Action stations: The BBC and new media devices

Tim Davie, the director of audio and music at the BBC, tells Ian Burrell radio must act now or risk being left behind by new media devices
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The Independent Online

“What have we got here, gravel?” says Tim Davie, stepping smartly into a large tray of shingle. “So I’m coming out from doing the murder and...” The BBC’s radio supremo brings down his heels with a determined stomp, stomp, stomp. "...isn’t that a great sound?” he asks.

To judge by the anguished wails we have heard recently from senior executives in the commercial sector of British radio, the “victim” in the whodunnit scenario which Davie hams up in a darkened corner of the BBC’s drama studio at Maida Vale, west London, might be one of their own number.

For Davie is an alpha plus among the alpha males of British broadcasting. He’s the man who ran 26 miles across moving ice and snow in the North Pole marathon, then flew to Africa to repeat the feat in the Sahara desert. Hired from PepsiCo with a brief to bring some sharp-elbowed capitalist marketing expertise to the corporation, he later switched roles to become director of audio and music, putting him in charge of the BBC’s entire radio output, despite his lack of experience in the medium.

He is an enthusiastic guide to the Maida Vale studios, which are 75 years old this week and are one of the great treasures of his BBC radio empire. It was here, as a plaque still commemorates, that the Fab Four recorded “Pop Go The Beatles” in the summer of 1963. Maida Vale is home to the BBC Symphony Orchestra and is where John Peel recorded his legendary “sessions” for 27 years. With the briskness you’d expect of such an athlete, he marches from one studio to another. “This is quite a good one to look at, yeah?” he says. Davie ends a lot of his statements with the question “Yeah?”

In studio one a German classical trio is rehearsing. In studio three, Dizzee Rascal’s band and backing orchestra is preparing for a gig the following evening, part of the BBC Electric Proms series. Suddenly the rapper’s voice explodes from the speakers: “Dizzee Rascal for Prime Minister, yeah?” Davie’s more streetwise than I thought.

The Maida Vale drama studio will shortly broadcast live a production of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, in which Nigel Havers will perform with Jenny Seagrove and his old Chariots of Fire colleague Nicholas Farrell. Davie heads into the props room, where cow bells and wind chimes are carefully arranged on shelves, though his attention is caught by a rapier, which he snatches up. “Haven’t used one of these for a few years,” he says.

Commercial radio most recently complained that it was being cut to pieces by the BBC when Radio 2 announced that Chris Evans was to be its new breakfast presenter, replacing Terry Wogan. Radio 2 was accused of aiming for younger listeners. Davie flatly rejects the accusation. “Radio 2’s average age hasn’t moved for the past five years so there’s no strategy at the BBC to drive Radio 2 younger,” he says.

In some ways he embodies the complexities around radio demographics. Though 42 and a father of three, he easily reels off the names of new bands uncovered by Radio 1, “…The Temper Trap, Florence and the Machine, The Ting Tings”. It is his job to ensure that Radio 1 is meeting its public service remit of supporting new British music but Davie, who showed an entrepreneurial spirit by promoting club nights as a Cambridge student, is a music fan who had been to Maida Vale on an earlier date to watch Primal Scream.

Some, including the Conservative broadcasting spokesman Ed Vaizey, have suggested Radio 1 should be privatised, to give the rest of the radio sector some breathing space. “I don’t make any apology about delivering entertaining radio,” says Davie, who is adamant that the network’s presenters – he singles out Zane Lowe, Annie Mac and Rob Da Bank – offer listeners expert broadcasting “that is distinctive and different from anything else in the market”.

But he does say that BBC networks should become less reliant on play lists. “If I look to the future I think you will continue to see us in areas such as live music, new music, in-depth analysis, pushing us away from radio that’s simply about play lists at every twist and turn.”

He was proud of this year’s coverage of the Proms on Radio 3, which “brought more people than ever before,” and he believes there is further potential for making intelligent programming with populist appeal, citing as an example the forthcoming Radio 4 project A History of the World in 100 Objects. “I don’t see a contradiction between increasing the intellectual horsepower of our output and continuing to deliver popular radio.”

Radio 5 Live’s move to Salford, he says, is not just an investment outside London but an attempt to influence the “flavour of [the station’s] creative output, so that it represents not merely a metropolitan point of view but a broad UK-wide point of view”.

Though he concedes that “it’s clearly a valid question to think through the impact of the BBC having 55 per cent [audience] share”, Davie says commercial radio has nothing to fear from his ambition, if it is willing to work with him. British radio needs to act fast, he says, to provide internet users with a one-stop shop for all of its output, an offering which he says is “essential to the future of radio”. This means an industry-wide website performing a similar function to the BBC’s radio player offering, something which is currently under discussion, although the BBC Trust last week rejected the idea of sharing its iPlayer with commercial television. Davie is at the forefront of the new Radio Council, a body which represents both the public service and commercial parts of the industry. "Radio, by working as a sector more effectively, can really prosper in the digital world."

Although he says that only 2 per cent of radio listening is currently online, the pace of technological innovation means that the industry must move quickly to ensure that it is central to the culture of users of broadband-enabled handheld devices. Even in the multi-choice modern era, consumers, he argues, "quickly choose what services they trust and actually develop quite a limited repertoire", such as between five and eight favourite television channels.

Radio, as an industry, needs to be one of the chosen few applications for modern mobiles. "I think there is a huge and exciting opportunity for radio to become one of the core activities," he says. "But I would argue that currently we are somewhat underpowered in terms of a radio offer online, and that's where radio faces a real threat ... as people can go to other services and get their music globally."

The BBC's director of audio and music recognises that radio's position in the new world is challenged by the advance of free music sites such as We 7 and Spotify, which enable users to quickly and legally compile their own play lists of new tunes.

As Davie makes his prophecy, a warning siren goes up around Maida Vale. Along with the refrained cry of "he's a rascal", this sound is emanating from studio three. "Ooh, my goodness, its Dizzee," says Davie, recovering composure. But as one might expect of someone who has run through the fire and the ice, he says he relishishes the challenges of the world ahead. "I'm incredibly optimistic," he declares.