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Accountability on the Audio & Music blogs

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Steve Bowbrick Steve Bowbrick | 11:20 UK time, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Ed's note: There's a post Social Media and Accountability you may also be interested in where we asked for your feedback on accountability and the BBC's use of social media. (PM)


There are many blogs at the BBC. Some of them (Peston, Robinson et al) are hugely popular. They've become an important part of the BBC's output in their own right, substantial content properties - especially in news and sport.

Other BBC blogs do a more specific job: they're part of the BBC's effort to be more open and accountable. This blog is a good example but there are others: the About the BBC blog and the TV blog, for instance. And the network blogs at BBC Audio & Music that I'm responsible for (Radio 3, Radio 4 and 5 live) have been doing this for some time. But why have we attached blogs to the radio networks at all? What are we trying to achieve?

We want to do three things:

  • Hold our networks to account (for example, Adrian Van Klaveren questioned on the 5 live blog). We ask the managers and editors who run the networks the kind of questions our listeners ask - why did you commission that series? How do you justify the expense of this programme or that presenter? We're pretty sure that blogs are better for this purpose than most other devices because blogs have editors, people who sit between the listeners and the bosses, commissioning posts from the network and answering questions from readers.
  • Take our listeners behind the scenes (for example, Archers Week on the Radio 4 blog). Explain the processes that produce the programmes we all listen to. There's a real appetite for this stuff and you'll see a lot of it all around the BBC blogs (here on the Internet blog especially). Nothing we do can be a 'black box' any more, there's a legitimate interest in the way we do things, the editorial decisions made along the way. The process is as important as the content.
  • Reflect what people are saying about our networks (example, the Radio 4 blog's delicious feed). We can republish and link to newspaper reviews, blog posts and tweets about our output. And when we do this we won't stick to the good reviews: we'll try to represent the breadth of opinion about what we do.

We don't always get this right and there's a necessary balance to be struck. The blogs need to be the authentic voice of the network - we're insiders, not outsiders - while at the same time able to question its most senior managers about their decisions. Readers need to be sure what they're hearing is from the horse's mouth and not made up by a spokesperson, for instance. But they also need to be confident that hard questions won't be ignored because someone's afraid of upsetting the boss.

So, on the 5 live blog a couple of weeks ago - during 'social media week' - we ran a series of blog posts about the network's use of social media. We did this because social media has been one of the biggest issues with commenters on the blog lately. We interviewed five important 5 live people. Three presenters: Rhod Sharp (Up All Night), Victoria Derbyshire (1000 - 1200 weekdays) and Richard Bacon (1400-1600 weekdays). Two producers: Richard Jackson (Breakfast) and Jo Tongue (606) also joined in. We wanted to know why they used social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs...) and how. We wanted to know if using social media was a cheap way of filling airtime or a valid way of engaging listeners. Was the expense of running multiple social media forums worth it? Why are some presenters using Facebook and others not. Why are we closing blogs?

The result was five pretty popular blog posts - two interviews on video and three text Q&As - from editors and presenters responsible for over 60 hours of programming weekly. Between them their blog posts have been viewed over 10,000 times (approximate number from the BBC's web stats service) and we've seen a wide range of opinions presented in over 130 comments. For the radio networks, this is a good start but we've still got a way to go:

  • We want a larger and broader audience. The views of licence fee-payers obviously can't reasonably be represented in 130-odd comments! This will require more publicity for what we do on-air, on other web pages and in places like the Radio Times.
  • We should do this more regularly. Managers and editors need to make the network blogs part of their routine - and get used to bringing their big decisions there first.
  • We must persuade managers and editors to read and comment on blogs, as well as writing for them. Once it's part of their morning routine to check the blogs for comments and new posts they'll be much more comfortable joining in.

When blogs (or messageboards for that matter) fail, it's often because BBC people don't join in - because they're nervous of the extra exposure, because they're accustomed to communication with licence fee-payers being mediated by the PR department or because they don't understand the two-way nature of these new tools.

The network blogs at BBC Audio & Music are a real effort to overcome these habits and misgivings and get BBC radio people into dialogue with their listeners. And, of course, it won't work at all if you don't join in too! Please do.

Steve Bowbrick is blogs editor at BBC Audio & Music


  • Comment number 1.

    The problem I find is not that BBC people don't participate in dialog in the blogs, rather it is that when they do it is generally defensive in nature.

    If a viewer asks "why did you do this?", then accountability isn't answering "because we did"

    Time after time I see BBC people defending a decision they or the BBC has made and effectively starting with the premise that they were right, rather than working with the viewers constructively to ask "how do we improve it?

    Accountability doesn't mean BBC people must participate, it means a willingness to being held accountable, and accepting critisism and working to improve things, not defend them to the death...

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting to read, and I think the points you make show you get it, and are continuing in the right direction.

    It will be interesting to see how things pan out. It's really a difficult area due to the investment involved. On the one hand more engagement with the audience is obviously the goal, but reading a few hundred comments (and more in future) and responding the aggregate views is quite a big undertaking. Maybe technology will step in to help, or the process can be formalised to give people an expectation of the regularity/quantity of participation on any particular item.

    It might pan out that as the culture shifts, it all becomes a bit more incremental and the daily investment is lower. Who knows - I guess we just need to wait and see.

    One final thing I think is important is moderation. Staff will be reluctant to participate if they think they are going to be shot down, or have their characters assassinated. A "play nice and be constructive" policy is required. I'm sure that someone else will point out that moderation needs to be applied with care.

    Good luck!

  • Comment number 3.

    Mark Thompson (salary: 800 thousand) and Tim Davie (salary: 400 thousand + 600 pound for one taxi ride) both posted stuff on the About the BBC blog about their proposal to kill off 6music. There were lots of subsequent comments and questions. Did they engage with them? Did they respond? Did they heck.

  • Comment number 4.

    APbbforum You've put your finger on it. None of these engagement efforts will really click until it's a two-way street. But there's an important piece of the puzzle in the comment above yours, from Lens. Senior managers and editors lead very structured lives and some of them have imovable on-air deadlines to work around - there's not usually any slack at all.

    It's going to be a struggle to get managers and editors to respond to comments on blogs, for instance, while doing so is not part of their routine or while their annual objectives don't include 'enaging with licence fee-payers directly'. As Lens points out, reading 100+ blog comments and responding in a measured way is not the business of a ten-minute gap between meetings.

    I consider it part of my job to help to change this, though, and to bring the top radio people to the blogs (and to other online forums) more regularly. Watch this space.

    Steve Bowbrick, blogs editor, BBC A&M
    Radio 4 blog, 5 live blog, Radio 3 blog.

  • Comment number 5.

    APbbforum - to be accurate Mark Thompson did respond, via a follow up blog post.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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