Protesters turn up volume on campaign to save 6 Music

"Trust open to 6 Music 'rethink'," ran a headline yesterday on the entertainment page of
bbc.co.uk, Britain's most popular website. The story of the planned closure of one of the BBC's smallest national radio networks was also running on the BBC News channel, having the previous evening been aired on BBC 2's Newsnight, where presenter Jeremy Paxman questioned the corporation's director-general Mark Thompson, who appeared in front of a large 6 Music logo.

The wave of publicity from within the BBC, and the hope it offered that the digital network might be given a reprieve, has helped feed a frenzy of online activity from supporters campaigning to keep it alive. By yesterday afternoon a Facebook page created to save the station had acquired more than 112,000 members. An online petition wielded the banner "One Nation Under a Groove".

For a station with a weekly audience of only 700,000 it has been an extraordinary response. The backlash has been fuelled by the outpourings of the station's presenters, in spite of the usual reticence of BBC talent to say anything negative about the corporation. As Thompson confirmed the plans as part of a strategic review, Lauren Laverne went on Twitter to talk of "the most emotional day at work of my life", comparing her walk to the studio to "that final walk to the vets". Phill Jupitus, the breakfast show presenter at the station's launch, said its output was incomparable. "Where else would I hear this kind of radio during the day? The tragic answer to that question is nowhere."

As the clamour rose, BBC bosses admitted their decision might not be final. Thompson pointed out that the plans were subject to a 12-week consultation process and conceded the station wasn't yet finished. "There's a lot of water under the bridge until we get to that point." Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, said there could be a "rethink" if "there's massive public concern".

Media observers believe this is a complex game being played out between the BBC and critics who think that it has grown too powerful. "It's a chess game and these are the first moves. But I don't think it's the endgame," said one radio expert yesterday. The first move was made at the end of last week when senior BBC executives sanctioned the leaking of a draft report, disclosing the planned closure of 6 Music, to Rupert Murdoch's The Times, one of the fiercest opponents of BBC growth.

The internet went into overdrive. Matt Bourn, managing director of Braben, a specialist media public relations firm, said the response would not have surprised BBC executives. "Everybody planning a communications campaign around an action always looks at the possible outcomes. This particular station has an audience of passionate music fans and their behaviour is well-known," he said, citing the Facebook campaign to snub Simon Cowell and get Rage Against Machine to the Christmas No 1 slot. Bourn pointed out that 6 Music was extraordinarily well-connected, with key figures such as Laverne and Jupitus having high media profiles. "They are people in the media industry and the output of 6 Music is loved by many journalists. There was always going to be the potential for these repercussions."

It's not clear whether the BBC damned 6 Music in order to provoke a groundswell of popular support for its content. But any such strategy could yet backfire. Within the radio industry it is pointed out that the 6 Music budget of £7m a year means £10 is being spent on every listener. There was a value-for-money argument for closing the service, and its best output could be used to replace some of the blander offerings of Radio 1 and Radio 2. But following the outcry, 6 Music's next Rajar audience figure seems certain to be a record-breaker.

So as the calls grow to save 6 Music, BBC bosses may have to find savings elsewhere in their budget, while supporters for each segment of the output prepare to mobilise online. The cutting of senior management at the BBC is one proposal that it is unlikely to provoke the fury of the internet.

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