In full: James Purnell’s radio speech to the EBU

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James Purnell, Director of Radio & Education, has delivered his keynote speech to the EBU’s Truth and Power Conference, with revelations on the future of radio.

He highlights that young people today spend more time with Spotify than with all of BBC Radio, and that the UK radio industry should be battling with streamers rather than each other. “Rather than focus on how big our slice of the pie is, we should grow its overall size, we should get more people listening to radio and podcasts,” he says.

The Director also says he wants audiences to love BBC programmes. He wants to attract audiences who don’t use the service, and wants young people to spend more time using the BBC.

On podcasting, he says that all of the corporation’s podcasts will be contested in the future, helping the independent podcasting sector.

Here’s the speech in full:

Guaranteeing Choice

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s a great pleasure to be here with you among so many international participants in this conference to mark the centenary of the creation of Czechoslovakia.

It is quite remarkable how much the world has changed in that time, and how the pace of progress has accelerated. In the case of media it has delivered a time in which audiences have limitless possibilities and that is what I’d like to talk about this afternoon.

Necessarily my remarks will be about the BBC and the UK, but I believe the principles apply to public service media generally, because today I want to discuss how, in a world of plenty, we guarantee choice.

That might seem like a paradox when there is more available to us than ever before. But it’s not.

The preservation of choice is always itself a choice. And I want to describe today how we can choose choice.

Twenty five years ago, the World Wide Web was given to everyone.

CERN, and more particularly Tim Berners-Lee, gave it to us when they published this document, putting the protocols behind the World Wide Web into the public domain, such that no single entity could control or profit from the system itself.

The proto-internet had been around since the early 1960s, but it was Tim Berners-Lee who turned a closed system for academics into an open network for everyone.

I’m sure you’ll remember this picture from the London Olympics, with Berners-Lee tweeting THIS IS FOR EVERYONE as those words circled the stadium.

In the fifteenth century, the printing press had opened up libraries to everyone.

Then in the twentieth century, broadcasting had allowed us all to listen to the same events, and then in time to watch them, in colour – a miracle that today seems mundane.

Broadcasting made possible a truly national culture.

Now, with CERN’s gift, the internet would allow us to become creators, not just consumers, of that shared culture.

For everyone and – indeed – by everyone.

It was a utopian vision.

Just six years later, many would say it was naïve.

The web’s very openness has led to the emergence of very powerful companies that look more and more like monopolies.

In his brilliant book, The Master Switch, Tim Wu traced how every communication technology, from the telephone on, has started open, with an explosion of producers and creators, but ended up a monopoly.

Writing in 2010, he still held out hope that the internet would be different.

Last November, another commentator, André Staltz, gave his verdict. He found that the internet was dying. That the Web was being replaced by what he called a ‘Trinet’, of Google, Facebook and Amazon. With – respectively – nine out of ten searches, seven out of ten social media views, and nearly half the US online retail market.

Maybe he should have called it a ‘Uninet’, as they all dominate their home market but are broadly shut out from the other two. Who uses Google Plus? Does anyone search through Facebook? Amazon has done more to expand into healthcare than into search or social.

Far from having three competing giants, we have one straddling each sector.

Of course, customers may benefit from this scale. Better search results, better connections, better shopping. It’s for regulators and those companies to work out how that scale can be used in the public interest.

But countries with a strong tradition of public service broadcasting can do something else. They can intervene, as well as regulate.

It works too. The BBC is the 7th biggest site in the UK. Across the G7, France is the only other country that doesn’t have a top seven made up entirely of American companies. The BBC is the only British website in the global top 100.

That hasn’t stopped others competing. Indeed, the UK has two of the top English-language news sites in the world, with the Guardian and the Daily Mail online.

But we can’t take that prominence of British content for granted. Young people today are as likely to get their news from social media as from TV. They spend more time watching Netflix than BBC TV or iPlayer. They spend more time with Spotify than with all of BBC Radio

During the last Charter Review, the BBC was urged not to be imperialistic.

In our proposals, we responded by saying we wanted to open up the BBC. To become a platform for Britain’s institutions. To work better with our competitors. To open the iPlayer to other people’s programmes. To share our technology.

We’ve started implementing that vision. The iPlayer hosts content from organisations like S4C and the RSC. We’ve shared our live streaming technology with the Manchester International Festival, or sports bodies like British Swimming and British Basketball. BBC Ideas will this week show its first set of content from an external partner – six videos from the Open University. And every one of our new podcasts will be contested, helping to grow the independent podcasting sector.

We are collaborating with other British companies to compete with the global platforms. We want to be part of a competitive ecology, with many British providers. We help guarantee choice, making sure the British audio, news and video markets don’t become a Uninet, dominated by a single provider.

And we make sure there is a choice of British content.

The internet means more content is being created than ever before. Three hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

When I was a teenager, and wanted to buy a new record, I had to catch a bus into town and go to the independent record shop behind the station. Today, every teenager has access to virtually every record ever made. That’s a wonder, which will no doubt soon seem as mundane as colour TV.

I grew up with the choice between E.T. and Grange Hill, Star Wars and Why Don’t You.

I love Stranger Things. And I’m glad that Star Wars is still going…

But our children have to have the same choice that I did.

I can already see a world emerging in which the main choice of content for children is American. Indeed, in some genres like drama or television news, it would already be here, if it weren’t for the BBC.

We have to guarantee their choice of content. The best global content, yes, but also the best local and national programmes too.

That choice of content also includes difficult work such as the Grenfell Inquiry podcast – Eddie Mair reporting every day from the inquiry, giving every victim their moment, giving the inquiry space and airtime.

It includes 5 live’s State of Mind season which reached over a million people.

Choice means Radio 1 and 2 championing new music by British artists.

Choice means Tom Service at the Proms, explaining the Eroica symphony to the thousands in the room and the millions at home.

This is a choice of content that includes 6 Music at the Turner Prize in Hull, the Curry Show from Radio Leicester, or the Biggest Weekend in Swansea last month, bringing possibly the best line up of pop anywhere in the world to thousands of happy fans.

The BBC is also for everyone. That’s our true north. Everyone benefits because everyone pays. And everyone pays so everyone must benefit.

That’s why we’ve set ourselves a goal of reinventing the BBC for the next generation. To guarantee choice, we need to reach everyone.

Last year, in network radio, we set ourselves a simple goal – to maintain the proportion of those under 45 we reach every week. We came pretty close – reach fell just 0.2% from 55.9% to 55.7%.

In a highly competitive market, we’re proud of that result and of all the hard work by our teams and suppliers that made it happen.

But we also know it’s not enough. We don’t want to manage decline. We want to reach more young people. To do that, we need to change faster.

We need to match our spending to our audience. That’s been hard in the tramlines of our radio stations. Had we wanted to make an audio drama for young diverse audiences, where would we have played it? Fortunately the technology is solving that problem. In future, we can play it on our radio app. Our spending can follow the audience.

Regulation needs to allow that. Currently, our regulation is mainly done through quotas that prescribe a number of hours for many of our genres on our radio networks. Our current framework can unwittingly limit the creativity and innovation that would help us experiment more to better serve diverse and younger audiences. In future, we could instead be regulated on impact – on which audiences we reach, and we should be given more space to experiment.

Then we need to speed up.

Last year, what the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board calls ‘unmatched viewing’, which means subscription video on demand, watched through a TV, set top box or console added up to 41 minutes per person. That is nearly as much as BBC One. Compared to the previous year, unmatched viewing was a third higher. We are well beyond the tipping point.

We saw this future coming. In 2007, the public service broadcasters came up with a plan, to combine our video on demand players. It was christened Kangaroo, presumably because it would leap into the future. But the Competition Commission turned the project down, and Netflix was able to aggregate content from all the British broadcasters. The rest is history.

The BBC is working hard to reverse that position, modernising the iPlayer, personalising it, improving recommendations, introducing more box sets.

In audio, we may have a little more time in audio. Although Spotify and Apple are growing, so is radio.

That shouldn’t make us complacent. We know from our recent past that responses that seem radical at the time can fall a long way short of what is needed in the end.

This is an opportunity to do our job better. To fulfil our public purposes better. To serve audiences better. To find new creative opportunities.

29 million people have signed in to the BBC. That allows us to help them find programmes they would never have discovered, to involve them in developing new products, to commission even better.

To do that, we need to change faster than we have in the last few years. We’ll need to change where we allocate our money. We’ll need to change the kind of content we offer. And we will need to change our skills and our technology.

But we have one advantage that the music streamers don’t have. We have the strength of BBC Radio – the best in the world, we like to think, and a way into the lives of 7 out of 10 people in the UK every week.

I’m so proud of the quality of those programmes. I’m proud of our range, how constantly we innovate, of their ambition and originality.

I care about audience figures. We want audiences to love our programmes. We want to attract audiences who don’t use us. We want young people to spend more time with us.

But I don’t care about share. I don’t care about beating Global, Bauer or Wireless in the RAJARs.

I don’t care because it’s the wrong measure – if the number of people listening to radio fell, then one of us could win the share battle while we all lost the war. Rather than focus on how big our slice of the pie is, we should grow its overall size, we should get more people listening to radio and podcasts.

Because the real challenge is from streamers and the best response is for us to collaborate on the future of British audio.

So we want to work with our competitors and regulator to change fast enough to help guarantee that future.

If we succeed it is a future of untold possibility.

Every new technology carries with it the dual prospect that it can work for either good or ill. Fake news, electoral manipulation and an uncivil discourse show the capacity for the new technology to usher in the darker side of our nature.

But it can give a home to our better angels too.

The range of beauty and truth available to the next generation is genuinely without precedent.

That is the prize before us. We need to guarantee that choice.



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