6 Music is saved. Probably.

If you’ve ever doubted the value of campaigning, arguing the just cause and fighting the good fight – and God knows I have – today’s news that the BBC Trust is not minded to accept the BBC’s proposal to close 6 Music is a bit of a restorer of faith. It goes to show that at least some of the time, and perhaps more often than might popularly be supposed, people within big institutions, even when they are men, and even when they wear grey suits, do act in good faith and can reach the right conclusions by following due process.

It also shows what is needed for an effective campaign: strength of feeling must be shown, as the online outpourings and real-world demonstrations undoubtedly did; but the arguments must also be won. The BBC Trust’s initial conclusions following its consultation note the strength of the protest, but also concentrate heavily on the arguments advanced. Much, dare I say it, as I suggested.

The campaign worked at all levels. There was the sound and fury of the two protests outside Broadcasting House: the one where it rained (which I attended), and the one where it was sunny (which I missed). There was the polite but constitutionally formal Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, which was signed by 111 MPs in an impressively short space of time, as it was tabled not long before the dissolution. There were the Facebook groups, the Twitter activism and the (at times slightly ill-advised, I felt) email-writing campaign. And, of course, there were the written responses to the consultation (you did one of them, right?) – over 37,000 of them (78% of the total) specifically mentioning 6 Music.

I was particularly pleased that quite a few people seemed to make use of the pages on this blog when responding: WordPress doesn’t give stats on repeat visitors, but conservatively it looks like about 500 people read at least one of my posts; I know 379 clicked through to the BBC consultation page from this blog. In theory (assuming everyone who clicked through submitted a response, which almost certainly didn’t happen but don’t stop me now), that’s 1% of 6 Music-specific respondents! A drop in the ocean for sure, but still – well done everyone!

But what does today’s announcement actually say, and more importantly what does it mean? Well, it does not mean that 6 Music’s future is totally secure. It is, however, looking a damn site less perilous than it did 24 hours ago. Let’s remember what the process actually was. Firstly, the proposed closure was part of a wider strategic review by the BBC. Today’s announcement is an interim response by the BBC Trust to this strategy, following a consultation by the Trust. A final response by the Trust will be published in the Autumn, though it seems unlikely that this will back-track on today’s pronouncements regarding 6 Music.

After this final response, the BBC can then make formal applications to the Trust to make service changes. It seems likely that at this stage it will formally apply to close the Asian Network, but it could in theory still apply to close 6 Music as well. The Trust has today indicated that it would probably not agree to this, but it is not a binding commitment – it could, in theory, change its mind.

Arguably, the Trust has given the BBC a set of hoops to jump through: if it succeeds, it will be allowed to close 6 Music. Here’s what the trust says:

We would be prepared to consider a formal proposal for 6 Music closure only if the Executive could present a compelling case to explain how a re-casting of music radio would fit with a broader strategy for the future of BBC radio. We would not expect to see any proposal for changes to 6 Music unless four criteria were met so that there was:

  • a clear link between a new strategy for music radio and the strategy for digital development
  • evidence that changes to increase the distinctiveness of Radio 1 and Radio 2 were already under way in line with our recent service reviews
  • a very clear explanation of the potential for further increases in the distinctiveness of Radio 1 and Radio 2 – in particular how 6 Music content could be put into those revised schedules and what the audience impact would be
  • reassurance that there would be long-term protection for the type of distinctive content currently available uniquely on 6 Music

However, these are difficult hoops – will the BBC attempt to jump through them, given that its thinking as shown thus far clearly lies in other directions? Indeed, in the paragraph above this, the Trust expresses doubt over whether it would be possible to meet its third and fourth criteria at all:

We recognise the argument that it could be possible to deliver greater public value than at present to larger audiences and in a more efficient manner, and would be willing to consider the idea that changes to 6 Music could be part of a transition in particular to a differently-constituted Radio 2. However, there are some clear risks that would need to be addressed. On the one hand, given how distinctive 6 Music’s content is, it might be marginalised and its audience value lost when subsumed into larger stations. On the other hand the incorporation of this content into Radios 1 and 2 could lead to a significant loss of value for the current audiences to those stations. Our audience research suggests that radio listeners’ loyalty is more to particular stations than to individual shows or presenters and so fundamental changes to three BBC stations may put at risk a good deal of audience goodwill.

Moreover, the BBC Trust clearly indicates that it has accepted the arguments put forward in defence of 6 Music, as set out on this blog and in many other places, in a fairly lengthy exploration of the issue – reproduced below, emphasis added.

The Trust has not been convinced by the case for the closure of 6 Music

[…] In the meantime, 6 Music is making an overall contribution to digital radio listening similar to other BBC digital-only services. We are not convinced that removing the service, and reallocating its budget (around £9m per year) to spend on other aspects of digital radio, will make a decisive difference to digital take-up.

The idea of moving 6 Music content into a new ‘2 Extra’ station, a concept raised in public debate since the publication of the Executive proposals, prompted consultation responses arguing that this would not constitute ‘doing fewer things better’ and could in fact have a negative market impact.

[…] We agree that BBC Radio needs to take its market impact seriously but that of 6 Music is currently minimal and likely to remain so.

In our review of this service earlier this year we concluded that it was both well-liked by its listeners, was highly distinctive and made an important contribution to the public purposes. At the time of review it had a reach of 600,000 listeners which was comparable with that of other BBC digital radio stations and we concluded that in terms of value for money it was also comparable with them. We concluded that there was scope to increase its reach whilst at the same time staying within the constraints of both its distinctive remit and current budget and we challenged the station’s management to do this.

Since the publication of Putting Quality First in March and the announcement of the Executive’s plan to close the service there has been a significant show of public support for the service. 78% of the 47,933 online consultation responses place specific focus on 6 Music as do more than 25,054 separate emails and 242 letters – in each case the great majority of responses oppose any plans for closure.

The service’s reach has also risen substantially since then to 1 million listeners a week. We think it is likely that the next quarter’s figures (April to June) which will be published in August will also show strong reach. This suggests that it may be possible to grow the audience without losing any distinctiveness, although we will need to look at longer-term trends before being absolutely sure of that.

Arguments advanced by respondents to our consultation who oppose the service’s closure include the view that its programming is unavailable elsewhere and that the commercial sector would be unlikely to fill the space vacated by it; the difficulty of transferring its programming onto other BBC networks; the removal of an outlet for new and emerging artists to get their music heard; and the station’s potential role in driving digital, particularly given the recent increase in its reach.

We recognise that any proposal to close a BBC service is unlikely to be popular with those who use it. However, we do need to consider the question of whether the future growth of the service would significantly impact the market. We note that throughout the period of our consultation we have received no evidence from the commercial radio sector to suggest that 6 Music presents any kind of threat either now or in the future so long as it remains true to its distinctive remit. We also note the strong view expressed by many in the music industry that 6 Music plays a very valuable role in the cultural life of the UK that would not be easily replaced and that would not be filled by the commercial sector.

We do not think that the station is a threat to the commercial sector so long as it remains true to its remit, but we do acknowledge that the risk – identified by the BBC Executive – that in the absence of effective safeguards efforts to broaden the station’s appeal could cause it to drift closer to the mainstream. For this reason we set out a number of such safeguards in our review and as with all our recommendations, we will monitor them both for their implementation and effectiveness.

Recent discussions with the Executive have focused on plans to further enhance the distinctiveness of the BBC’s popular music portfolio.

The Executive has suggested to the Trust, in discussions following the publication of the Strategy Review, that moving 6 Music’s distinctive programming on to Radio 1 and Radio 2 would be the best way of enhancing the overall distinctiveness of BBC music radio. The Executive also argues that the revised portfolio would be more efficient by virtue of the reduction in scale of the pop music portfolio.

We note the RadioCentre’s support for this approach in their submission to the Trust’s consultation. The Trust itself strongly supports a push towards increasing the distinctiveness of Radio 1 and Radio 2, though we note there are a variety of ways to do that, and the importing of 6 Music content and presenters may not be the most effective.

So the ball is in the BBC’s court: it does still have the option of formally requesting the closure of 6 Music, possibly as part of the wider strategic review of digital radio requested by the Trust, although today’s announcement makes it a greater challenge. Does the BBC want to close the station so much that it will steel itself and try? It seems more likely that it won’t, but we must remain vigilant in case it does.

The news was less positive today for the Asian Network, although reports that the Trust has agreed to its closure are, strictly speaking, wide of the mark. The process is the same as with 6 Music: the Trust has indicated it would probably accept such a proposal if the BBC were to make it, with one major proviso. The next move is for the BBC formally to make the proposal.

The initial conclusions observe:

Although clearly of value to some audiences, Asian Network has had performance difficulties for some time.

… and…

We have noted in successive Annual Reports that the Asian Network’s performance has been a disappointing one. The service’s reach has declined from 18% of Asian adults to 12% in 2009, which amounts to around 300,000 a week.

… however…

As part of our consultation we received 1,572 online responses, 1,437 email responses and 42 letters about the Asian Network. A key theme that emerges is that of how Asian Network nurtures the idea of being a British Asian – rather than just a member of a local community – as well as recognising the diversity within British Asian communities. There is clearly a risk that this would be lost if it were to be closed as a national service.

One issue not addressed here is that the Asian Network is essentially secular, while community-based stations are often religion-based. While I’m not an Asian Network listener, with my British Humanist Association membership hat on I lament the probable loss of a secular service of this sort.

Back to the report…

While the station is clearly a distinctive offering and thus consistent with the strategy we are setting for the BBC we nonetheless acknowledge that it has some long-running performance difficulties. If, therefore, the Executive has concluded that that station’s problems are such that they cannot be addressed effectively then we expect them to come forward with a different proposition for meeting the needs of this audience in more effective ways, although we stress the importance of any such proposal taking account of those aspects of Asian Network that are of undoubted value and that its closure would put at risk.

The defenders of the Asian Network now have a campaigning opportunity to ensure that, if nothing else, the BBC does a thorough job of meeting the Trust’s challenge that it must continue to cater for the Network’s audience in some way. Good luck to them.

My own response to the consultation was not 100% about 6 Music, and in particular I wrote a bit about the BBC’s daytime TV schedules and the utterly lamentable drivel that for the most part populates them, as well as the mainstream natures of Radios 1 and 2. The Trust repeatedly expresses concern over these points,  for instance:

We recognise that audiences see no genre of programming as off-limits for the BBC. Nonetheless, our service reviews have identified some parts of the BBC radio and television schedules that could do more to fulfil the BBC’s public purposes – including some peak time output on Radios 1 and 2 and some daytime programming on television, particularly in the lifestyle and factual genres. While it remains in the schedule, the emphasis should be on ensuring this content is as distinctive as possible.

Let’s hope the BBC responds positively to both points, and that it accepts the Trust’s counsel against the closure of 6 Music. I hope this is the last post I ever write on the subject, but let’s not take that entirely for granted just yet.

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