Guild's response to BBC radio consultation

on 25 August 2010. Posted in Radio

Here's the full text of the Writers' Guild's response to BBC Trust service review of Radio 3, Radio 4 & Radio 7

1. The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is a trade union with over 2,200 members, representing professional writers in TV and radio; theatre; film; publishing; writing for children; videogames and multimedia. We invited our members, and in particular members of our Radio Committee, to contribute their views and this response is based on the replies we received. In addition we encouraged Writers’ Guild members to participate directly in the consultation as individuals. The members of the Writers’ Guild Radio Committee are all experienced writers of (and some performers in) radio drama and comedy, and most comments concern Radio 4 as that is the primary producer of new radio drama and comedy.

2. The pleasures of Radio 4 include the certainty that there will every day be several programmes that will challenge, inform or entertain. The sheer scope of subject matter covered by Radio 4’s documentaries and factual output is breathtaking. For a writer, it is a constant stimulus to the imagination, arouses curiosity and sparks ideas. It is noteworthy that a forthcoming cinema film about the 1970s struggle for equal pay was inspired by an edition of Radio 4’s The Reunion. There are many things BBC radio does right – and we are grateful for that. However the programming is a touch comfy. This may arise not from recognition of the audience – the BBC is probably right in its assessment of the audience as over 50, white, middle-class – but from a mistake about what that audience is capable of appreciating. It is patronising to assume the audience can’t cope with the shock of the new or the bold. Nobody ever died from being offended.

3. The BBC should do its best to protect and encourage radio drama. Radio drama is unique and irreplaceable: if it goes, we won’t get it back. An hour-long original radio drama costs a fraction of the amount needed to make an hour-long drama for TV, but the medium gives the writer infinite possibilities. One of the things that attracts writers to radio is the scope it offers. It deals with a broader range of subjects, and approaches, than TV. Writers are free to experiment – and fail. They should continue to enjoy this freedom.

4. We have noted with great concern the phasing out of the Friday Play on Radio 4. It is almost the only “post-watershed” slot on the channel, giving writers an opportunity to write about challenging subject-matter. At a meeting in March 2010 Mark Damazer defended the decision to axe this slot partly by saying that the Saturday Play was being expanded from 60 to 90 minutes and the aim was to make it “event” drama – something you’d buy a ticket to see if it was being produced in another medium. So far this has not happened (perhaps the 90- minute big-hitters are still in production and are yet to be broadcast). There could be greater slot variety – for example, a place for longer dramas (90 minutes-plus).

5. There has also been some downgrading of the Woman’s Hour Drama. The particular brief for writers in this slot, now called Special Adaptations, is still the subject of negotiations; but the way in which it is broadcast is also a cause for concern. Normally each episode of a WHD receives two broadcasts, at 10.45 a.m. and 7.45 p.m. The evening repeat – which is probably the one that most working people hear – is frequently knocked out of place and has to make way for the apparently unending History of the World in 100 Objects or some other factual programme. Some WHDs have a kind of omnibus repeat on the Friday in the Friday Play slot, some have two broadcasts daily and some have only one. It seems inconsistent and random. An omnibus repeat of WHD on Radio 4 would be welcome.

6. There is a worrying trend away from creative fiction to dramatisations of “true” stories, or verbatim accounts of government enquiries, as if this were a superior form. The numerous adaptations of stage plays are worrying as we could be in danger of neglecting the special skills of radio drama, that are not necessarily about narrative or plot. Writers for theatre, however prestigious, are not always attuned to this. A stage play does not guarantee good radio.

7. With the threatened loss of the Friday Play, cutting-edge drama seems destined to be shunted off to Radio 3. Radio 3 should present good, contemporary writing for radio, and not just classics. Although we accept that Radio 3 is principally a music station, is there any possibility of repeating some Radio 4 Drama on R3 or vice versa (with, of course, appropriate remuneration for the writer and all those involved)? In TV, it’s standard practice for a BBC4 drama to be repeated on BBC2, and some comedies and dramas have migrated from BBC3 to BBC1. A play could get more exposure.

8. Radio 4 should be more open to picking up quality material from other BBC stations that often goes unnoticed, such as the World Service and local stations. The marvellous World Service dramas were abandoned – this should not have happened, they could have continued as co-productions with Radio 4, to the benefit of Radio 4 and overseas listeners alike. Instead something of cultural standing, and of value to the UK’s image abroad, was destroyed. Two marvellous soaps – Westway on the World Service and Silver Street on the doomed Asian network – have been chopped (to achieve minimal savings). They could have been saved with a slot on Radio 4 (or Radio 7 for that matter). This is an area where we plainly lack a “joined- up BBC”, and we will not get one by pursuing a kind of standardisation between Radios 3, 4 and 7.

9. Radio 4 fails to give out some basic information about where and when programmes might be repeated. Fans of a popular comedy sketch show broadcast on Radio 4 at 6.30 p.m. on a Friday have been told countless times that it is available as a podcast, but are likely to have no idea that it is repeated on Radio 7 a week later.

10. We have had, and expressed, concerns about, “diversity” or the lack of it. One writer felt that it was often a token exercise – the BBC commissions a black or Asian piece of writing, puts it on in an unpopular time-slot, it doesn’t find an audience and then the BBC says: “There you are, nobody really wants this sort of thing.” There is a tendency, albeit well- meaning, to “ghettoise” – we’re going to have a “black” drama rather than a drama which just happens to be about black or Asian people or the whole ethnic mix. On a more positive note, Radio 4 has some good sitcoms – Rudy’s Rare Records and Fags, Mags & Bags – which just happen to be about the black or Asian communities, have been successful and are of interest to everyone.

11. The Writers’ Guild thinks it is deplorable that over the past two or three years, Radio 4 – a massively popular, quality channel with over 10 million listeners – has been made to suffer damaging cuts to its already tiny budgets because of a misguided and unworkable BBC policy of demanding equivalent percentage cuts across the board. The money spent on an overseas location for a returning TV drama series, or a single shiny-floor set, would pay for many hours of top quality radio drama. It is not so much that the BBC has got its priorities wrong, but that in imposing cuts it has ducked this issue of setting itself true priorities. The Director-General has spoken recently of the massive sum of £600 million becoming available for high-quality programming over the next few years. The Writers’ Guild calls unequivocally for a significant chunk of this money to be earmarked for the restoration of cuts to radio drama and indeed the expansion of drama commissioning across Radios 3, 4 and 7.

12. We would welcome a greater exploration of the BBC archive on Radio 7. There has been plenty of exploitation of the better-known comedy series, plus revivals of old dramatisations when a new film or TV version comes out, or repeats linked to news events and anniversaries. However there are many more plays in the archive deserving of rebroadcast and the station could do more to discover them.

13. There should be a proper commitment to children – through, for example, dramas which both adults and children can appreciate. There is a crying need for more high-quality radio content for children, particularly in the 10-15 age group. Very young children are likely to be catered for mainly by television, but older children can gain an appreciation that will last a lifetime if they can be coaxed to take an interest in suitable drama and factual material. Radio 7 has recently taken interesting steps towards this approach by downplaying the “playtime” style of programming for younger children in favour of drama written for children – or simply adult drama that is also suitable for children. We also think it would be a mistake to re-model Radio 7 as merely a vehicle for repeats of Radio 4 material. radio 7 has made some valuable commissions of its own, albeit on a small scale – this should be allowed to grow. And there will continue to be a demand and a place for repeats on Radio 4 –including revivals of older archive items, as well as the familiar narrative repeats.

14. Some of these issues could be addressed by greater co-operation between Radios 3, 4 and 7, for example more thought-through trailers, links to related material, a more rounded, less knee-jerk and less patronising attitude to broadcasting for children. But we think the suggested rebranding of Radio 7 as Radio 4 Extra, suggesting a much more symbiotic relationship, would be a mistake. The two stations have different purposes and personalities and there is no merit in making them more alike – no one can listen to two stations at once and it is irritating to be expected to hop from one to the other and back again several times a day. We do not want to see scripted drama and comedy further relegated on Radio 4 on the grounds that they are catered for by Radio 4 Extra. We think that to make the repeats on Radio 4 Extra more thematically linked with material on Radio 4 is likely to damage diversity and reduce the number of occasions when Radio 7 offers a contrast to Radio 4 rather than something vaguely similar. Now that Radio 6 Music has been reprieved there is no tidy-minded numerical imperative to change the name of Radio 7, and we believe that to do so is likely to discourage listeners, who will come to believe that what is being offered is “more of the same” on the pattern of Radio 5 Live and Radio 5 Live Extra. Radio 7 has, over a period of several years, successfully built up its own identity and following and a needless name change can only set this back.

15. The BBC should get the balance right between encouraging new writing and supporting and maintaining experienced writers – don’t ditch the latter for the sake of the former. A complaint that we have heard again and again is that experienced writers with many radio (and other) credits and who have won awards can’t get commissioned and don’t even have the opportunity to pitch something and get an intelligent response. Radio drama does itself no favours by denying these opportunities to writers of great experience and imagination.

16. At the same time the perception of many new writers is that radio drama – once a great medium for new writers to find a wider audience – is completely impenetrable. New writers, even those who have worked successfully elsewhere – in theatre or TV, for example – are routinely told: “You have to apply via Writersroom” but the perception of many writers who have tried to do this is that the Writersroom process is designed to keep writers out rather than welcome them in and develop their talents. The Afternoon Play slot has supposedly got 20 commissions a year reserved for new or new-to-radio writers, but it is a mystery as to how these are ever filled. We have also at the Writers’ Guild talked to experienced independent radio producers who are working with talented new writers and developing their voices but do not have any idea of how to get them into radio. Whatever form the commissioning system for radio drama takes, it should make the medium accessible to both new and experienced writers of talented and imaginative drama and comedy.