Happy Independents Day!

Click to visit the RIG website

Click to visit the RIG website

July 4th, and in the US of A everyone is going barmy mad loppy stylee for the anniversary of their country’s independence from British rule, from the yoke of oppression, freedom from outdated ways of thinking and ridiculous rules…ah yes, 4th july, hoorah and huzzah!

Here in the UK, I am proclaiming it Independents Day, the day when the hard-working, much maligned, often under-rated and woefully disregarded independent radio producers are supported by the general public, those in authority, and indeed, everyone else.  “Supported, Neil?” Yes, supported.  “But supported in what?” Well, let me tell you…

In the UK, the BBC is funded by the License Fee, a pay-it-or-we’ll-put-you-in-jail stealth tax that allows the Corporation to live alomst, but not entirely, outside of the usual rules of a competitive market.  This money, paid by the UK public, is expected to pay for the BBC to discover, develop, produce and broadcast/distribute the best TV, radio and new media programming possible, while servicing niche and minority audiences, supporting the UK’s creative industries and NOT baltantly chasing ratings in an eefort to ‘out-do’ its commercial rivals.

In order to deliver on this, BBC TV has split the production of its programming between its in-house staff production teams, and the large and vibrant independent production sector, made up of companies such as Rag Doll, Zeppotron, Endemol, RDF, etc…  Here’s the way the ‘quota’ of production is split:

  • BBC TV In-House – 50% of all output
  • TV Indies – 25% of all output
  • In-House & Indies – compete for remaining 25% of all output

Seems like a fair and equitable way of doing things, eh?  It has certainly pushed the in-house BBC teams to be more creative and forward-thinking, and has allowed TV indies to grow and flourish, build successful businesses and employ a host of talented individuals across the UK.

“So it’s the same with BBC Radio then, Neil?” Ah, well, sadly not.  BBC TV is required BY LAW, under the Communications Act and the BBC’s Royal Charter to share out it’s TV commissioning as set out above. But BBC Radio (or Audio & Music as they prefer to be called) have no such requirement on them.  Politicians have been to scared, or shy, or pathetic, or useless, or ‘bought-off’ or apathetic to engage in any such move.

The BBC has been using radio indies for around 15 years now, and have made available a VOLUNTARY ‘quota’ of 10% of ‘eligible’ hours to the sector.  This figure has not changed in all that time…it remains voluntary, it remains inviolable.  The BBC claim it is a floor, not a ceiling, but rarely does the % go higher.  And in fact, statistics show that in real terms, and real % of spend, the BBC are actually only allowing radio indies a mere 4-7% of output.

“Hang on, Neil, that doesn’t make sense…surely that’s not fair?” Well, the radio indie sector certainly doesn’t think it is fair.  But please don’t ask us why the BBC, the Government and those in power refuse to improve the situation, because we have yet to hear a coherent and intelligible argument.  Here’s some of the BBC’s claims:

  • Radio indies don’t have the capacity to produce more – actually, we are struggling with what we have as it is too little, with minute and ever-falling budgets.  As commercial businesses, the more work we get the bigger we grow.  Unlike in-house units who have an upper limit on capacity, we will increase staffing and resources once we have the work.
  • Radio indies only sell to the BBC – actually we sell to commercial radio networks, foreign radio stations, international public service broadcasters, publicly funded content users, corporate clients and many others.  We may only sell 1 hour Archive Hour documentaries to Radio 4, but our skills, services, talents and staff are much desired across the audio production sector.
  • The BBC needs to protect its in-house production base – from what exactly?  We are not coming to rape and pilage.  The unions and management all agree that in-house producers are over-worked and stressed, many doing the job of 3 or 4 producers. Increase the indies’ quota from 10% to 25% and reduce the stress on the in-house producers.  There need be no redundancies or sackings…that will only happen because the BBC management would use any such change as an opportunity to cut costs yet again!  And where would those in-house producers go for work…to the indie sector!
  • Indies cost more than in-house – actually, we cost less, and the head of BBC Audio & Music said so in a public statement.  In-house units have staff producers, editors, BA’s, assistants, and many others on salary, all supposedly being paid from the programme budgets.  But with programme budgets dropping year on year, but staff salaries being increased in line with inflation, just how are these units able to afford the costs on the budgets? Radio indies use less staff, more freelancers, spread the costs more effectively and make better and wider use of talent from across the UK.  And we also find in-house units hiring freelance producers and directors…hang about, that means you don’t have the ability in-house to deliver your quota with your staff?!  Surely then there is a rationale for offering more to the indies, who would hire the same freelancers anyway?
  • The BBC is a meritocracy – really? So when radio indies get rejection notes that say “We are sorry but while we would have loved to commission this idea, the round was extremely over-subscribed and so there were no slots left in which to place it.  Please re-submit next round” we should believe that merit is a resounding ethos at the Corporation?  When we hear that in-house teams get a 2nd chance to pitch ideas because they failed in the main round to fill their quota, we should feel that it is a fair and level playing field?

Well, as you see, this is an issue that should be fairly simple to fix.  The BBC just need to put radio indies on a equitable footing as TV indies.  No biggie.  But the BBC won’t budge, they refuse to move and they are putting the continued growth and prosperity of the sector, with our 2000 or so employees and access to UK talent at risk.

So please, if you think it is time that radio indies in the UK got a fair deal from the BBC, write to the following people are express your disappointment and anger at the way we have been treated.  It is YOUR money after all, and all we want is a fair chance to bring our award-winning, innovative, creative and unique programme ideas to the airwaves.  We want a level playing field..we aren’t asking for a free-ride, but a fair crack at winning a little more work.  Here’s who to write to:

  • TIM DAVIE – Director, BBC AUDIO & MUSIC, BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London, W1A 1AA
  • Or drop a line to your MP and ask them to raise a question in the House, or speak directly to the Secretary of State, or the DCMS.

Thanks for your support, and I hope you keep on enjoying the BBC, its radio programmes (in house or indie produced) and radio in general…radio is a fantastic medium and those of us who make it love it and want to see it flourish.

N.B. I am the Chair of the Radio Independents Group, the trade body that represents the independent radio & audio producers of the UK, and we have been lobbying for almost 5 years now for changes to be made to indie commissioning at the BBC.  Currently we are also calling on the Government to put in place a mandatory 25% quota on ALL publicly funded media creation to be produced by indies.  Please check out the Radio Independents Group website for more about us and our sector.

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