Some six years ago, on a cold and wet November morning a group of bleary-eyed London-based journalists , mostly from India and Pakistan, were bussed to Birmingham to be briefed about the BBC's revamped Asian Network, a digital radio channel devoted exclusively to expatriates from the subcontinent. We were given a day-long tour of its studios and senior executives lined up to underline its significance portraying it as the ultimate symbol of BBC's commitment to Britain's cultural diversity and an answer to the Asian community's “need” for a channel of its own.
When asked whether it was a good idea to have a separate channel for Asians when the government's policy was to promote greater “integration” of immigrants and wasn't the BBC “ghettoising” Asian culture by putting it in a “box,” the boss of the Network at the time Vijay Sharma protested that, on the contrary, the BBC was trying to give a “voice” to the Asian community.
The network, he said, offered a much-needed platform to the Asian youth to showcase their talent prompting two non-Asian journalists in the group to wonder why only the Asian community had been chosen for a special favour. Why not similar channels for other immigrant groups? they wanted to know.
Six years later, the Network faces closure as part of the BBC's new policy to concentrate more on “quality than quantity,” in the words of its director-general Mark Thompson. The nearly £600 million to be saved by axing struggling channels and curtailing its website would be ploughed into making “high-quality” programmes, he says.
The real reason, of course, has nothing to do with any of this. It is to do with the threat from the Tories to freeze the BBC's licence fee revenue (currently £3.6 billion a year) if they come to power after the May elections unless the corporation itself takes steps to cut flab and allow its commercial rivals such as Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV more “space.” The Tories' gung-ho approach is driven by a desperate need to have the Murdoch media on their side in the run-up to the elections; and taming the BBC is the price the old man wants for his support.
So, if the move goes through after a 12-week consultation the Asian Network which now broadcasts nationally will be replaced by five part-time local services. Predictably, the decision has provoked criticism especially from the Asian artistic community. But there is a view that, with its falling audiences (a 20 per cent drop in the past three years alone), fuzzy programming, a confusion about its target- audience and the growing cost of running it (an estimated £12.1 million a year), the Network had it “coming.” Critics agree with Mr. Thompson that this makes it difficult to “justify the level of BBC investment” needed to keep it afloat.
The Network's supporters like to portray it as a great creative force but the truth is that with its usual mix of Bollywood music, bhangra , “desi tracks,” and news it is simply a slightly more “posh” version of the Southall-based commercial Hindi-language Sunrise Radio. Many believe that with Asian audiences becoming more diverse, the idea of a “monolithic” Asian community which can be served by one single station has had its day; and, indeed, this is reflected in the shrinking listenership figures for the Asian Network. As one commentator pointed out a “station defined by their [Asians'] ethnic needs is no longer the priority it was in the late 1980s.”
Still, the Network has a solid core of supporters and they are up in arms with Twitter and Facebook buzzing with anger. More than 10,000 people have already signed an online campaign to “save” it. This is in addition to a separate campaign launched by its own staff. Some of Britain's top Asian artists, writers and broadcasters, including Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Gurinder Chadha, have made a public appeal to the BBC to review its decision.
In a joint letter, published in The Guardian, they said the Asian Network was a “vital part” of the BBC's public service broadcasting remit.
“The BBC we have grown up with has always prided itself on celebrating diversity. In that respect, the Asian Network ...provides a key platform for the national Asian community and offers an outlet to British Asian talent which is demonstrably unrepresented in the more mainstream BBC,” they said.
With up to 700 jobs at stake, one would have thought that the protest would focus on the effect the closure would have on the future of the channel's young staff, especially in a recession. Instead, the entire campaign is dressed up as a struggle in defence of creativity and cultural diversity.
Privately, of course, the staff are worried. One journalist, who didn't want to be named, said job losses was a big issue but added, after a pause, that it was something for unions to sort out. In the rarefied art world it is, obviously, regarded as a bit naff to be seen talking about jobs and security.
But coming back to the old question: is there really a need for a separate Asian radio station except as a political sop to the community for its under-representation in the mainstream BBC? After all, it was a former BBC director-general who called it “hideously white, male and middle class.”