Thursday 30 January 2014

The Desolation Of Smug: The BBC in the Midlands

I love the BBC. I really do. But it’s hard sometimes. 

Gilded London palace...          Abandoned Midlands halls
I’m a big BBC fan. I see and hear inspiring stuff on the Beeb. More often than not, I give up in boredom, despair or disbelief watching and listening to anyone else. I use the BBC website every day. I respect Reithian principles. 

And I don’t side with those who want rid of the BBC; I disagree with beeb-haters. Last week, the Daily Mail cheerily relayed commercial radio's monotonously regular gripe that, as Radio 1 and 2 beats them hands down for listeners, those stations should be shut down, hobbled or sold, because... it's just not fair, and, besides, it means they're not making enough money. Hey, I thought it was all about competition, right? So, go compete, commercial radio. Get listeners, don't bitch about moving the goalposts. You could try putting more profit back into output for a start.

So I hope I’ve made this crystal clear. I believe in the Beeb, and I support them. 

But, and it’s a big but, this is an organisation that really does not make itself easy to love.

A bad year or three

After years of mind boggling disasters – Saville and his creepy pals, vast payoffs to senior management, botched upgrades, hideously macho attitudes to junior staff, expensive reorganisations every few years, huge overspends in London and New Broadcasting House, all delivered with arrogance and unaccountability, and all paid for by you and me – it’s getting tough to feel good about Auntie.

All that... and then you get to a regional policy which ignores local talent and exports local jobs.

There was a time when local BBC centres (like Pebble Mill) were populated by extraordinary people with immense craft skills, huge vision and talent, and the widest range of programming areas to dive into. Maybe they still are, elsewhere. But in the Midlands there's been a virtually complete demolition of the Beeb’s creative centres. Talent has been driven to seek work elsewhere; the craft skills base has been devastated; wonderful facilities have been lost; the chance of regenerating the critical mass of broadcast creativity the region needs recedes further day by day.

The great regional cash divide

There is no good reason for the Beeb to have taken such a cavalier approach to any of its UK regions, let alone a cash-cow region with the largest number of license fee payers in the UK. But it’s happened. For thoughts on why and how, here's a post I wrote last February, after attending a meeting of the Campaign For Regional Broadcasting, or CRBM.

I can follow the history, but I can’t accept the attendant implication that the Beeb should now not even bother to look for talent in the region… or, worse, that they have already decided there isn’t any.

CRBM has been valiantly campaigning for a more equitable spend of license fee revenue in England’s broadcast regions. Their position is that the Midlands should have parity with the North and the South English Regions.

You might think we do. But we don’t, we really don’t.

Of each £144.50 license fee collected, the Midlands gets a measly £12.30 spent back in the region, compared to £82.87 in the North and £65.80 in the South. (Figures from CRBM's research). The rest of the license fee heads south, to be spent in London. Due to its size and the number of fees collected, the Midlands region actually contributes more towards London BBC costs - all those six-figure payoffs - than Londoners do.

When I explain these figures, people are flabbergasted and outraged, as indeed I was when I learned how disproportionate it all was, and is.

A campaign... and a muted, aloof, reaction

For the past year, CRBM has been campaigning for a fair rebalancing of funds spent in our region. Parity with the other English Regions is only right. Local MPs get this: a rebalancing of funds means hundreds or thousands of local jobs. Gisela Stewart in particular has lobbied hard for the region. Local Councils have listened, bemoaned the revenue lost to their region… and, then, um, er, shuffled their feet a bit. The beeb has remained predictably lofty and aloof, although I am told there is discreet cheering from the reduced staff left working in the region. The local press have been supportive.

CRBM's campaigning was felt to have made a bit of noise and to have raised valid points. But reaction at the BBC so far has been sparse. Some training jobs - maybe 80 or so - will move to the region to fill a few of the hundreds of empty desks at the Mailbox. This is basic training stuff, by the way, not anything approaching creative work. It will bring a local spend of an extra £8 million a year. And there's just been a call for local extras to work on Peaky Blinders 2. That's a nice, if low-cost, PR touch; but it's a drop in the ocean. There’s a long way to go before the region achieves parity with the North and the South. Like another £400 million a year. 

There's also a lot of blue-sky talk of partnerships. I get that, it’s the new way: third parties doing work for the BBC under their direction. But the result in our region seems not to be a nurturing of an independent production sector, which is something worth working towards. Rather, a selection of HE fund-grabbers and institutional snake-oil salesmen have been jostling for, and getting, the BBC’s attention, suddenly claiming to have miraculously deep knowledge of broadcasting techniques and fund-generation. I’m not impressed. 

As Simon Woods pointed out in the Birmingham Post in December, Denmark has pretty much the same population as the Midlands (East and West). DR, the state broadcasting company, has given us the Killing, the Bridge and Borgen – masterful work, and there's more to come. What do we get to produce? Um, Doctors, WPC 56hyper-low budget stuff - and the odd daytime series like Father Brown. And let’s not forget the Archers

While on the topic of compelling and gritty TV, please, please don’t swallow the insulting line that Peaky Blinders was in any way a Birmingham show. Series 1 was made in Leeds (and the accents presumably concocted in some weird fantasy linguistic workshop). Peaky Blinders 1 brought no work to the region; just a location shoot fee for the Black Country Museum

That fact alone brought down an awful lot of criticism on the BBC's head. The corporation's attempt to pass off Peaky Blinders as a 'Birmingham' show struck raw nerves across the region. The BBC was justifiably lambasted. Somebody must have listened, because, lo, here's a casting call for series 2, taking place Saturday 11th January. Maybe it's a (very) small step in the right direction. Hey, if you're a potential Brummy Artful Dodger, why don't you head on down? 

Note the delicious irony: They are looking for 'local people from Birmingham' for a 'number of new roles' in the new series, which presumably will still be mostly shot in Leeds, where the London-based production company, Tiger Aspect, has a production office. 

From the look of it, these are support artist roles, but, hey, at least there has been some minor reaction at some level to the criticism. And it will look good in press releases. 

Then and now

Looking back, this was a region that made brilliant radio for Radio 3, a region that banged out very successful specialist and mainstream output for Radios 1 and 2. This was a region that delivered fantastic documentaries, features, drama and comedy for Radio 4, tapping into great local writing and acting talent.

Now? At radio, a few specialist shows are made from the Mailbox for Radio 2. To my knowledge, there are two presenters who work on national radio who live in the region, but their shows are delivered from London and Salford.

The impact on the local music scene

And, by the way, this matters to musicians too. If you’re a hot new act based in the Midlands, I’m sure you’ll be delighted to learn that, Janice Long excepted, there is nobody at presenter or producer level at Radios 1, 1Xtra, 2, 3, 4 or 6music who is based in the region. 

What does that mean for local musos? Simple. It means your chances of catching a national media break are, if not actually non-existent, severely reduced in comparison to your London and Manchester counterparts.

A shiny digital future?

There is a bright, shiny solution that’s been put forward: The Midlands region, and Birmingham in particular, will become a digital hothouse. Digital! Oooh, lovely! Lots of institutions, including Birmingham City Council, are jumping up and down rubbing their hands at how exciting it all is. That decision taken, the powers that be have effectively said to local musos, actors, crafts people, producers, writers, and interested parties – “Look, this is what we’re going to do. It’s going to be vibrant and cutting edge, Now be good, shut up, go away and stop bothering us, because we know what we’re doing, and you don’t.”

Except that digital is a tool, stupid. It’s not an end in itself. It is there to convey and distribute content, and I see not the slightest sign that the BBC might acknowledge that there is a vast talent pool in the region, that can generate that content, which should be recognised and supported. The aspirational waffle spouted recently ignores this

Decades of damage - what now?

I know there are good people at the Beeb. I know there has been a tacit acknowledgement that what has been done to the creative and broadcast industries in the region is unacceptable, and has gone too far. Fixing all this will take time: you don’t reverse two decades of damage in a few months.

But what we have now is wrong. It is unfair. It has done harm.

What has been destroyed can not be and should not be replaced; you don’t turn back the clock. But creativity and production needs to come back, for the sake of the talent in our region, and the license fee payers who pay for it all. 

And before anyone else in London and Manchester patronisingly dismisses this as a needy Brummy whine of entitlement – remember that the BBC is there to serve, represent and reflect the entire nation, not just London and Manchester, with nods to Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast. Every part of the nation gets a decent slice of the pie, except the Midlands. This is an argument not just for equitable redistribution of the huge sums the region sends to the BBC, but also for recognition of the talent in the region.

I still love you, Auntie BBC. I will take arms against cack-handed commercial radio campaigns to destroy your amazing music channels in the pursuit of even greater profit. I will support your brilliant speech output. I will always side against further attempts to reduce your power and impact. That won’t change.

But, Auntie dear, you deny my region of a fair share of the huge amounts of licence money we pay you. Over the past twenty years, you have pretty much destroyed the critical mass of creative talent and production skills that we need, that we used to have; you have snuffed out career potential in the region; you ignore the talent that exists here; and you see no reason to even address these issues in public.
You do make yourself hard to love. 

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Simon Howes said...

A good written piece, thank you Robin. I'd like to hear from a plugger; how easy is it to get your band you are promoting on local radio such as Orion Media or Global Radio? Very little output from these 'local' stations are made in the region also, usually only morning and drivetime afternoon shows. These shows are all pretty much the same as well, no variety - no talk radio, no dramas etc. Driving home this afternoon: I press preset 1 on my radio, then prese 2, then 3, all are the same content simulcast from Orion over 3 stations, then tune in to Global and 2 stations with exactly the same output being simulcast. I find this a failure of Ofcom for allowing precious spectrum to be used in this way. Radio is cheap, the resources are in the region, why can't Orion or Global allow someone to produce a show on one of these stations instead of having the same content stretched over many in the form of simulcast.

Radio To Go said...

It's a fair point, Simon, but not within the remit of this post, which looks at the lack of regional funding at the BBC. It's actually a huge and very interesting area, and I think the web has had a big role to play in the decision to restrict output to the very familiar at commercial radio. I have to correct you on one point: Orion are entirely local to the West Midlands: all their output is locally generated. And, by the way, I doubt you will get a plugger to criticise any station he or she has to work with!

Unknown said...

How about a twenty year plan to create a Hub called 'UK Central Media Hub'? A £900 million per annum budget for the Super Midlands Region!

Radio To Go said...

Sky, I don't think we have twenty years to play with. Stuff needs to be in place now. And £900 million? Don't think so.

Unknown said...

Nice one Robin. If the Beeb ever do come up with the money the Midlands deserves, I gather there's a nice plot on Pebble Mill Road that would lend itself to a lovely broadcast and studio complex.

BThorne said...

I couldn't agree more with this post. I'm a 28 year old actor - graduated from Theatre School a year & a half ago. I'm from the midlands and I now live in Birmingham so I know about the complete lack of creative work from the BBC as good as anyone.
The Birmingham Rep are just as guilty for this. Yes the Theatre can't move and therefore the work is always in the city, BUT, like the BBC with such programes as Doctors, they audition for their lead roles in the capital.
Eastenders is filmed in London, Corrie is filmed in Manchester, Emmerdale is filmed in Leeds, even Brookside was filmed in Liverpool! Towards the end of last year we were given a SIX part 'Birmingham' show called Peaky Blinders which was filmed in Leeds & Liverpool!
I actually enjoyed the programme, I started watching for the Birmingham connection and it pulled me in. Yes the accents were appalling, but it was the lack of Midland/Birmingham actors in it which was the kick in the proverbial balls.
Ok, like any actor I watched it and thought "I could do better", but I have personally worked with many actors from & in the area that are just as talented, if not, more so than the final cast.
All this, and when you look at how the funding is allocated, it's actually quite sickening!
I do go to auditions in London and Manchester because that's part of the career I've chosen, I do however refuse to move to london as I believe living in Birmingham is better as I'm about an hour away from the capital and Manchester by train.
The shame of all this is that I can't help but feel that we are banging our heads against a brick wall.

Henry Wood said...

"So I hope I’ve made this crystal clear. I believe in the Beeb, and I support them."

The only thing you have made clear is you are yet another BBC supporter who needs to take a look at the real world.

An analogy
In a big city the council decides to open a huge catering complex for use by all local people who wish to enter its portals and it will serve every type of cuisine imaginable from gourmet to fastfood. In order to ensure this massive complex runs without problems and attracts as many customers as possible the council decides to add £3.65 per annum to every single household Council Tax bill and pass this on to the catering complex. This means that the complex attracts customers from far and wide, every one of them marvelling at the way such excellent food is produced at such a good price.

Meanwhile, all other catering outlets in the city, from gourmet restaurants to fast food outlets start complaining: "We can't compete against this subnsidised competition. We ask that you move the goalposts and stop this food tax on every household who must pay even if they do not use the facility."

Even some local people complain: "We do not use this council subsidised catering complex so why should we pay for it on our council tax bills?"

The leader of the council and his multitude of supporters replies, "This is only costing one penny per day on your council tax bills. You will not find food as cheap or as good as this anywhere else in the world. So go compete, commercial caterers. Get customers, don't bitch about moving the goalposts. You could try putting more profit back into output for a start."

Radio To Go said...

Gosh. Abuse from the legendary Henry Wood. I must be doing something right.

Henry, this piece is not about the existence of license fees, which you obviously hate. That’s a whole other area of debate. It may be ripe for idealogical posturing, but it is not the focus of this post.

To be clear (again): it is about how those fees, very much collected in the real world, are distributed, and the impact this has. No more, no less. That’s plenty to be going on with.

Christopher Woods said...

Henry, your analogy is strained and fails to reflect the fact that not only does the BBC continue to produce quality journalism and entertainment which benefits all of us (and earns money overseas which is reinvested into programmes), the Beeb also focuses on regional output at a time when the commercial sector has all but deserted it.

I'm aware I'm now echoing what Robin's already said at the top of this page but it does bear repeating. Local Radio runs on an incredibly tight budget - though it's about to be brought bang up to date technologically - and as a format engages with hugely diverse local communities. Don't forget, BBC Local Radio's also relied upon by Government as the official method of mass communication during times of national emergencies. BBC TV could disappear off the air but all the effort would go in to preserving the radio broadcasts!

A great example: you may not have been affected by the weather over Christmas and January, but many BBC LR stations' staff went above and beyond in covering the recent floods and supporting their listeners with to-the-minute weather and flood reports, coordinating communication between different groups and organisations and generally being a lynchpin of community. The BBC tends to stick around whilst commercials get the hell out of Dodge - in every sense - because that's the BBC's remit.

I've seen how commercials have deserted the sector or consolidated their operations to become slimmed down shadows of what they used to be. Bauer is notorious for sucking the life out of things it acquires - Kerrang! Radio (RIP) being a classic example. Other 'groups' have moved in with rebranding and moved everything out of their regional bases - we now have a handful of identikit stations on the air with two, maybe three hours of regionally originated content.

The BBC is not the reason for this happening, it's a poisonous combination: national economic downturn, lack of investment and an increasingly obsolete revenue model. Although they're also doing some of these things, I believe Orion are one of the few exceptions to the rule and I'm glad to see a regional business still putting effort into (fairly) regional output.

You may consider the BBC's broadcasting model staid and unworthy of your support and that is your right. You don't have to pay anything to enjoy its radio and online output, including on-demand, so you have the best of both worlds.

What's there to complain about? Do you sincerely believe that the quality of British TV would be equivalent to what it is now (and stay as it is now) without the BBC as baseline to compare against? Personally I don't, and that opinion is reinforced every time I scan through the EPG and watch what the PSBs have to offer. C4's still the only broadcaster who can begin to hold a candle to 'em.

NB: I pay my telly 'tax' and also an optional Murdoch tax. I feel that I get infinitely better value from my telly tax, even though there's stuff on the TV and radio I'd rather were never made (Strictly, most TV game shows, I could go on and usually do).

Christopher Woods said...

But let's get back to radio - which (lest we forget) costs you nothing. The tide, it is a-changing at the BBC, and gradually investment is returning to regional areas including the Midlands. After having consolidated production in a handful of places for so many years, unpicking and rebalancing everything is tricky. Don't forget that our future upturn will be another area's downturn though -- a lot of Birmingham production moved to places like Bristol who are currently experiencing their own heyday (I hear part of the canteen had to be converted to office space to fit people in!) so inevitably our future gain will be someone's loss. Things I hope will eventually find their natural balance.

In the meantime, what's happening now? Focusing on BBC Birmingham, it's already the production base for Home Front, a very ambitious serial drama due to air over the four-year WW1 centenary which is great news for Brum. The DG has expressed his desire to see a lot of work return to the Midlands, and given he's a Midlander himself I'm optimistic that we'll see this happen. Production of (and some filming for) The Game has taken place in Birmingham. Just this week, the new head of Business Development for BBC Birmingham took his seat in the building - another thing the DG arranged after he got the job. The Space (the BBC/Arts Council collaboration) is set to be run out of Birmingham. Shakespeare Season in 2016 will involve a lot of Birmingham staff. There's things in the pipeline, and there's a LOT happening to regional radio too which is due to be unveiled.

It takes time to "re-regionalise" an organisation like the BBC but I think the current leadership finally has the right idea and enough political willpower to effect positive change. And in the meantime, what I'll tell you for free is that there's plenty of underutilised and untapped creative talent in the Midlands!