Ian Burrell: The rise of Asian radio

Media Studies: Three years ago, the BBC's Asian Network was on the brink of closure. What saved it?

Does the BBC need a national radio service solely devoted to Asian listeners? Three years ago the organisation's own bosses seemed to doubt it, earmarking BBC Asian Network for the chop in a programme of cost savings.

While BBC 6 Music – which was also lined up for closure – attracted waves of support from listeners and celebrities including David Bowie, the campaign to rescue Asian Network was less vociferous and its reprieve was a narrow thing.

The condition for staying on air was that it overhauled the way it operates. It seems to have worked – Asian Network is nominated for the title of Radio Station of the Year at next month's Sony awards. Comedy shows, investigative journalism and sensitivity to covering a very disparate audience are among the keys to its success.

Instead of working in a ghetto, the Asian Network is spreading its output across the BBC. Its journalism appears on Newsnight and Radio 4 and the youth television channel BBC Three. It has investigated sensitive cultural issues from the "backstreet exorcists" who promise to drive away the demons suffered by Asian mental health patients, to exposing the Sikh militants who try to prevent mixed faith marriages, and featuring the problem of Indian immigrants sleeping rough under London flyovers.

Overseeing the schedule is Mark Strippel, who isn't actually Asian. Head of Programmes at the network since last summer – and Head of Music for the six years before that – he grew up in the heart of west London's Asian communities. I first encountered him a decade ago when he was a member of the very successful Panjabi Hit Squad DJ collective, who were pioneers of modern Asian music in British clubs.

For a while he combined training as a lawyer with broadcasting on the Southall-based community network Westside Radio (which sounds like something from an Ali G sketch). After Panjabi Hit Squad landed a slot on the BBC urban music station 1Xtra, Strippel took the opportunity to segue into BBC management.

"It was a very difficult and uncertain period for the entire network over a prolonged period of time," he says of the time when the service was under threat, though he claims the experience "galvanised" the organisation.

There are about three million Asians in the UK. But this potential listenership is highly diverse. Cultural and faith issues are complicated by generational differences, providing unique challenges for Strippel and his team.

"This is the hardest to reach audience in radio across the UK," he says. "There are nuances and complexities in faith, ethnicity, language, location."

Laughter crosses such boundaries. Meera Syal hosted a Comedy Night for Asian Network at the BBC Radio Theatre which featured established acts such as Shazia Mirza alongside upcoming British Pakistani Humza Arshad and Lahore comedian Sami Shah appeared via a Skype link from Pakistan. This show has also been listed for a Sony in the category of Comedy Programme of the Year.

The Asian Network – which has its origins in single shows on BBC local stations in Leicester and Birmingham in the Seventies – has increased its reach through the internet. At times it has engaged with 800,000 listeners, more than a quarter of the Asian population, although the usual audience is about 500,000.

To improve relations with other Asian media outlets, the network has produced collaborations with community stations such as Betar Bangla Radio in east London, with which it produces coverage of the annual Baishakhi Mela, which attracts a crowd of 100,000 British Bangladeshis. "The Queens of Melody" was a simulcast with Bradford Community Broadcasting featuring two of Pakistan's most-admired singers performing alongside the BBC Philharmonic orchestra.

No doubt there are those who think it is an unreasonable way to spend the licence fee, aiming content at specific ethnic groupings. I don't agree. Although the cable and satellite schedules are full of television channels offering programmes from south Asia, the Asian Network is doing something different. It's offering a view of the world from a British Asian perspective and is performing an important cohesive role.

Sunny Hundal, founder of the political blog Liberal Conspiracy, was an organiser of the campaign to save the Asian Network in 2010. "They break stories and do interesting investigations on subjects that are overlooked by the national media," he says.

Too many young British Asians are dubious about the opportunities they will be offered by a job in the media. Other careers are seen as being better options. On Thursday, the first Asian Media Awards will be launched to try to change this perception by highlighting the achievements of some of the rising stars. The awards themselves will take place at Media City in Salford in October.

"Go into some local newsrooms in big British cities and you will not see an Asian face because for some reason Asians do not seem to be attracted to journalistic careers especially in the regions," says Shuaib Khan, editor of the Asian Image website and monthly paper, based in Blackburn. "There was a period in the late Nineties, with Goodness Gracious Me, when it was cool to be Asian – after 2001 things changed and they have not really improved."

The Asian Network, which is based in the BBC's Mailbox building in Birmingham and alongside Radio 1 in London's New Broadcasting House, sees itself as a hub for young talent that will work in other areas of the media. Reporters are based in key cities including Birmingham, Leicester and Bradford.

There are Asian role models in the British media. The BBC has the likes of news presenters George Alagiah and Mishal Husain and the sports presenter Manish Bhasin. There are key commentators in written media such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Mehdi Hasan. But it's not enough – and the Asian Network will change that.

Network back from the brink

The BBC launched the Asia Network in 1996 with about 70 hours of weekly programming.

In 2002 it was re-launched for DAB digital radios and broadcast nationwide for the first time, featuring programmes in English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Gujarati. In 2006, the corporation announced an extra £1m investment in the network, increasing staff numbers by a third to make it a "mainstream" part of the BBC's output.

The station's popular soap Silver Street was cancelled in 2009 due to declining listeners. In the same year it emerged that the Asian Network had lost a fifth of its listeners from 2008 and it was said to be the "most costly" BBC radio station to run.

In 2010, BBC Director-General Mark Thompson proposed closing the station along with BBC 6 Music. Both stations were under the leadership of controller Bob Shennan.

A year later the broadcaster said it would stay open with a halved budget. But listener numbers failed to meet the target.

The BBC reacted by replacing the network's station head, Vijay Sharma, and head of programmes, Husain Husaini, with Mark Strippel who reported directly to Shennan in 2012. Since he arrived listener numbers have increased to 547,000.

Twitter: @iburrell

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