Wednesday, March 03, 2010

In Praise of the BBC (3): but I wish they would have people who know what they are talking about...

I love the BBC: I think it is good value for money, I think large parts of what it does could not be catered for elsewhere, and it mostly employs experts to talk about what they are expert on.


In recent years it has increasingly chosen journalists/news reporters/public figures to front a number of its most publicised documentary strands and series. It is a trend that is on the increase. There is still space for experts (BBC4 programmes seem especially able to accommodate expert presenters regardless of their attractiveness or familiarity from other programmes), but on BBC1 especially news anchors have been coming to the fore on documentaries, as the Guardian reported last month.

The problem of expertise is also highlighted in the current debate over the BBC strategy proposals.

I couldn't stand to watch the Newsnight 'debate' last night between Paxo and Thompson about the justification for proposing the closure of two radio stations and a significant proportion of the BBC website. But several have already talked to me about their frustration with the discussion. What irritated me and I knew would wind me up is that patently Paxo is not a pop music fan. He doesn't really get contemporary music in most of its genres and forms. Quite clearly, neither does Thompson, who seems mistaken in his belief that the pop that can be found on 6Music could easily be accommodated into other stations. Given Thompson couldn't even make a consistent argument about why 1Extra should stay and 6Music close, as matched against Thompson's own criteria, that isn't surprising.

And they're not even the first to fall into the mire of talking about things of which they know nothing. Dame Liz Fogan on Broadcasting House last weekend kept talking about pop music as if it was just one thing, easy to slot into the Radio 1 and 2 schedules (when you're not a pop music fan, it seems a classic trait to dismiss it as one thing, failing to see the differences between Heart, Radio 1, 6Music, Absolute and all the rest). This misses the things that make 6Music different.

Live music
I think I read somewhere a figure of how many live sessions the station airs: I cannot locate it right now, but I seem to recall a figure of about 300 sessions per year?[please let me know this if you can] These are predominantly from performers that are new or on the rise. When and where would R1 or R2 accommodate these, certainly in terms of how much time they are given across the whole network? The Marc Riley show alone usually has live sessions most nights with three(ish) tracks per artist. Heck, Tom Robinson has a whole show dedicated to new music!

New music
An overlap with the live music issue obviously, but as was noted in the Guardian letters yesterday, commercial radio leaves 'finding new music to the BBC'. Commercial radio needs to sell advertising - it isn't ABOUT music. So familiarity is everything: stay on the channel, keep listening to THESE advertisements. If it's 10 mins past the hour, it's a Queen song; if it's quarter to the hour it's Beyonce; if it's the next programme make sure we've played the current number 1 song from the charts. I mean no reductive criticism of the named artists, or of whatever is in the best-seller list, but Radio 3 gets to be driven by more than just what is the best-selling and most popular classical music (new recordings, new types of music appear on R3 pretty regularly). So why can't 6Music hold onto its role in presenting new for the non-classical world of music, as James Smith's letter to the Guardian yesterday noted?

Old Music
I don't just mean popular Motown, I mean OLD music from the pop world: blues from the 1920s (Huey Show), ska from the early 1960s (Marc Riley), avant-garde noise jazz from the 1970s (Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone). These kinds of things get accommodated on 6Music. The diversity of what they play is not covered ANYWHERE else on radio and nor would it be: 1 and 2 could not dare to go that far, 3 minorly pulls things in (but really only on Late Junction) and commercial radio wouldn't even be interested. (And don't you dare say it's because the BBC hasn't given them chance. Who would advertise? exactly....)

Defining 'popular'
Cloud raised this point in the car today: if there is one word to describe the music we listen to, it probably wouldn't be 'popular'. Niche, obscure, quirky. As his sister-in-law and niece identified at Xmas with a well chosen badge for him, "I listen to bands that don't even exist yet" (there is a T-shirt too). (Both Neil and the lovely George has T-shirts from Spitalfields reading 'I only listen to unsigned bands'). Whilst neither of these remarks are strictly true, there is a truth to them: ours is a household that enjoys the slightly obscure; we're the musically interested who enjoy the 'not heard much that sounds like that before'. But there are a suprising number of us. And thanks to 6Music we have found a lot of wonderful new and old music that meets our weird and wonderful interests and I have spread the word and bought music for others that I have found through 6Music.

The problem with defining 'popular' though, is it is taken to mean a great number of things by lots of non-experts. listen to those who listen to this stuff; take note of THEIR understanding and the subtle variations and breadth of what is non-classical. It needs a voice!

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