LONDON — Yes, BBC Radio is focused on reaching listeners wherever they may be. But no, the United Kingdom’s public radio broadcaster is not surrendering the airwaves to commercial radio, despite published claims in the British press.
These two points became clear once the June 19 speech by James Purnell, the BBC’s Director of Radio & Education, was released in full to the public.
Before this happened, The Telegraph newspaper headlined that, “BBC admits defeat in battle for radio audiences as it focuses on challenge from podcasts and Spotify.” The Telegraph based its report on seeing an advance copy of Purnell’s speech before it was delivered. The speech in full can be found here.
In making comments to the EBU Truth and Power Conference on Tuesday June 19, held at the BBC Radio Theatre in central London, Purnell acknowledged the power of the web in reaching younger listeners. “That’s why we’ve set ourselves a goal of reinventing the BBC for the next generation,” he declared. “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,” he added. “We came pretty close — reach fell just 0.2 percent from 55.9 percent to 55.7 percent.”
Reflecting on the BBC’s need to reach listeners of all ages — and to remain relevant to them in the Internet Age — Purnell said, “I care about audience figures. We want audiences to love our programs. We want to attract audiences who don’t use us. We want young people to spend more time with us.”
Next came the telling words that were taken out of context by The Telegraph. “But I don’t care about share,” said Purnell. “I don’t care about beating Global, Bauer or Wireless in the RAJARs.”
The Telegraph took these words out of context because the newspaper ignored Purnell’s very next statement: “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.”
Having ignore the above qualifying paragraph, The Telegraph played the story this way:
“The BBC is to give up competing with commercial radio stations for audiences to focus on the threat to its future from music on Spotify and podcasts via Apple,” it reported. “James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio, will signal the shift this week by declaring he does not ‘care’ about audience share or beating commercial stations in the battle for listeners.”
“In a speech seen by The Telegraph, Mr Purnell will say that the BBC need to change quickly and shift spending away from its traditional broadcast programming to serve younger and more diverse audiences better,” the newspaper added.
On this point, The Telegraph’s words were somewhat close to Purnell’s meaning. What he actually said was, “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.”
But as for BBC Radio giving up “competing with commercial radio stations for audiences,” as The Telegraph claimed? This conclusion is not supported by a careful reading of Purnell’s EBU speech. It is — to use this term accurately and honestly for once — “fake news.”