The gap in radio markets: Smashing the mould

The popularity of speech-based radio has not seen an increase in programmes aimed at black listeners or jobs for black presenters, critics argue. Stations such as Colourful Radio are filling gaps in the market and offering more than a diet of rap and R&B, writes Ernest Taylor
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The Independent Online

If Henry Bonsu lost his heart when he was unceremoniously dumped by the BBC, he has found his soul at Colourful Radio, a satellite and online station that delivers a diet of highbrow talk radio to a primarily black audience.

Colourful has built a weekly audience of 70,000 which will rise substantially with its forthcoming move onto national DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast) radio in the new year. The Oxford languages graduate believes his expulsion from BBC London for being "too intellectual" was at best an error of judgment and, at worst, blatant stereotyping by the corporation.

The treatment of Bonsu is seen by some as symbolic of a chasm between the BBC and Britain's black communities, members of which are questioning whether the public service broadcaster is content with simply feeding them a diet of hip-hop, dancehall, R&B and grime, thus contributing to a process of 'ghettoisation'. "Some people think we are all one-trick ponies," Bonsu laments. "They think all we can talk about is music, race and revolution as opposed to house prices, macro economics, American foreign policy and that sort of thing."

Based on its own statistics, the BBC's current record on mainstream black-led dialogue programming and ethnic minority recruitment is woeful. When contacted, the corporation failed to cite a single mainstream black-oriented speech-based programme across its entire national radio network between 6am and 6pm Monday to Friday.

Commercial station talkSPORT schedules Ian Wright as co-presenter of its daily drivetime show. But with the exception of 1Xtra, the black music station aimed at people in their teens and early twenties, and the World Service, there doesn't appear to be a solitary black presenter scheduled on mainstream national daytime BBC radio. Though substantial coverage was given to the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, some have contrasted the many hours of broadcasting on India's 60th birthday to the scant interest in Ghana's 50th, which also took place this year.

Under Greg Dyke, the BBC at least attempted to shed its "hideously white" skin. The then director general oversaw the introduction of 1Xtra, aimed at "edgy" youths. The concept was for 20 per cent speech content but the only talk you get on the station nowadays seems to be in the short spaces between music tracks unless you consider rap as a form of monologue.

Dyke also set and reached targets of 10 per cent of general staff and four per cent of senior managers from minority ethnic backgrounds between 2000 and 2004. Buoyed by achieving these statistical milestones, he outlined new goals of 12.5 per cent of general staff and seven per cent of senior managers by 2007.

Since Dyke's departure, and even with a senior black diversity officer in place, ethnic minority recruitment at the BBC has gone into slow motion. In three years, numbers have risen from 10.02 per cent to 10.03 per cent of general staff and from 4.38 per cent to 5.3 per cent of senior managers.

"As a black man looking for meaningful speech radio, I have to go on the internet and to North American and to Caribbean radio stations," says former BBC Radio West Midlands presenter Dr Robert Beckford, who has accused the Corporation of the "institutionalisation of ignorance" and of practicing apartheid on the airwaves.

"On BBC radio, black people are banished from six in the morning till whenever and only allowed out at midnight," he says. "If you were to bring Steve Biko (the murdered anti-apartheid campaigner) back from the dead and place him in any BBC office across Britain, he would think he was in South Africa in the 70s."

Dr Beckford, a reader in black theology and culture at Oxford Brookes University and a documentary film maker with Channel 4, was a part-time presenter on BBC Radio West Midlands for two years before quitting over lack of recognition. He describes his time at the BBC as being a cultural experience akin to "being on a tube train in London surrounded by several old white ladies clutching their purses".

He says during his time as a presenter he came across one good manager, who fought for a more diverse BBC, but ended up being marginalised because he saw the value of having a diverse range of perspectives and voices on the radio. Initiatives like Colourful, Dr Beckford believes, represent the future of broadcasting for African Caribbeans in Britain. "Colourful is doing what black churches did in the 1950s when they recognised Christianity and racism went hand-in-hand in Britain and set up their own institutions."Recent high-profile episodes of racist overtures from Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time producer Trevor Taylor and Radio 2's Sarah Kennedy have exacerbated relations. Taylor presided over a three-minute discussion about the flower Rhodochiton volubilis being known as "black man's willy", while Kennedy received flak for implying that black people should keep their mouths open in the dark so that motorists can see them at night. Ofcom, the media watchdog, is now "considering" both incidents following a number of complaints.

There are also fears that under the current radical reorganisation of the BBC, director general Mark Thompson's axe may fall disproportionately on ethnic minority employees. For Bonsu, 39, there is no doubt his own eviction from BBC London four years ago has led to some kind of metamorphosis. Whatever changes he has personally undergone, he says he is staying true to "doing my thing", which means there is no great shifting from the highbrow style that led to his downfall at the BBC. Intelligent chat is still his signature. So Colourful Radio allows Bonsu to hold forth on such topics as Ian Blair's tenure as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, a failed 500m literacy scheme, and land conflict in the Western Sahara. This is the sort of serious stuff that wouldn't be out of place on Radio 4, for whom Bonsu continues to contribute occasional documentaries.

If Bonsu and his partner Kofi Kusitor, the founder of the website, have their way, serious black talk radio is about to take off. A DAB platform will see them competing for a slice of an estimated seven-million digital audience. "The important thing is that we are giving people speech instead of continuous [music] jams," says Bonsu. "One of the biggest problems in our communities, especially in this country, is lack of information. I am an information junkie and as African Caribbean people we should be information junkies, because one of the things that held us in slavery for so long was lack of information."

Black programming, speech-based and music, does exist on radio schedules across the country but only on the so-called "graveyard shifts". The corporation's boast of providing 45 hours of African Caribbean programming a week on 14 local stations, fails to quell the dissenting voices.

"They don't see black people as part of the mainstream," says Mike Best, a former producer on Today, BBC Radio 4's flagship news and current affairs programme. "It would be nice to have a black presenter on the Today programme for example ...but for some reason the BBC shoves them into the corner."

Responding to the criticisms only in a statement, the BBC says it is committed to representing the whole of the UK in its output and as a public service broadcaster, it claims to be committed to creating an inclusive workforce that is representative of the audiences it serves.

"The main networks all carry programming from time to time that reflects the experience, history and culture of African/African Caribbean individuals and communities, for example the recent abolition season on Radio 3 and 4. The BBC also aims to ensure that such programmes appeal to a wide general audience," it adds.

Ernest Taylor is former Features Editor of 'The Voice'