An Open Letter to the BBC Board of Trustees
It is with great sadness that I learn of the BBC’s decision to discontinue the digital radio station 6 Music. I hope to offer below a number of compelling reasons why the decision both contravenes the spirit of the Corporation’s foundation and runs counter to its present commercial interests as one of the world’s most recognisable and prestigious brands.
As an organisation funded by the taxpayer, the BBC has a remit to provide programming for minorities. In daytime at least, the music on Radios 1 and 2 serves merely as punctuation for what is really being sold – the identity of the station itself and the “personalities” of its presenters. So a station aimed at people whose interest in popular music runs a little deeper than as the modern-day equivalent of Music While You Work is certainly a minority interest. But the minority in question (and therefore 6’s potential audience) is a substantial one. It has rightly been pointed out in the current debate over 6’s future that the cost per listener of the station, while admittedly high, is no higher than that of Radio 3, yet any suggestion that the latter should be axed would be met with armed insurrection in Tunbridge Wells. But this misses a point of importance to corporate accountants: with better marketing 6’s audience, national and global, could be increased exponentially. The audience for Radio 3 surely reached its numerical peak many years ago, and can only now decline further as the generation which reached maturity before 1950 slowly dwindles in number. Perhaps, in a sense, 6 Music is the Radio 3 of the future.
One of the few areas in which the UK retains its global pre-eminence is popular music, still a hugely profitable export industry despite the shift of emphasis away from sales of recorded music. Tomorrow’s big earners (and employers) are today’s struggling troubadors, and 6 has been consistent in its support for the avant-garde, in the sense of “the early work of those who will become recognised artists” rather than the colloquial sense of a man with a beard playing free jazz on a colander (although Stuart Maconie’s Sunday afternoon show is a misshapen wonder of which the BBC can justly be proud). A healthy mainstream depends on a healthy underground. I would argue that the UK underground in the last five or six years has been at its healthiest since the rave culture boom of the late 1980s, and that the influence of 6 Music must take some of the credit for this, although fortunately this isn’t the place for me to do so.
The prestige of the BBC as an international brand is comparable to that of Rolls-Royce or Lloyd’s of London. The Corporation is perceived – rightly or wrongly – as having integrity conferred by its unique position as a commercial-free state broadcasting company not directly controlled by the state. Despite its many costly attempts to play the commercial companies at their own game (the kind of thing the current Director General would like to axe 6 Music in favour of?) the Corporation’s cachet is still derived largely from those elements of its output adhering to the Reithian project: to entertain while informing and educating. The work of David Attenborough is a prime example of this and so, in its way, is 6 Music. Listeners who regard popular music as a serious art form cannot fail to be educated and entertained by a roster that includes the likes of Maconie, Marc Riley, Jarvis Cocker, Don Letts, Lauren Laverne, Gideon Coe, Tom Ravenscroft and Bob Dylan. It’s the thinking D.G.’s Fantasy Football (have a minion explain it to you) slightly cerebral pop radio station, and it should be worth far more to the BBC than the cash value the current D.G. wishes to trade it in for.
It may be sentimental to say so, but although the station was launched before his untimely death, 6 Music stands as a kind of monument to John Peel, a man who could stake a plausible claim to being the best-loved presenter in the Corporation’s history. It’s almost as if he were seen as so irreplaceable no single presenter could hope to do the job, but maybe an entire radio station might fill the gap. As a monument alone, arguably it wouldn’t justify the cost of its upkeep. But Peel’s name has become a byword for the BBC’s formidable fifty-plus year archive of “field recordings” of popular music. The Peel Sessions themselves represent only a fraction of this huge resource: studio sessions for other presenters and innumerable live recordings, all executed with the clinical precision of lab-coated BBC engineers, comprise with them a priceless document of social history, Mass Observation in action. Marc Riley’s early evening show, among others on 6, has recently upped the ante by having the acts perform live on air, and the archive continues to be built. There has never been any kind of systematic attempt by the BBC to make this treasure-chest commercially available, although some of it has emerged piecemeal, largely courtesy of parties other than the BBC. So, given that 6 Music, almost by definition, is the only radio station in the world where much of this stuff will ever be played, if money is the issue then why not create, via BBC Enterprises, a 6 Music record label to release it properly? There is no shortage of qualified candidates at 6 to select the content and write the sleeve notes. And there is no shortage of potential buyers. The effect of such a project, as well as generating merchandising revenue, would be to strengthen the station’s brand and widen its listenership.
I hope I have persuaded you that 6 Music deserves at least a stay of execution and a review of its commercial potential. Remember that Doctor Who was considered a dead duck until BBC Wales so convincingly proved otherwise.