Opinion: What is Public Service on Commercial Radio?

Audio Content Fund independent funding panel member David Lloyd writes about public service broadcasting and the Audio Content Fund.

“Just as on the BBC, not all public service content has to be devoted to a cause – it’s simply high-quality, memorable content, that makes me do, think, feel or understand something.

Those who work hard in commercial radio can become understandably a little sensitive when they’re judged not to be providing any public service, simply because they don’t have a BBC lanyard dangling around their neck.

Alongside the everyday news and informational content, witness the effort on stations large and small invested in charity appeals and accompanying content. Think of the millions who heard the appeal following the disaster in Mozambique. Remember too the engagement when a breakfast presenter opens-up about a personal challenge – or the hours spent visiting schools, attending events, replying to emails from students and devising work placements or training. Consider too the programming which may not be demanded by Ofcom, but stations simply believe in.

Commercial radio does its bit.

In my programming days, however, I recall scurrying around each day toiling with the usual blend of fascinating characters, animated meetings and a dollop of crisis-management. Sadly, we’d not the capacity to handle as much extra-curricular activity as we wished – despite honourable intentions. Then we’d eyeball the hordes of shrieking talented folk climbing to the podium at awards ceremonies and sigh that we’d win more awards if we had that many folk working for us.

If only there were a ‘money tree’ to fund our ‘would be nice to do’ list. Programming which might demand time, planning and expense but, by its very nature, may not attract sponsorship or be aired long enough to show pretty peaks on a Rajar audience graph.

In a sense, there now is – in the form of the Audio Content Fund (ACF). A generous grant from the UK Government’s Contestable Fund which must be turned by production companies into high quality, UK-originated public service radio programming. I’m privileged to be one of the four panellists who sign the cheques, alongside Mukti Jain Campion, Kate Cocker and our excellent chair Helen Boaden.

What’s been funded so far?

In its first year, around £660,000 has been distributed to projects to be aired across commercial and community radio. When all those ideas come to fruition, some 34 radio stations will have carried content which would not otherwise have existed.

In line with the eight evaluation criteria, the range of programming and approaches is colourful. Three projects to date include comedy content – from Minds Over Matter (Whistledown) for Union Jack to Rockanory (Unusual Productions) for Absolute Radio. Four awards featured drama – from the work of emerging disabled writers by Naked Productions on a group of community stations, to a soap opera for kids on Fun Kids from Bafflegab. Many featured music, with half a dozen shining a light on particular genres or roots. Amongst the other topics, four addressed LGBTQ+ issues, each from a very different angle; and two covered mental health.

Around half the projects relied on short-form material, and half long-form, with some applicants re-purposing to use a blend of both. We know succinctness can work powerfully – with brilliant content aired frequently enough to be grasped by the total audience.

Only a small proportion, to date, of funded content is being broadcast live – and some of that live content uses pre-produced content as a catalyst.

The goal is simply to facilitate the best content. Whilst the process must be fair and meet the DCMS ambition, we seek, wherever possible, to engineer the system to fit the ideas rather than the other way around.

Chicken or egg?

Whilst all you need is a great, fitting idea, someone appropriate to make it, and suitable station/s to carry it, the journey for each one varies. In some cases, eager production companies bang on the door of a radio station with a concept; in others, radio stations have auditioned general or specific proposals so they might choose their production partner. They have ranged from small, promising outfits – to the familiar established companies.

As someone who’s been programming commercial radio since Rick Astley was Number One, I often wonder what sort of proposal would have excited me. Whilst the beauty of this scheme is that it funds external production companies to do the heavy lifting, some liaison is inevitably required – and I’d need to know that it was worth my while.

I’d hope it deepened the audience relationship and gilded our reputation – the cream in my coffee. I’d need comfort that the idea ‘fitted’ with our normal fare and wouldn’t send the audience scurrying away, desperate to escape from over-‘worthy’ content.

What counts as Public Service?

Hang on though. The Audio Content Fund exists to fund ‘public service’ programming. So what is that really?

Just as with BBC programming – or indeed any ‘art’ – not all ACF-funded material is devoted to a cause, it’s simply high-quality, memorable content. It might involve a station’s own talent in a new context or lean on a quiet passion – or feature the sort of names who really fit a station brand who are not otherwise secured. It might take a radio station somewhere it could not normally afford to be – or facilitate a unique spin-off.

Imaginative treatment plays a significant part in delivering value. I imagine there were a few titters in the room when someone dared to suggest a peak-time TV show on ballroom dancing.

As we sit agonising on the ACF panel, surrounded by fluorescent Post-it notes, my definition is: if it makes me do, think, feel or understand something – that’s surely public service. It leaves a trace.

Here’s looking forward to the 2020 rounds – and more inspired content. We’ll pay the bills.”

David Lloyd is a radio consultant and historian, a former radio executive, and member of the Audio Content Fund’s independent funding panel. The next funding round opens on March 2nd.