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Asian Network's Soap Cancelled

Simon Pitt | Radio | Tuesday 17th November 2009

The BBC has announced that "drama on the BBC's Asian Network is to be reorganised to deliver more impact and better value for money". Since there's only one drama on the Asian Network, Silver Street, this can only mean one thing: Silver Street is to be axed. The last episode will be broadcast in March 2010.

What the BBC failed to mention in their press release is that this "reorganisation" will also result in a significant budget reduction.

The cancellation of Silver Street won't come as a surprise (or a great dissapointment) to most people. Only 357,000 listen to the Asian Network each week. More pressingly, the BBC Trust singled out the Asian Network for criticism in their annual report after listeners dropped by 20% in one year. A senior BBC source told the Standard that the station was informed that it had to attract more listeners or it would be closed. Its average cost per listener is 6.9p; more than any other BBC station.

During its short life, the Asian Network has had more than its fair share of problems. In 2008, it was claimed that the station had an anti-Muslim policy. A subsequent investigation rejected the allegations. In 2006, one of the presenters was convicted of nine charges of receiving stolen computer equipment.

After the BBC Trust's report in July, a number of newspapers suggested that this was the end for the Asian Network. Tim Davie, director of Audio & Music, rejected these suggestions. "There is absolutely no truth in the claim that the BBC Asian Network is facing closure," he responded. "The network is incredibly important in providing news, debate, music and entertainment to British Asians and is growing its audience following a major schedule change"

The thing is, the station is really useful for hitting those diversity targets. It could be suggested that with the Asian Network there, the BBC doesn't have to put as much effort into reflecting diversity on the main channels. Less cynically, the Asian Network's supporters say it has helped launch the careers of a number of British Asian presenters and DJs. Nevertheless, for Asian listeners, the station continues to lag behind its chief rival, Sunrise Radio.

When the Asian Network first became a national station in 2002, the channel had a dedicated station controller, Vivja Sharma. However, a few years later the Asian Network was taken under the wing of Five Live and controller Bob Shennan. When Shennan left the BBC, the station was left without a home until it came under the control of Andy Parfitt. This made Parfitt the controller of Radio 1, BBC Asian Network and 1Xtra (I wonder which of those jobs takes most of his time). One BBC source said that under Parfitt the station had adopted a much more "mainstream feel".
"It's sad what's going on there. They're ditching a lot of the Asian stuff and replacing it with mainstream trivia. Who wants that? You can get that on Radio 1. It's becoming an Asian Radio 1 basically."
Silver Street is not the first BBC radio soap to be axed. The last 20 years has seen the demise of Westway, the World Service soap set in a health centre and Citizens, Radio 4's oft-derided, now largely forgotten soap from the late 1980s. If a radio soap isn't The Archers it seems to only have a life expectancy of about six years.

Silver Street hasn't had an easy ride. Originally on for 10 minutes every weekday, it's time was cut to 5 minutes a day. When a programme is this sort, it is difficult to develop characters or any sort of plot or tension. It's difficult for a drama to be engrossing when as soon as you're engrossed it's all over and you're left with bhangra booming out at you. The question is: was its lack of popularity because it has such a limited audience or because of its "short form"? If the former, then switching to a different format isn't going to help matters. If the latter, then this is a bit of a blow for those that think the future of drama is in short form content. There's been much talk recently about short form dramas, but if Silver Street is anything to go by, this is the wrong direction for drama.

However, it's not all bad news. Silver Street will be replaced by monthly single dramas. "We've decided that there is a better way to deliver drama to our audiences," said Andy Parfitt. Head of Radio Drama, Alison Hindell said, "The new format will be ambitious in scope and will create a richer range of drama programming for listeners to enjoy".

The question that remains unanswered is whether a station dedicated to one demographic is the best way to achieve diversity. After all, with such limited resources, what sort of success can the Asian Network hope for? By contrast, Sunrise Radio thrives on its limited audience. Its smaller audience means it gathers support and enthusiasm. The BBC, as a world famous brand, can never drum up this level of excitement for a station that is seen as coming from within the institution.

SP



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