Turned off by Radio 4

When Liza Kliman found her production company had not survived a review of Radio 4 suppliers, after years of providing programmes, she decided it was time to fight
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The Independent Online

For the hundreds of small, independent production companies that populate Britain's radio industry, late summer is often the busiest time of year.

For the hundreds of small, independent production companies that populate Britain's radio industry, late summer is often the busiest time of year.

As the major BBC radio networks outline the programmes they plan to commission, producers and forward- planners find themselves under intense pressure to develop ideas for the available airtime. In an increasingly competitive market, heightened by internal BBC restructuring that has seen independents and in-house staff compete for the same slots, the commissioning process is a critical time in which many people's financial futures are determined.

However, this year, executives of BBC Radio 4 are lightening the load for a range of independent production companies by refusing them the right to submit any of their ideas for consideration. It is a move that has provoked outrage among many independent producers who discovered via a standard letter that they had, without any reason, suddenly been barred from the commissioning process.

As an independent and award-winning production company that has produced programmes for Radios 2, 3, 5 Live, the World Service and the independent sector, Radio 4's decision has done more than just wound our professional pride - it has highlighted the vulnerability of those who remain outside the BBC. And while BBC employees have access to unions if they need to challenge internal Corporation decisions, since RADIO was disbanded in 1998, there has been no organisation to safeguard the independent sector.

Our battle with BBC Radio 4 began five weeks ago, when we received a standard letter from Wendy Pilmer, Radio 4's network manager, in which we were curtly informed that an internal review of registered suppliers had been carried out and that Liba Productions had not "made it on to the list". The reason for our exclusion was put down to our submissions in the previous offers round which had been unsuccessful. We were informed that an appeals procedure would soon be taking place, and assured that we would be "very welcome" to submit through alternative companies who had made it on to the registered list.

We decided to appeal and, in our letter to Wendy Pilmer, listed the scores of single programmes and series our company has produced since launching nearly five years ago, enclosing miscellaneous reviews and press cuttings the projects had attracted. We argued that the network's suggestion of handing over ideas to rival production companies was fraught with difficulties. Not only would we risk having our ideas stolen, the producer's fee would be paid directly to another company. If the idea behind the list was to cut down commissioning editors' workload, how would submitting through a third party achieve any reduction in paperwork?

We concluded our letter by stating how sad it was that while any member of the public was able to write to broadcasters with their ideas and receive a courteous reply, a small independent production company committed to radio production should be treated so disgracefully by BBC Radio 4.

On 30 August we received the results of our written appeal. The kangaroo court had met and had decided to uphold its original decision. Throughout the four-week appeal process, we were given no opportunity to meet anyone from the Radio 4 executive team, nor to strengthen our case in any way.

We simply received an letter in which Wendy Pilmer stated: "I must point out that we do not discriminate against small companies. The vast majority of the companies on our list are small suppliers." However, the list we'd been issued with was somewhat different, comprising of leading media conglomerates such as Carlton Communications and ex-BBC Radio 4 staff.

It's the second time BBC Radio 4 has drawn up a controversial list of approved suppliers. The first list, compiled under the then controller James Boyle, resulted in Radio 4 being taken to the Office of Fair Trading. This time, however, the new Radio 4 controller, Helen Boaden, has drawn up her list in conjunction with the Office of Fair Trading, so that while it is unethical, offensive and discriminatory to radio professionals, it is none the less legal - a gloomy revelation that life under Dyke will be as divisionary as under Birt.


The writer is producer with Liba Productions