Who doesn’t love Eurovision? All that razzmatazz. The ghastly dresses and the gloopy pop songs, the fake bonhomie and the shameless prejudice when the vote rolls around. It’s an irresistible annual event, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and make us all feel like one happy European family.
But all this showbiz has a cost (6.2 million euros and increasing), the broadcaster of the host country having to pay around a third of it. What might have to be lost to the cash-strapped company next year, or reduced, to ensure that we put on the biggest and best show ever next year?
The BBC budget has become a hot topic in recent weeks. Cuts are in the air, with the next license fee review still to be announced due to the current parliamentary break. At the same time, formidable business rivals such as Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Audible and HBO are nipping at the company’s heels, even tearing its collar, forcing it to compete on unfair terms as a public broadcaster without commercial funding. .
We should never take for granted what the BBC offers its audience in the UK. Let us also not forget the importance of its cultural role abroad, helping to support this idea of a free-thinking and balanced nation which can encompass television adaptations of Shakespeare and The Proms, as well as Downtown and Come dance strictly.
BBC Radio has always been television’s poor relation, having to fight harder every year to justify itself, and neither has its flagship station Radio 3. It is more expensive than some of the other stations because of its focus on live performances of classical repertoire, but also world music, jazz and folk, as well as his willingness to spend money developing experimental programs such as Between the ears.
Its audience (1.99 million) is smaller than the more popular Radio 6 Music (although its listening figures have fluctuated very little for decades), with an average listener age of 57. But it does much more than 6 Music, with its programming of speeches and its support for young musicians and aspiring scholars through its commissions of new works (a minimum of 30 each year) and its New Generation Artists and New Generation Thinkers schemes. .
Radio 3 is definitely not for everyone. But that’s not the point. Its ambition is not to reach the widest audience possible but to be as wide as possible, by introducing its loyal listeners to music that they did not expect to hear on the station (Shirley Bassey this morning at time of writing, for example), while attracting new listeners with programs like Classic solution and Freedom. Music has become its core business, promoting young artists, new composers and a stunning archive of past works, but its vocal programming is fundamental to its character. Without programs like The test, free thought, Drama on 3, characteristic of sunday and Lyrics and music, Radio 3 would be just another classical music station. Discussions and experiments with sound are Radio 3’s USP, its brand, its export value; the envy of broadcasters across Europe and beyond. And yet it is precisely these programs that are most at risk whenever a decision has to be made to cut because they serve a niche audience.
When the third program was established in 1946 to complement the existing Home Service and Light program, its mission was to “seek each night to do something culturally satisfying and meaningful.” It had to be international, integrate European programs, live as far as possible. Above all, his listeners were asked to be “awake”, to meet the performers halfway, not to put the radio on in the background but to sit down and listen.
This, of course, has become an old fashioned and outdated model for radio, or should we now say audio. Manufactured sound and broadcast speech are available continuously and just about anywhere we choose to go. But in 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, new ways of listening were discovered as we suddenly had more time to do nothing and nowhere to go but our own armchairs. The idea of sitting down and listening to a live concert as if you were in the concert hall itself has been rediscovered as an experience, as has the pleasure of listening to a play from your living room rather than in an expensive front-row seat in the West End.
Many members of the BBC’s board, who make the ultimate decisions about the company’s production cuts, are not from the broadcasting or media world. Their experience is in the commercial environment. It is therefore difficult for stations such as Radio 3 to argue for spending on experimental programming for its service to a niche audience. All the more reason for these listeners to stay on the lookout for any changes or threat of cuts, ready to write to the newspapers, their local MPs, the Council itself with a brief outline of the importance of Radio 3. Never let it go.