The enduring value of live radio

Director of Audio & Music

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It is rare that passionate radio listeners overwhelmingly and immediately support the scheduling changes that we make to a well-loved BBC radio station. However, having just announced that Radio 3 will broadcast live concerts every weekday at 7.30 p.m. for 46 weeks of the year, the reaction has been almost universally positive. It is welcome news for UK performing groups and listeners who will enjoy an invitation to so many outstanding classical performances. What is perhaps less apparent is that it represents a deliberate move across BBC radio to keep building the percentage of live output that we air on our stations. For some, this approach may well seem counter-cultural as it comes at a time when digital evangelists continue to predict the media will move inexorably to time-shifted, on-demand content. This is true but, paradoxically, this very trend is driving the value of live experience.

Of course, on-demand does offer benefits, such as making available valuable archives like the In Our Time back catalogue, or a chance to catch-up on recent programmes, but surely it is time to declare that the appeal of live radio is not only here to stay but is going to grow. Even beyond radio, live seems to be where the action is. Whether we are watching an X-Factor final, the One Show or attending a concert, live seems to be a common factor in so many recent triumphs in areas that have been consigned by many to a future of inevitable decline. Radio is particularly advantaged by this trend as so much of what makes it successful is the drama and immediacy of live broadcast.

In what some see as a gravity-defying performance, radio listening remains buoyant and in the latest listening figures, it was 5 live that hit new record numbers. The thrill of England keeping the Ashes combined with a busy news agenda provided a steady flow of compelling live stories. Also, over Christmas we deliberately focused on ensuring many of our broadcasts remained live rather than playing pre-recorded programming while the nation indulged itself.

Behind these successes, there may lie a deeper and more enduring need for wider communal experiences. The explosive growth of computers, tablets and smartphones has lead to a huge amount of solo activity with either no interaction, or communication being restricted to a small group of friends. Live broadcast experiences, although not offering the visceral experience of a live event, still offer a chance to be connected to something much bigger than a social network.

You may be listening alone but you know that thousands of people are connected together in one story. This is nothing new. I remember hearing my neighbours screaming with joy when Dennis Taylor sank that black in 1985, or looking into another car as I saw someone as emotionally moved as I was by the story of the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the radio news. For programme makers and presenters, live tends to bring out the very best.

It is interesting that while BBC executives like myself are often thought to be intent on limiting risk and prefer the control of pre-recorded output, the truth tends to be the opposite. This is not to say that the art of pre-built radio in genres such as current affairs and drama is not to be nurtured as a precious skill, but even in these areas, live output can play an exciting and growing part. So while you will see the radio industry ensuring that it is part of the on-demand revolution, we remain champions of the wonders of live. On May 3rd, we begin our Radio 3 broadcasts. As the musicians begin to play, I hope that you will be there, at home, next to them.

Tim Davie is Director of Audio & Music at the BBC

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