LONDON — Normally, I take a very holistic view of the radio industry. People have different needs at different points in their lives, and these moments can be served by the extraordinary variety radio provides. Sometimes, we see ourselves primarily as part of our community or interest group; sometimes, we broaden our vision to the province or state where we live or take a wider interest in national or global affairs. The way the radio sector is structured matches this entirely. Low entrance costs, particularly with small-scale digital broadcasting, mean that communities — bound together by interests, ethnicity or faith tradition — can be served. At the other end of the scale, national services can deliver high-value content, including costly investigative journalism, or employ significant talent, authors, actors and musicians. All of this makes for an extremely rich picture. The fact that funding comes from different sources is a strength and facilitates this diversity — advertising, community groups and public funding all have a part to play.
At the BBC and, thereafter, the European Broadcasting Union, my professional career centered on public radio. I have often stood on stage to argue for the special position and responsibilities of public radio. At the same time, it’s clear that the commercial and community sectors have a strong role to play in bringing to audiences the radio experience in all its diversity. There are obvious areas, such as implementing digital radio or adopting Radioplayer, where the industry can be far more effective by working closely together. As the adage goes: Collaborate on technology, compete on content.
The industry has far more in common as it faces the world of the tech giants, which, despite their extraordinary contribution, lack the local voices and roots. However, within this single radio industry, it is not unreasonable to underline the particular responsibilities of public media. If an organization is to receive public money in the form of a license fee or other payments, then it must provide something in return that economics based on market forces cannot provide. That said, I’m not against popular programming, so long as it has distinctive elements — most of us would find a lecture on Wittgenstein, followed by an exposition of the Byzantine legal system, rounded off by a presentation of quantum field theory rather hard going!
Special funding, however, imposes special responsibilities, particularly when linked to a specific contribution to society. In the United Kingdom, the extraordinary reaction to the BBC’s proposed scrapping of the BBC Singers shows the public clearly expects something distinctive in return for their license fee. The chamber choir dates to the earliest days of the BBC and is approaching its centenary year. The BBC Singers may not command the largest audience numbers, but the potential demise of the only salaried professional choir in the U.K. nonetheless marks a significant moment.
The Singers offer a level of performance that is a gold standard for the wealth of amateur performances across the country and gives young musicians a model of quality performance to which they can aspire. This highly skilled body of singers has worked with the leading composers of the last century and can produce unique results in the most complicated of repertories.
The BBC Singers are a typical feature of public service media — commissioning new music and supporting a full-time choir would not make much sense as a commercial activity.
Not only have the BBC Singers facilitated the BBC’s commissioning of new music, but they have also made it available to a wide audience. They have also been at the forefront of performing and commissioning music by women composers. Their working pattern extended beyond the studio and concert platforms into the production of leading educational projects, working with young people in areas of considerable deprivation, giving them a unique chance to engage with a musical performance. Who knows what seeds they have sown for the future development and ambition of the new generation through such initiatives? And despite a reprieve, we should remember that the BBC Singers — and the BBC English orchestras — are not “out of the woods” yet.
The BBC Singers are a typical feature of public service media — commissioning new music and supporting a full-time choir would not make much sense as a commercial activity. Along with other resource-intensive activities, such as foreign reporting, radio drama and investigative journalism, they are why public broadcasting continues to be funded in a way that some people may find anachronistic. Like many other valuable activities, such as public libraries, they benefit a country’s citizens and cannot be supported by the market alone. To continue to merit their special financial arrangement, public broadcasters must be careful before removing such distinctive undertakings from their portfolio.
The author was head of Radio at the EBU until 2020, and before that managing editor of one of the BBC’s national stations. He currently advises media organizations. Read more of his work here.