Simon Pitt |
Saturday 24th July
Earlier this month, with a collective sigh of relief, around half of 6Music's listeners began to switch off.
The BBC Trust had decided that the station wouldn't be axed after all. And with the danger to 6 Music went much of its interest.
The 6Music saga began in early 2010. Tory MP, and surely future Cockney Rhyming slang, Jeremy Hunt demanded the BBC spend less money on 'niche' channels.
He expressed scepticism about the value of the niche television channels BBC Three and BBC Four, as well as digital radio stations such as 1Xtra, 6 Music and Radio 7. Collectively these new ventures cost hundreds of millions of pounds out of a total BBC budget of £4.6 billion.
There was a recession on and times were tight. The public mood had turned against expense and all public sector companies were having to cut costs. Under pressure from the existing government and what was very likely to be the new government, the BBC revealed its worst kept secret. It was putting forward a proposal to close down two digital stations: 6 Music and the Asian Network.
Hunt said: "The BBC needs to make a better case for investment in some of its new digital channels which have very low audiences but do cost a lot of money."
This proposal was met with support from Hunt. Buoyed up on this spirit of cost cutting, Tory MP, Ed Vaisey, agreed with Hunt:
Vaizey said the Conservatives wanted "a smaller BBC", but did not want "to beat up the BBC". He added that proposals to close digital stations 6 Music and the Asian Network and cut back the BBC website, reported in today's Times, were "intelligent and sensible".
But then, something happened.
There was a huge public backlash. Twitter, that all important news sourcing tool, was on fire with #saveBBC6music and the Guardian began publishing seemingly hourly articles in support of 6Music.
Even Vaisey changed his mind, and was forced to admit, that, actually, he didn't really know what 6Music was.
Having not listened to 6 Music, I took it on trust that the BBC knew what it was doing in this regard [...] I had no strong views on 6 Music on Friday, I now know it is brilliant with a passionate and articulate fan base - I am now an avid listener to 6 Music.
On the Jeremy Vine Show, Hunt told his co-Jeremy that, actually, 6Music was really good, and when he said he'd wanted to get rid of niche channels, he hadn't actually meant for them to start closing niche channels:
He said it did not matter that the services had limited audiences "if they're providing something that's distinctive and different".
Suddenly everyone loved 6Music. You couldn't walk down the street without someone saying how much they loved its innovative approach to music, varied soundtrack and eclectic mix of new artists.
Listening figures doubled, and basically everyone in the country was either googling it or reading the wikipedia article.
When the BBC Trust returned earlier in July with their response to Tim Davie's suggestions, it was with the entirely unsurprising news that 6Music was to be saved. The Asian Network wasn't, but then there were only four people listening to it, and two of them had tuned in by mistake.
With a giant sigh of relief, everyone put their digital radios away and went back to what they'd been doing before.
What this overlooked was that before the fuss had started, some Guardian commentators had started complaining that 6Music wasn't actually that good anymore:
The rot seems to have been going on for about a year now with the steady influx of DJs who give the impression that they're more interested in the chat between the music than playing decent tracks.
Most people had forgotten the point of 6Music was.
Maybe part of the problem is that the station doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it an older version of Radio 1? A funkier Radio 2? Xfm Gold - but with DJs? Or all of those things?
6Music, BBC7, the Asian Network, 1Xtra and 5 Live Sports Extra were launched in the 2002. Digital radio had finally arrived, and to encourage take up, the BBC launched a flurry of new stations.
BBC7 was what people had been calling for years - BBC Archive FM, a station that would broadcast repeats of "shows what like they used to make". To complement this was 6Music, which would broadcast old BBC archive music sessions; things like Peel sessions. Before their launch, the two stations were codenamed Network Y (6Music) and Network Z (BBC7).
Before it launched, the BBC said the station would "focus on the popular music of the last 30 years. It will draw on the BBC's unique archive of musical performance, concerts, documentaries and interviews."
This was going to be really cheap. They weren't going to make any actual programmes; they would just play repeats. Sure you'd have a couple of presenters, but that would be it.
However, there were three problems with this.
After the BBC Trust decided to save 6Music Peter Bazalgette dared to say On The Media Show, what no one else had said before:
- Rights issues. No one had looked into whether the BBC could actually broadcast the piles of stuff they had sitting in their archive. Sure, they had warehouses full of tapes, but they didn't actually own any of the copyright to them. What looked like it was going to be quite cheap, was actually impossibly expensive.
- The playlist. While it sounds like a good idea to have a station playing popular music from the last thirty or forty years, in practice, all that music isn't as good as you remember. Think of the 60s and you think of the Beatles. In actual fact, the real chart topper was Ken Dodd along with "dollops of yodelling, crooning and clarinet-tootling". Most popular music was as bad thirty years ago as it is now.
- DJ personalities. The BBC soon found that all those DJs they'd hired didn't want to just play dusty old tapes from the archive. They actually wanted to play modern stuff that they'd found.
Six Schmix, I say to you, Steve. Because, do I care that much? Listen, BBC Radio is fantastic. Radio 4 is the jewel in the crown, Radio 3 is pretty good, Radio 2 is improving, Radio 5 Live is not bad. These are the radio stations that really matter. It's okay to wallow in this argument over Radio 6 a certain amount - but not too much. Once again we're losing the plot. And the BBC will lose the plot if it's not careful.
And he's right. 6Music was not a big deal. Although, like everyone else, I was caught up in a wave of anger about the proposed closure, I hadn't listened to 6Music more than a couple of times before, and I won't listen to it again.
Before the news coverage, only one in five of the population was even aware of its existence. But all it took was a change of public opinion to cause politicians to rush to the stations defence.
Again, on the Media Show, pushed by Steve Hewlett, Tim Davie admitted what we all knew:
Steve Hewlett: So do you think it's the campaign that's led the trust in this then?
The whole matter was a non issue, whipped up by press and politicians. When it comes down to it, the whole of music radio falls into the "six schmix" category. After all, 6Music, 1Xtra, Radio 1, Radio 2, Classic FM, Heart FM and all the other commercial music stations basically fulfil the function of the shuffle button on your CD player. Although looking at the Radio 1 playlist, you'd get more variety listening to your phone ringtones.
Tim Davie: I certainly think, um, the public reaction has played a fundamental part in this.
Ultimately, keeping 6Music was the right decision, but it was made for the wrong reasons. The yearly cost of the station is only 88% of Jonathan Ross's old salary, so you might as well keep it. It wasn't the force of the arguments that persuaded the trust and the government and the BBC executives to change their mind, it was the volume of the arguments.
For all Ed Vaisey knew, the public could have been shouting to keep 6Music because they liked to fart in time with it. But then, ultimately, it's simply another case of politicians getting involved in the media, and showing just how ignorant they are.