That time they tried to shut down Six

Published on Tuesday 28 January 2014

Ed Vaizey

Below is a post I originally made to my very old blog back in February 2010, which I promised the marvellous Nick Wallis I would repost onto this currently-live Stuff By Me site several months ago (sorry it’s taken so long Nick), because he references it in one of his blogs, and he’d discovered that, me having replaced my old site sometime ago, he was now pointing to a broken link.

A bit of background. In February 2010 the BBC announced proposals to shut down 6music. It was widely reported that this and other cuts were being proposed by bigwigs at the Beeb in anticipation of a Tory government being formed later that summer, which was likely to make cost-cutting demands of the Corporation. And the Conservative’s spokesman on such things, Ed Vaizey, was seemingly smiling on the proposal.

For all sorts of reasons, I thought the plan to shut 6music was a terrible one. And while in some ways this was nothing to do with Vaizey (him not yet being in office), given his comments on the proposals, and the fact he was a regular pundit on a Radio 4 show I was listening to regularly at the time, I decided it was him with whom I would share my opinions on the matter.

I wasn’t the only 6music supporter to go this route; Vaizey found himself at the receiving end of various notes of outrage. As a result, he quickly changed his viewpoint on the issue, which I think it’s fair to say held quite some sway when – after a whole load more protesting (including a big crowd of us shouting catchphrases at Adam Buxton outside Broadcasting House on a cold Saturday morning – we were quite the political movement) – BBC bosses decided to scrap their plans to close Six. And as we now know, the station has since gone from strength to strength.

I suspect Nick exaggerates my personal role in all this on his blog – though I was in the unique position of being able to press release my open letter to my PR list of music and media journalists, and to write about it to the thousands and thousands of CMU readers, which possibly encouraged others to join the rallying call – to both Vaizey and the Beeb itself.

Anyway, Nick asked I repost my open letter and Vaizey’s response, so here they are. I like open letters. I might write some more.


Dear Ed, You don’t know me, but I sort of feel like I know you, because I’m something of a fan of Radio 4′s political output, and especially Sunday night’s ‘Westminster Hour’ where you, of course, regularly appear on the ‘MPs panel’.

I think the ‘Westminster Hour’ might be my favourite British current affairs programme, because it has the time available to properly debate the key political stories of the week, involving informed and intelligent journalists and politicians, most of whom seem able to speak their mind rather than sticking to their prescribed party lines. It also frequently puts current political stories into an historical context, looking back at similar events in the latter decades of the 20th century, and interviewing the politicians who were involved back then, who can now speak candidly with the benefit of hindsight and without the pressures of being in office. And I’ve always thought you came across particularly well on this programme.

But this letter isn’t about your own media appearances, though it is about a media story and it does involve the BBC. On Friday it was revealed that BBC bosses are seriously considering shutting one of the Corporation’s digital radio stations, 6music, as part of wide-ranging cuts to satisfy its commercial rivals and key players in your political party, and to prepare for an expected relative decline in licence fee income. The proposal, of course, is made in the leaked report written by BBC policy chief and former Conservative policy unit man John Tate.

In their coverage of these proposed cuts, The Guardian say that you called the proposal to shut 6music “intelligent and sensible”. I put it to you that this particular proposal is anything but. This is an area where I have some expertise, I write about the music industry and music media on a daily basis, and have done my own guest spots on Radio 4 talking about these industries. Given you often share insights about your world with me via the aforementioned ‘Westminster Hour’, I thought I’d share some insights with you into my world, to demonstrate why shutting 6music is neither intelligent nor sensible.

And as were talking about Radio Six, I will do so by making six points.

1. 6music isn’t a commercially viable service
Clearly one of the aims of the proposed cuts is to placate those in the commercial media – the ITVs, BSkyBs, News Internationals, Associateds and Global Radios of this world – who believe the BBC too frequently operates in parts of the market which are already satisfied by the commercial sector. Those who argue that the BBC uses its vast guaranteed income and public-funded archive to gain unfair competitive advantage over its commercial rivals in areas like magazine publishing, online and regional news provision, youth programming, and mass-market TV and radio output.

I’m always in two minds about such complaints. For starters, two decades of short-termist programming policies have caused most of the current problems in commercial radio, competition from the BBC has actually played a relatively small part. But then, as an albeit small-time media owner, if the BBC were to suddenly launch a music business news service or, more likely, an extensive Edinburgh Fringe review service, using its guaranteed source of income to out-perform my media platforms, I’d be mightily pissed off.

But 6music doesn’t operate in a part of the market already satisfied by the commercial sector, and it never will, because a service like 6music simply isn’t commercially viable. Global’s Xfm and IPC’s NME Radio operate in similar waters, but to be commercially viable must position themselves as cool youth brands, and go after the youth market and the advertisers who what to reach young consumers. While most of their presenters are passionate music fans, commercially speaking the new music these stations play is simply a means to an end, to reach young money spenders. 6music isn’t a youth station, far from it, it’s core audience are in their thirties. 6music is about music for music’s sake. And there’s no money in music for music’s sake. Absolute Radio might reckon they could make a go of 6music as a commercial operation. Absolute Radio are wrong.

Shutting the two newest and smallest BBC radio stations perhaps seems like a simple way to deal with concerns in the commercial sector that the BBC radio empire has got too big. But actually it addresses none of those concerns. Speak to the commercial radio groups and their problems are with Radios 1 and 2, not 6music. They would probably argue that the BBC should shut down (or, rather sell off) Radios 1 and 2 and use the money raised to fund non-commercial services like 6. I wouldn’t personally go that far, though I can see the merits of that argument.

2. 6music isn’t expensive
The other aim of John Tate’s report is obviously to cut expenditure. I have more sympathy with the commercial media barons when they moan about BBC excess. I’ve had a lot of insights into the workings of the BBC over the years, and I know for a fact that money is wasted left, right and centre. This is especially true in music radio. For starters, Radios 1 and 2 are vastly overstaffed.

Most music radio shows need at most one presenter and one producer, and most commercial stations even combine these two roles. While it is true most companies in commercial radio have downsized their programming teams far too much, all of the BBC’s national stations could easily shed a few team members (from across the hierarchy) without it having any real impact on output.

Personally I’d like to see those people deployed into new public service ventures within the BBC rather than them being shown the door. Though, that said, I also buy the argument that BBC bosses have been too willing to use the booming revenues of the 1990s and 2000s (which came as a result of near universal TV ownership and Worldwide discovering the easy cash to be made from the BBC archives and brand portfolio) to over-expand their workforce and over-pay their top talent and execs, rather than using those revenues to curtail or even cut the licence fee, so to pass the benefit of the new fortunes back to the licence fee payer. And perhaps to reverse that tendancy you need some job losses.

But, in the wider scheme of things, the size and cost of 6music is nominal – with a workforce of just 35 and an annual budget in the region of £6 million (a portion of which, presumably, goes to the artists and labels the station champions via PRS and PPL). Given the BBC’s total annual budget is something in the region of £1200 million, for just six of those millions to go to 6, given all the great things I am about to say about the station, seems like very good value. And, given the aforementioned excess across BBC Radio, I genuinely believe that £6 million could be saved elsewhere with little impact on output, and certainly without necessitating the closure of an entire station.

3. 6music is a fantastic marketing tool for digital radio

I am assuming that, given your culture brief, you are aware that a big issue in the radio industry at the moment is the slow uptake of digital radio services, ie DAB technology, which is making the 2015 deadline for digital switchover look rather optimistic. I don’t know where your party stands of this, but assuming you see the benefits of moving radio listeners over to digital, then you need to provide those listeners will compelling digital-only programming. 6music, for reasons I am about to explain, is one of those compelling services, and one that should be used more in convincing music fans that a DAB radio is something they might want to invest in. I don’t drive, but if I did my car would have a DAB radio in it for one simple reason, 6music.

4. 6music complements the internet
A friend of mine played Devil’s advocate on Friday while I fumed about the BBC cuts, and asked whether 6music was really needed in an age where all music is available at all times on the internet, via licensed streaming music services like Spotify and We7. And when people can discover new music via automated recommendation services like But, while Spotify-style services are a big threat to more conventional radio stations, no automated streaming or recommendation service will ever get close to good music radio: the sort of radio where it really feels like a mate has come round your house with some records to play just for you. Few radio stations offer that service any more, certainly not in daytime, which is why Spotify et al are a big threat. 6music is as close as you get to that kind of radio station, and that is something that we should be celebrating not cutting.

5. 6music documents British music
Sitting in the BBC archives – collectively owned by us the licence fee payers – are some of the most admired musical recordings of all time. I refer, of course, to the Peel Sessions. For any really credible band from the late sixties to the start of this century, while the first ever call to play ‘Top Of The Pops’ was career defining, it was the first Peel Session booking that confirmed you were doing something really special.

Since Peel’s untimely death and Radio 1′s subtle easing of Peel-style programming out of its schedules, the home of such sessions is 6music. Of course other shows on BBC radio and television feature live performances from bands, but none capture bands right at the start of their career, or in such intimate moments, as the 6music sessions do at their best.

The end of the John Peel Show brought to a halt an informal yet crucial documentation of new and alternative music in the UK, sometimes featuring artists on their way to being the next big thing, and sometimes acts destined to only ever be of interest to the few, but artistically important nonetheless. 6music took over this role. That is worth £6 million a year alone. In fact the BBC should be finding a way to make and enable 6 to record more of these sessions.

6. British music is bloody brilliant, and the BBC has a duty to represent that
I’ve been to many schmoozing fests where political types from all parties have stood up and told us how proud they are of Britain’s music industry, which is one of the most prolific and successful in the world. And while the more corporate end of the music business gets a bad rep (and sometimes rightly so), political types are right to be proud of the British music community. It’s made up of thousands of talented, imaginative, innovative, eclectic, erratic and sometimes frustrating people who together make brilliant, surprising and constantly evolving music, and who have generally, somehow, in amongst the madness and mayhem, found a way to do so while making enough money to not have to rely on the sort of tax-funded grants other creative industries demand. It’s all gone a bit wobbly of late, but together they’ll work something out. Basically, the British music community is brilliant.

But take a look at the telly pages in the Radio Times (other listings magazines are available). Try and find the TV programmes representing the British music community on BBC television. If it wasn’t for Jools Holland, there wouldn’t be any. Now look at the radio listings. Even on the music stations, we all know the daytime shows aren’t really about the music. And yes, Radios 1 and 2 have specialist shows, but they squeeze entire alternative genres into tiny time slots, mostly in the middle of the night. Surely the BBC has a duty to represent, showcase and celebrate this great British music industry of ours? Well, it does. Through 6music.

To conclude, 6music is to the music fan what Radio 4 is to the political community. The place where their passion – good music, new and old – gets the airtime it deserves, where informed and intelligent people can discuss the good, the bad and the ugly, and where the music of today can be put into its historical context. Is it perfect? No. Could costs savings be made? Probably. Should it be better promoted? Definitely. But to tell a music fan that 6music will close is like telling a parliamentarian that all of Radio 4′s political output is to be cancelled. Don’t worry, GMTV and TalkSport will pick up the slack.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I’ve CC’ed the bosses at the BBC on this letter, but I don’t feel like I know them, because they never guest on the ‘Westminster Hour’. And as the BBC proposals that were leaked on Friday have been penned by an ally of your party’s leader, in part to placate you and your colleagues if and when you form government in May, I suspect you have considerable influence over this issue. So I urge you to retract your comments regarding the 6music proposal, and point out that in a bid to ensure the BBC isn’t straying too far from its public service remit, John Tate has, in fact, proposed culling one of the greatest examples of the Corporation fulfilling its reason for being.

And if you choose not to? Well, a warning. I shall personally call on Black Squadron to amass on Shepherds Bush and Westminster. And believe me, you don’t want to face down several thousand music geeks with pan hats and pocketed toast. You won’t know what that means. Nor will your colleagues, and neither will John Tate. And that’s why 6music is brilliant.

Do the right thing, help us save Six.

Yours, Chris Cooke, a music fan

ED’S RESPONSE (versions of which I think went to various 6music supporters)

Dear Chris

Many thanks for getting in touch. I assume your e-mail was prompted by my quotes in The Guardian on Friday. As I have been cast as the man who wants to close 6 Music, let me put my remarks in context.

While you may not agree with my position, I hope it will at least show that it is slightly more nuanced than my quote would suggest.

First we all agree that we want a thriving and successful BBC. No argument there.

Second, however, you must be aware that every other media organisation in the country is concerned about the size and scope of the BBC – national broadcasters, national newspapers, local radio and local newspapers.  So, for example, local newspapers recently opposed the BBC’s plans to start a local video on the web service, as this would have harmed their own efforts in this area.

The BBC has undertaken a strategic review because it recognises that some of these concerns are legitimate. I have only read the leak in The Times, and perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.  Anyway, what struck me as “intelligent and sensible” was – a recognition that the website is causing problems for national newspapers, so a commitment to spend less on it and link from it to national and local newspaper sites; a cap on the sports budget, so that competitors like ITV and Channel 4 can get a look in; a reduction in investment in imported American programmes, again so others can bid for successful shows, and so that more money can be spent on UK originated content.

The Observer this week, in its editorial, notes “But since its natural habitat is expansion, it was probably wise of Mark Thompson to draw a line somewhere. Commercial publishers will be relieved…so will radio broadcasters”. So while The Observer wants to save 6 Music, it does seem to recognise that the BBC needs to reflect on the impact of what it does (anyway that is how I read the editorial).  And of course Labour’s Culutre Secretary Ben Bradsahw is quoted as saying “I think there is a good reason to have a debate in the run-up to the next licence fee, which we shall have if we are in government, as to how big the BBC should be, how big the licence fee should be, even if we should continue to have a licence fee in the long-term as the best funding mechanism”. So again, there is recognition that the size and scope of the BBC is a matter of legitimate debate.

I decided to support the general thrust of the proposals in public because there are others who want the BBC to go much further in terms of reducing their service. I thought it would be helpful to the BBC to signal that their efforts – in trying to reduce the scope of some of their services  – were recognised.

Anyway, several things have happened since I spoke out. I am now an avid listener to 6 Music. I suspect that 6 Music has doubled its audience. I strongly suspect 6 Music will be saved.

I should emphasise that any decision on 6 Music is firmly that of the BBC and the BBC Trust. Also one quote of mine that was not picked up is that this is the beginning of the debate – there is no reason to assume that what is proposed is what will happen.

So to sum up – I had no strong views on 6 Music on Friday, I now know it is brilliant with a passionate and articulate fan base. Its future is not down to me.  And I remain firmly committed to the BBC looking carefully at how its services affect its commercial competitors. Ed