BBC plans `cool' makeover for World Service
Sunday 13 September 1998
Senior executives at the organisation have decided that its fuddy-duddy reputation as a "bowler hat and umbrella" radio station must be replaced with a trendy new identity, more in keeping with Tony Blair's desire to promote Britain as a "young, dynamic nation".
Journalists have been told to use modern jingles, livelier programme structures and more regional accents - including foreign presenters - to help the network throw off its public school, stiff upper lip associations. Modern plays and poetry readings will replace extracts from Charles Dickens or Jane Austen; Oasis and Pulp will be broadcast alongside the Proms.
The rebranding exercise - the biggest shake-up in programming since the BBC began broadcasting its "Empire Service" 50 years ago - is part of the Government's drive to reinvent Britain's image abroad.
Sam Younger, the managing director of the World Service, along with his deputy Caroline Thomson, recently gave a presentation on the changes to Panel 2000, the Foreign Office's "committee for cool" which issued a consultation document last week.
The World Service has also received advice from Mark Leonard, the Demos researcher who wrote a pamphlet about "rebranding" Britain and who is a member of Panel 2000.
The move follows research conducted by the BBC which found that the World Service was widely perceived as "reliable but dull" in many countries. When listeners were asked what car they thought BBC presenters drove, most mentioned Volvos - in contrast to Ferraris when asked the same question about journalists from Radio Monaco.
Focus groups in Russia found that the World Service was seen as a "thing of the past", a fond memory of illicit behaviour under communism. Listeners compared it to "smoking behind the bike sheds" at school. In India, people saw the network as a distant educator with associations of Empire - one described it as a "married daughter who I hardly see". Americans believed the World Service was "intellectual" but also thought it was a "colonial irrelevance".
Ms Thomson said a decision had been taken to tackle this identity problem head-on.
"Our aim now is to build an image which will still inspire trust but which also responds to contemporary Britain as an outward-looking multicultural society which values tolerance and is a centre for creativity and innovation," she said. "Our research shows that there is a close association between the World Service and people's perception of Britain."
The move follows the Government's decision to increase its grant to the World Service by pounds 44.2m over three years, taking the total allocation of taxpayers' money to pounds 176m in the financial year 1999.
The network was keen to prove that it was worth the extra investment, and was willing to modernise into an organisation that is more in tune with Blairite thinking. Plans to broadcast programmes on the Internet are also being drawn up as part of an effort to increase the network's use of modern technology.
Executives want to use the World Service as a showcase for British talent - in the same way as the Foreign Office plans to utilise the resources of its embassies around the globe.
"Britain isn't about people walking around wearing bowler hats and carrying rolled-up umbrellas," one BBC insider said. "We want to use the World Service to create an image of Britain as a hub of world communications." A new programme, The World Today for Europe, broadcast across the continent, is seen as a trailblazer for the image makeover.
Although the Foreign Office has no official influence over the network's programme content, ministers have been kept closely informed of the developments. A spokesman said the Government was "delighted" that the World Service was becoming more up-to-date. "This fits in with our desire to present Britain as a modern and dynamic nation," the spokes-man said.
However, the BBC admits that the changes may alienate some traditional expat listeners. "We're a bit like Radio 4," one insider said, "our listeners don't like change."
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