Andy Parfitt, controller of BBC Asian Network and Radio 1, shares his thoughts exclusively with BizAsia.co.uk about plans to close the BBC Asian Network.
Sitting in the Royal Festival Hall last week watching a great night of music and celebration at the UK Asian Music awards – ably presented by BBC Asian Network۪s Bobby Friction – you couldn’t miss the “Save the Asian Network message” – performer after performer called on the BBC to re-think its strategic review recommendation to close the Asian Network as a national service.
As the Controller of Radio 1, 1Xtra, The Asian Network & Popular Music at the BBC, I’m passionate about music and understand the critical role that the BBC plays in supporting new artists including those in the British Asian Music scene. Jay Sean is an obvious example of this. He was supported in his early career by the Asian Network and 1Xtra, and has gone on to enjoy international success with a number 1 in the USA (the biggest music market in the world).
Of course, music is only one of the public service content areas that the Asian Network produces high quality news, current affairs and language programmes are the others. On the day of the AMAs Nihal brought his afternoon show from an East London School hearing from Asian pupils about the challenges of growing up in households where English is at best a second language. So, the Asian Network is an important public service so what is this “closure” all about?
Well, firstly we are talking about closing it as a national service the Asian Network first went onto the national digital radio transmitter eight years ago. At that time, the belief was that audiences wanted lots of new stations and in turn, that new stations would drive digital take up. It was also hoped that radio as a whole would move as quickly as TV in its transition from analogue to digital.
For a variety of reasons this hasn’t happened. Many stations launched by the commercial sector during the same period have disappeared and it now appears that audiences are happier with a small portfolio of stations. The successes on digital have been with familiar brands or familiar content, i.e./ Smash Hits, Kerrang and 5Live Sports Extra.
So, eight years on, BBC radio has come to the conclusion that to drive digital (which must be done for the long term survival of radio as a medium) it has to build a simpler portfolio of well known brands with extra digital content closely related to very well BBC known stations – for example Radio 1 is known by around 80% of the UK population and 1Xtra by 16%, so by more closely aligning Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra we hope to build digital audiences and promote digital radio.
So where does the Asian Network sit in all this? Well it۪s never going to be a huge national brand – only about 800,000 Britons listen to Asian Radio in total – UK Asians are not digital radio fans, adults are 50% less likely to own a DAB radio. It’s also hard to see how the Asian Network fits as an extra۪ to one of the big BBC stations. In addition we know that 85% of the Asian audience live in five areas of the UK and that Asian radio tends to be a more local or regional experience.
All of this led us to ask how BBC radio can service the Asian audience with great Asian content better. The conclusion is our proposal to close the Asian Network as a national service and re-configuring it as a set of regional/local franchises with locally produced and relevant content in London, Manchester, Leicester, Birmingham and North Yorkshire, but supported by a core of syndicated programmes – like our current affairs phone in or new music offer. This could be the best of both worlds and help us build our audiences which is something we clearly need to do.
I believe in the talent we have at the Asian Network both on and off air but we have to make some tough decisions. Both for the overall sake of a radio industry that needs to go digital and to make sure that we give audiences high quality content in the best way possible.
The proposals are now with the Trust who have launched a consultation period before any final decisions are made. Click here for details.
BBC Asian Network was a media partner at the UK AMAs.