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Save BBC Radio: all radio production faced being outsourced

18 November 2016

Too fast, too large, too extreme, too reckless.

That was the view of Sir John Tusa of the BBC’s plans to outsource 60 per cent of BBC Radio by 2022. And, as the former head of the World Service, he knows what he is talking about. Where was this figure plucked from, he asked Bob Shennan, director of BBC Radio, who was sharing a platform with him at a packed committee room in Parliament.

The Save BBC Radio event, chaired by Helen Goodman MP, chair of the NUJ’s Parliamentary Group, began with Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, who pointed out the perils of BBC being thrust into the commercial world since the sell-off of Bake Off to Channel had been called the worst deal in television history.  

She told the meeting of the letter in the Sunday Times signed by a galaxy of radio experts and stars, including Joan Bakewell, Jarvis Cocker, Nikki Bedi, Misha Glenny, Kirsty Lang, Andrew Marr, Libby Purves, Tom Robison and Julian Worricker to name a few, which said there was no demand for an extra 3,000 hours of output being put out to tender every year.  

This would create a costly bureaucratic process, taking money away from programme making, imperil BBC in-house production – not least its role as training ground for the wider radio industry – and smaller independent production companies would lose out. It would make long-term planning difficult and result in the casualisation of the radio workforce. Another consequence would be the threat to diversity in radio production, as the BBC seemed at last to be taking the issue seriously.

Luke Crawley, assistant general secretary of Bectu, said BBC radio was the envy of the world: if it isn’t broken, why fix it? He said it had been a political fix to suit the Radio Independents Group (RIG) and had resulted in a shambles and shame for the industry. “To outsource 60 per cent of programming could sound the death knell for BBC Radio and will inevitably mean jobs will be lost,” he said. He said that despite the assurances that shows such as the Archers and Woman’s Hour would be safe, their time could come at the next settlement.

If TV shows such Holby City, A Question of Sport and Songs of Praise have been put out to tender, how can radio’s crown jewels be safe?

David John, audio councillor at Equity, said that drama, after many years of budget freezes, had suffered at the BBC with fewer slots and smaller casts. But greater outsourcing to the independent sector, which was already cutting corners, such as not paying for read-throughs or honouring industry pay rates, was not the answer. “There still great work being done at the BBC. We want radio drama to flourish, but this plan will make things worse, not better,” he said.

Gillian Reynolds, the Telegraph’s radio critic since 1975 and the Guardian’s for seven years from 1967, was speaking on behalf of the listener. She said the breadth of its music coverage from the Proms, to jazz to pop and the amount of live music made it popular and a world leader.  The 20 per cent of production that had gone out to independent companies  had resulted in some excellent programmes such as The Reunion, but she saw no benefits for 60 per cent of outsourcing or the “Uberisation of the radio workforce”.  She said most listeners were not aware of the plans, had not been consulted and if they had been asked would not have supported them.

When the meeting was opened up to the floor, many of those attending were people who worked for the BBC and the industry, the point was made  that women,  in particular, would lose out. The BBC paid maternity leave and made it possible for women to return. One BBC producer said her female colleagues working for independent companies never went back after having a child.

Bob Shennan told the meeting that the status quo was untenable. He said there had been talk of radio production going the same ways as TV with 100 per cent being put out to tender. He admitted the BBC had been put under pressure from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and politicians to go further than to 60 per cent, but eventually they came up with a deal that RIG could agree to. He admitted the tendering process would shift resources away from programme making, but said the BBC’s in-house production would benefit from the competition and would win out because of its quality. “Just because 60 per cent is put out to tender, it does not mean that 60 per cent will go out of the BBC,” he said.

Sir John Tusa had ended his speech by saying that it would be profoundly sad if this where BBC radio ended and said the fight must go on to stop the changes. The meeting was told it was not too late to campaign for a better deal. “That is why we are fighting to Save BBC Radio, “ said Michelle Stanistreet.

Tags: , bbc, bbc radio, broadcasting, bob shennan, helen goodman, feu, save bbc radio, campaign, outsourcing, privatisation, love it ot lose it, parliament uk