The BBC has published its strategy review, and as leaked by the Times on Friday, 6 Music and the Asian Network have been marked for closure by 2013.
The response to the rumours was quick and widespread, exposing a hitherto unknown level of support and goodwill for the station. It is somewhat understandable: 6 is the hidden gem of the BBC’s music programming. It’s found its feet again this year and is now a continually listenable daytime station and home to some of the best specialist music programmes anywhere in the world. It has long transcended its perceived position between Radios 1 and 2 and its function as a repository for the huge library of exclusive live and studio music that the BBC has and had previously rarely exploited. The attitude to it within the BBC is less robust though. It would appear from the aspects of the report that were leaked that there is a feeling that its work has been done, that once the digital switchover is complete and that everyone is listening to digital radio in one way or another, it has achieved its function. The hiring of George Lamb to present a daytime show was very representative of that lack of understanding, imposing a presenter who had little or no interest in music and an overwhelming ambition to be a celebrity on a radio station that previously valued enthusiasm over celebrity.
6 does have its faults: daytime output is a lot less adventurous than it could be, and even if there isn’t a playlist any more, it does concentrate on major label ‘alternative’ acts. Its constant need for new music also seems to have shortened the shelf life of an act’s career and it seems possible to go from first single, to festival highlight to obscurity in the space of a couple of years, something that would have been unlikely ten years ago, and the Internet can’t be wholly to blame for that: I went to see the excellent Field Music at the Brudenell in Leeds last week and noticed that Kate Nash is playing there next week – that’s the Kate Nash who had a number two single and a platinum album a couple of years ago.
From the BBC’s point of view though, 6 is an easy target. One of the regularly repeated issues with the station is that a considerable proportion is overseas, listening over the Internet, a cost in system support and bandwidth that can’t be recouped through the licence fee. To the casual cloth-eared BBC executive, it doesn’t do anything different to Radios 1 and 2, or worse still, what a couple of hours a week on local radio does. If XFM or NME Radio or Kerrang are perceived as doing the same thing on digital radio, then someone severely misunderstands 6’s listenership.
6 Music’s daytime audience probably is graphic designers and those in the creative industries, and particularly those who, like me, work from home. In short, we’re as white and middle class as the music 6 Music plays. But without it, we don’t have anywhere to go. With the exception of John Peel I was alienated from radio for many years. BBC GLR in the 90s was about the only radio station brave enough to get away from that safe playlist mentality and it too fell victim to some higher notion of ‘quality’ and was reborn as the speech oriented BBC London: unsurprisingly, many of the presenters that made GLR a great music station found a home at 6 Music.
The BBC doesn’t like popular music and never has. Radio 1 still sounds like Aunty wearing a baseball cap backwards and attempting to fit in with the kids. Radio 2 recognised that its core audience was dying and started again at 40, and is sometimes listenable, but neither represent the untapped 30 and 40-somethings that 6 Music brought into the open: the ones that heard the Sex Pistols and Joy Division as teenagers and decided that there was something better than what the DJs played.
6Music is as much an example what a Reithian BBC should be doing as Radio 4 and Radio 3, in covering an aspect of culture – not just popular music, but a major part of the cultural life of the UK. It is, in that way, what we pay the license fee for, so that we have an alternative to machine programmed radio stations hosted by people who would aspire to opening supermarkets or presenting Big Brother. If the BBC chooses to close such services in attempt to compete with the terrestrial and satellite commercial networks then it is losing the argument for its own existence for the sake of political and economic expediency.