South Asian content and even then it's really Bollywood more than anything else.

"It's our responsibility to showcase British Asian content for the wider BBC and wider non-Asian audience."

For him, that means better connections with the rest of the corporation, from their forthcoming "Queens of Melody" concert with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra to newsgathering.

"The AN newsroom will be based on the 8th floor of Broadcasting House and we will have very clear links with Newsbeat, the newsroom downstairs, and the World Service."

As cuts in MW transmission lead to the end of language programmes on BBC local radio, Strippel is also keen to share more content with English regions, which he admits hasn't happened as much before.

DQF plans mean AN's service licence budget for 2016-17 will be reduced by 18% to £7.8m, after a maximum planned reinvestment of £1m.

Reinvestment

Asian Network will also save money by cutting its bases from five (three in London, two in the Midlands) to two. By March 2013, it will be broadcast from the Birmingham Mailbox and New Broadcasting House in London following the closure of its Leicester site.

Suzi Mann Suzi Mann is one of three new presenters at Asian Network

The reinvestment will be used for five reporters based in key Asian areas across the UK, who will gather stories for the wider BBC as well as the station. It will also be spent on live events coverage for platforms including the popular BBC Red Button.

But less money means fewer programmes, with most now lasting for three to four hours and Radio 5 live broadcasting on the station between midnight and 6am. A rejigged schedule was launched on Monday, including new presenters Anushka Arora, Suzi Mann and new music champion Yasser.

Asian Network has also been swapped around under the controllers of Radio 1, 5 live and now Radio 2 but Strippel says he feels there has been "support" from senior management. Despite the naysayers, he reckons the station will and should exist in 20 years' time.

Trickiest period

"As a member of the management team it's been a very, very challenging time but we've now broken through that whole process...the months that followed the threat of closure was the trickiest period, really, in terms of motivating your team."

"I think we've got the right balance now for the network. News and journalism is the absolute core but, at the same time, a distinctive rich and popular range of music is also key," he adds.

A service licence review from the BBC Trust in May approved a change in the overall music/speech ratio from 50:50 to 60:40.

The station's task now is to increase listeners, including among its target under-35 audience, while simplifying its management.

Currently the most expensive of the BBC's digital stations when it comes to cost per listener hour, the Asian Network is expected to cut those costs from 5.1p to about 3p.

High-cost drama, devotional programmes and sports coverage have been removed and the number of documentaries will also fall from 15 to five per year.

Strippel, who heads a new management team appointed last month, seems eager to get ahead with boosting the station.

"We want to broaden the appeal of our content. We want to engage in the big pan-BBC and divisional projects."

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