Tuesday, 2 March 2010

BBC cutbacks - a threat to digital?

There is, of course, nothing the BBC likes more than talking about itself, so the news - much trailed in advance - that the corporation is going to axe as many as two of its unlistened-to digital radio stations, besides slimming down its bloated website, has filled the airwaves all day. Both candidates for the chop have their supporters, but the BBC managed perfectly well for decades without either Radio 6 or the Asian Network and I doubt they'll be missed for long. Radio 6, in particular, does nothing that is not or should not be done by Radios 1 and 2. "Encouraging new music", for example, which its fans claim to be a unique property of the threatened station, is precisely the justification trotted out whenever someone wonders what a taxpayer-funded organisation is doing putting out wall-to-wall broadcasts of commercial pop music.

But why stop there? Radio 7, another digital channel, consists entirely of old comedy repeats and light drama - the kind of thing that could and should be made available, of course, but then what is iTunes for? The concept of a scheduled station pumping out radio shows of years gone by is ludicrously anachronistic, if rather charming. If someone wants to do it, and believes that there's a market for it, then good luck to them. The BBC could supply the product - for a price - and share the profits of a purely commercial venture. That way the station would supplement the Licence fee rather than being a drain on it.

Then there's something called 1Xtra, which I gather is a bit like Radio 1 only louder. Again, if there's a market it would be self-sustaining as a commercial proposition, and if there isn't it is unnecessary and wasteful. The target demographic is clearly over-provisioned in any case. There may be more case for the BBC's local stations, which provide a valuable service. But even these channels spend most of their hours playing the kind of music typically played by commercial stations aimed at a middle-aged demographic - or, indeed, by Radio 2.

The changes - which may also include selling off many the BBC's magazines - represent a fairly modest step towards retrenchment. Even without some of its obscurer stations the corporation will still be a gargantuan money-eater and an anachronism. An interesting question, though, is where the disappearance of two minor radio stations will leave the the push for digital radio. The government, with industry support - and, as far as I can tell, all-party backing - but almost zero public enthusiasm, is determined to push ahead with its plan to abolish FM Radio by the end of the decade, and preferably within five years. The new BBC services were integral to this scheme. Though they may have attracted relatively few listeners, they affirmed the claim of digital radio propagandists that the planned switch-off was about offering "more choice" to listeners.

Commercial operators, who unlike the BBC have to function in the real world, have provided few digital-only options. Most people use their shiny new digital sets to listen to their favourite stations, perhaps in higher quality and, in some areas, with greater reliability. The "choice" argument is irrelevant; today's announcement simply underscores this fact.

It's not surprising, then, that Tom Watson, who is billed as "digital engagement minister" should have tabled a Commons motion expressing concern at the proposed closures. Without even the offer of "new channels", the digital revolution will be still-born. Old fashioned FM radio still has many advantages. It is cheap; you can even by functioning radios in Poundland. It is simple, reliable technology. It is energy efficient. Digital radio uses at least four times the amount of energy as traditional FM versions. Above all, there are many millions of functional radios that will be rendered obsolete, causing every household in the country needless expense and producing a mountain of waste.

The government should abandon this crazy policy before too many people find out about it. It won't be popular.