Ian Burrell: It's time for the BBC to give independent radio a break

Media Studies: In television, the indies are the lifeblood of the creative process. But that’s simply not the case in radio
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Let's hear it for independent radio. Some of the best programmes of the past year have come out of this sector, and yet it's still treated far too sniffily by the big networks, both at the BBC and in the commercial world.

Consider some of the success stories. TBI Media's minute-by-minute recreation of the sinking of the Titanic, from the striking of the iceberg to the final note of the ship's orchestra, just won the company the Grand Award at the prestigious New York Festivals. And Somethin' Else's fabulous The Ronnie Wood Show landed Specialist Programme of the Year at last week's Commercial Radio Awards.

TBI (the initials stand for "the big idea") was also behind the inspired notion to remake The Beatles album Please Please Me on its 50th anniversary, using artists including Joss Stone, pictured, and Stereophonics, and generating content not just for BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music but for BBC Four as well. Quality 6 Music shows presented by Huey Morgan and Mary Anne Hobbs are made by another indie, Wise Buddah, which also makes Weekend Wogan for Radio 2.

In New York, TBI won six awards, including Production Company of the Year. Wise Buddah won Best Investigative Report for "The Strange World of the People's Mujahedin" and Somethin' Else won Gold in the religious programmes category for A Leap of Faith. As Colin Welland once said at the Oscars: "The British are coming!"

These are just the ideas that are getting commissioned (Titanic: Minute by Minute was broadcast on Radio 2 from 11.45 until 2.20am, the actual moment the liner went down). The point is how many other brilliant concepts are being overlooked, because radio stations do so little business with a sector of more than a hundred production companies.

In television, the indies are the lifeblood of the creative process. But that's not the case in radio. "Television goes out to the indie sector and says 'Bring us your best ideas' whereas radio very often say 'Who wants to make this show'," says Jez Nelson, who set up Somethin' Else in 1991. "They operate in almost the opposite way and don't come to us for our best ideas."

Furthermore, he tells me, shows made by the independents are invariably forced to the margins of schedules.

Under the BBC's Royal Charter it is obliged to take a quarter of its television content from the independent sector, thus helping to sustain a world-leading production industry which sells formats around the globe. In radio no such formal arrangement exists. The BBC aims to take 10 per cent of programmes from out-of-house sources plus a further commissioning window known as the WoCC.

The comparison is worse in the commercial sector where – unlike in television where the indies have a wide range of potential clients – radio companies tend to avoid specialist programming, in favour of a consistent cross-schedule output that reassures advertisers.

Until now, only Absolute Radio has shown a real appetite for reaching out to the independent sector and mining its creativity to make what are known as "built programmes". I understand talks are taking place with the other big commercial radio businesses to redress the situation.

Mark Goodier, the former Radio 1 presenter who heads up Wise Buddah, said he understands that the BBC's stance is based partly on trying to preserve the corporation's in-house production base. "But my view is the licence fee payer has the right to expect the absolutely best idea on the air," he says, calling for a quota to be introduced in the next Royal Charter. "The BBC say they want the best ideas in radio but the system is very heavily stacked against it."

The BBC might argue that the independent radio sector is less mature than its television equivalent, and that it must bide its time. But the companies themselves believe they have far more to offer, and rightly reject the suggestion that they don't have other clients beyond the public broadcaster.

In fact, most of them aren't radio companies so much as multi-platform content providers. "We are thinking way beyond a simple stream of audio that sits on a radio station," says Phil Critchlow, founder of TBI Media.

Some companies have moved into talent management. Somethin' Else represents Christian O'Connell, Colin Murray and three of Radio 1's rising stars – Gemma Cairney, Dan Howell and Phil Lester. Wise Buddah has Radio 1's Scott Mills and Formula One presenter Suzi Perry.

The radio independents are at the forefront of developments such as binaural interactive gaming (witness Somethin' Else's Papa Sangre and Night Jar audio games which require headphones but have no video element), and in generating revenue through branded programming, such as The Manuscript: A Foolproof Guide to Being a Modern Man, a TBI panel show for Absolute which is also being made into a book. There is a skill set and idea base here which goes beyond that of the people working full-time at radio networks.

Importantly, now that British independents are getting recognised internationally, there is an opportunity here for UK plc. Critchlow, who is also chair of the Radio Independents Group, has been lobbying for the sector to have a place at the table on Government trade delegations. "There are more people learning to speak English in China than in the rest of the globe – and that's an opportunity," he says.

Royal baby hysteria is not right, but it's 'OK!'

I have just returned from California, and some of the American networks were already in meltdown over the Royal baby story, "going live" to correspondents in London, where not a lot was happening.

The international media scrum is in place outside London's St Mary's Hospital, where step-ladders have been erected and vantage points staked out.

As a global news event this will be off the scale, dwarfing interest in Baroness Thatcher's funeral earlier this year.

But if live television links seem premature, Richard Desmond's OK! appears positively indecent in its haste in rushing out a glossy eight-page commercial publication, intended to encourage advertisers to buy space in the magazine's forthcoming "Royal Baby Issue".

"We expect our Royal Baby issue to be a sell-out," is the confident message of Desmond's top henchman Stan Myerson. "Additionally, Northern & Shell will be promoting the Royal Baby issue on network television [Channel 5] and across our entire print portfolio, to ensure that the edition benefits from optimum above-the-line marketing support."

A Royal baby is a big story, especially for a title which, like OK!, dotes on the Duchess of Cambridge. But Kate's pregnancy has not been without difficulties. Let's hope for a safe arrival before descending into this frenzy of commercial opportunism.

Great news for fashionable geeks

Visiting Google's headquarters in Mountain View – the Googleplex – for a forthcoming article, I had the chance to experiment with some of the company's future technology, including the much-heralded Google Glass.

For those of you who haven't heard, these are the talking spectacles that allow you to search for information without having to take your phone out of your pocket, and flash the details up on a small screen in front of your right eye. Those of a shy disposition will not be reassured to learn that the means of conveying your wishes to your glasses is to bark the question out loud – Google Glass (pictured) will then interpret your request and post up the facts.

I will leave my experiences with this new piece of kit for another time, except to say that although they look like glasses they don't magnify your vision. Google is developing a new model that will allow glasses-wearers – including fashion conscious geeks – to accommodate a pair of specs attached to the key components of the headset.

The company is also working on a Google Glass variant that works as a pair of sunglasses, while the standard model – available in the US later this year and in the UK next year – is coming in six colours: orange, grey, white, red, blue and the original black.