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24 September 2014
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Greg Dyke


Speech given to The Radio Academy - Radio Festival in Birmingham

8 July 2003
Printable version

It's good to be back at the Radio Festival - partly because I know a little more about radio than I did two years ago when I first gave a speech here. Although by the standards of most people here, I'm still something of a novice.

But it's also good to be back because the last two years has provided no shortage of things to talk about.

We're seeing digital radio finally taking off, contrary to popular belief there is life after Jimmy Young and even that tale of everyday country folk, The Archers, has been full of surprises. Brian Aldridge has a love child, Jazzer nearly died after taking ketamine and last month Tom and co headed off to Glastonbury. Even Ambridge, it seems, has succumbed to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

I guess it's this ability of radio to evolve which has made it such a survivor.

As Jenny Abramsky can testify - it wasn't that long ago that some BBC managers would advise new recruits to set their sights high and make their career in television rather than find themselves aboard the supposedly sinking ship of radio.

Thankfully, the young Jenny ignored the advice of her BBC bosses - something I can assure you she is still quite capable of doing.

Today, I'd like to explain how I believe both BBC and commercial radio can go on surviving - and indeed thriving - at a time of great change.

In particular, I want to talk about the role of the BBC in serving audiences but also our potential to fulfil a wider purpose, both in this industry and in the wider society.

But first I'd like to make a few points on the subject of regulation, both in the context of the Communications Bill and also in light of recent events in America.

I'm sure many of you heard Lowry Mays of Clear Channel speak at last year's Radio Festival. It was the speech of a red-blooded freemarketeer.

Clear Channel, as you know, is the commercial success story of American deregulation. It's become the country's largest radio broadcaster with more than 1,200 stations.

But should we be willing to embrace deregulation here as he suggested?

Well, you only have to look at what's been happening in America recently to think again about any headlong rush down that road.

There, public demonstrations have been held to oppose further media deregulation and the greater consolidation it would allow.

America's Federal Communication Commission has been reviewing the US rules on media ownership. During this process, the Commission received more submissions than for any proceeding in its history, nearly all of them from individuals opposed to allowing further liberalisation.

Diverse interest groups ranging from the Consumer Union and the Conference of Catholic Bishops to the National Rifle Association also voiced concerns about ownership consolidation as did many distinguished stars of pop and country music from Pearl Jam to Bonnie Raitt.

In America, a number of people have cited as a warning the consolidation in radio since the liberalisation of the ownership rules by the FCC in 1996.

In opposing the recent media deregulation vote by the FCC, one of the two dissenting FCC Commissioners observed that:

"The most constant refrain I heard from coast to coast was complaints about homogenisation and loss of news coverage and local artists on the radio dial since 1996. People begged us not to let happen to television what happened to radio."

And the Commissioner went on:

"Large group owners downsized local staff, including popular DJs, eliminated news coverage, began running stations remotely with voice tracking technology, and standardised programming."

His fellow dissenting FCC Commissioner recalled the experiences of musicians and artists he heard in hearings around the country.

These people claimed they simply couldn't secure airtime in the new consolidated radio environment.

The Commissioner described a situation in which real radio news was dying outside the largest cities and viewpoint diversity had given way to a "constant drumbeat of one-sided talk shows".

These were dissenting views on an FCC which split along party lines but they are not unique.

Pat Mitchell, the Chief Executive of PBS in America, spoke recently to the House of Lords and described American radio as a kind of "media canary" - providing a warning of the dangers of too much deregulation. Those canaries, she said, - and I quote - "are barely standing, much less singing".

It is also interesting to note that at the end of their process of review, the majority of FCC Commissioners who voted three to two to liberalise television and cross media ownership rules, actually tightened an aspect of the ownership rules for radio.

This debate isn't about particular television or radio companies as some people try and present it.

Rather, it's about the sort of regulatory regime we believe would best serve the public interest.

I believe that if we go down the road of embracing excessive deregulation, there must be a danger that we're going to slide into a country with a homogenised media and I fear that we will end up with radio stations which are simply in the business of selling products for advertisers where profit is the only motive.

I'm not anti-commercial. I spent my whole life in the private sector before coming to the BBC. I know what a pain regulation can be.

And let me tell you, contrary to popular myth, there's no shortage of rules governing the BBC. We too will be under Ofcom for certain regulations and also be subject to scrutiny by the BBC Governors.

And I'm certainly not arguing for more restrictive legislation here.

On the contrary, I believe there is a strong case for fewer rules on both ownership and output. But there is a need to get the balance right.

Pinning our hopes for this industry on a regulatory free-for-all would be folly.

That's why I'm pleased our Government appears to have modified its approach to further deregulation in this country.

The proposed public interest plurality test and commitment to preserving the character of local radio are important safeguards in the Communications Bill.

They must be used to protect the interests of listeners and will, I believe, strengthen rather than weaken this industry.

Of course, we need to be careful in drawing too many comparisons between Britain and America. Radio here is in pretty good health.

BBC Radio in particular is enjoying plenty of success. We've increased listener choice with new networks, our figures both nationally and locally are at record levels and our awards cabinet is full.

The big question for us is whether this is enough. Is this how we should be judging the success of the modern BBC and ensuring its long term survival?

These are certainly important indicators that we are on the right track.

But I would argue there have been times when we've been a bit too cautious, a bit too conservative.

The most important thing for the BBC in the years ahead is to find ways of using our position and our funding to be more ambitious.

Now I know there may be some sharp intakes of breath among some of you when I stand here talking about a more ambitious BBC.

From my time running private sector companies, I know what ambition means in that world. It generally has a lot to do with making money and stuffing the competition in some way. Ideally both.

Well, let me reassure you, our ambition has nothing to do with targeting the commercial sector.

On the contrary, it's about becoming more distinctive and doing more things which would make no sense in the commercial world.

I think you can see this spirit emerging in the BBC generally but nowhere is it more apparent than what we are doing on radio.

The way we've changed our approach to radio broadcasting in the nations and regions shows you what is possible.

For years we fell into the trap of allowing our staff in local radio - and our audiences - to feel that they were not as important as the networks.

They felt that they were bottom of the pile. You only had to visit some of the BBC's bases outside London to realise that.

In my first few months at the BBC I met some great people in local radio but was shocked by morale amongst some of them.

In particular some of the buildings our local radio stations occupied beggared belief.

Whenever I commented on the parlous state of these buildings to staff, who bore broken lifts and toilets with remarkable fortitude, they generally said: "If you think this is bad, wait till you see Stoke."

Let me tell you, when I did finally get to Radio Stoke, it certainly lived up to its billing, although it wasn't as bad as Leicester which houses both Radio Leicester and the Asian Network.

For too long, in Leicester and elsewhere, we failed to invest in our buildings, our equipment our people and our programmes.

We were guilty of a lack of ambition and limited expectations - both of ourselves and of our listeners - at a time when the commercial sector was booming.

Allowing this situation to arise in the first place was a mistake. Allowing it to continue was not an option.

All local radio should be about serving communities in some way.

For the BBC, it has to be about a lot more besides. We have the means to go far beyond the traditional boundaries of broadcasting.

That may be in reflecting the different characters and cultures of local communities, creating educational opportunities or acting as a focal point for social action.

Two years ago we took the decision to pursue this potential by substantially increasing the annual budget for our Nations and Regions division.

This has allowed us to develop new local services up and down the country. In places like Swindon, Peterborough, Harrogate and Enniskillen, listeners now have BBC local radio which is more in touch with their lives.

We've also been able to launch major programme initiatives such as The Century Speaks and A Sense of Place which have explained our history and culture through the experiences of our audiences.

And we've invested in our buildings - including Stoke and Leicester, I'm glad to say.

We've also turned eight of our local radio stations into Open Centres where people can learn computer and broadcasting skills or contribute to programmes.

And we've also got 12 buses taking these facilities on the road to smaller towns and villages, largely around the north of England.

This is an ambitious way of pursuing the idea of public service broadcasting in new ways.

In just a three-month period, our Blackburn Open Centre was used by something like 12,000 people. For seventy-five per cent of those calling in to use the internet, it was their only way of accessing the web.

In Sheffield, nearly 60% of visitors to the open centre were from an ethnic minority and the same proportion using computers on the buses were doing so for the first time.

Building on all these developments, I'm very pleased tell you that we are announcing today plans for a new radio station in Coventry - an area currently served by BBC WM.

We're planning to base it in a modern building, a stone's throw from Coventry Cathedral in the heart of the city.

We've also been doing something significant which didn't cost a penny. We've raised our expectations of what the communities we serve can offer us as programme makers.

Look at Voices, a recent initiative in BBC Nations and Regions.

Sixty producers have been out working in local areas, setting up remote radio studios and getting to know new audiences.

They've been talking to school children, ethnic minorities, asylum seekers, families on deprived estates, farmers and pensioners.

These people have important stories to tell but sadly too often go unheard. As a result of Voices, it's their input which is enriching our output on radio and online and providing the inspiration for scores of community projects.

Voices has been changing that often unequal relationship between the broadcaster and listener. It's been about listeners becoming good broadcasters and us becoming a good listener.

It's also been about seeing the public as citizens rather than just consumers, as people with their own perspectives and value, regardless of their earning power or appeal to advertisers.

This approach to BBC local radio has undoubtedly played a crucial part in its record 11 million listeners in the last RAJAR report.

We're not confining this kind of ambition to the nations and regions.

Our radio services for the whole of the UK can do more too. When I look across our radio networks I believe we're just starting to see what they're really capable of.

Radio 4, in particular, is on great form. The Sony Station of the Year accolade reflects the editorial ambition running right through the schedule.

From this year's Reith Lectures on neuro-science to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time, it's a network which is never afraid to stretch its listeners.

In its journalism too, there is no shortage of ambition.

For me one of the most memorable recent examples was File on Four's investigation into how the criminal justice system prosecutes mothers accused of killing their babies - an award-winning programme which uncovered the evidence which led to Sally Clarke's conviction being quashed earlier this year.

And of course, there's the rich mix of news, analysis and insight delivered by the network's news programmes. They are a focal point for national discussion and debate and a crucial public service.

Together with Five Live and our nations and regions output, our radio journalism continues to be one of our great distinctive strengths.

It goes to the heart of what we are for - it's the common element which runs through everything we do.

It's also key to our public service on television and online. That's why there can be no room for compromise on either the quality or integrity of our journalism at any level.

For an organisation founded on trust, its strength and independence is the litmus test for our overall health.

Today's papers are again replaying the row with Alastair Campbell over our reporting of those famous dossiers, hopefully for the last time. I don't want to spend too much time on this.

But let me say this, whatever the background of Alastair Campbell's attack on the BBC, to criticise the reputation of all BBC journalists by publicly accusing us of lying and bias is not acceptable and I thank him for stepping back from that position yesterday.

This has now dominated the headlines for two weeks and it is time for both sides to agree to disagree and move on.

Spats like these are inevitable in a healthy democracy - government and media have different roles which inevitably bring them into conflict.

What the dispute has highlighted is the importance of BBC Radio in delivering impartial news.

As someone who's come from TV and worked in TV current affairs, it is no surprise to me that this argument about the BBC's role has centred on a radio programme - the Today programme, which day after day does what is at the heart of the BBC - giving the audience the information to allow them to make their own judgements.

Let me now turn to the subject of Radios 1 and 2. Both these networks are of critical importance to the BBC. They are essential to our public service function.

They are there to entertain but they inform and educate too. They are just as important to what we do as Radios 3 or 4 - or for that matter, BBCs ONE and TWO.

What I find amazing is that some people still try to claim that these two networks are no different to what can be found elsewhere in the market.

What I can't work out is whether they are being deliberately disingenuous or whether they just haven't bothered listening to them for a decade or so.

These are networks of real musical and editorial ambition, networks which are championing the British music industry but they are also networks which are tackling social and political issues.

I'm not claiming they are unique in every respect. Mainstream music will always be an important part of the mix.

But there'll always be plenty of music you won't hear on other networks, whether it's the 3,000 hours of specialist tracks played on Radio 1 or the huge range on Radio 2.

Last time I was here, I talked about what a revelation re-discovering Radio 2 had been for me. For years I'd assumed it would still be the same station my Aunty Muriel listened to.

Well, I have to say, I'm still listening and still finding many programmes to enjoy - from the recent Annie Lennox concert, which I was fortunate enough to attend - to Johnnie Walker's fascinating series on Bruce Springsteen. These are typical of the programmes you won't hear elsewhere.

In fact, independently conducted research recently compared the output of Radios 1 and 2 with a number of different competitors.

It showed beyond any doubt that both these networks have a radically different approach to music than their commercial counterparts.

For instance, half the tracks played on Radio 1 were unique to the network - they were not played by anyone else.

Three-quarters of the tracks on Radio 2 were not played elsewhere and it played the widest range of genres.

Plus, of course, both include a range and depth of speech content which singles them out from what is on offer elsewhere, from Newsbeat on Radio 1 to the religious output and documentaries on Radio 2.

Listen to Radio 2 any evening of week and you'll come across fascinating programmes. Which other music station would broadcast a programme inspired by the anniversary of Thomas More's death, as Radio 2 did on Sunday?

This week's schedule also includes a profile of jazz legend Count Basie, Mark Lamarr's Beginners Guide to Reggae and the latest instalment of an adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch 22.

And just last week it blocked out a whole evening to stage The Great British Music Debate on the state of our record industry.

These are undoubtedly distinctive services. But so they should be.

This is not a criticism of the commercial sector. The Licence Fee is a unique funding system which affords us the privilege to do unique things.

However, our purpose has to extend beyond doing things which are different.

We must use these services and everything else at our disposal to make a broader contribution to life in the UK today and to the health of radio more generally.

There's enormous scope in our role as a patron of new British music and the arts.

Radio 1 is committed to providing an outlet for the best of new popular music.

The OneMusic initiative is a unique source of advice for young music makers who can also get their material heard on the station's special playlist for unsigned bands.

OneMusic has worked with 750 artists - 100 of whom have gone on to get management and publishing contracts or released records.

Radio 3 is the largest commissioner of new classical music in the world - responsible for 60 new pieces this year.

And Radio 4 provides important opportunities for up and coming writers and performers - broadcasting some 350 new works in 2002.

All well and good. But can we be more ambitious? I'm sure we can. Can we do things differently? Absolutely.

Just look at what we are doing in the world of classical music.

All over the country, our orchestras have been opening up this world to new audiences.

That's meant playing symphonies in supermarkets and mini- operas in pubs. It's meant taking up residence for a week in a Welsh village and working with ethnic minority groups and asylum seekers.

It's also about opening up classical music to the younger generation through special concerts, including a recent Prom for 1,500 youngsters at Brixton Academy.

It's our ambition to do a great deal more of this. To this end, it's our future ambition to give 20,000 young people a year the chance to experience these kinds of events.

Alongside our cultural contribution, we can also do more to benefit radio as a whole.

We can encourage diversity, drive new markets and discover fresh talent. And we can do that locally, nationally and internationally.

Locally, we will be developing our support for access radio stations.

These small community stations are one of the most exciting things happening in radio. We don't want to control them but we'd like to help them develop where we can.

We're working on plans which will see us partnering more of these stations and providing a range of support. This will include exchanges of information and the offer of surplus equipment and of training.

Nationally, we will continue to be the main source of training for the wider industry.

We also aim to go on sustaining and developing the independent production sector for radio.

Indies have played a crucial role in the creative success of BBC radio in recent years with programmes like Unreliable Evidence on Radio 4 and the Radio 2 Folk Awards which when I attend it is one of my favourite nights of the year. Watching all the folkies taking over the ballroom of a posh hotel is wonderful.

Since 1991 we have voluntarily committed ourselves to commission at least 10% of our eligible analogue network programmes from indies. And that's a floor, not a ceiling.

We've never undershot it and are on track to exceed it again this year. The 10% quota is now enshrined in our Statements of Programme Policy and is something the Governors are committed to monitoring.

We must also go on driving awareness of DAB digital radio - something even one-time sceptics like me can see is going to take-off.

The development and promotion of digital radio has been a good example of partnership across the industry.

For our part, we've launched five new networks, designed to serve a range of audiences and deliver more value from our archive of programmes.

In line with the consent for these services, we've also committed to promoting the benefits of digital across all our output.

Hopefully, you've caught our current campaign on TV, radio and online promoting our portfolio of new services on DAB digital radio and of course as a result promoting digital radio generally.

Cross-promoting in this way not only ensures the licence fee-payer is well informed about what we offer but is also designed to promote digital radio generally.

Of course, Freeview is also playing an increasingly important role in this.

Now in 1.6 million homes, it provides a means alongside the internet for sampling some digital radio stations.

This in turn is helping extend the demand for digital radio beyond the early adopters and into the mainstream.

Anyone in any doubt about the role of high quality content in this process should check out the latest research from Digital Radio Development Bureau. It estimates eight-out-of-ten buyers of digital radios are now doing so to get access to the new services.

And internationally, the World Service under Mark Byford continues to develop its global reputation and reach.

Additionally, the World Service Trust is also doing amazing things as a charity, involved in reconstruction in countries ravaged by conflict.

You can see this work in places like Afghanistan, Africa and the Balkans where World Service staff have helped local people lay the foundations for their own independent media.

I hope all this doesn't just sound like just another BBC sermon.

It's not my intention to paint us as occupying some public service ivory tower.

Nor am I kidding myself that the BBC has a monopoly on ambition or distinctiveness.

Innovations such as Classic FM and more recently Kerrang are proof positive that commercial success is also rooted in creative ideas and great content.

In conclusion, let me say this.

Although I'm still learning about radio, I've seen and heard enough in the last few years to convince me that the industry in this country has a bright future.

For the BBC, our success will increasingly hinge on our determination to be distinctive.

It will also require us to deliver greater social, cultural and democratic benefits from the Licence Fee - something I believe we are already making significant progress on.

But there's also a great deal of unpredictability, whether that's down to the charter review process for the BBC or the prospects for consolidation in the commercial sector.

A certain amount of consolidation in our market may well be the best way to secure that investment in the future.

But I'm sure that Lowry Mays' belief that consolidation will, as he put it, "work its magic" for listeners is misplaced.

We've always believed in this country that broadcasting is too important to leave entirely to the market. Looking at what's happened in America, that's as true today as it's ever been.

British audiences have high expectations of radio.

In future, they will demand more, not less. They'll expect more choice, more quality and - I hope - more ambition.

And they'll expect these things - not just of the BBC - but of everyone.

The challenge for us all is to make sure we can meet those expectations.

Notes to Editors

New BBC Local Radio station for Coventry & Warwickshire (08.07.03)


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