Asian savings 

14 March 2011

To be honest I really wasn’t expecting this U-turn over the planned closure of the BBC Asian Network radio station, even though the BBC Trust’s reprieve of BBC Radio 6 Music had in turn cast even greater doubt over the remainder of that controversial and perhaps somewhat rushed BBC Strategy Review document.

Even though the BBC Asian Network had its supporters, the case for closing the station was at least superficially stronger on paper than for 6 Music, and if the BBC had to make cost savings then it would inevitably have to upset someone along the line by closing or cutting back on something.

If previous reports were to be believed, the vast majority of the Asian Network’s audience listens to the station on medium wave in the Birmingham area, therefore casting some doubt over the cost effectiveness of maintaining a national DAB radio station with the inevitable “one size fits all” weakness of such an approach.

(But of course the BBC is still very much committed to DAB digital radio as a broadcast medium for the foreseeable future, and regional/local DAB multiplexes are still relatively costly to set up, as the commercial radio sector knows all too well – another factor to consider in relation to local radio station provision.)

Asia as a continent encompasses a very diverse mix of cultures, languages and age groups, therefore it’s effectively impossible to satisfy everyone all of the time; this approach is specifically different from the relatively neutral, UK-specific but worldview stance of the BBC World Service (which coincidentally is now fully funded by the BBC).

One view is that British-Asian communities might be better served with local radio stations that are more focused on specific groups and supported with networked programming (as previously proposed), but when you also consider newly-proposed local radio cutbacks, saving the Asian Network might now be an economy of scale saving made in this respect.

Indeed when viewed in this new context, preserving the Asian Network now makes much more sense from a purely financial perspective, because a national radio station would be a better fit for such a significant strategic change in direction for BBC radio in particular, hence those alternative proposals now being “ineffective or too expensive, or both”.

Therefore the Asian Network reprieve is basically speaking another cutback in disguise, albeit for something (namely, increased local radio provision) that never had the chance to be implemented in the first place – hardly anyone outside of the media industry will mourn a lost opportunity that’s likely to be remembered just as a footnote in broadcasting history.

Of course if those planned local radio cutbacks get vetoed by the BBC Trust – which is a fairly likely scenario even if management feel that it’s a direction worth pursuing – then other cuts savings will inevitably have to come from somewhere else.

So when all of this is combined with a large budget cut for the reprieved station, victory for the Asian Network may be somewhat bittersweet as a consequence, but at least that BBC Strategy Review document can now be safely consigned to the virtual shredder.