Can the BBC survive the internet?

Online has the power to free news and commentary from the grip of the media class.

Liam Deacon

Times Radio entered our airwaves this week, and many are asking if it could help aid the demise of the BBC’s stranglehold over British broadcasting. I think it will, but I also think this is the wrong question. Broadcasting is shifting from the radio spectrum, which is crowded and overregulated, to the internet, with online connectivity always improving. All the major broadcasters will soon be swamped by the open marketplace of voices online, and we must ask what this will mean for bias and media representation.

Times Radio marks the latest advance of Murdoch’s News UK into British broadcasting, and it is promising to challenge the monopoly Radio 4 holds over the market for highbrow, academic, dulcet tones in the morning. In search of such tones, free from the BBC’s lecturing, I moved from Radio 4 to podcasts some time ago. This made me wonder: what, exactly, constitutes a broadcaster in today’s online world of content saturation, and what is the point of another radio station when we all have 4G phones and podcasts on tap?

A broadcaster is an organisation that transmits shows on television and radio, says the dictionary, and our national broadcast regulator, Ofcom, seems to agree. ‘On DAB, online, and on your smart speaker’, announces the new jingle for Times Radio, adding that it can also be heard on the ‘free Times Radio app’. Three of these four methods of listening fall outside of the dictionary definition, and crucially, outside of Ofcom’s regulatory realm of control. In fact, the vast majority of ways of listening to modern audio content – including Smart TVs, YouTube, Periscope on Twitter, Facebook live, and via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and on individual apps – are not controlled by the broadcast regulator at all.

The simple fact is that there is nothing special about transmitting on TV and traditional airwaves, and organisations using the other methods of delivering content are, self-evidently, legitimately broadcasters, too. The big difference is that those eschewing traditional TV and radio are free from the burden of Ofcom’s regulations; free from the demand that they be balanced, bland and apparently ‘impartial’ at all times. They are free to be entertaining and crusading, just like the massively influential and successful American talk-show hosts across the pond.

So why have more not followed this route? Interestingly, no major British media organisation has successfully set up an entirely online focused broadcasting channel. The Sun tried it back in 2009 with SunTalk, booking then prime minister David Cameron on the inaugural show, just as Times Radio had Boris Johnson on on Monday. But the broadcast was stopped just 18 months later following a ‘review of costs and strategy’. Jon Gaunt, who also presented SunTalk, tried it again in 2015 when he launched Talk2Me Radio, before that venture closed in 2018.

The likely problem is numbers, people’s resistance to change, and the cost of new online listening devices. There are not enough listeners, yet, for a daily live show to sustain itself when broadcasting online alone. While short, viral clips can get millions of hits online, talkRADIO, the largest UK station currently broadcasting entire shows on YouTube, is currently picking up around 10,000 viewers on each broadcast on the platform. Its online audience will be many times larger, of course, when coupled with those using the app and listening back as a podcast, but it still can’t reach those with just a wind-up radio on their allotment or an analogue tuner in their old white van.

Radio 4’s Today programme still brings in a whopping seven million listeners a week, and many of those will be people lazily tuning in in their car, in the kitchen, or the garden shed. Radio 1, however, this year hit a record low listenership as younger listeners pioneer the shift to online. A watershed moment will soon come, when enough people will be listening live online for a full-blown radio (and maybe even TV) station to break free of traditional platforms. And I am certain they will thrive, as almost all businesses do when liberated of burdensome regulation.

Such a radio station, however, will be thrown straight into competition with a plethora of different newspapers, think tanks, charities, and other interest groups who are, quite rapidly, moving into broadcaster territory online. The think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), for example, now churns out numerous weekly broadcasts on YouTube, ranging from dry long-form interviews to Live With Littlewood, which features up to 10 guests. All the shows are also available as podcasts, of course.

And on the ideological left, Hope Not Hate also has a podcast, special guests, and a flow of news-like articles, complete with lively headlines, images and splash quotes. Interest groups are realising that instead of just trying to influence broadcasters and get their quotes and reports in the media to spread their agenda, they can also now produce media themselves. Ahead of the General Election, Will Straw, the former leader of the Remain campaign, went one further and helped to set up Scram News, a news media website producing articles and campaigning videos exclusively about the Remain cause.

On top of this, and the countless talented YouTubers going it alone, every single major newspaper and magazine in the country now produces video content and / or audio content, which many broadcasters should envy. The Spectator and spiked have hugely successful podcasts, driving readers to their websites, and the Mail Online has everything from workout videos to Channel 4’s former political correspondent travelling up and down the country producing political films.

Online everyone with a camera and MacBook can become a broadcaster. Control over news, information and speech will soon be free from the grip of the London-based media class, and handed to the Silicon Valley tech giants. But Ofcom and impartiality will be out of the picture and those who would welcome this change should be encouraging more to shift online.

Liam Deacon is the Brexit Party’s former head of press.

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Comments

Thomas Rainsborough

2nd July 2020 at 12:14 pm

Unfortunately, TimesRadio appears to be another 24-hour-rolling-news-with-a-bit-of-phone-in. They would do far better to become an online version of what the Third Programme (“TP”) was – a showcase for intellectual and cultural excellence. If necessary, there could be a mix of news/chat in the daytime while evenings could be given over to more long form, in depth analysis or exposition.

It would, of course, be better if the chat with the public was interspersed with chat from non-establishment actual experts rather than stupid and deeply ignorant people parading their latest virtue signal for other ignorant and stupid people – more Roger Scrutons, fewer (far fewer, please) James O’Briens.

I’m sure it would not be difficult to organise programmes with academic philosophers and public intellectuals debating issues round AI, GMO, the ethics of “climate change” and fraud and thoughtcrime in academia. The TP had the likes of Isaiah Berlin, Benjamin Britten, Fred Hoyle, FR Leavis, TS Eliot… who (I understand, I’m a bit too young to have heard much) happily lined up to talk, reflect and be challenged – intelligently and with proper respect – about their work and thought.

If TimesRadio were to go down this route, and seek, like the TP, to be an intellectual force in the land in its own right, and we might see a challenge to the brain-dead ignorant orthodoxy pumped into students at low quality institutions such as the one that employs the likes of Priyamvada Gopal.

Jim Lawrie

2nd July 2020 at 12:07 pm

If by survive you mean can it still command an audience to justify the TV tax then the answer is “dying a slow death by”.

Its daily COVID-19 show has accelerated that process.

David J

2nd July 2020 at 9:19 am

I stopped listening to Radio 4 morning news a decade ago, thanks to the abrasive interviewing technique of John ‘Hector’ Humphrys, a style which has since spread like a plague to become typical of virtually all MSM.

Since then, most long-form discussion has moved to the Internet, and in particular YouTube, where viewerships can be far higher than traditional media.

Times Radio has so far been a disappointment, not least for its lacklustre roster of same-old names.

The BBC could reduce its footprint, concentrating on being the respected apolitical ‘Voice of Britain’ once again, with perhaps no more than and handful of TV and radio channels.

A useful step that would meet wide approval would be to slash fees to upper management and many of its so-called star presenters.

Gareth Hart

2nd July 2020 at 9:08 am

What is to stop Ofcom regulating the Internet as they do the broadcast spectrum? The Government is already giving the regulator powers to police speech online under the Online Harms Bill. The omission to implement regulation of Internet broadcasters will be deemed an oversight and one that will remedied in time.

Plus there is the issue of cost. An Internet connection is fine for those who have the disposable income to afford it but they can’t compete with the cost of free-to-air, regulated broadcasting. One off payment for the device, cheaper than its Internet equivalent, listen for as long as the technology is broadcasting for. Particularly for the working classes, pensioners and the poor. Where I don’t need to pay a hefty monthly subscription fee to a telecom company for a “free” broadcaster online. The next ten years will be a challenge for free-to-air broadcasting as the mobile phone networks consume all the broadcasting spectrum for subscription 6G. Those who can’t afford to cough up the fees will become information poor. At a far higher cost than the licence fee. With newspapers on the vane and likely to be a relic in the history books at that point, what happens to the financially poor?

Andrew Levens

2nd July 2020 at 11:37 am

6G, 5G? There is a lot of misinformation about online connection. I get a really fast intrnet connection over my normal ,copper, phone line. 21 mb/s is enough for me to watch TV and work from home. Don’t need fibre optics. As for mobile signal, I can barely get 3G or even a reliable speech connection on my phone, and I’ve tried several different phones and networks.

Jim Lawrie

2nd July 2020 at 12:04 pm

The marketing slogan “we reach 99% of the UK population ” is meant for those gullible enough to understand this as 99% of The UK geographically.

NEIL DATSON

2nd July 2020 at 8:59 am

For my part I find that I’m less and less inclined to listen to opinion of any kind, although I’m prepared to read it. If Ofcom had been doing its job by pushing Radio 4 to be – well, a bit less partial, as true impartiality isn’t possible – I might still listen to it, but post-referendum it’s been a disgrace. I hold out no hope for Times Radio, as it seems likely to replicate Radio 4’s editorial stance. Would certainly welcome a large increase in the choice of in car infotainment, or would if I could be bothered to learn how to select the right menu etc.

Andrew Levens

2nd July 2020 at 11:46 am

Same for me Neil. Written online content is much better than audio, because you can easily select what you want, and skip the rest. On demand TV you can skip through too. I’ve given up Sky News, and most of BBC news apart from Andrew Marr who seems to be able to interview people without attacking them.
My wife listens to the radio a lot, but it’s background.

Jim Lawrie

2nd July 2020 at 12:50 pm

Initial audiences for the COVID-19 broadcast were high, but fell off, not through viewer apathy, as the BBC would have it, but because people saw through and tired of daily repeats of editorial and journalistic bias.

Mark Houghton

2nd July 2020 at 8:29 am

Even if their output is biased or irrelevant the BBC will certainly survive if it’s allowed to keep sucking at the government teat.

Stephen J

2nd July 2020 at 8:01 am

This is what happens if an organisation attempts to starve one or more sides in a multi-sided argument. The sides that are sidelined find new ways.

More power to ’em, since the sidelining has all ben a bit “one sided”.

Philip Humphrey

2nd July 2020 at 7:32 am

Recently I’ve given up listening to BBC radio 4 in the morning and instead go on to YouTube to watch Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity among other news/commentary sources that I trust. I’m not impressed with Times radio, especially not some of the presenters including Cathy Newman from the ultra left Channel 4 news.

silly billy

2nd July 2020 at 5:32 am

BBC are ahead of the curve. They have their own podcasts from the Ministry of Truth. Try Americast with Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis spewing unadulterated anti-Trump propaganda. It’s unbelievable! Although, sadly, no-one blinks an eyelid at this sort of BBC bias these days.

Gordon Te Gopher

2nd July 2020 at 4:56 am

Too posh for me.

Is there a non-woke equivalent of 5 Live? And it has to be on FM or MW so I can listen in my car.

PAUL ROGERS

2nd July 2020 at 8:05 am

You have captured the key reason it will take time. But within 10 years even your car’s inbuilt systems will not need FM and MW.
Meantime you need your 4G phone and bluetooth which is not real for most cars on the road today.
If you are not commuting in a car, it’s different. The BBC is already dead for those people unless they really cannot be bothered to turn on a different button through lazy habit.

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