Blog: Audio Content Fund reaches a milestone

Sam Bailey, Managing Director of the UK Government-funded Audio Content Fund writes about the benefits of the new scheme.

The last twelve months have been pretty eventful in UK radio – we’ve seen major changes in ownership, new stations launching, big presenter moves, loads of new breakfast shows, and changes in leadership and strategy at the BBC.

Amongst all of that, I was really excited to launch The Audio Content Fund – another change in our industry that aims to have a big and lasting impact.

The Audio Content Fund is without doubt a force for good in the UK radio industry. Our mission is to take a grant from the UK Government’s Contestable Fund and turn it into hundreds of hours of high quality, UK-originated public service radio programming, for the enjoyment of audiences all over the country.

This week is a big milestone for the project, because the first ACF-funded programme goes out on talkSPORT this Thursday night. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to capture some of my thoughts about the first three months of the project, as we continue to welcome bids in our second round of funding.

I started at the Audio Content Fund in April of this year – before that, I’d been very much a BBC man. I got my first radio job at BBC Radio Nottingham in 1997, and started at Radio 1 in 2007. The move out of the BBC after more than 20 years was a huge decision for me, but I made it because, throughout those years, there was always something I was more loyal to than the BBC, and that was the UK radio industry itself.

Shortly after those Radio Nottingham days, I started working with the Radio Academy (I ran their website when I was a student), and later the Sony Awards (I ran their live webcast for several years). Through those organisations I discovered and always felt part of a wonderfully creative, industrious, and passionate community of people like me, who love the medium and love their audiences, no matter where their money comes from.

It’s in that context that the Audio Content Fund exists. Our industry is led by people who eat, sleep, and breathe radio – but over the years, formats have tightened, budgets have shrunk, and sometimes it’s difficult to find the money to make great content that informs and educates. The ACF exists to remove some of that risk and allow experimentation, helping producers and broadcasters prove concepts by providing up-front budgets for bold new ideas.

In our first round of funding, we received exactly 50 bids, for projects which would have totalled £1.7m if we were able to fund them all. Those bids came from 25 different suppliers, supported by dozens of different commercial and community radio stations. We had bids for documentaries, dramas, discussion programmes, comedies, live sport, live music and radio for children. It was to my mind a perfect snapshot of the industry today.

The ACF’s independent funding panel met to discuss those bids on 21st May. Bunkered down in a conference room in Radio Towers (that building on New Oxford Street where so many of those passionate people are based), Helen, Kate, Mukti and dear John Myers debated and argued to whittle the £1.7m down to nearer £230k. There were flipcharts, and post-it notes, and biscuits, and tea.

As well as bids being scored against the DCMS eligibility criteria, the debate in the room centred around originality, and creativity. The funding panel enjoyed being surprised and challenged, and hearing ideas that were uniquely commercial radio – formats they couldn’t imagine hearing on the BBC. They also wanted, in this first round particularly, to have a slate that represented the full breadth of the sector. The aim was to cover as many genres, formats, suppliers, regions, stations and groups as possible – something I think they expertly achieved with the nine winning projects.

Seven of the winning suppliers are working with their partner radio stations for the first time. We generally don’t see many opportunities for indies to work with commercial broadcasters, and creating new opportunities for the independent production sector is a huge part of how this funding is making difference. Anecdotally, I’m already hearing lots of examples of the ACF opening doors and helping new professional relationships to build.

And so now we get to the fun part! £234,359 has been distributed, and production has begun. The broadcast schedule for the nine projects is spread between now and next April. The first programme to hit the air will be “Kick Off: Added Time” – a black football show on talkSPORT, presented by a new trio of presenters with regular contributors from underrepresented football fan groups. Made by We Are Unedited (until now a podcast-only production company), it will run weekly for the duration of the 2019-20 football season, on Thursday nights at 9pm – hear it live this week, or listen afterwards on the talkSPORT website. After that, projects on Absolute Radio and XS Manchester will follow in September, on Union Jack and Gaydio in October, with others following throughout the winter.

Round 2 of ACF funding is open now. The funding panel is still looking for original, creative, surprising content that informs and educates – I’ve no doubt they will be presented with exactly that. This process has reminded me that our industry is full of incredible people with amazing ideas. I’m already immensely proud that the Audio Content Fund is helping those people realise their ambitions, and continue to make UK radio the best in the world.

Sam Bailey is the Managing Director of The Audio Content Fund. The Fund is financed by the UK Government.

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