The Lonely Death of 6music

So, it’s official: 6music is going to die. Mark Thompson, The BBC’s Director General swung the axe this morning, though the noises were made earlier in the week by this story in The Times.

It’s a depressing piece of news for several reasons, none of which is a really convincing argument for sending it down the river. And, of course, these are still just recommendations. The BBC Trust may not like them over much, especially given what they said about 6music earlier this year.

The first argument for closing 6 down is that its audience is simply not big enough to justify the outlay. Currently, 6music’s audience stands at around 695,000, with a reach of about 1%. This is not big, but it is also the BBC’s fastest growing station (according to recent RAJAR figures). The station attracts about 160,000 listeners a month more than 1Xtra, for example, and is roughly on a par with Planet Rock. Radio 3, for comparison, although also on the analogue band, has a reach of around 4%. However, in terms of cost per listener, 6music actually does quite well, costing a mere £9million per year for 08-09, compared to Radio 3’s $51million. And no, I’m not suggesting that we should ditch Radio 3, but it would be nice to have some kind of perspective. Part of this perceived lack of reach may be due to poor marketing by the BBC of its own product. This is a point admitted tacitly in the Strategy Review itself. On page 11 of the document it says:

“The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radio 6 Music confirmed that it is popular amongst its fan base and its music offering is distinctive. However, although it has achieved good growth in recent years, it has low reach and awareness and delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC radio. And whilst 6 Music does not have a target demographic audience, its average listener age of 37 means that it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience. Boosting its reach so that it achieved appropriate value for money would significantly increase its market impact. Given the strength of its popular music radio offering from Radio 1 and 2 and the opportunity to increase the distinctiveness of Radio 2, the BBC has concluded that the most effective and efficient way to deliver popular music on radio is to focus investment on these core networks. 

“The BBC therefore recommends that the Trust should consider closing Radio 6 Music by the end of 2011. Accepting the critical role that it must play in driving audiences to adopt digital radio, the BBC should nonetheless maintain its overall levels of investment in original radio content aimed specifically at digital services. It should evaluate the best use of this content investment and of the digital spectrum that the closure of 6 Music would release. The BBC will also review how some of 6 Music’s most distinctive programmes can be successfully transferred to other BBC radio stations, and how its support for new and specialist music can be sustained across the BBC.”

Low awareness for the station is a charge that can be clearly laid at the feet of the BBC’s own marketing function. Why is awareness so low? Perhaps being a digital-only station hasn’t helped, but it also hasn’t been helped by half-hearted support from other parts of the network. In addition, digital radio coverage and digital radio generally is struggling at the moment: the big digital explosion isn’t really happening in the way some predicted and hoped.

The second argument for closing 6music might be that it is not distinctive enough. It’s an argument which is pretty much repudiated in the quote in the report shown above: “The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radio 6 Music confirmed that it is popular amongst its fan base and its music offering is distinctive”. The best comparison here may be with 1Xtra or perhaps even 5Live. In the latter case the “distinctiveness” of the service is a major issue. 5live gives little (if anything) more than other networks in the UK, like TalkSport, provide already. What is actually so distinctive about 5Live that justifies its annual £72million spend? But 5Live is safe, of course. Too much money is tied up in its move to Salford to back out now.

Perhaps the principal problem with 6music is that its demography is perceived to be largely white, middle class and male; its average listener age is around 37. The plans for closing the Asian Network talk about distributing some of the station’s content to local networks, targeting Asian communities in particular local environments. This is feasible and, in some ways, actually quite sensible. The arguments given for finding a new home for 6music’s content are much less clear, given that there is not enough space in Radio 2’s schedule for this content and that Radio 1 would not be a suitable place to put it without alienating quite a lot of that station’s audience. Even worse, how will Radio 2 serve all of these needs in addition to the recommendations the BBC Trust made just last month.

For its audience, 6music is effectively a pop music equivalent of Radio 3. It treats its territory with a mix of seriousness and good humour and has a staff roster filled with intelligent, knowledgeable people. Unlike Radio 3, however, it has no heavy-hitting supporters. To kill Radio 3 would (rightly) be seen as an act of the crassest cultural vandalism. Doing this to 6music is exactly the same. There are no viable commercial alternatives; nowhere that plays the mix of music that 6 plays; nowhere that treats the audience with the level of respect it gives us. For those outside London the choice is even worse: places not covered by the likes of Magic, Smooth, Xfm, Absolute or Real (all of whom are inferior) are in deep, deep trouble. I’m one of those people. My options at the point 6 dies are utterly non-existent. The BBC is not serving my needs, nor those of many like me.

But of course we all know that this review is not about the BBC at all. It is a political document designed to appease political parties making menacing noises about the BBC’s scale and its funding model. The corporation’s charter is up for review in just about three years. Labour’s relationship with the BBC since Iraq has been dysfunctional at best, while the Conservatives are happily cosying up to a Rupert Murdoch who is desperate for a weakened BBC, which would allow Sky to make inroads into the UK market. It seems that many of the BBC’s most innovative and distinctive services are being served up as sacrifice to a febrile and capricious political class. It’s not a good death, but I hope it won’t go quietly into that good night; I hope it goes kicking and screaming instead.

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