The BBC has to step up to keep us tuned in
The government has set out ambitious plans in recent months to support our world leading media and broadcasters. This support is essential and timely, as British media businesses continue to grapple with shifting audience habits and significant economic challenges.
The announcement of a Broadcasting White Paper, expected at the end of the year, provides the first opportunity for nearly twenty years to modernise and strengthen rules that support audiences, while unleashing the potential of our home-grown broadcasters.
Last week marked a significant moment, with the government publishing the findings of its Digital Radio and Audio Review. As someone who has spent most of my career before entering politics working in radio – a medium I love – this report was especially close to my heart. It acknowledges our continuing love affair with radio and its central role in our daily lives.
The fact the nine out of ten people listen to the radio each week is extraordinary in a world of almost infinite choice. Radio also has the unique ability to reach a broad range of audiences from all backgrounds, across all corners of the UK, with its combination of trusted news, companionship, music and entertainment. This public value role has been particularly evident during the pandemic and recognised by government.
The report also highlights that radio listening habits are changing, with a small but growing proportion of listening now online and on smart speakers like the Amazon Echo. It is estimated that around 33 per cent of UK adults now have access to smart speakers, with radio being one of the most popular uses. This is great for audiences but requires fresh thinking and new rules to ensure free access and availability of UK radio stations on these platforms in future, which government appears to support.
Proposals to dilute public service requirements on BBC radio are wrongheaded and could seriously undermine range and diversity
All of this gives me some cause for optimism, reflected in a new study from the APPG on Commercial Radio, one of the groups that I chair in Parliament. Our report on The Future of Radio is an initial response to the government’s plans. It welcomes proposals to guarantee access to radio content online and calls for a government Action Plan for Radio to implement the recommendations of the recent review.
However, we also point out that there is one important and related piece of the jigsaw that is missing from these plans. That relates to the critical role of the BBC in radio and its responsibilities in return for the £3.7bn it receives in licence fee funding.
The BBC remains the dominant force in UK radio, with a 50 per cent share of the market (more than double that of its nearest competitor) and has significant advantages in funding and scale. As a result, it is required to meet a series of public service targets, for example on speech content for BBC Local Radio and new British music for Radio 1. These targets help provide a distinctive mix of output and limit the impact on commercial services.
Recent proposals by Ofcom to dilute or remove public service requirements on BBC radio are wrongheaded and could seriously undermine the range and diversity of UK radio. Removing quotas will take away the floor, risking further declines in news and speech, and fewer opportunities for British music artists. These obligations should be strengthened not diluted.
Government and Ofcom have the chance to get this right over the coming months and in the mid-term review of the BBC Charter next year. I believe they still can and have the potential to provide an appropriate framework so that British media businesses can thrive in future. That will be good for democracy, good for jobs and good for the millions of us who continue to tune in.
Andy Carter is the Conservative MP for Warrington South and the chair of the APPG on Commercial Radio and Media APPG.
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