Private Viewing: Should the Beeb’s 6 Music really take Radio 3 FM slot?

Lauren Laverne, one of the DJs on the BBC's increasingly successful digital radio station 6 Music

Lauren Laverne, one of the DJs on the BBC's increasingly successful digital radio station 6 Music - Credit: BBC

MP Tom Watson wants 6 Music to grow. However, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke says fans are concerned it will go too mainstream

Tom Watson MP wants the BBC's 6 Music to take Radio 3's FM broadcast slot to help it expand its audi

Tom Watson MP wants the BBC's 6 Music to take Radio 3's FM broadcast slot to help it expand its audience still further. - Credit: Archant

Maverick media MP Tom Watson has set off his latest cultural smart-bomb this week by suggesting that the BBC’s digital 6 Music should swap places with Radio 3 and take its FM broadcasting slot, after the indie music station has overtaken the classical channel in the ratings war.

This news represents a huge turn-around for the once beleagured home of singer-songwriters, album acts and the type of bands that would never see the light of day on The X Factor. The digital station has trebled its audience in the last four years following the BBC’s threat to pull the plug in the last round of cuts. In the second quarter of 2009 its audience stood at a relatively meagre 595,000. In the second quarter of this year 6 Music stood at a much more impressive 1.89 million listeners.

Radio 3 is just lagging behind with 1.88 million which is why Mr Watson is living up to his loose cannon reputation by suggesting that Radio 3 cede its spot on the FM dial to the BBC’s new rising star.

Surprisingly this suggestion hasn’t been greeted with huge enthusiasm by either 6 Music’s devoted listening audience nor, unsurprisingly, by Radio 3’s core audience. FM remains the mainstream method of radio broadcasting. Digital remains the home of specialist and niche broadcasting.

Mr Watson suggests that is the very reason why 6 Music should move, so it can grow its audience further while Radio 3 enthusiasts fear that their station will wither and die in the digital wastelands. Do Radio 3’s predominantly older audience listen on DAB radios? I suspect some research needs to be done before any moves are set in motion.

Also 6 Music’s passionate music fans fear that a move to FM broadcasting will bring the inevitable pressure to become more mainstream, thus robbing the station of the very thing that makes it distinctive.

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The station’s core listenership are the music collectors and the new music aficionados who sustained John Peel’s career and that of people like Mark Radcliffe, who is one of the mainstays of 6 Music. Unlike Radio 1 and Radio 2 where talk and entertainment take precedence over the music – some tracks are not even back announced – 6 Music places music firmly at the centre of the station’s output. It’s the music you won’t hear anywhere else and it’s curated by the people playing the songs not by some faceless committee compiling an agreed playlist.

It’s the people who broadcast who have given the station its personality – DJs like Lauren Laverne, Steve Lamacq, Stuart Maconie, Liz Kershaw, Mary Anne Hobbs, Craig Charles and rock stars turned presenters like Jarvis Cocker, Tom Robinson, Iggy Pop and Marc Riley.

The station inspires a very protective love from its devoted audience. They value the fact that the music it plays can’t be heard anywhere else.

The campaign to prevent the closure of the station raised the station’s profile which has allowed the audience figures to grow quite substantially.

The latest figures reveal that 6 Music listeners listen longer clocking up a total of 16.2 million hours a week compared with Radio 3’s 10.5 million hours. Mr Watson believes that if 6 Music transferred to FM broadcasting it would grow even faster.

But, it seems he appears to be pushing for something that nobody wants. Radio 3’s supporters fear that if it relocated into the digital world then classical music will be even more marginalised.

Certainly, it seems to me that Radio 3 invests a great deal in artist development and in the funding of live concerts and recordings and if audiences are discouraged from listening then that funding and that contribution to our cultural life may well disappear too. Will the BBC provide a concert budget to a station which only exists in a digital hinterland?

BBC Radio 3 provides the country with far more than just a radio listening audience. You can also credit it with providing audiences for the BBC Proms and various BBC concert orchestras. These are all promoted and partly funded by the BBC through Radio 3 and form an important part of our cultural life.

If Mr Watson’s plan ever does come about, it seems to me that no-one will be happy. Except, possibly Mr Watson, who, it seems, just wants to listen to 6 Music in his car.

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