BBC Radio: A Call for Privatization

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BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 are facing some tough issues. The licensing fee that funds the government-owned broadcasters is facing probable reductions, and the competition from other public broadcasting outfits is getting more and more fierce as the overall pie dwindles. John Plunkett at The Guardian UK reports:

The outgoing GCap Media chairman, Richard Eyre, has today called on the BBC to privatise Radio 1 and Radio 2 and plough more cash into online initiatives aimed at young people.

Eyre, stressing that he was speaking in a personal capacity, said it was no longer appropriate that the BBC should spend nearly £100m a year on the two mainstream national stations – which he estimated could be sold for £1bn – when the licence fee was under pressure and its public service rivals were calling for a share of its income.

“If GCap is worth £375m then Radio 1 and Radio 2 must be worth a billion,” Eyre said.

This is a truly challenging stance to take, and one where Eyre has already marshaled cogent arguments. This is especially true considering the fact that the BBC has always been a government-owned broadcasting concern.

“I know this is an enormous and hideous proposal for the people who have built them. But look – BBC management does not own Radio 1 or Radio 2 any more than I own GCap,” he added.

With a reduced licence fee settlement and calls from its rivals to “top-slice” the BBC’s income, Eyre said the corporation could no longer use the “business as usual” argument.

“If your income goes down then you can’t continue to do everything, which is a very difficult thing for the BBC to accept,” he told Broadcast magazine’s Radio 3.0 conference in central London.

“I would much rather that they established their real priorities and attended to those excellently rather than sighing deeply and knocking 10% or 15% off everything.”

As the cash flow dwindles, these are issues that will become more and more critical for the BBC to address. Adherence to tradition is a powerful force and I dare say that the Beeb is not immune to that effect. The question here is how much tradition should dictate this decision, especially in the face of the financial realities Eyre refers to. One of those realities is a common topic here on the Radio2020 Blog: the intersection of radio and Internet.

Eyre said some of the money spent on the two stations should be redirected towards expanding the BBC’s online activities for young people, whom he accused the corporation of neglecting.

“Outside of music and websites for teenage TV shows such as [teen brand] BBC Switch it is really hard to find much online that clearly has a young target audience,” he added

These statements should serve to enliven discussion about the evolution of BBC Radio, possibly including parallels to similar discussions we have seen over the years about our own National Public radio here in the States. I would not presume to guess how much heed Mr. Eyre’s statements will get, but I am certain that the debate they will spur should be quite animated.

Photo courtesy of Tim Loudon, used under its Creative Commons license

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