Report: Has BBC Asian Network become too “commercial”?

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BBC Asian Network

As English commercial radio representatives give their say on how the BBC is affecting their stance in the market, BizAsia looks at the Asian perspective of how the BBC Asian Network has become a “commercial” competitor.

Yesterday Will Harding, group director of strategy for Global, alongside Kip Meek from Radio Centre and Travis Baxter from Bauer gave evidence in parliament at the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Hearing on the Future of the BBC.

There is no denying the fact that the BBC Asian Network has overhauled its output recently by doing what Asian commercial radio stations have been successful in for years and that providing listeners with the best of Bollywood.

Couple of years ago, the BBC Asian Network came under scrutiny for not attracting a big enough audience to match the high costs in running the station. After careful research and a complete programming rejig – it decided to significantly reduce its Bhangra/British Asian music for Bollywood music. One thing is for sure…Bollywood sells! However, a question mark stands – does the BBC Asian Network need to become so commercialised?

Commercial Asian radio stations including Awaz FM (Scotland), Asian Sound Radio (Manchester), Sunrise FM Radio (Yorkshire), Radio XL (Birmingham), Sabras Radio (Leicester) and Sunrise Radio (London) have suffered the most difficult of times in history due to increasing competition, the economic climate and competitive airtime rates on Asian television channels.

A media executive described the difficult times for commercial radio in the UK, “When Asian TV channels are selling spots on BARB rated channels for around �15-�20, it makes it extra difficult for Asian radio stations to charge clients at these sort of prices. Five years ago, selling airtime on commercial radio for up to �40 per spot would’ve been reasonable but now clients are opting for television as they are getting national reach for paying the same local radio rate.”

Radio XL - Birmingham's biggest commercial station
Radio XL - Birmingham's biggest commercial station

The BBC Asian Network maybe sounding better than before but is it delivering the service that it is meant to be? Has the BBC Asian Network become too conscious about chasing after ratings rather than fulfilling what is in its remit? The station has tied up with many events in recent years making it an attractive proposition for organisers who would get more visibility on a national station oppose to local commercial stations. However, one important point worth noting is that that such deals are preventing event organisers to advertise their events on commercial stations to the extent they previously did.

Talking to BizAsia, one organiser confirmed this, “Why would I use a commercial Asian radio station that charges me over �1000 to promote my event when I can use a national service like the BBC Asian Network, which will promote my event through interviews and presenter mentions.”

Similarly, film promotions through increased airplay of certain tracks and interviews has become a “cheaper” option for film distributors. A distributor told BizAsia, “Where years ago, we used to pay thousands of pounds for promotion of our films on commercial Asian radio stations, that budget has now been reduced excessively due to the help of TV and also tie-ups with the BBC Asian Network.”

On a typical working day, the BBC Asian Network has increased its Bollywood content with only 1-2 non-Bollywood songs being played per hour. Surely, the job of a state broadcaster is to provide content that is not readily available on commercial stations as it is not economically viable. Doing what Asian commercial radio stations are doing, will result in fighting for the same listenership and affecting the revenue of commercial stations.

At the parliament hearing yesterday, representatives from various English commercial radio stations said that, “Radio 1 and Radio 2 are not delivering public service value. They are chasing ratings. They are not reaching 18-24 year olds. They are not delivering distinctive content. They are delivering content that is provided by the commercial sector e.g. same guests, same shows, save events. The BBC Trust has failed. The BBC needs independent regulation. Ofcom is well placed to do this. Commercial operators including Classic FM should be able to bid for parts of the licence fee to use the funds to deliver programming that�۪s not commercially viable e.g. more live concerts.”

The same presenters that were possibly “too cool” to play Bollywood music on their shows on the BBC Asian Network are now the same voices that have done a U-turn. Not only that but just like their rival competitors, presenters have grasped a similar presenting style with lots more “desi” in their twang than before the troubled times at the Asian Network.

Regional language shows that do not particularly attract large number of advertisers still fit in daily schedules of commercial stations to be able to keep a direct link with communities. However, the BBC Asian Network that has become so ratings driven has shunted these type of shows to just Sundays. Should the BBC Asian Network not look at the bigger Asian community rather than concentrating on its listening figures?

Lyca Mobile buys Sunrise Radio
Lyca Mobile buys Sunrise Radio

The Bollywood-driven content and high quality journalism has taken the BBC Asian Network’s listenership to its highest ever. The station attracts a huge 668,000 listeners per week. But will these figures translate into the death of commercial Asian radio stations? Sunrise Radio in London has already seen management changes and BizAsia is aware of others who are not too behind from financial pressure.

RadioToday reports that the Committee�۪s inquiry will play an important role in examining the main areas of debate in the run up to the renewal of the BBC�۪s Royal Charter in 2016 ��� including its future size and scope, funding structure and regulatory framework. Its final report is not expected to be published until the Spring.

Inputs from RadioToday

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